11 best cycling challenges in Europe 2021: sportives, gran fondos + more! Back to top
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11 best cycling challenges in Europe 2021: sportives, gran fondos and more!

Already done a sportive in the UK? Ready for a bigger cycling challenge in Europe? Look no further as we list 11 cycling events in Europe for 2021 that will really test your resolve and ability!

Let's be honest, 2020 was a bit of a nightmare for European cycling challenges/events, many of which were cancelled due to Covid - but with a vaccine becoming a reality, 2021 could be a different story. Once you've had a thorough look at your travel insurance and the event cancellation terms (!), perhaps now is time to consider what your next major European cycling challenge will look like?

Below we have put together a number of one-day sportive bike rides that classify somewhere between challenging and severe - so you can be sure there is something that will match your ability. (If you're after an easier event, read this.)

For the hard-core cyclist La Marmotte and the Maratona await. If endurance is your strong point, then Mallorca 312 or Vätternrundan may be more to your liking. Or if you are more comfortable on the flat with the odd incline then the Belgium sportives may be the answer.

Are you ready for 2021? Push the boundaries and test yourself!

Written by John Vicars

Due to Covid-19 and other unforeseen circumstances, all of the dates and details listed here are subject to change. Check with the organisers before booking.

This articles includes details of hotels we think would make a great base for each event (though you'll need to double-check with them on bike storage etc). If you click on a link and make a booking, we may earn a commission. We only suggest places we'd want to stay ourselves! Please read our disclosure policy for further information.

If you'd like a nice reminder of your sportive, these beautiful GPX-based prints are a great idea. More details at the bottom of this article!

Best marchas cicloturistas in Spain

Mallorca 312

Location:

Playa de Muro, Mallorca 

Date:

Awaiting details

Distance:

167, 225 and 312 kilometres

Where to stay:

Iberostar, Playa de Muro (book here)

Our view:


Note: as at 21 December 2020, the organisers have not yet announced details for the 2021 event, so the information here is based on previous events.


Looking for a cycling event in Europe to combine with a holiday in the sun, then look no further than this closed road sportive. Mallorca 312 has quickly established itself as one of the most popular European sportives, with its long route taking a mammoth tour around the north-west of the island, with elevation gain of around 5,000 metres.


The 312 route takes in the Serra Tramuntana mountains which includes the well-known climbs of Puig Major and Col de Feminina. The sportive is a fantastic way to see the island as you clock up the kilometres enjoying rolling countryside and stunning coastal views.


As with a lot of European bike challenges you will find a group of riders all dressed in a particular colour who ride together at the slowest acceptable pace. If they catch you then you are likely to have your number removed and be effectively taken out of the event – you can of course just ride on but you won’t be given a finishing time etc.


As with many of the most popular/best gran fondos, Mallorca 312 has thousands of competitors (the 312 has around 8,000). If you’re not accustomed to riding in big groups, you might want to start with a smaller event.


More information:

Read our in-depth guide to Mallorca 312 here and our guide to cycling Mallorca here.


Conclusion:

One of the most famous closed road sportives out there, offering a fantastic early season challenge.

Sea Otter Ciclobrava

Location:

Girona, Costa Brava 

Date:

26 September 2021

Distance:

70, 100 and 140 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotel Gran Ultonia, Girona (book here)

Our view:

The Sea Otter Bike Festival is a three-day expo that is usually held in the last week of May in the cycling centric city of Girona, but for 2021 it will be held in September. It features the Ciclobrava Gran Fondo (road bike sportive) as well as mountain bike and gravel ride contests.  


As at 21 December 2020, the details of the routes are still being prepared. But in 2019, the 140-kilometre Gran Fondo included 1,700 metres of elevation gain and took the form of an anti-clockwise loop from Girona on wonderful roads towards the Mediterranean coastline via the well-known and spectacular eight-kilometre Sant Grau climb.


The route continued through the Romanya Pass and featured many of the climbs that are regularly used in the professional Volta a Catalunya race as it meandered towards the foothills of the Pyrenees before turning back to the city. Just after the halfway point there was a feed station at the tiny village of Monells, arguably one of the most beautiful pueblos in Catalonia – it has to be seen to be believed.


