The Big 6 – our guide to the hardest & most famous sportives of the year.

Sportives come in all shapes and sizes from local rides organised by volunteers at the cycling club to massive, closed road races featuring riders from all over the world. There are some great small, local events all around the world but for history, beauty and prestige these are the Big 6. A collection of sportives including the oldest & toughest sportives in Europe, taking in some of the most famous climbs with thousands of riders from all over the world. If you are looking for a focus event for your season, this is a great place to start but make sure you train properly as every single one of these rides are unforgiving to the unprepared. The sportives in this article all have the following in common:
1. An international field – there are some very large sportives that are popular with their own domestic market (including L’Ardechoise & Les 3 Ballons in France & Quebrantahuesos) but dont have the same fame around the world. In all of the “Big 6” sportives you will meet riders from all over the world, typically with around 50% of riders coming from overseas.
2. Incredible routes – if the sportive is in the high mountains, expect some of the most famous climbs in the world. For the Nove Colli & Mallorca 312, expect stunning rides from the coast to the hills and back. All of these sportives are hard with over 4,000m of elevation so should be your main ride of the year, make sure you have trained enough that you can enjoy the views and you are not just staring down at your stem the whole time!
3. Large number of riders – with great routes and closed roads, entries sell out fast with anything from 4,000 to 15,000 riders. This means busy race villages and packed starting pens but lots of company on the road where you should find good size groups of riders going a speed that suits you.
4. Great organisation – most of these sportives have been going for years in the same location so all the details have been finely tuned. That means huge teams of support staff ensuring all the road junctions are manned, the feed stations are in the right place and there is mechanical support along the way.

What to Expect at The Big 6

Planning: These sportives sell out quickly. Nove Colli & Maratona sell out within hours, Mallorca 312, La Marmotte & the Etape sell out within days or weeks and Stelvio Santini sells out in a few months. With all six events, demand for hotels (and rental bikes) far outweigh supply so getting your accommodation and travel sorted early is essential if you want the best choice.
Collecting Your Entry: In France & Italy you will need medical certificates signed from your doctor stating you are fit for amateur cycling events (we can provide templates). Typically, in the weeks before the sportive you will be emailed your race number. You will then need to collect your entries in person one or two days before the sportive from the race village. In most cases you will receive a free cycling jersey of the event and many events ask you to wear them but this is not mandatory. Collecting your entry is often quite a slow process so allow plenty of time. It is a real benefit to be walking distance from the race village so you dont need to worry about bike parking or getting taxis.
Whats in the race pack: When you collect your entry, you get a bag with some nice freebies and essentials for the ride. These differ slightly by event but always include a race number to attach to your bike (with a timing chip), a race number to attach to your jersey with pins & a route sticker to put on your top tube with key climbs, feed stations and mechanical support. At Nove Colli, Maratona, Stelvio Santini & Mallorca 312 you get a free cycling jersey which are of a decent standard & typically free products from event suppliers (sports bars, water bottles, toolkits etc). There is a merchandise stand or website at each event where you can buy more kit & souvenirs of the event.
Getting Started: With thousands of riders trying to get past one small start gate, the beginning of your sportive often involves a long wait and then a rapid first few kms as everyone lets their pent up excitement get the better of the pacing. When you get your race number, it will have your starting group or pen so you will know where to go and when at the start. The first off are well known amateur racers who will be contesting to win the event. After this the organisers try to send people off roughly according to their speed. The start can take as long as 2 hours to get everyone going and you will be asked to be in your pens for up to an hour. Take some warmer clothing for this and stay calm when you start – you dont need to burn all of your energy in the first 30 minutes!
On the Ride: The pace at the front of these sportives is quick. Some of the Big Six are shown live on domestic TV with amateur teams competing for the win. Off the front section and ride speeds really vary. With 4-14,000 riders on the course, you should find groups that match your pace. Use your route sticker on your head tube to see how far you have until the next big climb and how long until the next feed. For the summer sportives (Marmotte, Maratona, Etape) the weather is often very hot so keep filling up with liquids and be prepared for a mix of temperatures particularly when you are climbing to high elevations (particularly for the Stelvio, Marmotte & Maratona).

Mallorca 312

A relative newcomer to the scene, Mallorca 312 now has 8,000 riders training all through the winter for the not inconsiderate challenge of riding 312km in April. The ride takes in long, smooth climbs in the Tramuntana mountains before visiting small villages and quiet back roads in the middle of the island. For those wanting a more gentle start to the sportive season, there is a 225 & 167km route which still takes in a lot of the most stunning parts of the route. This is one of the most fun rides of the year and sees people coming back every April to ride on closed roads in cycling paradise.
When & Where – April 28th, Playa de Muro, Spain
Mallorca 312 Route – The route changes slightly each year with full details not released until well into the new year. Leaving Playa de Muro the course heads along the coast to Port de Pollensa before going over the mountains all the way down to Andratx. The majority of the climbing is done in the first half of the sportive leaving just some short, sharper climbs for the back nine. The final section to the finish line from Arta is fast & fun, get in a group and fly!

