Without a doubt, San Diego has some great riding, as well as some of the most amazing weather in the country. The Campagnolo Gran Fondo San Diego has been around since 2009, originally as the Colnago Gran Fondo, then the Cannondale Gran Fondo, before becoming the Campagnolo Gran Fondo. It was during the third year of the event that Padraig and I spent much of the day rolling up and down the many various hills of San Diego county’s southern end. Ironically, the 2010 edition was highlighted by one of the worst winter storms San Diego had seen in years … go figure. This year’s event, on April 6th, was nothing like that 2010 edition—a slight morning chill gave way to crystal clear skies and warm temps. Arm warmers were pitched and replaced with copious amounts of sunscreen.
The day before the actual fondo is the packet pickup and outdoor expo. Admittedly, the event has gotten slightly smaller in recent years, as has the expo itself, which was held on the B Street pier on the bay. The plus side to a slightly smaller event has been a more manageable one for the organizers and volunteer staff, which isn’t a bad thing. Campagnolo has been a supporting sponsor of the event since the first year and took over this year as title sponsor. Their neutral support has been a big part of the event, and the guys from Campagnolo North America deserve a huge round of thanks from many folks.
Gran fondo events continue to grow in popularity across the US and elsewhere for a number of reasons, but the punk rock/non-race race aspect of it is a big factor. The camaraderie of the large pack and the ability to “race” others, if you wish, is a big draw. It’s a testament to the popularity that so many bike brands have models ostensibly dedicated to the growing number of riders participating in fondos. Perhaps sadly—the jury is still out—even the UCI is getting interested in the growth of fondos as well, and is looking to regulate and license the events … could a Gran Fondo World Championship be in the distance? (There may be hope for aging, greying, slightly overweight riders after all!)
I should go ahead and state now, and I will again, I am not a climber. At 6’3″ and 215 lbs., and a track sprinter by trade, climbing is not my thing. Sure, when I started cycling as a super skinny kid in 1982 and up until about 1992, I was all about climbing, but I was also much, much lighter. Point of reference; I was still only 140lbs when I married my first ex-wife-to-be in 1993. That was about the time I began track racing and the internal switch on my metabolism got flipped from hummingbird to gorilla. I mention all this as a backdrop and context to this story, because 6’3″, 215lb track sprinters do not make great climbers. There, I said it.
A few weeks before the event, when Padraig queried if I’d be interested in doing the event, since I live here in San Diego and have a reputation of saying yes to bad ideas, I thought, “How bad could it hurt?” So, I eagerly said, “Yes!” before the words could reach my legs. When he asked which distance I wanted to do—Piccolo (34 miles), Medio (56 miles) or Gran (105 miles)—I again answered before my legs could question my sanity, and said “Gran Fondo, of course!” Clearly, the multiple skull fractures and concussions I’ve gotten from crashes in races played a role here. But hey, what’s 105 miles between friends, right?
Considering how the event is sponsored by my good friends at Campagnolo and is a bit of a local celebration of all things Italian (the ride starts in Little Italy and is lead out by Ferraris after all), I decided I’d ride my one Campy-equipped bike from my days as Brand Manager of Masi Bicycles; 2004 Gran Criterium with 2002-ish Campagnolo Record group. The bike is a thing of beauty, the last of the Italian made frames we produced for Masi, made with Dedaccai aluminum tubing and carbon stays. The Campy group still works flawlessly, but… the one and only cassette I have is 11×23, which would come back to haunt me. I hadn’t ridden the bike in a few years, since I had been working for other bike brands and I try diligently to only ride products of the companies I work for. After blowing off the dust and lubing the chain, I was ready!
