The Tour de France is one of the biggest annual sporting events in the world, and has risen from once being a Eurocentric race for professional riders to a global phenomenon in the past decade or so. Now, amateur racers eager to put themselves through the same challenge have the chance. There are options for fit weekend warriors to replicate the famous climbs of the tours with many of the thrills and support the pro racers receive.
Cyclists will no doubt be able to reel off the names of the great Tour climbs, and probably have a desire to some day tackle them for themselves; it’s something of a rite of passage for any cyclist.
But the odds of most of us ever getting a chance to ride one of the three grand tours – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a’ Espana – are akin to us playing in the football World Cup finals.
In recent years mass-participation, long-distance “Gran Fondo” rides and single-day “sportive” events, open to all and semi-competitive, have taken off in a huge way.
The L’Etape du Tour was the first single-day event to seriously open up a grand tour stage for amateurs in 1993. The event is usually held on a rest day for the professionals, and follows one of the classic mountain stages. Around 15,000 riders compete, and are backed with almost the same support levels as the pro racers.
During the past 10 years the sport has naturally progressed towards the multi-day challenge of the stage race versions.
Make no mistake about it, these are serious challenges, some with several mountain passes and hefty distances being covered on a daily basis. They really have taken the road cycling challenge to a whole new level for non-pro riders.
Nowadays, most of the major cycling classics also have their own amateur sportive version, often on the day before the pro race.
Taking things to a whole different level are the Haute Route events, which started out with week-long versions in French Alps, Pyrenees and the Dolomites and have now become global, with the first three-day Chinese event taking place last year in Qingcheng.
During the course of a week of “racing”, riders effectively tackle most of the climbing gain of a grand tour – with almost no flat along the way. Some 20,000 metres of elevation gain and 800km in distance being the norm, which is no easy ride.
There is a healthy daily time cut for covering the full distance, with the overall timed classification being taken on the bigger climbs – most of which are clocked. Plus, there is usually an individual time trial stage up one of the most iconic climbs.
There are other stage sportive events around, but the Haute Route has very much set the benchmark. Roads are not fully closed, as that would be virtually impossible given that the riders are spread out over several hours each day.
There are lead cars, Mavic yellow support vehicles, race villages, full ground crew (including in-house and outside media), feed stations, and you can even sign up with appointed travel companies who also offer add-on support that would even make the pro teams look like they were on a backpacker’s budget.
Both the Haute Route Alps and Pyrenees take place in the last two weeks of August, which may be a little too close to manage this year. Luckily, there are still a number of three-day events still to run this year, including The Stelvio in the Italian Alps, the Ventoux in Provence, France, and, closer to home, is the Qingcheng event at the end of October.
Another good option for a more local event is the high-altitude Gran Fondo China in Yunnan, which takes place from November 2 to 9.