Cycling | 3 comments
So what is a Fondo and what the heck is so Gran about it? American cycling culture has a reputation for lagging behind European cycling culture in every way: the style, the history, the races, the fans, the media coverage.
“Gran Fondo” means “Big Ride” in Italian Gran Fondos are long distance, mass-participation cycling events – not races – that have become immensely popular in Italy. In France they’re known as “cyclosportives”. Participation is open to recreational and competitive amateur cyclists, and tens of thousands of riders of all abilities participate.
However, America is catching up. Quickly. Between the dominance of American riders in races like the Tour de France and the creation of the Tour of California (a major event on the international racing calendar) the gap is slowly coming together.
Gran Fondos are often named after famous cyclists of the past, or after companies with a long heritage in cycling. Some of the most famous Gran Fondos include the Prosecco Cycling Classic, the Nove Colli and the Felice Gimondi.
Take a scenic, mountainous course and add several thousand cyclists ranging from pros to eighty-year-old cycle tourists. Mix in roving and fixed mechanical and medical support, feed zones manned by cheerful volunteers serving up sandwiches, fruit, and drinks, and traffic halted at intersections to let you pass. Garnish with enthusiastic and supportive spectators lining the course. Top it off with coverage by major cycling magazines.
Gran fondo means long distance or great endurance. Some cyclists ride for the satisfaction and pride of just making it to the finish line. Others want to improve upon their previous times, and to challenge themselves, their friends, their teammates. And some ride to win! The phenomenon has grown so huge that there are now specialized gran fondo teams with sponsored, salaried riders, some of them ex-pros. As a result, the average amateur racer can forget about ever winning a gran fondo (Eugeny Berzin got dropped on the first climb of the 2001 GF Campagnolo!).
But if you’d like to know what it’s like to race a stage of the Giro and feel like a pro, here’s your chance, for this is as close as it gets! You just might find yourself riding next to legends such as Francesco Moser, Gianni Bugno, Maurizio Fondriest, Gianni Motta, Marino Basso, Felice Gimondi, Silvio Martinello, Miguel Indurain, and Franco Ballerini, or current pros like Matteo Tosatto, Nicole Brandli, Marzio Bruseghin, and Diana Ziliute.
Gran fondo races are usually 160-225 km long. The majority offers an additional fondo course (120-160 km) and sometimes even a medio fondo course (under 120 km) for those not willing or able to ride the longer distance(s). These shorter courses are just abbreviated versions of the longer ones, utilizing most of the same roads, but taking shortcuts to avoid some of the climbs. There are also events which are fondo or medio fondo only (see below).
HOW DO THESE THINGS WORK?
Some events are competitive and others are not (yet they still award the winners!). In the competitive versions, riders have timing “chips” attached to their bikes or race numbers; the entire classification is published, and finishing times may count towards ranking in one or more season-long series such as the Granducato, Master Tricolore, or Criterium Veneto. In this type of gran fondo, the cicloturista license holders are restricted to riding the shorter course(s) and may not be timed. Make no mistake though–even the cicloturisti are serious and competent riders: experienced, well-prepared, and well-equipped.
The larger events are started in grids, with the first grid reserved for the top gran fondo riders with proven records, for others who can provide evidence that they belong there, and for dilettanti, elite, pros and ex-pros. The last grid is for cicloturisti.
Everything in between is for those with a cicloamatore (amateur competitor) license–that includes you and me. Numbers are assigned according to the order in which entries are received; women, however, are often given places in the first starting grid. Some of the non-competitive gran fondos have mass starts, while others are started alla francese (French style), which means that groups of riders are sent off every so often, sometimes at regular timed intervals. In this case, you may be given a start time. You will probably be given a card (foglio di viaggio or visto di partenza) which you are required to carry with you, have punched or stamped at a control point somewhere along the course, and hand in at the finish.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST
Entry fees for major gran fondos usually run about 30-40 euro ($37-$50). This assures you, in the least, mechanical and medical support, a broom wagon, and refreshments along the route.
Virtually all events also give you coupons good for the post-race “pasta party,” where you will receive, at the minimum, a bowl of pasta, a roll, and a beer or mineral water. Others offer more elaborate fare, such as a second course and dessert (the Maratona dles Dolomites is famed for its strudel). In your race packet, in addition to your numbers (one to pin on your jersey and one to zip tie to your handlebars), you will inevitably find some “gadget,” which here means freebies/goodies/schwag.
There are usually some giveaways from sponsors, such as energy bars or gels, water bottles, and massage creams, in addition to commemorative items.