If you want to try a cycle sportive in Europe for the first time, this would be the perfect starter event.


More information:

Check our guide to cycling in Girona here.


Conclusion:

Girona is always a fantastic choice for great cycling roads and this event highlights the wonderful coastal scenery.

Girona cycling festival

Location:

Girona, Costa Brava 

Date:

14-20 June 2021

Distance:

125 and 142 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotel Gran Ultonia, Girona (book here)

Our view:

The Girona Cycling Festival is held every June. It's a week-long event, though you can pick and choose the extent to which you take part. It's aimed at cyclists of all abilities and there are various events throughout the week, from a hill climb to a crit. The event finishes with the Girona Gran Fondo bike ride.


There are two routes on offer at the Gran Fondo, one is 125km and the other is 142km. The 142km option includes an uphill timed section to the summit of Rocacorba – a challenge not to be taken lightly. After the ensuing descent, the route re-joins the standard route and continues its path through the stunning Garrotxa volcanic park.


The timed hill climb is staged up the very well-known local climb of Els Angels (10k @ 3%). The evening city centre criterium has an electric atmosphere and includes a short cobbled uphill timed section.


If you want to combine a break in the sun with a unique cycling event, then Girona Cycling Festival should be on your bucket list!


More information: 

More information on the event here. Check our guide to cycling in Girona here.


Conclusion:

A week-long inclusive, authentic festival based in central Girona. 

cyclists at the Girona Cycling Festival

Girona Gran Fondo (credit: Girona Cycling Festival)

Nocturn crit at the Girona Cycling Festival

Girona Nocturn (credit: Girona Cycling Festival)

Quebrantahuesos

Location:  

Sabiñánigo, northern Spain

date:  

19 June 2021

Distance:

85 and 200 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotel Reina Felicia, Jaca (book here)

Our view:

You may not have heard of Quebrantahuesos (kay-branta-waysos), but in fact it’s the biggest marcha cicloturista in Spain. It is always hugely oversubscribed and sells out as soon as the 11,000 places are released by way of a lottery.


Roughly translated, Quebrantahuesos means ‘Bone Breaker’ and the long route, starting and finishing in Sabiñánigo, is a severe test over 200 kilometres (3,500 metres of elevation gain) into and around the Pyrenees featuring three Hors Categorie climbs. It is often staged in 30 degrees heat in late June and takes you from northern Spain up the Puerto de Somport and down into France. There then follows an ascent of the Puerto de Marie Blanc before you return home up and down the Puerto la Portalet (the latter two climbs are Tour de France regulars).


With the length of this event and the severity of the climbs, combined with the possibility of extremely hot weather, this is one of the leading cycling challenges in Europe. If you feel that it’s a bit too much in one day then there is always the medio fondo called the Treparriscos which is run over 85 kilometres.


One of only four men ever to win the Tour de France five times, Miguel Indurain, is a regular participant.


Conclusion:

The Quebrantahuesos is a huge, closed road sportive that takes in some fantastic Pyrenean climbs.

Gran Fondo Alberto Contador

Location:

Oliva, Valencia/Costa Blanca

Date:

Awaiting details

Distance:

115 and 167 kilometres

Where to stay:

Oliva Nova Beach resort (book here)

Our view:

Note: as at 21 December 2020, the organisers have not yet announced details for the 2021 event, so the information here is based on previous events.


A recent newcomer to the European sportive calendar is the Marcha Alberto Contador (Marcha is the Spanish word for a sportive). It starts and finishes in the Mediterranean coastal municipality of Oliva.


One of the highlights of this closed road sportive is the fact that you get the chance to ride with the seven time Grand Tour winner himself.


The event, in the Valencian region of Spain, attracted 2,000 entrants in 2019 and is slowly growing in stature. The sportive is closely located to the nearby major airports in Alicante and Valencia and is very well organised. It also provides a great end of season opportunity to ride in a comfortable temperature in late September.


The long route takes you along many of the roads used by professional teams who come to the area between February and April for pre-season training and it features the well-known climbs of the Coll de Rates, Mirador del Xap and Vall d’Ebo.  There’s a cumulative elevation gain of 3,100 metres.


