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The best European sportives to ride in 2020

Cyclist magazine
16 Oct 2019

Make sure 2020 is a year to remember by signing up to ride one of these life-changing challenges

Signing up for a sportive abroad is terribly exciting. Seeing the entry email land in your inbox. Booking your flights or ferry. Trying to find accommodation close to the start village and a local shop.

For some of us, it's the highlight of a year, ticking another of these great events off the list. Riding some of Europe's biggest and best mountains with your best riding mates, taking in terrain you could only dream of at home.

For others, the chance to ride a sportive abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Potentially the only time you will get the chance to ride on the mighty roads of Europe, something to savour.

Whether you choose to go it alone or plump for an all-inclusive tour with a provider like sportivebreaks.com or sportstoursinternational.co.ukCyclist has compiled a list of the very best sportives in Europe that you should consider.

Mallorca 312

Where: Mallorca
When: 25th April 2020
Cost: From €90
Further details: mallorca312.com

Let's start with a big one, the Mallorca 312.

At 312km, this sportive traditionally used to do an entire lap of Mallorca’s coastline, following on from a popular training ride of former pro riders like Sean Yates. Now a closed-road event that’s concentrated largely in the Sierra de Tramuntana mountains in the north of the island.

With mighty 4,547m of elevation, this looping route from Playa de Muro takes in most of the climbs the mountains have the island has to offer and is enough to make all but the most hardened endurance cyclists gulp.

Thankfully, though, there are (slightly) easier options available, too. The Mallorca 232 sportive which takes place at the same time is 232km long with a not-to-be-sniffed-at 3,813m of climbs. The shortest route is the Mallorca 167 which is, yes, you’ve guessed it, 167km long and has 2,534m of climbing.

Unlike most sportives, you actually have the choice of which distance you want to ride while you’re riding.

So if, for example, you find yourself aiming for the 232km distance but decide halfway through that your legs have more in them than you figured, you can carry on and complete the 312, if you're nuts!

Almost guaranteed sunshine plus hardcore climbing that’ll reward you with life-affirming views, a superhuman sense of achievement and exhilarating descents, make this an awesome early season option.

Read our review: Mallorca 312 - As tough as it gets

The Paris-Roubaix Challenge

Where: Northern France
When: 11th April 2020
Cost: From €22
Further details: parisroubaixchallenge.com

The hardest single day of racing for any professional. The hardest single day of riding for any amateur.

The Paris-Roubaix Challenge is your opportunity to tackle the infamous cobblestones of northern France in a sportive that will really test your mental and physical ability and have you suffering no different to the likes of Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert.

You’ll have three routes to choose from, each aimed at a variety of abilities.

The longest one is 172km and takes in every bone-shuddering bit of cobbled road that the pros ride on the way to the finish. There are shorter routes, however, if that sounds a little daunting, with one coming in at 145km and the shortest around 70km.

We personally like the middle route as its a more manageable distance while also ticking off the major cobbled sections like Arenberg and Carrefour, too.

Riding the famous pavé is not for the fainthearted, however, and whatever length of course you go for will test your skill as much as your will. It's also worth making sure your bike is in top working order, too, as mechanicals are likely.

When it’s over, you can pride yourself on being among an elite few to have tackled a course with mythical status in pro cycling.

If you still need convincing, check out the classic 1977 film A Sunday In Hell which covers the 1976 edition of the race – some nice chap’s stuck the whole thing up on Youtube! 

Read our review: Riding the Paris-Roubaix sportive: Mud, cobbles and crashes

Tour of Flanders Sportive 

Where: Belgium
When: 4th April 2020
Cost: From €40
Further details: werideflanders.com

A week before Paris-Roubaix is the Tour of Flanders, the opening act of a period in the cycling calendar labelled 'Holy Week'.

Like the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, it follows the route of the pros taking plucky amateurs across the many cobbled climbs of Belgium's Flanders region. The Koppenberg, Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont all on the menu.

The longest distance is an insane 237km, starting in Antwerp, finishing in Oudernaarde, plotting the same route and climbs as the pro race. For the more sensible, there is also the option of a 170km, 130km and 74km route, all starting in Oudenaarde.

A word of warning - the steep, cobbled climbs can become congested so do not be surprised if you find yourself walking at some point. Even the very strongest have been reduced to this (Eddy Merckx).

