The SLO Gran Fondo

Two of cycling’s heavy hitters: Bob Stapleton of High Road (l) and Andrew Messick of AEG Sports, (r)

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.

Tejay Vangarderen chats with gran fondo participants

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.

Stapleton enjoys the early kilometers through town

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.

Vangarderen relaxes as we roll out of town

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.

Carla Swart is the winningest collegiate cyclist in US history (even though she’s South African)

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.

Pate is a very funny guy and was cracking jokes about how to intimidate the younger PROs

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.

Thanks to my flat there was always another group to try to catch

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.

Of all the things we expected, blue skies and puffy clouds weren’t among them

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.

Our group got whittled down little by little until there were four of us

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.

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  1. Jim

    Sounds like fun. FWIW, I have started to prefer eating real food on long rides. Turkey sandwiches taste wonderful and go down easier than Clif bars. Loaded hot dogs provide an amazing boost (I only recently discovered that nitrates are performance enhancers…). And dill pickles are *ridonculously* wonderful on a hot day. Such rides are also the only time I drink sugared up Coke (preferring the slightly flatter type from the fountain). Maybe the nutrition isn’t optimized but to on-bike nutrition is often as much about what you can get down, as it is about what is optimal to get down. Y’know the guy in your group ride who eats twinkies while riding? He’s onto something. It’s also nice to get home after a 90 miler and not be suffering from a bad case of Clif Bar and Cytomax-induced racer gut. So maybe the charity century riders are onto something.

    1. Author

      Jim: I can eat stuff like that if I don’t go too hard, but as I’ve aged, I’ve learned the harder I go, the easier the stuff has to be for me to digest it. I hear that from most of my friends who have had their 50th birthday. To be sure, a Powerbar isn’t PRO, but going 80-85% for hours at a time is. I’ll take the non-PRO food so that I can ride hard. Cheers to those who can ride on ham and cheese.

  2. Dave

    Padraig, I rode past you on Hwy 1 and hollered at you to see if you needed help. You caught up to me pretty quickly and gave me a “lift” up to one of my buddies. We were in the Lightspeed Systems kit. Anyhow, thanks for helping make my first century, er, Gran Fondo just a little more enjoyable.
    I wasn’t enamored of the route which had us on Hwy 1 for such a long time. I felt like half the air I was breathing was vehicle exhaust. Ah well. It was still well organized and yes, a bit short on “performance” foods – with the exception of the electrolyte drink.

    1. Author

      Dave: You and your Lightspeed buddies were plentiful and fun. Congrats on finishing your first century/gran fondo. The course wasn’t my absolute fave, but the relatively flat run-in to the finish was almost devoid of opportunities to be humbled except by the riders with you. There’s always something to like.

      Oh, and for the record, I’ve replaced those tires. Tired of flats. The rear was just too worn.

      Thanks again for reading!

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  4. polkadot

    Rule of thumb is to multiply mapmyride elevation totals by about 1.5 to get elevation totals close to what your GPS accrues on hilly terrain.

    Not much adjustment needed if it’s a straight up climb like north side of Mount Diablo, but maybe a bit higher multiplier if it’s rolling hills all day long like Bofax to Highway 1 to Bohemian Highway or other West Marin stuff that always looks fairly flat on MMR.

    1. Author

      Les: Centuries and gran fondos share most features in common. Where a real gran fondo differs (and this is a problem because some lame event organizers are calling their centuries gran condos) is that it will feature a mass-start with all the pageantry of a pro bike race. This means that anyone you see on the course will have ridden just as hard as you to get to that point on the course, rather than someone who started an hour before you and has now decided that you are the candidate to tow them to the finish. The other important difference is that a gran fondo will feature controlled intersections so that you needn’t stop for lights and stop signs. Unfortunately, there’s an ever-growing list of events that call themselves gran fondos but are really just centuries. Those two differences make for a very different rider experience, one that is far superior in my mind and well worth seeking out.

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