Cycling | 10 comments
These days cycling Fondos are getting more popular than ever!
Needless to say, don’t even think of entering a gran fondo if you lack the proper training and fitness (at least 2000 km/1200 miles), if you hate climbs, are afraid of technical descents with hairpin curves, or are uncomfortable riding in a crowd.
This can be confusing and difficult for foreigners. Each event is different. There are some famous gran fondos (GF Campagnolo, e.g.) that you can usually enter even the day before, and others (i.e. Maratona dles Dolomites and Nove Colli, which get as many as 8,000 riders!) which you must enter months before. Registration for the Maratona is entirely by lottery…
The smaller local rides can almost always be entered even on the morning of the event, but some, for logistical reasons, must be entered well ahead of time (e.g., Oderzo-Falcade-Oderzo and the GF del Friuli, which are two and three-day events, necessitating the reservation of hotel rooms, meals, etc. by the organizers). Most of the large and famous gran fondos offer online registration and payment by credit card. The standard method though is by bank transfer or by cash payment at any (Italian) post office, to the organizers’ postal account (which works just like a bank account). The receipt and registration form are then faxed or mailed to the organizers.
Foreigners are sometimes given a break when it comes to following these procedures to the letter. The same goes for the licensing requirement: you may or may not need a federation license (in “international” events they are usually not required). If not, a letter from your doctor certifying that you are fit to engage in competitive cycling may be needed, and you will probably have to pay a surcharge for a one-day license (which includes insurance). Some organized rides (the smaller, local ones) cannot accept any foreigners though (unless they have an Italian license), due to insurance reasons, though they may let you ride “at your own risk.”
Italians enjoy having foreign riders in their events (they feel flattered and it also adds interest and international flavor), and they will do their best to get you into their ride. You may even win a prize for traveling the farthest distance to get there (especially if you’re from Australia or Japan!)
1. Make sure you keep the receipts for your registration and payment, and take them with you when you go to pick up your race packet containing your numbers and other material. Occasionally, entries get lost or misplaced, and you’ll need proof that you registered.
2. “Chips” (timing transponders) are usually obtained at a separate stand (usually Champion Chip) in the packet pick-up area. You’ll need to tell the personnel your race number so they can link it electronically to the code of the chip they give you. It may have a Velcro band so that you can wear it around your ankle, but it’s better to get one mounted on a bracket that goes on your front axle.
3. If possible, pick up your race packet the day before the event, not the morning of it. I like to arrive at the departure locale with my numbers already zip-tied to my handlebars (do not wrap the number around your head tube) and pinned to my jersey, and my timing chip mounted on my bike. These and other pre-race rituals are best carried out in advance in a calm atmosphere, not just before the start. The less you have to think about and do on race morning, the better.
4. You will probably find a buono pasto (meal coupon) and sometimes a separate buono bevanda (drink coupon) in your race packet. Tuck these in your wallet so you’ll be sure to have them for the pasta party that follows the race. At the GF Campagnolo, coffee and Latte Busche brand cheese, yogurt, and popsicles are a welcome plus. Coupons are sometimes given out when you return your timing chip.
STUDY THE COURSE
Your race packet will probably contain a course map, which you should familiarize yourself with (you’ll usually find a course profile, and sometimes even Google Maps or similar, on the event website as well). It will tell you where the mechanics’ stations (assistanza meccanica) are located, and more importantly, where the feeding areas (ristori) are. It can be comforting to know that there’s food and drink (and a chance to rest) not far ahead. Of course, if you are really hard up, you can stop at any bar or water fountain, and most of the support vehicles carry water as well. The course info sheet may also indicate potentially hazardous descents and intersections, as well other situations you should be aware of.
Almost all gran fondos offer more than one course, and since they follow the same route for some distance, it’s of utmost importance to know at which point they divide. There will be signs along the route warning you ahead of time, as well as at the actual division point (and most likely marshals too), but it’s a good idea to have it already fixed in your mind so you won’t find yourself surprised and momentarily confused. An acquaintance of mine was not paying attention at an intersection and kept following the group he was with. Several kilometers later he realized that he had turned onto the short course, whereas he’d intended to do the long one. By the time he got back, the faster riders were up the road, and he found himself in a group unable to ride at his desired pace. He had a choice of either slowing down or riding on alone.