Read our review: Get inside the excitement and intimidation of pro racing  
See related: Tour of Flanders Fan Ride

Maratona dles Dolomites

Where: Northeastern Italy
When: 5th July 2020
Cost: From €119
Further details: maratona.it

Attracting around 9,000 riders, this closed-road event sees you tackle seven mountain passes in the spectacular Dolomite mountain range in the Southern Alps.

These include roads that have long since passed into cycling folklore thanks to the high drama they’ve witnessed down the years as they’ve tested – and broken – many a pro rider during the Giro d’Italia.

The Passo Campolongo (5.8km long with an average gradient of 6.1.%); the Passo Pordoi (9.2km with an average gradient of 6.9%); and the Passo Sella (5.5km long with 7.9% average gradient) are all tantalising prospects and names any cyclist would be proud to tick off his or her bucket list.

But it is the opportunity to bale against the Passo Giau that is arguably the main draw here. At 9.9km long with an average gradient of a frankly leg-shattering 9.3%, this mighty climb is the penultimate ascent in the 138km ride and will test your riding mettle to the max.

From the get-go the climb is steep, and it stays steep all the way to the top at 2,236m altitude.

Should the Maratona seem just that little bit too daunting, however, you can always opt for one of the event’s less hardcore rides. The Middle Course, for example, is only (!) 106km long and includes six passes (although not the Giau).

The Sellaronda Course, meanwhile, is 55km long and takes in four of the Maratona’s seven passes, including the Podoi and the Sella.

Read our Big RideLegendary Climbs of the Dolomites

Gran Fondo Mont Ventoux

Where: Southeastern France
When: 14th June 2020
Cost: From €79
Further details: gfmontventoux.com

Mont Ventoux should be a bucket list climb for every serious rider. The mythical bald mountain has rightly earned a reputation as one of the toughest climbs in Europe.

French philosopher Roland Barthes described it as ‘a goddess of evil to which sacrifices must be made’. He may have a point. After all, it was on its bleak, barren slopes that Brit cycling legend Tommy Simpson died of heat exhaustion in 1967.

But it was also here, in 2013, that Chris Froome became the first Brit to win on Ventoux, en route to his first Tour title.

The Gran Fondo Mont Ventoux will see you tackling 135km of epic Provençal roads that include 3,500m of climbing as you ascend 'the Giant of Provence' itself.

While the likes of Froome hare up inside an hour, you’ll more likely take two or more. That’s two hours of climbing on gradients that creep ever upwards at an average at 8.9%. Throw in possible high headwinds at the top and you’ll be made to suffer.

Once you make the top, though, you’ll have conquered one of Europe's best climbs and be left with such a feeling of elation the 30km back to the sportive village will be a doddle.

If you don’t fancy the full 130km experience, a shorter route is available, but it still includes a full ascent of Ventoux.

Read our review: Mont Ventoux sportive - when the wind blows

Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi

Where: Cuneo, Italy
When: 28th June 2020
Cost: €40
Further details: faustocoppi.net

The Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi is an annual sportive celebrating the great Campanissimo and climbs the mighty Colle Fauniera, one of Italy's grandest yet forgotten climbs.

Taking place in late June, only weeks after the road has been opened for the summer scene, the day begins in nearby Cuneo before rolling northwest to the start of the Fauniera.

Known to locals as the 'Climb of the Dead' due to a deadly battle in the 18th century, it climbs officially for 22km but will have you travelling uphill for well over 30km in a long slog to its 2,481m peak.

At the top is a statue of Marco Pantani, acting as a nod of the dome to the Giro's only visit to the climb back in 1999.

There are two distances to fill your boots with - 177km and 111km. The longer distance climbs 4,125m of elevation gain while the Medio climbs a more manageable 2,150m.

Conquering the Fauniera is worthy of a brag or two, such is its difficulty and will definitely have your riding mates jealous

Read our review: La Fausto Coppi sportive, The last true Gran Fondo

Marmotte Granfondo Alpes

Where: Grenoble, France
When: 5th July 2020
Cost: From €90
Further details: marmottegranfondoseries.com 

If bucket list climbs are a priority, then look no further than the mighty Marmotte Alps. A 174km mega-sportive that passes the Col du Glandon, Col de Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez.

Four of the most famous Tour de France climbs, amateurs are asked to scale them all in one intense rider that will likely see you on the bike for nine, even 10 hours.

