‘Sportive’: The Linguistics, The Ride…

Updated 31/7/17 – Scroll to bottom for a few notes about ‘audax’

On the day of perhaps Britain’s largest and most well-known sportive – the Prudential Ride London – a few reflections about language.

As a French speaker I know the meaning of the word ‘sportive‘ in its original sense, as a feminine adjective which translates into English as ‘sporty‘ or ‘athletic‘. The masculine version is ‘sportif‘. Or at least I thought I did…

Here’s Google’s first English definition of the word:

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Note the date at the bottom: ‘the late 16th century‘. Interesting… The second definition is more familiar:

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Still no mention of French however but if we follow the link at the bottom – ‘shortened from cyclosportive‘…

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…we begin to make a bit of progress.

Wikipedia clarifies why we have chosen ‘sportive’ over ‘sportif’:

Cyclosportive is short for the French term randonnée cyclosportive (the spelling cyclosportif is sometimes also used but cyclosportive is correct as randonnée is a feminine noun in French).

But let’s go back to the original definitions provided by Google for the use of ‘sportive‘. They produce a useful frequency chart for the use of the word since the early 19th century:

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We know that the word was in use from the ‘late 16th century‘ from the first definition above but presumably detailed records of usage are either not available or are chosen to be ignored by Google. The arrival of mass cycling events in the late 20th century rescued the word from its long decline. Interesting, no?

I’ve never taken part in a sportive. Perhaps I should get my nose out of the dictionary and start training…


(Photos from the Prudential Ride London website.)

Update 31/7/17

In the comments, Frank Burns makes mention of the audax, itself a word worthy of a little research. Below is what Google has to say. For those scratching their heads, this is what Wikipedia has to say. I suppose the key difference between a sportive and an audax event is the length, both in terms of distance and time. The Transcontinental Race which, for very sad reasons, made it onto the pages of at the weekend, is, I suppose an ‘ultra-audax’ event. Audacious indeed.

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Categories: Cycling

10 replies »

  1. Glad you confirmed that……I have always been inclined to use ‘sportif’ for something that has become a money-making commercial version of the trusty Audax ride. The latter is cheaper, more friendly and ridden by genuine cyclists…….not the ‘weekend warriors’ who have all the ‘gear and no idea’. Or am I being unfair……?

      • Good stuff! Note also that we’re in the middle of the UK’s longest Audax at the moment. Edinburgh-London-Edinburgh started yesterday (Sunday) and the last finishers must complete by Friday! 1,400 kilometres (875 miles) in just over 100 hours!

        • Indeed. Thanks for the reminder. I have a friend from Reading – Bob ‘Titus’ Halliwell – who is pedalling it as we sit on our lazy arses typing… 😀

          • I know Bob/Titus! He and I are in The Fridays (aka FNRttC = Friday Night Ride to the Coast) together! Small world! I’ll be keeping an eye open for him as he returns south on LEL at the St Ives Control where I’m volunteering.

  2. Note that the first definition is of an adjective and the second is of a noun. I’d argue that, outside the still small world of cycling, the first use – as an adjective and with the stress on the first syllable – is more common.

    • Yes, you are right about adjective & noun. Not so sure on the usage point. I’m struggling to think of an English sentence that uses the word ‘sportive’ as an adjective but which doesn’t sound archaic (as the Google examples do). Can you suggest one? Doesn’t the graph indicate that the word that was in terminal decline, only used by a few people, but ‘rescued’ by those in the cycling world? Yes, still a minority of the population but from a much more diverse background than those using ‘sportive’ as an adjective. Interesting! 😄

      • OK I’ll grant the adjective is rarely used but the noun is used pretty much only by one cycling community. Funnily those who take part in “sportives” rarely seem, to this observer, playful or light-hearted. 😉

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