Who should be riding a cycle sportive style road bicycle? “Almost everyone,” isn’t a very satisfying answer, so I’ll try to dig into the question a bit for you. There are a wide variety of categories we can put riders into. By looking at a few of them we can see who might benefit from a sportive bike and who might want to pursue other options-
Club riders are enthusiast cyclist that participate in organized cycling events. The type of riding they do includes shorter after work rides and longer weekend rides, including events like centuries that are typically put on by cycling clubs and charities. They ride for fitness and to enjoy the company of their fellow riders. They think of themselves as cyclists. They span the full range of fitness from people that are ‘racer fit’ to people who just like to get out on a bike occasionally. Some of them love to ride hard and competitively, pushing themselves to go just a little faster than their riding buddies, and some of them are disturbed by the idea that you might want to ride like that. They aren’t primarily interested in transportation cycling, loaded touring, or ultra-distance riding, or racing although many of them do one or more of those activities in addition to their club riding.
The word ‘club bike’ can be used synonymously for ‘cycle sportive bicycle.’ These are the cycle sportives, the people that the sportive bicycle was developed for. They need a bike that is very fast and agile, but is comfortable over long distances, able to deal with bumpy roads, and that protects itself, themselves, and their riding partners from sloppy conditions. The ability to carry a light load is often helpful, so excess clothing can be stored as it warms up and food and tools can be carried. The combination of these tasks are what the sportif bike was made to do.
My opinion is that the optimum commuter bike is not solely defined by its utility. When most new cyclists buy a bike they get what the industry is pushing at them- a hybrid bicycle with flat bars, wider tires, and a fairly upright riding position. Perceived comfort is often a key design input. These bikes share some characteristics with the sportive bike such as fender clearance, the ability to run wider tires, and provisions for load carrying. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these bikes. They ride fine, do what the commuter needs them to do, and are often affordable.
The sportive bike will do all of these things. The difference is it will do them better.
The wind resistance you have to overcome at 20 mph is 65% greater than at 12 mph. The amount of effort to maintain that speed is almost 80% greater. Even at 15mph you are working 50% harder than at 12mph due to increased effort needed to displace air at the higher speed.1 This means that aerodynamics play a huge role in how hard you have to work to go a certain speed. Drop handlebars and more aerodynamic position allow you to go faster easier by reducing frontal area. Sportive bikes have steering geometry and weight distribution very close to race bikes, so they handle better than hybrids
Some commuters might argue, “That is all fine and dandy, but I just want a comfortable ride.” This is based on the perception that an upright riding position is more comfortable and that drop handlebar bikes all have an aggressive position. The problem is that these are both fallacies. For starters, it is good to remember that the sportive bike is designed to ride centuries and double centuries on. This means spending hours on the bike. Believe it or not, most sportive riders are ordinary people, not Lycra clad masochist super heroes (although some of them appear to think they are). If they weren’t comfortable on their bikes they’d find something different to ride.
An upright riding position is not automatically more comfortable. As you sit more upright you are stacking your vertebrae one atop the other. This puts the road shock into your lower back as your vertebrae bounce on each other. The weight of your torso is also carried primarily by your lower back muscles. If you stretch out somewhat more, the weight is passed to your abdominal muscles, and road shock is less directly passed into your spine. If you have physical issues that make it painful for you to bend over, then you will need to make adjustments, but in most cases you’ll be more comfortable on the bike over time with a 30-45% bend in your back.
Many people seem to imagine that having a drop handlebar means you ride around all the time with your back parallel to the ground. This just isn’t true. Grant Peterson of Rivendell Bicycles has done a good job of showing how bicycles with drop bars can be set up with very upright positions. My own experience doing hundreds of bike fittings and designing frames has shown that any position you can put a rider in on a flat bar, can be duplicated on a drop bar.
The advantage to the drop bar is that it gives multiple positions. A flat bar has one position on the grips with an additional position or two possible with bar ends. A standard drop bar has at least five positions. These positions also vary more vertically. The advantage to different positions on a drop bar is twofold. Any position will become uncomfortable over time. If you can move your hands you can increase your comfort. The drop position on the road handlebar is significantly more aerodynamic. It allows you to reduce your wind resistance, which means going faster easier. The intermediate positions also allow you to optimize your bio-mechanics for climbing, comfort, and handling.