The route covers over 5,000m of elevation gain, so make sure you have trained, and will ask all competitors to keep on top of their eating and drinking to avoid a dreaded mid-col bonk.

Complete it and you'll feel like a champion, such is the hard work needed to get around this giant.

Gran Fondo L'Eroica

Where: Tuscany, Italy
When: 4th October 2020
Cost: From €68
Further details: eroica.cc

If you’ve never read about the wartime heroics of Italian cycling legend (and Tour de France winner) Gino Bartali, may we suggest you get a copy of the book Road to Valour by Aili and Andres McConnon (£9.99, W&N).

Bartali was the great inspiration behind L’Eroica’s unique appeal – a sportive dedicated to recreating the age in which he rode in order, as the event’s founder Giancarlo Brocci puts it, ‘to teach young riders to measure themselves against those who were the authentic roots of cycling.’ 

All riders who take on this sportive will be required to do so in period clothing (modern helmets are the only exception to this rule) and on bikes built no more recently than 1987. As eccentric as this may sound, this is a true test of cycling prowess whether you choose the Long Route (209km), the Medium Route (135km), the Chianti Classico Route (115km), the Short Route (75km) or the Leisure Route (46km).

Each demands that you complete the distance on largely gravel roads through Tuscany on what will likely be a hefty steel bike with vintage components and toe-clip pedals while decked out in traditional woollen clobber.

In fact, turn up in the latest wind tunnel-tested jersey made of WonderFabrik and chances are the organisers will disqualify you. And no, we’re not joking! 

Read our review: Strade Bianche, A lesson in humility on the white roads of Tuscany

Nove Colli

Where: Northeast Italy
When: 24th May 2020
Cost: From €110
Further details: Novecolli.it

The Nove Colli is known as the Queen of the Gran Fondos and is widely regarded as the original sportive.

First run in 1970 by the local riding club, it today attracts around 13,000 riders who are drawn to the challenge from all over the world by the prospect of riding through some of the most glorious scenery in Europe.

The Nove Colli is renowned for its flawless organisation with closed roads, mechanical back-up, well-signposted climbs and feed stations that feature local specialities.

The sportive itself it split into three stages with two routes of different lengths available – a 130km ride with 1,871m of climbing or a more challenging 200km course with 3,840m of elevation. The longer routes takes in the nine hills (or nove colli) that the event is named for while the shorter route has four.

Don’t be fooled, though – the shorter route still provides a stern test with both routes including the famous Barbotto climb, which is 4.7km long with an average gradient of 8.3% rising to nearly 20% as you reach the top. Which is an ‘ouch’ in anybody’s language!

The reward for your suffering is a 30km downhill thrill ride followed by 12km of flat roads to blast through before you finish back in the splendid surroundings of Cesenatico – home of the late Marco Pantani, winner of the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.  

Alpenbrevet

Where: Switzerland
When: August 2020
Cost: TBC
Further details: alpenbrevet.ch

Oh my, this one is a toughy. One of the few on the list not in France or Italy, the Alpenbrevet is not a celebration of breakfast cereal.

It's a 276km round of five gigantic Swiss Alpine passes that sees you clock up a ridiculous 7,000m of climbing, including an ascent of the Nufanen.

Even the pros would find this super tough, so do not take this lightly. Prepare, train, fuel and you may just be able to do it.

There are three further distances of 172km, 132km and 68km, all that still climb a lot. This would be one to brag about when back in your weekend club run.

Read our feature: Swiss rides - Lucerne region

Gran Fondo Stelvio

Stelvio hairpin

Where: Bormio, Italy
When: 7th June 2020
Cost: From €60
Further details: granfondostelviosantini.com

The best-looking climb in the world, the Passo Stelvio twists and turns for 48 bends at an average of 7.4% before reaching its summit 2,758m above sea level. It's also the centre of the annual Gran Fondo Stelvio.

The yearly sportive has three routes long (151.3km), medium (137.9km) and short (60km), all of which climb the mythical Alpine peak.

The longer distance tots up a total of 4,000m of climbing and is so hard organisers demand a race licence of medical certificate be provided in order to enter.

That may scare you off, but don't let it. The Stelvio is an incredible climb that's perfectly manageable if you take your time. Plus, the views of the snaking switchbacks from the summit are phenomenal.

Read our featureCyclist rides the Stelvio

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