The Gran Fondo Concept
Since my post on Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, there have been a number of comments about how the timed century isn’t a new concept, how centuries used to be timed routinely, how one organizer is doing them even now.
New or not, the gran fondo—or cyclosportif or whatever you want to call it—gets something right that the vast majority of organized events just don’t register. As long as we deride this new wave of rides (and yes, they are coming but more on that later) for claiming to offer something old as something new, we miss the real value they offer the cycling community.
The value of a gran fondo can’t be summed up with any one detail. The timed aspect is important, yes. Timing the event gives riders a clear sense of how they stacked up against one another. Knowing the event is timed puts all entrants on notice that the event is worthy of their A game, even if there is no prize at the finish.
A corollary to that is the mass start, though. Allowing riders to start what can essentially be a five- to eight-hour time trial whenever they are ready is a little weak. The starter’s pistol recalls sporting events for more than a hundred years in dozens of sports. It brings Hitchcockian drama with it as each competitor anticipates the crack and its fuel-injected adrenal burst. Seeing other entrants wait anxiously for the start helps build a sense of camaraderie lacking in the average century; after all, the people who roll into the finish of the century with you might have started a half hour after you did, or two hours before you did. Who knows?
The course is equally important as these other factors, though. If you want more than a couple hundred people to show up for an event, you need to serve up something more than a flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. Hell, stick a hill in it; that still won’t make it special.
As much as I love racing, when I stopped racing I did so for two reasons: First was that my work demanded too much time each week to get in the miles I needed to be as fast as I had been. Second was the fact that I was simply fed up with doing crits. I raced crits simply to be fast enough for the road races, of which I generally only did maybe six each year, strictly for lack of opportunity. At some point all those flat, four-corner crits began to run together and I began to realize that I was missing some of my group rides and the friends I’d see on them. Never mind the fact that some of the guys I loved riding with raced different categories, so even if we were both at the race, we weren’t on the course at the same time.
The course for a gran fondo is meant to be memorable, if not downright epic, by comparison. I continue to ride centuries, and have done a number of remarkable ones in the last three years and I can say each one of them would have been more fun, gone more quickly and given more people a greater sense of accomplishment if they had featured timing with a mass start. Following the self-selection of the first climb everyone can find a group with which to ride.
Unless you have the incredible fortune to live in the promised land (France, Italy, Belgium, Spain or The Netherlands), there’s a good chance that cycling where you live doesn’t get the respect that you think it deserves. Forgetting for a moment the hostility one can experience on the roads, the larger issue is just how sexy bicycle racing appears to non-cyclists. The sexiness of cycling seems to grow in direct proportion to the size of the races in that area.
While I’ve encountered rude drivers in both France and Italy, easily the kindest, most considerate drivers I’ve encountered were in those two countries. Some of them made me enjoy having cars in close proximity. It was rather like swimming with whales.
It’s my personal opinion that every time an industrial park crit is held, not as a mid-week training race, but as a weekend, main-event, $25-entry, upgrade-points-verified-here race, the organizer has just done the sport of bike racing an incredible disservice. The problem isn’t that those races give non-cyclists the idea that cycling deserves to be confined to back roads; it doesn’t actually do that. Most average folks aren’t aware those bike races even happen, so what it does is help make bicycle racing invisible.
I chalk up those races to laziness. Yes, it’s hard to find sponsors and it’s hard to recruit volunteers and it’s hard to get a town to approve a course and the bigger the event, the more time it takes to organize, but once you analyze the impact an industrial park crit has, I’m not so sure that a tiny race is better than no race at all.
Those events provide one thing only: An opportunity for racers to get their fix. You don’t see many wives or girlfriends out there and certainly the town doesn’t come out to greet the winner. And they do nothing to inspire new generations of cyclists the way the Tour does for thousands of children each year or the way the Coors Classic did for many notable American PROs during its heyday.
When you send a mass of cyclists down a town’s main drag, you make the cyclists feel special and cycling cool to everyone who isn’t on a bike.
Of course, there’s always the proof of the über geek—the objective correlative. Sure, you may get some fields to fill in a criterium, especially if there is no other racing nearby that weekend, but a good turnout for a bike race in the United States is usually on the order of 700 racers. Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo filled. It sold out all 3500 spots. Santa Rosa loves it some cycling.
Bottom line: Timing isn’t the key. The course isn’t the key. A big star isn’t the key. Mass-start isn’t the key. Big sponsorship isn’t the key. But they are all important. Give riders something memorable and non-cyclists will remember it too. And that will do more to strengthen the cycling community and cycling’s place in the mainstream than all the advocacy organizations combined.