The gran fondo concept is in its infancy here in the United States. Most cyclists I speak with aren’t really sure what the difference is between a century and a gran fondo. Some are downright sarcastic about any ride called a gran fondo, believing the organizer is just attaching a trendy name to what would be a century to regular folk.
It’s a misperception I spend a lot of time trying to correct.
The challenge in this is that most gran fondo organizers are essentially flying blind. Let’s face it: Most American cyclists have never ridden a proper gran fondo (or cyclosportif as many of the French and Belgian events are called). Our ability to emulate something we’ve never seen is fraught with diabolical challenges.
Most gran fondos I’ve run across are organizing their inaugural edition and as a result, there is some variance in the experience riders are presented. For some events, there seems to be the idea that if you put on a big show at the start and finish, you’ve covered most of your bases.
So I was curious to see just how the first SLO Gran Fondo would turn out. The start of the event was held in downtown San Luis Obispo, essentially at the old Spanish Mission. Staging was a little loose, with riders approaching the start line from three different directions, perhaps in part because only 600 riders were registered.
With significant support coming from High Road Sports, the ride did have the VIPs in attendance. It was obvious that the riders enjoyed having the likes of Tejay Vangarderen, Danny Pate, Amber Neben and even High Road Sports’ CEO, Bob Stapleton on the ride.
However, to the organizers’ credit, rolling out of town was silk-smooth. The San Luis Obispo police department controlled each of the intersections for riders as the mass of riders began to sort itself out. All this was conducted in fairly misty conditions with the promise of a very cloudy day ahead and a 30 percent chance of rain before the end of the ride.
Robert is better known for his monster Zinfandels
It was on the farm roads between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay that the first selections began to be made. I was riding with a friend and we had to work our way through a fair amount of traffic before reaching the lead group of 100 or so riders.
That didn’t last long though as a split in the group placed us in group two and the leaders heading up the road. It wasn’t a bad outcome, though. Our group was working well together and comprised of riders with plenty of skill. Unfortunately, even that didn’t last as I flatted just before we reached Morro Bay. A quick tube change still didn’t prevent group three, then group four, group five and group six from passing us.
We spent the next eight miles working our way from one group to another, and meeting a few RKP readers along the way. The only significant climb began about mile 22 and lasted 10 miles, though with two short downhills to break it up. Despite the lack of sustained climbs, the frequently rolling terrain made for a course with 3675 feet of climbing, according to Map My Ride. Other estimates placed that number rather higher.
Compared to some of the other events I’ve done, the SLO Gran Fondo had a number of intersections, so making sure as many intersections were controlled as possible required a great deal of manpower. Cambria, toward the northern end of the course was the one location where traffic was not controlled for us in any way. Fortunately the lights were brief and slower riders didn’t immediately head for the front of the group.
Following the descent into Cambria at mile 45, the ride was essentially finished with climbing; there were but five hills the rest of the ride and only one of those merited a Cat. 5 designation according to Map My Ride. However, that isn’t to say the ride became uninteresting. Coastal California is always pretty and, inexplicably, the sun burned away the clouds and the rain was banished to some less fortunate locale.
For those who, like me, prefer to stick to wrapper foods like Clif Bars and Gus when on long rides, the SLO Gran Fondo was a bit of an adjustment. The food was all standard century fare: orange slices, cookies and such. The lunch stop was equipped with Subway party platter sandwiches. I can’t tell you the last time I ate a turkey sandwich mid-way through a ride.
It was on the rolling roads back to the finish where I most enjoyed myself. My friend Robert was riding his first century ever and it was terrific fun to be a part of his experience. We infiltrated a group dominated by Art’s SLO Cyclery team riders and their smooth rotation gave Robert the opportunity to dig deep with some long pulls and still get the chance to recover. There’s a great sense of satisfaction to being part of a paceline made up of riders you really don’t know rotating easily and maintaining a pace you simply couldn’t manage on your own.
The finish line was in the walking plaza of the mission, so any sort of sprint was out of the question; the run-in was downhill and you had to brake before the turn, so that aspect was a touch anticlimactic.
The post-ride lasagna and Caesar salad (and homemade cookies) were all terrific. A number of local businesses set up 10×10 tents for an afternoon expo that gave riders some reason to stick around.
As first-year events go, this one was quite well done. Why more riders didn’t attend is hard to guess, though the promise of HTC-Columbia team members (um, which ones?) might not be quite the draw of, say, Levi Leipheimer or Paolo Bettini; point being, Tejay Vangarderen is certainly a rising star of US cycling, but no one knew he’d be there for sure.
The more important opportunities for improvement would be in staging (make that a little clearer and better organized), food (bring on wrapper foods, at the very least Clif Bars or something along those lines), controlled intersections (make sure all of them are controlled and make sure that all of the police controlling the intersections really understand just what that means) and the finish line (give folks something they can really sprint to).
San Luis Obispo is such a cool a city there’s no reason this event shouldn’t become the focal point of a destination weekend. With excellent riding, dining and wining (not to mentions spas and the like), it’s an ideal opportunity at an ideal location for a getaway.