What I learned at my first Euro sportive

Cycling Plus' marketing manager Steve Fearn throws himself into the deep end in Catalonia

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There comes a time when every cyclist will hit that ‘what’s next?’ moment with the sport. You’ve logged a few thousand training miles in your local area and entered a handful of British sportives which take place across the country most weekends. Maybe you’ve taken on one of the big closed-road events and (not that you’d admit it) you’re pretty happy with how that personal Strava heatmap is coming along. But what’s next? Conquer Europe of course!

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In late May I got that opportunity, for the first ever time. Myself and fellow staffer John were invited to the historic Catalonian town of Vic by Osona Cycling Tours, a new start-up cycling holiday firm based in Osona county, to experience the roads they call home and, as a bonus, the La Marxa Jufré sportive, organized by former pro and local hero Josep Jufre. It’s based out of the town of Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer, Jufre’s birthplace.

I’ve ridden several UK sportives now and I’m familiar with how they operate. My question was, how different can a European sportive be? As it turned out, very! Here are seven of the things I learned…

In Catalonia, a sportive is a race

UK cycling sportive organisers generally go out of their way to stress that their event IS NOT a race, in an attempt (albeit usually a futile one) to slow us down and reduce incidents (neither do they have the necessary insurance or permission for people to ‘race’). In Catalonia, locals competing in the Marxa Jufré take it very seriously, as in ‘train all year for it’ seriously, and it has all the hallmarks of a race, things like moto outriders, police and large pelotons.

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The Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalonian fuzz) led out a ‘controlled’ 10km rolling start at a brisk 40km/h down a lengthy stretch of downhill. We were in the front pen for VIPs and with 800 riders behind us brimming with adrenaline and the very narrow Vic back lanes, it made for an experience which was too close to pro for comfort. I was told afterwards that the riders are renowned for their excellent bike control and that there hasn’t been a crash under the rolling start in the event’s history, but in the bunch, at the time, I’m not ashamed to admit it was scary.

Don’t fear the mountains

The mountain is a scary concept to some British cyclists. My preconception of riding them was that they were the same as the hills I struggle to climb here in the UK, but twice as steep and ten times as long. It was during the first of my hour-plus ascents throughout the weekend that I learned the climbs aren’t necessarily harder, just different. A lot of the mountain roads in the region offer an average gradient of just 4-5%, meaning it becomes a battle of endurance rather than power, which for me was far enjoyable than vein-popping slogs up half-mile 20% ramps on the outskirts of Bristol. Plus the view from the top was a bit better as well!

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Love the roads

It’s not new news to say British roads are, generally, awful and are in stark contrast to many of our European counterparts. The roads of the Marxa Jufré were no exception. Super smooth fresh tarmac with next to no traffic on them, riding in the Catalonia mountains was made joyous by the roads alone. They allow you to concentrate on picking the fastest line down a descent rather than a line which avoids the biggest potholes.

Stay with the locals on the descents – if you can!

On the subject of descending, the locals provided a masterclass in it. My 110kg frame permits me big speed down hills, but I was struggling to hang on to other riders that were half my weight. In this part of the world, an aero position, the correct line and balls of steel reigns supreme over mass, and everyone that passed me seemed to be nailing all three. If you can hang on to them, though, you really can learn the art and enjoy the rollercoaster ride of a lifetime.

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Don’t take offence

Having never visited Catalonia before, I wasn’t privy to their cultural quirks. During the ride, I was called fat, a lot! They’ve got a refreshingly direct way of conversing that sees them complement you by saying things such as “You are very fat, you are climbing better than I would expect”. Don’t be offended, just embrace it and backhandedly complement them back – they seem to enjoy the banter.

Try the food, but not all of it

Much like the roads, the Catalonians have the Brits pipped on cuisine as well. It’s a huge part of their culture as was demonstrated at the food stations during the ride. Handmade pastries, chorizo baguettes, trail mixes and locally-grown fruit – there wasn’t a gel in sight. The only issue with such a vast array on offer was that I found myself trying things purely out of intrigue and ignoring my nutritional strategy. In hindsight, this meant I was more sluggish up the climbs near the end but I made my choice and for me, the food was worth the seconds.

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 Stick around, share a plate (and a shower)

Probably the biggest and best difference between a Catalonian and a UK sportive was the community atmosphere at the finish. The whole town turned out to celebrate with the riders. There were three or four typically spectacular meal options, locally brewed beer, leg masseurs and even a raffle – think pro cycling meets village fete. It was a special atmosphere with almost everyone staying for the full day. The only part that was a touch too communal was the shower set up. My advice is if you want a post-ride wash, be prepared to be very naked with a lot of strangers – embrace it, it’s all part of the experience!

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So the big question – would I do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat! Forgetting about the scary start (and finish, when I was well and truly cooked from a savage 115km in the mountains) I loved everything about it.

It’s helped me grow in confidence as a rider, taught me some new climbing and descending skills and provided an opportunity to share some stunning scenery with some great people. If you enjoy cycling in the UK but you’re looking to satisfy you’re ‘what next?’ itch, book a sportive abroad and meet it with a full embrace. You won’t regret it.

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