Try to talk with riders who know the event, and follow their advice. The courses are usually the same from year to year, so we have a big advantage–both psychological and physical–in knowing what gear to take, what to expect, how to pace ourselves, and so on. (There have been people who have blown by me on climbs, whom I passed soon after as they were standing by the side of the road after blowing up!)
All this advice might seem obvious, but when you are living a new experience in a foreign country, normal common sense and thought processes sometimes go out the window. And there are some clueless riders out there. An acquaintance of mine who works for the GF Campagnolo organization told me that the English are particularly matti--crazy. Perhaps because they are hardy from riding in the bad weather so prevalent in their country, but inexperienced at mountain riding, they set out without so much as a lightweight jacket (needed on descents if nothing else). A couple of years ago the broom wagon came upon a nearly naked rider, wet and shivering, in a tunnel. He wanted to continue riding and they had to force him to get in, for his own good. Which brings me to…
WHAT TO TAKE ON THE RIDE
Hard shell helmets are obligatory, of course. In the least, take what you’d take on any ride: a spare tube, tire levers, pump or inflator, and a water bottle. I usually take a snack (like a mini prosciutto and cream cheese sandwich–a favorite of the pros–and a Cliff bar), and a flask of liquid carbs (easier to use than sticky gels). The feeding stations offer sandwiches, fruit, little cakes and tarts, water, and Enervitene or similar mineral replenishment drinks (usually referred to as sali, meaning “salts”). Events in the mountains, even in the heart of the summer, require some forethought and careful preparation. The GF Campagnolo, usually held on the third weekend in June, is famous for cold and bad weather; riders on the long course encountered snowon the Passo Valles last summer. The GF Pinarello, on the other hand, is known for scorching temperatures, and in spite of numerous feeding stations, I find that two water bottles are a necessity. I can go through 6 bottles or more in a 130 km (80 mile) event, and I don’t want to run out of water before the next stop.
Here’s my gear list for the Maratona dles Dolomites: lightweight Windtex vest – arm warmers – windproof, waterproof, breathable jacket (the start is at 6:15 a.m. in a valley, with temperatures usually in the 40′s F–brrr! and the descent of the Passo Pordoi is still in shadow) – knicker (calf-length) tights or knee warmers – long fingered gloves – shoe covers – thin helmet liner – protective cream (from cold and rain) – sun screen. If wet weather seems possible, I would add a helmet cover, waterproof shoe covers, and Gore-Tex overpants, all in a small backpack. I dislike synthetic fabric undershirts, which are petroleum products; Mother Nature’s own wool feels cozier and keeps you warmer, even when it’s wet. (Though in very cold conditions, I swear by my expedition weight Damart undershirt). Remember the old Russian proverb: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes! Cleat covers are useful for walking around at the feed stops. FYI: It’s a little known fact that over time, sunscreens can undergo a chemical transformation which turns them into allergy provoking substances! A few years back I got a horrible-looking rash on my arms and legs, which turned out to be caused by old sunscreen. Ask your pharmacist about it.
DURING THE RACE
Gran fondo starts are not for the faint-hearted. Everyone takes off at a frenzied pace, with riders who started in the back trying to get to the front. Speeds will reach 40 kph (25 mph) and higher. Don’t make any lateral moves without first checking over your shoulder. Don’t try to keep up with groups you know are going too fast for you. If you’re in a group that’s going too slow, don’t try to bridge the gap to a group ahead, instead, wait for a faster group to pass and jump on the back. Riding intelligently–that is, using your energy resources wisely–is one of the most important gran fondo riding skills.
Cars will be pulled over for the race to pass, but be alert for protruding vehicles, the occasional confused or clueless motorist, and other dangers. Marshals stop vehicles at intersections, but be watchful, just in case. Once a car ignored a cop and pulled out in front of me, but fortunately I was on the lookout and ready to hit the brakes. In the mountains, roads may be closed to all traffic except for official race vehicles, but somehow, autos occasionally wind up on the course. Never assume.
