Gran Fondo Colnago

For those considering relocation, the bible of city comparison used to be the “Places Rated Almanac.” It compared all the major metropolitan areas of the United States according to the standard indices you’d expect.

Concerned about education? That’s here. Transportation your issue? Got that. Jobs? Covered. Weather? One place is better than all others.

So that best weather? San Diego is tops. Allegedly.

That last is just a wisecrack. Everyone knows that if you want consistently good weather, unbroken 75-degree days for as many as 40 weeks in a row, you need to move to San Diego. It’s as close to Cabo San Lucas—the Love Boat’s favorite destination—as you can get and still be stateside.

I offer this as a backdrop to the Gran Fondo Colnago. Why hold a Gran Fondo in San Diego? Well, there’s the aforementioned weather. There’s the fact that it has a neighborhood called Little Italy full of amazing restaurants and wine bars. There’s an abundance of gorgeous scenery. It’s got the odd canyon road for a killer descent. It’s also got an army of rabid cyclists with the business savvy and boosterism to promote off one of the biggest rides I have ever attended.

The rain began as I was dressing. I rolled to the start in light rain composed of occasional drops the size of grapes. Standing at the start I was amazed at how the rain became heavier and heavier with each passing minute. The announcers, one of whom was Cycle Sport contributor Bruce Hildenbrand, began making jokes about how the heavy stuff would hold off—think Bill Murray in Caddy Shack.

By the time the Ferraris—three of them—started, the serious downpour was on. Of course, no amount of rain could drown the sonorous rumbling of one of Italy’s greatest exports (one of the few to rank higher than Colnago itself). I had already made up my mind that I was going to have a good time, rain or no and when I heard the Ferraris start I was ready to ride my bike. Hard.

The opening few miles involved a steady sorting of riders, with VIPs not interested in riding hard dropping back, fit riders heading for the rear wheels of the ex-pros and the thunder of those Ferraris. The first real sort came on the bridge to Coronado. There was a big acceleration at the front and by the time I made the left turn at the bottom of the bridge, a lead group containing former Olympian Dave Letteiri, former USPro Champion Kurt Stockton, former Olympian and National Champion Mari Holden among others were pulling away from a group of 20 or so.

Around mile 30 we arrived at the day’s second sag stop and after grabbing a couple of gels I immediately hit the road only to find myself riding with the Lettieri/Holden group. My carelessness was not without consequence. Following a few short pulls from me, the dozen-strong group quickly ramped up to a pace higher than I was comfortable riding at for the next 60 miles. There was a VeloNews staffer who looked eerily like Aussie Michael Rogers—on a time trial bike no less—who would head to the front of the group seemingly immediately after his own pulls and lift the pace. While Kurt Stockton looked comfy, I needed to save a few matches for the 80-mile mark.

I sat up on a long false flat and quickly saw a rider in one of the ’08 Highroad rain jackets make the same choice. Turns out it was AEG’s Andrew Messick who I’d met only the night before. Andrew proved to be terrific company. We rode together up the six mile climb and on the descents of Hawley Springs Road and Lyons Valley Road in the hinterlands near Jamul, Messick proved himself to be a very adept descender in the rain.

The rain continued like darkness.

Messick and I traded pulls like we’d been training partners for a decade. I hadn’t had that level of comfort with a rider I’d never ridden with before since I stopped racing. But at the Olympic Training Center we parted ways; I needed calories.

An engineer for a tire company once told me that the biggest contributor to flats, the thing that predisposed a tire to a puncture more than anything else was water. As you already know, rain is a great way to get a flat, and get a flat I did.

Soon after, a group caught me and it was this quintuplet that I rolled with to the finish. Somewhere around mile 92 or 93, the rain actually stopped coming down. I didn’t really notice at first; we continued to rooster tail through standing water straight to the finish.

At one point one of the riders in our group, Allain, a Belgian hard man he flew over specifically for the event asked me if we were back in San Diego.

“I think so.” I didn’t really know. It had been five hours since I’d last seen a familiar road, which was while we were on Coronado Island. I could have been in Portland for all the familiarity I had with the neighborhood. We were entering an industrial area with numerous railroad tracks and all I could think about was watching for the turns and making it over the railroad tracks without falling.