Travel Advice – The race is on the Saturday with mandatory race pack collection in person on either the Thursday or Friday. If you are coming for just a long weekend, we recommend staying close to the action in Playa de Muro. This is a strip of large hotels next to one of the prettiest beaches on the island. The hotels are almost entirely self sufficient with most guests eating all meals at the hotel. This means there are few restaurants & bars in the town.
If you are coming for longer, a stay in Port de Pollenca might be worth considering. This town is closer to the mountains and while the beach is not as nice as Playa de Muro, there is an actual town here with shops, restaurants and bars.
For anyone riding the full 312, we recommend getting to the start pens early (from 6am) if you want to start anywhere near the front or middle of the group. It is chilly at this time so bring arm warmers and a gilet.
Interesting fact – The sportive started out as a race all the way around the island (312km) for a couple of hundred, mostly local, riders. The route changes in 2016 to be completely closed roads and stays mostly in the Tramuntana mountains.
Real Rider Reviews – We had the week of our lives and the event itself surpassed my expectations. I’ll be recommending it to anyone who’ll listen and I’ll be sure to tell them about Sportive Breaks – Liam.
4 Night breaks from £425 per person

Nove Colli

Italian for nine hills, this classic sportive is all about short and often sharp climbs that come relentlessly in the middle of the route. The Nove Colli is one of the oldest sportives in the world having been run every year since 1971 by the local cycling club. Initially riders came from all over the region, then from all over Italy and now riders come from all over the world. The race is shown live on TV for the final hour and the crowds on the main climbs and in the finishing straights can be massive. The sportive takes place in Emilia Romagna, home of spring training for Italian riders and teams and one of the food capitals of Italy, which basically means it’s one of the food capitals of the world.
When & Where – May 20th, Cesenatico, Italy
Nove Colli Route – The full route is over 200km and just shy of 4,000m of climbing, with a medium route of 130km and 2000m of climbing taking in 4 hills. From the start in Cesenatico, the first 30km are incredibly quick with trains of riders going well over 45km/h on the flat, wide roads. This then slows dramatically at the first climb and the bulk of the day is spent climbing and descending. The climbs are 3 to 10km long with several very steep sections. The hardest and most famous climb is the Barbotto coming nearly half way in. This culminates with a 20% stretch at the top where a DJ pumps out Europop and crowds cheer you on. After climb number nine, there is a quick descent back to the coast and a fun finish along the Adriatic in Cesenatico.

Travel Advice – Along this stretch of the Adriatic there are a number of towns with good bike hotels and access to the hills. All of the action for the weekend is in Cesenatico and with a very early start on the morning of the sportive (in pens by 6am), we would only recommend staying here. It also happens to be in our opinion the nicest town along the coast and the hotels are of a high standard. The transfers from Bologna take an hour and half. With most of the hotels offering daily guided rides we strongly recommend a 4 day break for the Nove Colli. If you want to stay further afield, its a choice of how close you want to be to the hills vs how far a drive / ride you are happy to take at 5am on the Sunday morning. Right at the end of the strip of towns is Riccione & Cattolica which have the closest access to the hills and are close to a beautiful stretch of road right by the coast.
Interesting Fact – The 12,000 entries to Nove Colli sell out in just 4 minutes!
Real Rider Reviews – Tt was an excellent trip all round. The route itself is a real challenge. Fast and flat to start, then plenty of climbing before a fast race into the finish (if you have the energy to race) None of the climbs are particularly steep for long and Barbotto being the one people talk about as being the ‘biggest, is a good challenge. The hills are longer than most of the climbs in the UK (although not alpine climb long) and they come thick and fast over the middle portion of the ride. It is this repetition that makes it a real challenge. The hotel was excellent and they have it perfectly set up- the food, the spa and the daily guided rides made it perfect for a group of lads. – Jon
4 Nights breaks from £535 per person