More information:

See our guide on cycling the Costa Blanca here


Conclusion:

If you are looking for a test, but nothing too severe, and fancy riding with Contador on closed roads, then this event is recommended and can be combined with a break at the stunning Oliva Nova Beach resort. 

Start at the Contador sportive, Spain

At the start line of the GF Contador

On the Contador sportive course

On the course

Best cyclo sportives in France

LaPierre Gran Fondo Mont Ventoux

Location:

Vaison-la-Romaine

Date:

13 June 2021

Distance:

80 and 137 kilometres

Where to stay:

Le Murier, Vaison-la-Romaine (book here)


Our view:

Anything associated with Mont Ventoux is likely to be popular and provide a stiff test. This French sportive is no exception and is regarded as one of the best cyclo sportives in France.


The 137 kilometre route takes you through the stunning countryside of Provence with vineyards and stunning vistas punctuating the undulating terrain.


After a couple of gentle climbs to get the legs into good working order you pass through the breath-taking Gorges de la Nesque before descending down into the town of Bedoin ahead of the days major challenge. The Giant of Provence, as it has become known, is 21.5 kilometres in length with an average gradient of 8.7% as it passes the famous Chalet Reynard and the Tom Simpson memorial – a truly epic climb but nor for the faint hearted!


More information:

See our guide on cycling Ventoux, here.


Conclusion:

The event for you if you fancy tackling the Giant of Provence as part of a sportive.

La Marmotte Alps

Location:

Bourg d'Oisans

Date:

27 June 2021

Distance:

177 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotel des Alpes, Bourg des Oisans (book  here)


Our view:

The alpine cycle sportive La Marmotte needs no introduction. It is generally regarded as the ultimate in European cycling challenges and the 7,500 allocated places sell out very quickly.


For 2021, its full name is the LePape Marmotte Granfondo Alpes (but "La Marmotte" seems easier!). 


Over 177 kilometres and with over 5,000 metres of climbing incorporating no less than three Hors Categorie climbs, this is  definitely the big one! Complete this and you can ride anything!


Starting in the village of Bourg d’Oisans, the route takes in the world famous climbs of the Col de La Croix de Fer and after a flatter section on the floor of the Maurienne valley, the Col du Galibier which, including the Col du Telegraphe, is a combined climb of 35 kilometres at an average gradient of 5.5%.


There follows a quick descent down the Col du Lauteret to the other side of the valley before a flattish section back to Bourg d’Oisans with just the prospect of a 14-kilometre finishing climb up Alpe d’Huez at an average gradient of 8%.


Make no mistake, this French sportive is a supreme test of fitness, climbing ability and mental strength that the average cyclist would find challenging if it were split into two days. In 2019’s edition the finishing times ranged between 5 hours 40 minutes to 13 hours!


Undoubtedly one of the premier amateur cycling events in France.


More information:

Don't miss our in-depth guide to the Marmotte, here.

See our guide on cycling this area of the Alps, here.


Conclusion:

The event to do for cycling kudos and Tour de France climbs.

Best gran fondos in Italy

Gran Fondo Strade Bianche

Location:  

Siena, Tuscany

date:  

12 September 2021

Distance:

87 and 139 kilometres

Where to stay:

Garden Hotel, Siena (book here)

Our view:

The Strade Bianche is acknowledged as one of the true classic races on the professional circuit. The Strade Bianche gran fondo offers 5,000 amateur riders an opportunity to experience this too – it’s an event that lets you step back into history and ride through the undulating terrain of Tuscany on the world-famous white chalk dust roads.


Starting in Siena and finishing in the same city in the Piazza del Campo, reached after a short but brutal climb, the 139-kilometre route will take you through some of the most stunning landscape that Italy has to offer.


What makes this event so different is that around a quarter of the distance runs over the ‘sterrati’, as the locals refer to it. This is a compacted white gravel type surface which winds through vineyards and includes a number of short and punchy climbs.


This gran fondo is really tough (particularly when the chalk roads get wet) as the regularity of the hills gradually sap the strength of even the fittest of competitors. After negotiating the kilometres of different grades of sterrati it actually makes the remainder of the Tuscan roads feel like riding on silk!


