The Gran Fondo Concept

IMG_0657 Levi Leipheimer interviewed just before the start of his eponymous Gran Fondo.

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.

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  1. db

    Boise must be weird, in that the centuries here are all mass-start. I suppose you could start an hour later with the metric- or half-century riders, but I don’t think that’s common. Most century riders I’ve met here want to get under way and get the ride done.

    There’s usually a finish line clock, too. So in a way, it’s a timed ride. There’s just no published finish results or prizes for top finishers. And that doesn’t bother me at all. Especially since I prefer to ride alone, while a lot of the racing teams like to use the centuries as training rides.

    1. Author

      DB: It sounds like Boise is weird, but in the best possible way.

      BB: Yes, I think you’re right—make the course the star and there will be a real business model that will result in better experiences for cyclists.

      Mark: I do understand your reservations. I think the key to a good start is having a good chute through which to funnel the riders. The Tour of Palm Springs is a goat parade I don’t wish to repeat. But Levi’s GF had a long chute and riders were allowed to self-select to some degree where they started relative to how fast they thought they’d ride.

      Rick: My experience has been that towns that have had bike races run down a main street have been much friendlier to cycling and cyclists than many that haven’t given over the town to bike racing from time to time. It’s not a scientific survey by any means, but I got to experience some of the transformation of the Manayunk neighborhood in Philly from covering the race for several years. It was pretty ordinary blue-collar neighborhood but what was then the CoreStates Championships really revitalized that neighborhood, helping to make it trendy and very bike-friendly. Rutland, Vermont and the whole Killington area is very bike friendly as well (and not all of Vermont is).

  2. bb

    I couldn’t agree more. I first started racing mountain bikes in Durango in ’92. Each weekend was marked by a 30-60 minute circuit on Saturday and a 2-3 hr XC on Sunday. The courses were epic.

    When I later moved to Bend, OR and finally San Francisco, ironically near the home of mountain biking, I was disappointed. Even more so when I switched to road racing. Why would I skip out on a mountainous 85 mi epic group ride to ride some flat, uninspiring 60 mi race around some windy reservoir?

    I know it’s incredibly difficult for traditional promoters to get permits to run their races on any course that’s truly considered fun but perhaps the growth of gran fondo’s and cyclosportif’s provide a new opportunity?

    I just spent a couple of weeks riding in France this fall and rode parts of the La Marmotte cyclosportif:

    If US cyclosportif’s could visit our own cycling treasures, there might just be a viable business model to be had.

  3. mark

    I have mixed feelings on mass starts in timed events. I can understand the appeal, but unless there’s a good stiff hill right at the outset, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. I was very glad to have some crit racing skills when all 1400 of us started together at Leadville. I was in the first 200 racers, and it was still a mess. Can’t imagine what it was like at the back. The St. Kevins climb could not come soon enough.

    Racers and non-racers alike want to challenge themselves to see how they stack up. Putting a clock on a century helps accomplish that. It makes it more like a marathon, where participants never talk about their placing, only their time.

    If you look at races like Leadville or Lotoja, most participants are racing the clock rather than each other. There’s a cool vibe at both races as a result, because participants are encouraging each other since there’s no limit on the number of sub nine or ten or twelve hour finishers.

  4. bobgade

    Levi’s was my first timed, mass start century (although I did a mass start, timed double century this summer). I thought it was great. There was no hill to thin things out for quite a while, so we were riding in a group that seemed to include about 1000. Yes, there were hairy moments, and yes there were sketchy riders, and I’m sure somebody went down at some point, but the feeling you got when you hit a dip or rise and could see this gigantic mass all around you was priceless.
    For me the biggest drawback was that because I was so eager to protect my position, I was not able to enjoy the rest stops like I normally do at a century. I think there is a place for both kinds of rides. I can’t imagine doing a gran fondo with a group of buddies that just wants to enjoy a day on the road together.

  5. rickvosper

    There’s a very interesting concept in here that I’d like to hear more about: “The sexiness of cycling seems to grow in direct proportion to the size of the races in that area.” Outside of the racing community, do more races in an area correlate to more bike-friendly areas? If so, which is the chicken and which the egg?

  6. howard h

    Padraig, you have made some fine points. I have done numerous timed mass start centuries that were frightful starts, lots of stong but unskilled riders all launching off to win what isn’t even a race. I also rode the King Ridge Gran Fondo. I was dreading the start, never been in a start that big. But it went very smooth and I felt quite safe. I felt the narrow start chute kept the number of riders pushing forward lower plus one couldn’t see how big the pack ahead was until you got out on the wide roads. Of course this ride, and the price, may have been a selector for the caliber of rider,

  7. Jason

    Great post. The is the core of what motivates me and most folk doing the National Ultra Endurance series on the dirt side of things. Sure it’s a “race”, but 90% of the racers are competing against themselves, or their riding buddy that the suckered into doing the race with them. Riding a century on the road OR dirt for the hell of it is fun, but riding against the clock and/or 300 other racers is just “funner”, 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words Jason. Years ago, I did the cross country race (some 30-ish miles) at Crested Butte at the end of Fat Tire Bike Week, which is to say I was so flamed from a week of big rides that I was in zero condition to actually “race.” So when I lined up, I knew I was there to do it as a guided tour with people cheering in a few spots. I had a really funny existential conversation with another rider about what we were doing that day.

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