There will be signs informing you when are nearing a ristoro (feeding stop) or assistenza meccanica (mechanical assistance station). Keep in mind that support vehicles are always in circulation (except at the Maratona), ready to help in the case of injury or illness (assistenza sanitaria), mechanical misfortune, thirst, or plain old exhaustion. In the 2002 GF Campagnolo I was so hot on the way up Croce d’Aune that I had to stop for several moments; a van immediately pulled over and the driver asked if I was ok, then kindly poured water on my head. The previous year a support vehicle suddenly stopped up ahead and an older gentleman whom I knew from having ridden his club’s gran fondo, jumped out, ran alongside me, and handed me a little bottle filled with hot coffee. At the GF Pinarello I had a cramp in my foot, and at a feeding stop I sat down on a guardrail and took off my shoe; one of the volunteers ran over and massaged my foot! The volunteers are excited and enthusiastic about being a part of the event; they are exceedingly kind and supportive, and it gives them great pleasure to help the riders in any way they can. A smile and a “grazie” from you will be appreciated. You will become one of their pleasant and rewarding gran fondo memories.
When I first started riding gran fondos, a friend gave me two important bits of advice: one, you must get used to being in the saddle for many long hours, and two, eat-eat-eat and drink-drink-drink. It’s essential that you eat and drink enough of the right things at the right times, both for energy and (if the temperature is low), for warmth. Just a slight drop in blood sugar can drastically reduce your thought processes, as well as your physical output. As everyone knows, by the time you feel hunger or thirst, it’s too late. I recall a granfondo in the Euganean Hills on a very hot, humid August day. I was on the 175 km course and found myself in last place along with a young man from Trieste. There were long windy stretches out on the flats and I was doing all the work. I kept motioning for him to pull but he would not, offering no excuse. I began to fear that when we got to the finish line he would sprint past me and make me finish dead last. I tried unsuccessfully to drop him on a little hill. Finally we reached the line and my fears were unfounded. Without a glance at the Triestino I headed off to wash and change, then went to the big tent and got my lunch. One of the organizers offered me a beer. He told me he’d been driving behind us and had watched me towing the fellow for miles and miles. “That young chap was completely dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion. He practically collapsed after the finish. We gave him a lot to drink but we were still worried about him and took him to the hospital.” And there I’d been, trying to drop the poor guy! Luckily he didn’t drop dead trying to stay on my wheel. If only he’d spoken up, I would have been more kind. Don’t ever let yourself get into such a state!
On a stage of the 2004 Giro delle Dolomiti, I arrived on the Passo Falzarego, after having already ridden over the Fedaia and the killer Giau, and with the Pordoi still ahead. I sat down on a bench and started eating. My buddy Stefano arrived some time later, really wiped out. He went in the bar and ordered…a coffee…and nothing else. On the way up the Pordoi, he waved to me as he passed in the sag wagon. Later he said to me, “Next year I have to train more.” I replied, “No, Stefano, you have to eat more!”
You need to experiment to find out which foods and supplements agree with you and produce the best results. I prefer separate electorlyte and carb supplements: when it’s hot and I need to drink more, I want additional electrolyes but not extra carbs, which can lead to gastric distress, water retention, and weight gain (due to excess calories). I like to eat solid foods as well, especially raisins, peanuts, Grana Padano cheese (it’s very satisfying, and the protein is important), and Molino Bianco Grancereale, which are oatmeal-like cookies. To each his own.
Tip: do not eat on climbs–the digestion process draws blood away from your hard-working muscles and can put you in a seriouly debilitated state. Eating at the top of a climb gives your body time to process carbs during the descent, so you’ll be ready for the next ascent.
Warning: over hydration is even more dangerous than dehydration–it can cause intoxication and death!
What cyclist wouldn’t like a photo of himself in action against a dramatic backdrop? Photo services are in attendance at most major gran fondos, with photographers stationed at several picturesque points along the course. (How do you think I got all those photos in my gallery?) When you see a sign saying Foto 100 m (photo 100 meters ahead), it’s time to flex your quads and put on your best race face. Some studios send the photos to your home (so don’t put the address of your hotel on your registration form), and you send payment for the photos you want to keep and return the rest, if any (or all of them) to the photo studio. Other studios send a sheet of low-res thumbnail images to your home, accompanied by ordering instructions. Don’t expect this to happen fast. You may receive photos of a June event in October. Some studios put them on their website even before mailing the proofs. Always make note of your race number for future reference.