Granfondo Stelvio Santini

Centred around one of the world’s great climbs, the Stelvio Santini is the big event in the heart of the Italian Alps. The sportive is based in Bormio, a lovely mountain town perfectly located for multiple epic climbs including the Stelvio & Mortirolo featured in the ride and also the Gavia which makes a great warm up ride to get you used to climbing over 20km at a time. The Stelvio is the main climb but not the hardest on this sportive. The Mortirolo is one of the toughest in all of cycling with long stretches over 10%. Luckily, there is a medium and short route which take out this nasty ascent so the Stelvio Santini can either be a major challenge or a pretty pleasant ride in the mountains before tackling a legend.
When & Where – June 3rd, Bormio, Italy
Stelvio Santini Route – There is not much flat in this part of the Italian Alps so you will be mostly climbing or descending over the 150km route. The Teglio is the first climb and not to be underestimated even though it looks like a blip compared to the other climbs. The Mortirolo is savage with steep slopes from the off and very little easing up. After this descent, there is a long false flat back to Bormio and then the long climb up to the Stelvio at 2,758m. The climb is long and has several distinct sections including tunnels, short, sharp hairpins, longer hairpins, a long saddle and then final ramp to the top. In early June, this can be cold and snowy (or more recently sunny and fresh). Luckily there is a bag service taking your warm weather gear to the top.

Travel Advice – There is only one choice to stay for the Stelvio Santini. It has to be Bormio, there are no other towns close enough to make it a choice. The transfer from Milan (Linate) is over three hours so a 4 night break is highly recommended. This gives you time to ride a couple of great local routes as warm up – the Gavia, Cancano, Bormio 2000 are all nice climbs right out of town and will help you feel ready for the mountain conditions. We get a lot of people ask us about preparing for the altitude but this is not a major factor and normal training for this event is sufficient.
Interesting Fact – The Stelvio was voted by Top Gear as the greatest driving road in the world. Riding it outside of the sportive can mean sharing the road with a LOT of motorbikes so this is a rare time when the bike is king.
Real Rider Reviews – It was an excellent trip. The hotel was excellent as were the guides and rides. Bike hire was straightforward and the bikes did the job expected – Rory.
4 Night breaks from £665 per person

La Marmotte

Even in this list of the best sportives in the world, the Marmotte still stands out for its difficulty and beauty. The event started way back in 1982 making this by far the oldest of the classic mountain sportives. The route is the same every year tackling four of the hardest and most famous climbs in the Tour de France culminating in the Alpe d’Huez. There are lots of other great climbs in the area for warm up rides making this one of the great sportive weekenders.
When & Where – July 1st, Alpe d’Huez, France
La Marmotte Route – There is just one route at La Marmotte, 173km and over 5,000m of climbing. The morning starts with a descent down from your hotel to the start in Bourg d’Oisans and then a short drag to the start of the Glandon. From here you will be mostly climbing or descending apart from a short section along the valley before the Telegraph. The highest point is the classic Col du Galibier and then there is one of the most fun descents in Europe – all the way off the Galibier and down the Lauteret pretty much all the way to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez leaving you just 21 hairpins away from Marmotte glory!

Travel Advice – Staying in Alpe d’Huez is a must. After such a long, tough ride you do not want to be far from your hotel. There is plenty to do in town with some decent restaurants (worth booking for Saturday & Sunday night as soon as you arrive) and there is a nice atmosphere with cyclists from all over the world. The nearest airport is Lyon which is a two hour drive so the sportive makes a good 3 or 4 day weekend.
Interesting Fact – In 2015, British rider John Simpson rode La Marmotte on a Brompton completing the course in a time of 14hr34mins (read more about John’s ride here – https://www.brompton.com/News/Posts/2015/Journey-Marmotte)
Real Rider Reviews – My priorities were 1. Don’t die, 2. Finish it and 3. Finish in 10hrs. So to get it done an hour inside the gold time is really quite amazing. I started quite late at around 8am so the first climb was packed and I spent most of the time squeezing through in the gravel at the edge. Took it really easy down glandon. Loved the telegraph climb, and galibier was generally good but starting to cramp near top so took time to stretch at the tunnel. Took me an hour to grind out the Alpe but was great to finish with a sprint past the shouty crowd. Thimble of beer at the finish went straight to my head!
The hotel by the way was fantastic. So convenient in many ways (eg bike storage, fridge in room, early breakfast, near to registration and finish).
– Andrew
3 Night breaks from £449 per person

Maratona dles Dolomites

One of the prettiest routes in Europe, the Maratona is a must for all cyclists. The setting is incredible – stunning green valleys (think sound of music), traditional architecture and rocks sticking out of the top of mountains as if by design. The sportive is a big event in town with entries almost impossible to come by & hotels booked out a year in advance. The whole region really supports this weekend and the atmosphere on the course is made by the thousands of locals that come out to cheer on riders, play local instruments or man feed stations with amazing apple strudel and other delights. The valley gets busy a full week before the sportive as the roads are closed for cyclists the weekend before. Throughout the week you will meet riders from all over the world on all the local climbs.
When & Where – July 2nd, Corvara, Italy.
Maratona dles Dolomites Route – Starting off just outside of Corvara early in the morning and then takes in the best route in all of cycling – the 4 climbs and 55km of the Sella Ronda This stunning circuit has amazing views all the way round and the gradients are mostly friendly. The short route ends here and the medium route has one more long climb after this. For the long route, it’s a long descent to the main climb of the day, the Giau. After this, the final climb of the Falzarego leads to a long descent back down to the finish before a final kick – a flanders style Mur dl Giat with a very unwelcome 18% gradient.

