The Gran Fondo Los Angeles

The promise of winning an athletic competition is the potential to live a little piece of life perfected. A win is an objective confirmation that you were correct on enough, if not all, counts to take the day. For many riders, there’s no better place to polish life’s meaning than in a bike race. There was a time when that was the case for me, but it didn’t last long.

Much of the problem could be summed up in the simple fact that the rides I most like to do are rarely run as races. Give me a 70- to 80-mile course with 5000 or so feet of climbing and I’m a happy boy. Most of the races within three hours of me don’t fit this bill. There came a point when I realized I’d rather just be doing the group ride in Malibu on Sundays than getting up to drive to the hinterlands for some flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. There was almost nothing about the experience that fit my definition of fun. A top-three could short-circuit that, but those didn’t come with any sort of regularity you’d call routine.

Bikes on Rodeo Drive. Really? Yes, Really.

The rise of the gran fondo here in the U.S. has given me a second lease on organized events. You get a mass-start, the nervousness as the pack sorts itself out and early selection accelerations. In other words, it’s a century without the helmet mirrors.

Gran Fondo USA has staked its reputation on doing lavish productions that leave from splashy locations. The organization’s most recent event was the Gran Fondo Los Angeles. By Los Angeles, they meant Beverly Hills. If there’s a tonier place on the west coast to start a cycling event, I can’t think of what it might be. That the city fathers of Beverly Hills even deigned to allow the event to happen must have had much to do with the event’s 7 am start. Seeing bikes fill Rodeo Drive was an unqualified stunner.

We got speeches from any number of VIPs, including the mayor of Beverly Hills. Ernesto didn’t speak.

Most of the event took place in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, my wheelhouse, so to speak. I adore riding in these mountains and don’t miss many chances to spend as many weekend rides there as possible.

The 72-mile course took in two Cat. 2 climbs and five Cat. 4 climbs. The second big descent of the day, down the aptly named Stunt Road is the stuff of drugs. Hit it right and you’ll never touch your brakes. The experience bathes your brain in more dopamine than a psychiatrist can prescribe. If your nerves get the better of you, it’ll be a slow and harrowing escape. People fleeing zombies should know such fear.

The nervousness dropped once we hit Pacific Coast Highway.

Nearly everything about this ride was superb. It ran on time, had a great announcer, a few select VIPs (no one expected Andy Garcia—yes, that Andy Garcia—to be that tall), well-equipped sag stops, lovely food at the finish, not to mention a fun expo area. And, as I mentioned, the Santa Monica Mountains. What could be better?

Well, that’s the rub. If you’ve ever been to Beverly Hills, then you know it’s nowhere near Malibu. Or the ocean. Our ride, upon leaving the BH headed down Wilshire Boulevard, which is tantamount to taking a group down Park Avenue in Manhattan. Neat concept. In practice, notsomuch.

The man behind the magazine: Road‘s Dillon Clapp. As nice as he is fast.

The Sheriff’s Department, which controlled the intersections for us, held the front of the group to 20 miles per hour. That was fine as we went up a few rolling hills in Century City and Westwood. However, it was no bueno on the downside. I commented to a friend how I was glad I wasn’t running tubulars. Riders further back in staging rushed the front of the group and soon we were 10 abreast across three lanes.

Late in the ride, as we headed for the finish we infected traffic in a residential area of Sunset Boulevard; this a road that serpentines over undulating terrain, and as this is a ritzy zip code, infinitely successful people do 60 over these roads in their AMG Mercedes; it’s just not a place for bikes. With some riders jumping red lights I was uneasy that someone would get hit. We needed some amount of marshaling. Even if the intersections weren’t controlled, we needed someone to alert traffic and pedestrians to the fact that an actual event was taking place. Upon making our way to Wilshire for the last few miles we had to fight traffic for a lane and dodge potholes. For what?

The drop down Piuma. This bit is only eight percent.

From the right turn onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard and until the route returns down Topanga and reaches Pacific Coast Highway, this ride is one of the great jewels of California riding. I’ll take Malibu over anyplace else in the United States. Full freakin’ stop. Riding on Wilshire and Sunset? I don’t need that kind of hostility from drivers, not without some sort of posse to protect me.

If the guys from Bike Monkey had organized this, they’d have convinced the Brentwood homeowners themselves to stop traffic as we passed. And they’d have cheered us. How do you explain that 55 miles of this course was heaven itself, but the rest was hell? Well, I guess that’s how you do it.

I was glad to bump into some friends for the ride back into town.

I promise you, the first time you begin to drop down the south side of Piuma Road and see the Pacific spread below you, you’ll wonder what you’ve been doing with your life.

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  1. LD

    Considering the usual high profile, expensive events (like Ferrari’s) held on Rodeo, its ironic (but welcomed) that bicycles took over. Unknown to the casual observer is that other than the diamonds tucked away in the vaults of the many jewelry boutiques most of the bikes at the start were the most expensive things per gram on the street!

  2. Darwin

    The problem with both the San Diego and LA Gran Fondo is communications. Neither one answered my e-mails and there is no phone number to speak to anyone. I guess they think its just a privilege to pay your money and not ask any questions.

  3. Touriste-Routier

    I am the new GM of Gran Fondo USA (hired immediately before the LA event), so I am going to address a few things.