Allain’s bike was equipped with some Schwalbe Super Moto tires that were wider than a “Biggest Loser” contestant. I eyed his bike with suspicion. Those tires were perfect for this weather. I began to wonder if he knew things I didn’t. Just how good were the weathermen in Belgium?

Rolling into the finish was surreal; riding through downtown gave nothing away and so our final left into the parking lot where the ride finished came unexpectedly. Someone yelled at one of the riders not to sprint in the finishing chute; thank heaven. It was narrow and contained a few turns. We received finisher’s medal after we crossed the line and returned the timing chips.

I’ve eaten more post-century meals than I care to remember. Most of them weren’t exactly memorable—little wonder I don’t remember most of them—even though they were all useful. This one was unusual for the quality of food. It was delicious as only Italians could produce. From pasta to polenta, salad to sausage, there was a lot of great food.

Looking back, the course had an extraordinary number of turns compared to most centuries I do. They were well-marked and the signs were easy to see well in advance. And with so many turns, there weren’t enough off-duty cops in all of San Diego County to have all the intersections controlled for us, so we needed good signage.

I know plenty of people don’t get what the big deal is about Gran Fondos. To all of them I say, do one. The mass start and self-selection into groups makes the event, well, a good deal more unified. The random start for the average century just isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the self-selection that comes when you find a group riding at exactly your pace.

While I showed up for the Gran Fondo Colnago ready to have an enjoyable ride no matter what Mother Nature served up, though I had admitted the only reason I didn’t want it to rain was to make sure I could get photos. Even with the rain, this was a high-profile event that was as well organized as any event I’ve ever entered, easily on a par with Sea Otter, but with the downtown departure and finish it made for a memorable event.

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  1. Dan O

    Nice write up. Man, I wanna try a Gran Fondo ride this year. That type of gig is right up my alley.

    Being from the Seattle area, I have to snicker a bit about the weather. Heh, heh – sunny California?

    That Supermoto ‘cross bike looks awesome. Very cool.

  2. trekdude

    Great write-up. Love a good Century ride! Here in the East, we don’t have many gran fondos. I am eying the Colnago GF Philly in August, the sister ride of the SD ride. If it’s half as good as you describe the SD ride, it should be awesome. I can’t wait until they publish the route for Philly. Any Century is ALL about the route! I’m not too keen on spending the day in the city, but it sounds like they will get us out in the country and even have a KOM! And, good Italian food is a bonus after a long hard ride!

  3. Souleur

    great write up Padraig, very nice!

    I can’t wait for one here also. Vino Fondo later.

    Not sure what to expect, as it will be my first, whether ex-pro’s will show and go or not, but…will take it either way:-)

    Congrats on the ride.

    1. Author

      All: Thanks for the kind words. I will say this for the Gran Fondos I’ve attended: In comparison to the average century out there, the Gran Fondos are distinguishing themselves in their level of organization and high-profile presentation. I can think of so many centuries I’ve done that started at some school at the edge of town, as if cycling wasn’t cool enough to get the full support of a community. There’s so much more to what makes a Gran Fondo a Gran Fondo than just a mass start.

      The Philly even promises to be dynamite. The management team responsible for San Diego is doing that even as well; I only wish I could afford to travel out for that one as well.

  4. Jonny

    Just curious why does water predispose a tire to flats, is it due to the debris being washed out onto the road?

  5. Everett


    Glad to read you came down for the Fondo. Bummer about the rain. The ironic thing is last year it was super hot/dry and we were running out of water at aid stations.

    Anyway, did you change your own flat? There were multiple support vehicles. I was one working tech support for Campy (driving the course) and we probably fixed 100 flats on the day. Your fast groups were probably to the OTC by the time I got off the bridge changing flats. Good times.

    So we’ll see what Nature has in store for next year.

    1. Author

      Hi Everett: You guys did good work. Yeah, I changed my own flat. I was just far enough from the OTC that it didn’t make sense to ride back there for help and even though the Vittoria tire was ultra-tight on the Dura-Ace wheel, I got it changed fairly quickly. Man, 100 flats. That’s a lot of strokes on the Silca.

      I really didn’t mind the rain except for the fact that I couldn’t shoot out on the road. That bummed me out. A hard ride like that in the rain is pennies in the bank.

  6. Walter Nash

    I came over from Tucson with some friends for the San Diego event (our first trip to this ride). It would have been spectacular in good weather. Nonetheless, we all had a great time….and my clothes have finally dried out! We will be back next year.

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