The following is an extract from my OutSPOKEn column in the current July/August edition of Southern California Bicyclist magazine:
Gran fondos came to Southern California about five years ago starting with the one in San Diego. Since then they are being offered all over the country but particularly on each coast. There are large single events such as the very successful King Ridge Gran Fondo hosted by recently retired Levi Leipheimer in his adopted home town, Santa Rosa which takes place in October and sells out with 7500 participants. Then there are a few gran fondo series such as the ones sponsored by RCS Sport which owns and organizes several pro races, most notably the Giro d’Italia grand tour. RCS puts on Italian-themed gran fondos in Monterey in conjunction with the annual spring Sea Otter bike race and show, in Pasadena in June in which I just participated, and others in New York City, and Miami and they recently announced a fifth one for November 3 out of Beverly Hills.
How is a gran fondo different than a traditional club century ride?
Generally gran fondos in organization are more akin to races than a typical club sponsored century. They are professionally managed, better organized, have bigger sponsors, use professional media representatives and have bigger budgets. This is not meant to discredit the well organized century rides that exist particularly in California. Gran fondos also cost more with entry fees typically north of a hundred dollars, with VIP tickets costing several hundred. Gran fondos also make a big effort to be more than a one-day event. That is what makes them attractive to the sponsors which typically include local government and the host city’s hotel and visitor’s bureau. Gran fondos which are marketed as a complete weekend event fill hotel rooms and restaurants. A gran fondo will have pre-ride and post ride expositions, sometimes music events or cycling celebrities, contests and sweepstake drawings and usually a pre-ride dinner at a restaurant.
The coolest aspect of gran fondos is the road closures. In the ones I participated in, the first several miles while the amateur peloton is still bunched together, are ridden at speed with a police escort. So when the gun goes off the riders, particularly the ones concerned about their elapsed time, go hard from the start. As in a race, if you can handle the speed, it is best to be towards the front where you can have a better view of the road and hopefully the stronger riders are also more skilled bike handlers. In my recent gran fondo the police not only escorted us out on the course and across some bridges for several miles, but later motorcycle officers stopped cross traffic for us or manually operated traffic lights along the route to allow us to go unimpeded through some of the larger intersections.
The bigger budget allows for better support along the route. The last one I attended had roving mechanical support complete with spare wheels to loan and ambulances at each rest stop. The food selection at the rest stops is also generally better than at most centuries reflecting the combination of a higher operating budget and more generous sponsorship. I have also found that the courses are better marked so that it was unnecessary to even look at the route slip despite being unfamiliar with the cities I was passing through.
At the end of the ride gran fondo participants get a finishing medal and free swag. I have received things such as water bottles, tires, bottles of wine, wheel bags and hats. Then in the two Italian-themed gran fondos I have attended there is the post ride lunch which has been decidedly better than being left on your own or offered more peanut butter sandwiches as in a typical century. The recent one in which I participated had a “Top Chef” contestant preparing made-to-order pasta.
In Europe gran fondos are successful because they are established annual events and part of the cycling tradition. In Europe cycling is not the fringe sport it is here in the US. There these events attract ex-professional cyclists, sponsored club riders, the local wannabe racers all competing for bragging rights as well as the old veteran riders who use these rides and the group meals as reunions at which they can relive their past cycling glory.
It seems to me that in the US in order for gran fondos to continue and be more than a passing fad they have to attempt to duplicate some of the established European traditions; something that is not easy in America. This means among other things developing good routes and repeating them annually. To survive here gran fondos have to be more than just expensive century rides. Gran fondos have to continue to offer more compared to the traditional century ride to justify their added price. There is also a very real risk that there are too many gran fondos being offered some of which seem to be rebranded century rides trying to attract a higher admission fee and make the ride more profitable. If there are too many gran fondos, the tradition aspect will be lost and the rides will be seen as overpriced century rides in the competition for the cyclists’ entry fee budget. Organized century rides for their part are becoming more like gran fondos with established, repeated courses and improving on-the-road support. Thirty years ago when you did a century you could expect to get a cloth patch at the end and maybe at bigger events a t-shirt. Now every organized century has at least an event jersey available to purchase.
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