Just days before heading to the Monterey Peninsula for my annual pilgrimage to the world’s most unpredictable weather, I had a conversation with a friend about gran fondos. He, like many, was under the impression that a gran fondo was just a fancy pants name for a century. Why calling a century a century was no longer good enough was the only question on his mind.
He had a point, really. I’d rather engage a conversation of why to use the term “sportif” instead of “gran fondo” but just what distinguishes a gran fondo or sportif from a century isn’t as clear to riders as it ought to be, and blame there rests on event organizers. I’ll come back to why later.
This was the first time I would ride an organized event as part of the Sea Otter since I last raced the event as a masters rider in 2001. That year, on the opening descent out of Laguna Seca, the same descent that opened this year’s gran fondo, we were single file and I had wound out my 53×12 going 50 mph—and it’s not a particularly steep downhill. The leisurely start to this gran fondo was a good bit more my speed. We had several hundred riders for the 93-mile gran fondo, not the several thousand the weekend before at the Colnago Gran Fondo and with no VIPs to turn up the heat early, we relaxed behind the Nissan Leaf lead vehicle.
The single most important thing I can say about the gran fondo is that it boasts one of the prettiest gran fondo courses I’ve ridden. It is a perfect statement of central California riding. The opening 40 miles were countertop flat and as we rode over the chip and seal farm roads I enjoyed flashbacks to the spring road races I’d do in the San Joaquin Valley. It was all the beauty with only 1/3 the suffering.
After the second rest stop (our first actual stop) the course began to undulate, taking in the area’s rolling hills. Driving the group were Andrew and Alex from Bicycling and VeloNews, respectively. They enjoyed the fitness of two guys who race weekend in and out. Clif Bar’s founder Gary Erickson had been riding with our group but made the briefest of appearances at the rest stop. I think he took on water and nothing else before rolling out. I could see tubes of Shot Bloks with the ends snipped off protruding from his jersey pockets.
By the time we caught back up to Gary, the group had been whittled down to fewer than a dozen riders. The hills here were brief, usually 50 meters or so, but often with pitches as steep as seven or eight percent. The winter and spring rains meant the fields and hillsides were all painted vivid pastoral green. Gary looked over his shoulder, saw us, soft pedaled for a few seconds until we caught him on the hill and then he stood up to accelerate into the group. I’ve heard that he was a strong rider, but I hadn’t expected that he would ride as judiciously as a racer. Moments later, we caught two other riders who had been with him and that’s when something broke loose. It may have been hell.
I was at the back, having just completed a pull before we hit the hill and after Gary joined us the resident Bicycling gear editor applied a bit of pressure. Guys started to blow and I found myself locked in traffic like Tom Boonen on the Haaghoek, watching Fabian Cancellara ride away. After working through the traffic I put my head down and drilled it for the next 5k or so. So long as Andrew or Alex weren’t on the front, I’d make up time on the sextet, but as soon as one of them went to the front, the gap would grow. Watching the group yo-yo from 100 meters to 50 meters and back again was, um, well, it wasn’t my favorite.
Just as I was ready to wave the white flag a group of five riders caught me coming off one of the rollers but once the group came to within 30 or 40 meters, guys started trying to jump across on their own. Really? No one made it. I sat up. Then I made the right turn onto Carmel Valley Road and crossed the speed trap.
That seemed as good a time as any to start recovering. I was 10 miles, give or take, from the course’s high point, Cahoon Summit, but with the exception of the final three miles of the climb, the headwind was more difficult than the grade. The road was secluded, the rolling countryside dotted with trees and few structures. And in a stroke of cosmic justice, just as I started to feel good, the road turned up for the final three miles of climbing to Cahoon Summit; it was here that the road felt like a true climb. Less than 500 meters from the top riders were treated to a sweeping view of the Carmel Valley.
The descent off the mountain was pretty relaxing with one short and steep exception. I spent most of the next 20 miles chatting with the ride director of the Gran Fondo Colnago Philadelphia, Brian Ignatin, who comments here under the ID Touriste-Routier, the name given to the privateers who were allowed to enter the Tour de France during its early days. He’s an insightful guy I don’t spend nearly enough time with and he, like me, struggles with some neck issues as a result of years of racing, so we had lots to talk about.
In general, the course was so devoid of stop lights and stop signs due to its rural nature that two of the only occasions I put a foot down were for rest stops. So when we rolled into the village of Carmel Valley and cars began to buzz our single-file paceline, the earlier hours of peace shattered like a dropped lightbulb. We were so eager to get out of the crush of traffic that we skipped the final rest stop. Not my first choice.
As the group broke up on the 6k climb up Laureles Grade the wide shoulder gave us plenty of insulation from the traffic. But it was here that I finally regretted bringing only a 23, even with the aid of a compact. The course contained yet another surprise though. The descent of Laureles Grade drops riders off right at the main entrance to Laguna Seca, making for an as-advertised 93-mile route. We were, instead, routed in via York Road but to get to South Boundary road we were forced to dismount and walk around a chain-link fence on a narrow patch of dirt because someone didn’t open a gate for us. Had there been 3000 riders, that would have turned into a goat parade as the strip of dirt was strictly a single-file affair.
Once onto the road into Laguna Seca we joined with riders finishing the medio fondo route and an incessant stream of cars and trucks entering and exiting the venue. Why we were on that road defies explanation and the drivers were no more accommodating there than in Carmel Valley and my need to pass the slower medio fondo riders put me further into the road than I relished. At one point, the crush of vehicles waiting to park forced me onto the gravel shoulder. Couldn’t organizers close one road for an hour or two to let us live through the experience? The final turns were confusing—in part due to cones meant to direct traffic, not us—and lacked enough volunteers to make our return to the finish line as clear as possible, or even advisable.
Though I only stopped twice, my experience with the food was terrific. I enjoyed some bite-sized panini of smoked salmon and cheese, plus some real gourmet cookies. While the chocolate tangerine was really good, my favorite was the molasses ginger. There was plenty of water, some soda—Shasta?—and Heed. The soda would have benefitted from ice, though. As happens with so many organized events, the energy drinks, whether Cytomax, Gatorade or Heed, were mixed rather weakly. You couldn’t count on the Heed for adequate calorie replacement.
Signage throughout the route was terrific; a route sheet was unnecessary, as it should be. I can only recall two intersections that really would have benefitted from police control. That’s really impressive route design in my book. Next year, I hope the organizers will spring for some police assistance. Additionally, it seems that the residents of Carmel Valley might have benefitted from greater notification of our presence. Had thousands of riders been passing through the village, rather than the dozen or so I was with, I think things might have been significantly more hostile. A police presence would definitely be necessary.
So why isn’t a gran fondo a century? The mass start and course control are the defining characteristics. The Sea Otter Gran Fondo got the mass start right and as I mentioned the course didn’t require much stopping, but controlled intersections give riders a very different experience. They’re meant to make cycling a big celebration, and in that regard I think the Sea Otter Classic already had that part right.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the ride was the post-event meal. Free food? Just point me to it. I was so hungry I went straight to the tent holding the feast and sat on a picnic table in my chamois.
All in all, it was a terrific event and with a few minor changes—course control, more marketing, ice, a smaller number plate and no ridiculous dismounts—could make this event a real jewel among California gran fondos.