After crossing the finish line you’ll be offered something to drink; then it’s off to the showers. After that, it’s time to return your chip (and get your security deposit–cauzione–back) and head for a well-deserved meal at the pasta party, and perhaps for the massage table. Take your number with you, as you may need it (see below). Some granfondos offer a participation certificate which may be given out after the event or mailed to your home, though more likely you will download it from the event website. There may be a raffle too. You will find yourself reflecting on the excitement and emotions of the race, the sights and sensations, the best and worst moments, on what you did right and on your mistakes, and then…you’ll start planning for next year!
THE MENTAL ASPECT
Twelve years of gran fondo riding have taught me that mental conditioning is every bit as important as physical conditioning. Riding a gran fondo requires determination, perseverence, self-confidence, a strong will, and the ability and willingness to endure suffering. Italians have a word for this: grinta. (A person possessing these qualities is said to be grintoso (masc.) or grintosa (fem.).
In the past, I totally underestimated my capabilities. I’d done flat centuries, but never believed I could do a 100-mile course with several mountain passes. Riding gran fondos spurred me to do rides I would not have attempted on my own–and had I tried, I probably would have weenied out when the going got tough, confirming, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that I was not cut out for this sort of thing. But wanting to finish the events kept me going, and in the process, I learned how tenacious I could be and that I possessed more strength and endurance than I’d ever imagined (but not speed, alas). The resulting self-confidence has enabled me to complete many difficult gran fondos. When you’re standing on the starting line, there must not be the slightest doubt in your mind that you will succeed. When a difficult climb looms ahead, you can’t wonder if you can do it. Such doubt only leads to mental, and ensuing physical, distress. Instead, you need only tell yourself that you’ve been in this situation before, and know that you can do it…then grit your teeth, put your head down, and get to it. You may be suffering, but the fire inside will keep you going.
When you believe in yourself, nothing can stop you*…except a simple lack of will: Sure you can do it–but do you really want to? “Chi mi fa fare,” you will hear cyclists say: Who is making me do this? What do I have to prove? If you start thinking like this, it’s all over.
*assuming, of course, that you are adequately trained and fit.
LADRI DI BICICLETTE (BICYCLE THIEVES)
A recent and most unfortunate development of the gran fondo scene is bike theft. Organized gangs, mostly of Eastern European origin, have realized that a gran fondo is a virtual treasure trove of expensive bikes, and they’re easy pickin’s to boot.
To start, never leave your bike in your car during the night, unless you want it to wind up in Romania. Hotel owners often set aside a room for guests’ bikes, but these rooms are often broken into during the night (my friend Raffa’s bike was stolen that way). The best place to keep your bike, therefore, is in your hotel room (maybe even in bed with you!).
During the race, riders have had their bikes stolen when they went in a bar (cafè) for a drink, and one fellow even had his bike stolen from behind his back when he stopped to answer nature’s call! In these instances, the buddy system is your best protection.
Another dilemma is what to do with your bike after the race, while you shower and eat. Some riders bring their bikes into the pasta party with them, which would seem like a good idea, no? But at the 2005 GF Campagnolo, one guy’s buddies caught a thief–cleverly dressed as a cyclist!–about to make off with their friend’s bike, as they were all eating. I’ve always locked my bike in my car, but cars have been broken into. So what to do?
The GF Campagnolo–now Sportful–offers a fenced-in, guarded bike corral; in order to retrieve your bike, you must show your race number, which has to match the number plate on your bike. Police have added extra patrols too, including plain clothes officers. This is the ideal solution, and one hopes that other organizers will follow suit. But some events just don’t have the resources to set up and man a corral; in those cases I bring my bike to the pasta party and lock it up. I purchased a medium-duty lock and believe it should suffice, since it’s highly unlikely that thieves would walk around carrying cable cutters and other obvious crook tools-of-the-trade.
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