Travel Advice – First choice is a hotel in Corvara which is the centre of the action for this sportive. Anywhere within 10km will work but might involve a climb back after the sportive. The quality of hotel here is really high and almost all places book only for half board with dinners included. The nearest airports are Innsbruck or Venice with the latter having a much wider choice of flights. Maximise your time in the Dolomites for this sportive, there are so many great routes that you will not run out of options.
Interesting Fact – The Maratona is shown live, in full, on Italian TV

Etape du Tour

The most famous sportive in the world and the only amateur ride that is announced in front of the world’s press alongside the launch of the Tour de France. The Etape is a closed road sportive over the Queens stage of that years’ Tour normally in the Pyrenees or Alps with the latter more popular with the organisers in recent years. 15,000 riders come from all over the world for this ride which can make the host town too busy with cyclists. Getting your entry on the Friday or Saturday can take time but the race village is massive with all the latest bikes, fashion and more. Crossing the start line can also be a bit painful and you will be in your start pen for up to an hour. If you come with a group of friends, it is tricky to all get into the same start pen and moving up to the furthest person forward is not possible.
Once you roll through the start line, it is an amazing day out. Closed roads, excellent organisation and a route that is breathtaking every year. The Etape has the best race directors in the world and they find every year a route which takes in classic climbs and some amazing local sections.
When & Where – tbc
Etape du Tour Route – tbc, the last 3 years have been in the Alps and it might possibly be 4 this year. The event has got so big there are few places in the Pyrenees that can handle the volume of visitors. The routes are typically 125 to 175km with around 4,000m of climbing with a summit finish on one of the classic climbs. The standard of rider is very varied as this is the first European sportive for a lot of riders.
Travel Advice – Book early! 15,000 riders trying to book into a mountain town with around 2,000 beds doesn’t fit. Every year we hear of riders driving for over an hour to the start line because they left booking accommodation to the last minute. Make sure that is not your fate, if you are going to ride the Etape it is such a better weekend staying in the heart of the action. The route is announced on October 17th – mark your calendar now!
Interesting Fact – The first ever Etape du Tour started inside.
Real Rider Reviews – The best experience of my life! – Simon

Which Ride is Right for Me?

Apart from the Etape du Tour & La Marmotte, all of these sportives have several different route choices so most riders can ride at least the short / medium routes without too much training. However, if you are looking for the perfect sportive to match your experience and riding type, we suggest the following:
Your first European sportive – try Mallorca 312. It’s a beautiful route, an incredible island for cycling and is suitable to bring non riders to. The bike hotels are great value and airport transfers are short so you can do a 4 night break for £425.
Tour de France Enthusiast – it’s got to be the Etape du Tour. Taking in the toughest stage from that year’s tour, the Etape is typically a few days before the Tour rolls into town and gives you an insight on what it’s like to ride in the world’s best bike race.
The Etape Graduate – 15,000 riders take on the Etape every year and for many it’s their first foray into the high mountains. The next step after the Etape is to take on the classic route of La Marmotte. It’s significantly harder with over 170km and 5,000m of climbing. If you thought the Izoard was tough, imaging riding the 13km of Alpe d’Huez after that! This is one of the oldest, toughest and most beautiful sportives in the world and a must on an amateur cyclist’s palmares.
Looking for Something New – done the Etape, done La Marmotte, what’s next? Try the Stelvio Santini, a stunning route taking in the Mortirolo & Stelvio. Stay in Bormio at the base of the Stelvio and have a couple of extra days to take in some of the other great climbs in the area.
The Racer – On all of these events, the front of the race is competitive. But the Nove Colli is probably the event taken the most seriously with amateur teams from all over Italy working to set up their lead rider for a win shown on live TV. If you are a cat 1 or 2 rider looking to be in the front group in any of the Big Six, please get in touch and we can help ensure you get into the first pen & start with the main contenders.

If you have any questions or want to know more about the Big Six, give us a call on +44 (0)208 1446720.

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