Because Padraig and RKP are kind of a big deal, much bigger than myself, my media status got me bib #3. THREE. I dunno about you, but I’m not exactly used to that kind of VIP status. I was ushered into the corral at the very front of the starting line. Turns out, it was the only time I would spend at the front of the field! Tom Kattus, General Manager of Campagnolo North America (and a genuinely decent human being), said a few words to start things off, Ferarri engines revved, and we were off through San Diego’s downtown streets with a police escort. Once out of downtown, and a short accidental detour when the lead Ferrari took a wrong turn, things immediately quickened. Like any self-respecting race nerd with more ego than brains (or fitness), I stayed in the front portion of the field with the fast kids, until the first big hill out of Bonita and into Otay Lakes. It would be the last time I would see the leaders, and was when I swallowed my pride and accepted my fate for the day.
Joking aside, the ride itself is pretty stellar. The area around Otay Lakes has some great riding. It’s one of the reasons the Olympic Training Center is located there. Sure, there are cars to contend with, but the riding is pretty great, even for somebody who lives here. The numerous rest stops were all well stocked with food and beverages, as well as lots of smiling faces on the volunteers. It really is an excellent day of riding, even if you’re not a climber … and I’m not.
The ride around Otay Lakes takes you east, and into the more rolling parts of the county. The KOM climb for the day is Honey Springs Road, a seemingly endless beast that arrives about 30 miles into the ride. It’s actually only about 7 miles long and the grade is not overly steep, but try convincing your legs of that. Hitting that climb with only a 23t as a bailout, on a standard 53×39 crankset, I was in for a long climb. According to the stupid timing transponder embedded in my race numbers, I was 101st up the hill overall, and 36th for my age group, some 45 minutes and 56 seconds after I started it. It was shortly after cresting the climb that I began to have severe muscle spasms in my right groin, running from the inside of my knee to the outside of my hip. Needless to say, it made things more interesting.
In a twist of irony, even though I was riding in an event with lots of other people, it was at this point in the day that I spent nearly the remainder of the ride by myself; too slow to stay with the fastest group, but faster than most of the stragglers I picked up along the way. I ended up spending the bulk of the event leapfrogging from group to group, alone with my thoughts and the voices in my head reminding me that most track sprinters do not do 105 mile events. Again, I will say thank goodness for well stocked rest stops with friendly volunteers! I am also glad that the copious amounts of sweat on my face conveniently hid the tears in my eyes.
Once into the final quarter of the fondo, I managed to settle into an uncomfortable rhythm of ride, cramp, stop, stretch. This allowed me to latch onto a group of similarly paced riders, finally. At times we had 3-4 riders, other times we swelled to about a dozen. Everybody took pulls, chatting from time to time. There were the occasional riders with less-than-stellar pack etiquette, but they usually vanished quickly. In the end, we worked well together, fighting a crazy headwind much of the way. As is often the case on long rides, the aches and pains of the day began to fade as the end drew closer. The pace continued to inch up, the legs and ass began to quiet down slightly, and the finishing instincts kicked in. The small group I was in cruised in together, back to the B Street pier, quietly acknowledging the work we’d done together- nods of “we did it” were exchanged as we headed in different directions.
Happily, after 6:59:49 according to my official time (95th overall), there was a ton of food waiting at the finish! I think, given a few more miles, I might’ve been tempted to eat one of the weaker riders, a la the Donner Party. Luckily for everybody involved, there was sufficient pasta to prevent such an occurrence. After sitting down with my food and some cold iced tea, the spasms of my right leg finally subsided and I stopped clenching my teeth. I live very close to the event, so I rode my bike to the start, and after giving LOTS of consideration to calling my wife and having her pick me up, I rode back up the hill to my home.
Again, the Campagnolo Gran Fondo San Diego provided many memories and genuine fun. If fondos are your thing and you’re not totally turned off by a bit of urban riding along the way, you really should give this fondo a chance. The 105 mile Gran Fondo has a bit over 5000 feet of climbing, even though my legs would tell you it was closer to 50,000. The rest stops are numerous and the support is awesome. Campagnolo provides excellent support and they’re genuinely excited to be a part of the event. In other words, it’s an event worth doing. And if you see me, I promise to keep the whining about not being a climber to a minimum. Mostly.