Cycle sportive bikes handle better than hybrids, tend to be lighter, and are geared for faster riding. This means they are safer to ride because obstacles can be avoided more easily. It also means they are more fun to ride because they allow you to go faster and are more nimble. It’s like the difference between driving a minivan or a Mercedes touring car to work. One is more enjoyable than the other.
This doesn’t mean all transportation cyclists should ride sportive bikes all the time. If you need to carry a large load, then a bike designed to carry cargo might be better. Even then, I would recommend a sporty touring bike with panniers over a cargo bike, unless you are carrying plywood or surfboards or something large like that. Got young kids? Want to take them to school on the bike? No problem- you can tow a trail-a-bike or child trailer behind (or buy a cycle sportive style tandem with a kid-back).
You might be surprised to find you can tour on a sportive bike. Under 24-hour, hostel, or credit card style tours can be done with minimal gear that you can comfortably carry in a handlebar bag and a large seat bag. For trips that take more gear a trailer is an option. I have also done long tours on a cycle sportive bike by adding a support van. This can be great because it allows you to bring a lot of gear while having the joy of riding unloaded bikes during the day. You can alternate days driving or recruit a non-cyclist to come along on the trip in the automobile.
The ability to do some touring on a sportive bike is important for riders that can only afford one bike to consider. If you are going to ride the bike to work every day and might want to do some sport riding I suggest a sportive bike over a touring bike. What you need to ask yourself is, “Would I drive my Winnebago to work?” A well-designed touring bike is a joy to ride with a large load. Unloaded, it will be heavier than a sportive bike and will have sluggish, sometimes even sketchy handling. If you are riding from Alaska to Patagonia, camping off the bike, get a touring machine by all means. If not, consider your options carefully and get the bike that will meet your needs and be fun for the type of riding you will do on it most of the time.
I believe that sportive bikes are the ideal machine for rides of up to 200 miles on roads you would be comfortable driving a two-wheel drive car with standard road clearances on. If you want to do a ride like Seattle-to-Portland or RAMROD a sportive bike will be lighter and faster than a more specialized randonneuring machine and should be adequately comfortable comparatively.
This is a little bit hard to parse out because cycle sportive and randonneuring bikes blur together at their fringes. For my purposes here, a randonneuring bike is a 650B wheeled bike, running a larger 32mm or larger tire,with integrated lighting and perhaps a front and rear rack. The larger tire will give essential added comfort over distances and will allow the bike to deal with long dirt, gravel, or pave sections. The integrated lighting guarantees you will have lights when riding at night, something that is required for officially sanctioned randonneuring events. The racks allow gear to be added for self-supported riding. At distances over 400 kilometers, where support is prohibitted, or in events with bad road conditions the randonneuring bike is unquestionably the superior steed.
On long rides up to 400 kilometers, the cycle sportive bike offers performance advantages at the expense of utility and comfort when compared to the rando bike. It is lighter because of the lack of integrated lighting, a rear rack, and perhaps a handlebar bag with bag support. The 700c wheel has more roll-out, this suggests bikes with 700c wheels are a little faster, although my own subjective opinion is this difference is fairly small. Based on these differences I would be inclined to use the sportive bike for events on moderately well-paved roads, 200-miles or under, where optimum speed is a goal.
“Surely you can’t race a sportive bike?” This too is open to question. In my opinion, all other things being equal, a bike that is designed for fenders and a little larger tire will perform virtually identically to the same bike with tight clearances and no braze ons. The only unavoidable difference is a longer chain stay, which may adversely effect climbing. Even this is avoidable if you design the bike with a curved seat tube or similar tweak. Why not design race bikes to allow those of us in temperate climates prone to sloppy roads to train in comfort? I can’t think of a good reason.
The Bottom Line
The cycle sportive bike is the best suited tool for a wide variety of road cycling. For some specialized applications it isn’t the best hammer for the job. However, if you can only afford to own one road bike and want to use it for a wide variety of different types of cycling, you are likely to find the sportive bike is the bike for you.
1Data based on calculator at http://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/aerodynamics1.html