    First, a minor correction; it was the California Highway Patrol who ran the rolling enclosure, not the Sheriff’s Dept. (just to give credit where it is due). They had the extremely difficult challenge of trying to keep the group more or less intact in order to keep the intersections closed. While 20 mph was too slow for the front, it was also too fast for the back of the group. Within a few miles of the start, the group of >1300 was spread out over 1 mile.

    I also have to state that often times, riders are their own worst enemy. Within 2 blocks of the start, the lead riders were on the bumper of my car, and started coming around both me (which was being driven by the car’s owner), and the CHP lead car in front of me. I had to climb out the window (I wish I had a sunroof) and yell at them to back off, and treat it like a parade. While I understood the nature of the problem, police typically don’t take kindly to riders passing them. If the riders weren’t immediately on the bumpers of the cars, we might have been able to do some things a little differently.

    Beverly Hills was incredibly supportive; hopefully people noticed the banners the city put up on the light posts. They were very happy with the event, and have committed additional support in the years to come. Unfortunately, as noted, Beverly Hills’ location is landlocked from the prime riding areas. Now that one event was ran successfully, we will be able to make changes to lessen the pain of the urban congestion. They have already committed to allow us to use some different roads for the return.

    We had placed a lot of warning and course marking signs out on the roads; unfortunately the same ritzy folks mentioned in the article deemed it prudent to not remove all of them once, but twice. This was not casual sign theft, but deliberate. Nonetheless I wholeheartedly agree that some of the roads that were selected were less than ideal. Unfortunately, my understanding is that we were not given many options. This is something we plan to correct next year.

    As for Darwin’s complaint about poor communication; I agree. I am personally working on rectifying this situation. There is a new management team coming in place, and a new structure to operate under. Our focus is on maximizing participant experience.

    We appreciate the support given to the series over the past 3 years, and appreciate everyone’s patience while we work through some growing pains.

  4. fausto

    Rode the Philly GF last August and was less than impressed. The marketing hype was huge but the event was run poorly. The excitement of the start, Ferrari’s, expensive Italian helicopters were nice window dressing. The first rest stop was a disaster with long lines while the volunteers filled up gatorade buckets from a hose. They seemed to not realize the first stop has alot of riders from all routes at once. Mid point rest stop was the same, even telling people it was closed. The end of the ride you had to dismount and walk around a gate to get onto a road bringing you to the park to do it again. The expo was smaller than I have seen at local charity rides. A local NJ shop had some colnago’s, no big bling from the corporate sponsor. For the expense of the entry, they need to set them selves above what alot of other charity or century rides have already done. Spend more money on marshalls and road clearance, food and drink, less money on full page advertising.

  5. Souleur

    can you give a link or post other US cities where GF’s are being done, for those of us not as lucky to live in the LA region.


  6. Calaris


    Thanks for providing some additional insight on Gran Fondo LA. I did this ride and it was an absolute joy for me and on par with San Diego (which has run for 3 years already). Next year’s Gran Fondo San Diego and Los Angeles cannot come soon enough.

    It would be awesome if San Diego can go over the Coronado Bridge once again.

  7. Michael

    Thanks for this, I had been wondering how it went, but had not seen a write-up until now. I used to love Topanga Canyon; it has been far too long since I last descended it to the coast.

  8. velomonkey

    I don’t know why south cali has the rap it does – when I went there in March of 08 I saw none other than Dave Z going out for a ride, not once but twice – do we need someone else rather than a yellow jersey wearer to make somehwere legit? He rides Malibu, too.

    Padraig, good write up: these types of rides fit nicely between – do I do another p,1,2 race and probably come out empty in winnings and pay $4 a gallon in gas – or do a HUGE group ride even with the nuances, but times climbs and times finishes. The answers is: I am ding the Philly gran fondo this year. I mean come on – meet the guy who built Eddy’s hour record bike?!?!

    1. Author

      Touriste-Routier: Thanks for helping to explain the conditions at work that day. Yours was a difficult job. I don’t know what you guys do about the rolling enclosure. It was a goat parade where I was. With such a slow pace, many riders were doing all they could to get to the front. Even though the whole of the route isn’t timed, many folks are tracking their time for the whole ride, so it’s hard to be told “Ride, but don’t pedal just yet.” The concept that this was a neutral start was not adequately communicated to riders further back. Heck, it wasn’t adequately communicated to me. I got tired of being bumped from behind by riders who thought I wasn’t riding fast enough.

      George: I’d have melted the glue because I had to ride my brakes so much in the opening miles.

      Armybikerider: Yup, it’s a Lezyne. Dillon was the marketing dude there before joining Road. You’ll find that lots of bike magazine editors give up with trying to make sure they have a fully stocked saddle bag on every test bike and take to carrying stuff in pockets.

      Velomonkey: I’m with you. If I’m going to get in the car and drive to a ride, my first thought is whether I’m likely to have an experience more enjoyable than the average training ride with my friends here at home. I’m not leaving unless I think I’m going to have a memorable day, and the four-corner industrial park crit stopped being that for me about 10 years ago.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    In addition to the San Diego and LA stops, the Colnago Gran Fondo USA Series visits Philly and Miami this year:

    There are several other Gran Fondos put on by other organizers; some will live up to the heritage of the term, others will be century rides by another name. Regardless, I welcome you to support whoever is putting these on, as they really are a great alternative to the racing and pure recreational scene.

    When addressing the crowd. the CHP were supposed to explain the procedures they were laying down. I couldn’t hear it, as I was putting the lead car in position. I apologize if this didn’t get across. We certainly have some improvements to make for next year’s roll out.

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