With the cycling world’s recent fondness of promoting ‘gravel’ rides and races, the gran fondo Strade Bianche is only going to become more popular. Certainly one to consider adding to your European sportive calendar for 2021.


Note: the event is usually held in March, but for 2021, the event has been moved to September.


Conclusion:

The event to try if you fancy some gravel riding in spectacular Tuscany.

Gran Fondo Stelvio Santini

Location:  

Bormio

date:  

6 June 2021

Distance:

60, 138 and 151 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotel Funivia, Bormio (book here)

Our view:

An eagerly awaited Italian sportive, the Gran Fondo Stelvio Santini is an extremely tough test and sees over 3,000 amateurs arriving in the town of Bormio each year to ride the roads made famous by the Giro d'Italia.


The highlight of all three routes on offer is the finishing ascent of the incomparable Passo dello Stelvio (from Bormio) with its famous hairpin turns (or tornanti as the Italians refer to them), the energy sapping altitude followed by 21 kilometres of punishing gradient (7% average).


Add to the mix the savage ascent of the Passo del Mortirolo (13 kilometres @ 11% average gradient), a climb that Lance Armstrong at his peak once said ‘On the hardest parts, I was hurting, really hurting. The Mortirolo is the hardest climb I've ever ridden’ and you can get a sense that this event is not for the faint hearted!


In fact, it’s so hard that a special commemorative cap is presented to all who manage to finish. A challenging European sportive for 2021 if ever there was one!


More information:

See our detailed guides to the Stelvio Santini sportive and the Bormio area


Conclusion:

If you've always wanted to tackle the legendary Giro climb that is the Stelvio, this is the sportive for you.

Maratona dles Dolomites

Location:  

Corvara

date:  

4 July 2021

Distance:

55, 106 and 138 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotel Cristallo, near Corvara (book here)

Our view:

Think of ‘gran fondo Italy’ and most cyclists will think of the Maratona. It’s one of the most prestigious and best sportives in Europe.


The Dolomites mountain range have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status and are the stunning backdrop to the Maratona dles Dolomites.


Unlike the Marmotte, there are no flat stretches, just steep mountains (cumulative elevation gain of 4,230 metres) and lightning fast descents. You’re either pushing hard up the climbs or revelling in thrilling descents such as the ten-kilometre section between Arabba and Cernadoi.


This gran fondo ride, starting and finishing in Corvara, is a huge event with planning and organisation of the first order. A festival type environment is created with spectators lining the route and television crews capturing the images for Italian television.


Save for the famous Passo Giau (10k @ 9.3% gradient) the climbs are not too severe; it is just the sheer number of them one after the other that grinds away over the 138 kilometre (mostly closed roads) long route.


More information:

See our detailed guides to the Maratona dles Dolomites and cycling in the Dolomites.


Conclusion:

This event is one of the most renowned out there and is a fantastic climbing challenge.

Best sportives in the UK

Check out our in-depth guide to the UK’s best sportives and gran fondos, here!

Best of the rest

Tour of Flanders

Location:  

Flanders, Belgium

date:  

3 April 2021

Distance:

74, 142, 177 and 235 kilometres

Where to stay:

Leopold Hotel, Oudenaarde (book here

Our view:

There are sportives and there is the Tour of Flanders sportive! The 104th edition of the  Ronde van Vlaanderen will be held in 2021 and the organisers allow the public to ride the famous cobbles in a sportive the day before the professional race.


There are four distances to choose from with the longest course of 235 kilometres starting in Antwerp and finishing in Oudenaarde, the other options (177, 142 and 74 kilometres) start and finish in Oudenaarde.


All routes have a healthy allocation of cobbles and bergs (Belgian hills) which not only adds to the spectacle of the event but also makes it a more of a challenge. Try the ascent of the Koppenberg in the wet with your back wheel spinning out of control as the gradient hits 20%!


All four routes incorporate the aforementioned Koppenberg and they all finish with a double helping of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg!


This is a truly spectacular opportunity to ride the famous cobbles where careers and legends were made, but make no mistake its tough!


More information:

See our guide on cycling in Flanders here.


Conclusion:

The picks for cobbles and bergs - plus the renowned atmosphere of Belgium's biggest amateur cycling event!