Souvenir jerseys were once popular and may sound like a fine idea, but after you have about two dozen of them in your drawer, they no longer seem so desirable (and those of us in clubs, who make up the vast majority of participants, usually prefer to wear our team kits around anyway). Some events still give them to everyone, and others, such as the GF Campagnolo, make them an optional item.
Some of the smaller scale events cost only a few euro, a real bargain. You won’t find electronic timing, and lunch isn’t always included, but there will be free refreshments and support along the route, and thanks to the sponsors’ generosity you will always receive a gadget or commemorative item of some sort (such as spray bottles of bike cleanser–very useful).
There are always plenty of prizes and often a raffle too. These low-key local affairs with a more down-home atmosphere are equally fun to ride.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
The best part of gran fondos? Olympic champion Antonella Bellutti, writing for Il Gazzettino, expressed it well: “What is it that attracts people from all over the world to massacre themselves on a such a difficult course, which calls for a 6:30 a.m. start, not to mention paying an entry fee that is not exactly small?
I asked lots of participants and their answers were all the same: the satisfaction of completing such a hard test, pulled along by the enthusiasm and energy that so many people, all peacefully together, know how to produce!
The satisfaction is that of being there, of being a protagonist in a moment of collective joy, of the sublimation of fatigue in the name of the bicycle…Young and old, men and women, competitive and touristic, well trained and less so, alone, couples, and groups, Italians and foreigners: a variegated universe but with one passion: the bicycle!”
On the other hand, gran fondos can bring out the worst in people. That which should serve as an antidote to the stress of modern life becomes in itself stressful, as participants’ egos drive them to ride heedlessly, risk life and limb on descents, and cheat in a variety of ways–all just to finish a few places higher in the GC (of thousands of riders!). And for what? Absolutely nothing!
Accusations of riders getting pushed uphill by their teammates or towed by motor scooters are common. At the all-women’s gran fondo I recall struggling up a climb alongside a woman named Loretta, with a younger woman in tow. At one point we glanced back and saw that she was no longer with us. Soon after, a car passed with her bike on the roof, and we caught a glimpse of her inside. It was clear to us that she’d packed it in…so imagine our surprise when, nearing the finish line, whom should we spot up ahead but that girl–on her bike, just as if she’d ridden the whole way! Riders familiar with the course may take shortcuts. One GF participant informed the authorities of a competitor he’d seen wearing two timing chips. The second one turned out to be that of a teammate who wanted badly to complete all of the events in the season-long Prestigio series, but had injured himself and was unable to ride the final event.
But what provokes the most angry and disgusted reactions is the presence of pro gran fondo riders. Real pros and ex-pros often ride these events for training, for pleasure, or at the request of organizers and sponsors. The rest of the participants enjoy the opportunity to ride with them, and the pros often generously pull their companions. Scan the GC and you may find the names of a certain Miguel Indurain, Claudio Chiapucci, or Matteo Tosatto. But professional gran fondo riders are another matter.
These characters, for the most part failed pros, or never was-es, actually make a living by beating thousands of cyclists like us. They ride the events accompanied by team cars and scooters carrying spare wheels, food, water, jackets, and whatever else they need, even though it’s forbidden (I for one refuse to get out of the way to let team cars pass). Letters deriding began appear in magazines such as Cicloturismo, which cover the gran fondo scene. They echoed the sentiments of my friends and me: what satisfaction could there possibly be in beating thousands of people who have to work for a living? Don’t they feel embarassed and foolish? Why should they receive special privilages? Who cares about their hollow “victories” anyway? The public knows or cares little or nothing of these events, and most gran fondo riders have little or no respect for i big, nor could care less which of them crosses the finish line first.
The situation came to a climax at the 2002 Maratona des Dolomites, when the police staged one of their famous drug raids. Banned substances were discovered, and some of the top riders slinked away the night before the event and went home. During the event, another turning point came when organizers blocked the team cars and scooters (their drivers had been told to stay off the road, but arrogantly did so anyway), giving fines to the drivers and threatening to confiscate their vehicles. A tide of letters about these incidents appeared, and since then, Cicloturismo’s gran fondo coverage barely mentions the “winner,” giving space instead to the stories of ordinary participants selected at random, to the hundreds of volunteers who make the event happen, and to interesting incidents that occurred during and after the race.
Since these riders have cicloamatore licenses, there’s no way to keep them out of events. I’ve noted that unfortunately, even many of the smaller, local gran fondos are invaded and “won” by these so-called champions. I imagine that they are paid a bonus for each “victory” or placing, and such events are easy money.