Amstel Gold

Location:  

Valkenburg, Netherlands

date:  

17 April 2021

Distance:

60, 100, 125, 150, 200 and 240 kilometres

Where to stay:

Grand Hotel Voncken, Valkenburg (book here)

Our view:

The Amstel Gold professional road race is the biggest race in the Dutch cycling calendar and one of the big one-day races on the World Tour. It always attracts a high-quality field. The sportive is staged on the preceding day in the province of Limburg and offers no fewer than six different route options to cater for all levels of ability.


The 240-kilometre-long route incorporates all the climbs that the professionals tackle, including an ascent of the legendary Cauberg. At only 1.2 kilometres and an average gradient of 6% (max 12%) it is not the most difficult finishing climb in world cycling, but after the punishment of the many previous bergs it requires some finishing power.


With overall elevation of around 3,500 metres, the long course is a substantial challenge full of short, sharp and punch climbs.


This is an extremely popular sportive and you will need to get in early should you wish to take part. It is possible though to gain entry through an official tour company who will guarantee your place if you book accommodation with them.


Conclusion:

If you're with a group of mixed abilities, this event offers a route for everyone.

Vätternrundan

Location:  

Motala, Sweden

date:  

18 JUne 2021

Distance:

315 kilometres

Where to stay:

Hotell Nostalgi, Motala (book here)


Our view:

Vätternrundan (pronounced vet-turn-rund-an) is an increasingly popular cycle sportive in Sweden and is now recognised as the biggest event of its type in the country.


Starting and finishing in Motala in the south of the country, the 315-kilometre course tracks around the edge of the beautiful Lake Vättern in a complete loop.


Feedback suggests that it is a very well organised event with riders from over 50 countries travelling to Scandinavia for the event. The population of Motala increases threefold over the weekend of the event!


There is great emphasis placed by the organisers on the fact that it is, first and foremost, a recreational ride and not a race. That said, participants do wear a timing chip that registers their individual times and when they passed the various check points on the course and when they finished.


This is a relatively new event but one to certainly take a look at.


Conclusion:

One to do if you fancy trying something new and like the sound of a 315 kilometre odyssey!

Want something to help you remember your sportive?

These cycling map prints are just the ticket. How it works:

  • You upload a GPX file or connect to Strava and find your ride (you can add multiple day rides to one map). 
  • You use the map builder to create the print as you want it (you can alter the size, colour and text). 
  • You submit all the details and are then sent a preview to check before it's printed and sent to you.
  • More info here. Prices start at £35.
Custom map makes a unique cycling gift

Example Bilbao to Barcelona ride

GPX based custom map print

Example LEJOG ride


Where will you ride in 2021?!

What did you think of our list? Anywhere you'd add? Which ones have you done? What were they like? What's on your bucket list?! Let us know in the comments below!

Also feel free to just drop us a comment if you have a question we haven't answered. We monitor all comments and would love to help!

If you feel like entering one of these sportives, remember we have detailed guides to some of the best cycling in Europe here. These guides will help you plan a trip that combines a sportive with a holiday in some of the most picturesque and stunning areas in Europe. 

If you're looking for a cycling challenge that's harder/further from home, check these out - or closer to home, don't miss our pick of the 12 best UK sportives for 2021.

And if you want something different for 2022, this new event is definitely worth a look - the Saimaa Cycle Tour.

Read on!

What is a gran fondo/sportive? (Your gran fondo/sportive cycling guide)
Beginner's guide to gran fondo and sportive cycling, from what exactly is a gran fondo to the gran fondo world tour, gran fondo events and how to pick a gran fondo bike.
11 best cycling challenges in Europe 2021: sportives, gran fondos and more!
Our guide to 11 of the best cycling challenges in Europe for 2021, including top sportives, gran fondos and cycling events
16 of the best UK sportives 2021
We share 16 of the best sportives in the UK, and sort them by region to make it easy to find one close to you.


About John Vicars

Cycling up Buttertubs Pass from Hawes

John divides his time between England and Spain and, together with his wife, clocks in around 10,000 miles each year searching out Europe's finest roads. John loves to share his experiences (good and bad) from the saddle and has a particular loathing for double digit gradients, sub-zero temperatures and red traffic lights!

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