Slowly but surely the gran fondo scene is spreading from Italy to the US. There’s a thriving scene in Britain although this is hamstrung by local laws preventing riders from racing and it’s beginning to take of in Australia with the Alpine Classic and races like Grafton – Inverell being open to all.
Gran fondo literally translates from Italian as “great depth” but it means long distance and a typical event is over 150km in length and features several prominent climbs. It’s not uncommon to find rides over 200km with several first category climbs during the middle of the season, a route worthy of a “Queen Stage” of the Giro or Tour. French rides are known as cyclosportives.
Things took off in France in the 1980s with a ride called the Marmotte, 168km loop from Bourg d’Oisans via the Col du Glandon, Télégraphe and Galbier before returning to Bourg d’Oisans and then climbing to the finish at Alpe d’Huez. This set the template for many other events in France and Italy, as well as Switerzland and Spain. There’s often an association with pro races or pros. For example amateurs can ride the Tour of Flanders route on the eve of the pro Ronde and there are events named after pros, eg the Gran Fondo Marco Pantani. Above all, there is the Etape du Tour, a ride organised by Tour de France organisers ASO that takes a stage of the Tour de France every year and lets thousands of amateurs try the route for themselves.
Something for everyone
The events have become outstandingly popular. First they offer a challenge to all riders, a chance to test yourself on some big, often legendary roads and nobody goes home with fresh legs. Second there is something for everyone, a relative newcomer can take satisfaction in merely completing the course, some will enjoy riding hard with others and being able to descend a mountain pass on closed roads and finally a few will treat it as a race, the distance and profile is enough to put local elite riders under strain and there’s big prize money and trophies at stake. Third there’s the association with the professional side, a little stardust can rub off and indeed racing up the Mortirolo or Galibier is something 99.9% of cyclists can only know via these events.
|As far as the eye can see|
It’s not all perfect
The arrival of up to 10,000 riders laden with energy food means a lot of litter for the areas they visit, something riders should note and aim to take home their litter. On the sporting side the success of these cyclosportives comes partially at the expense of more traditional road races. Riders who might once have opted for local road race might now and this leaves traditional club structures floundering. Road racing is already under pressure, for example events are very rare in the Paris region already, and the trend away from competitive cycling is accelerating this. Municipal authorities often prefer to back one ride for 2,000 riders rather than a local race for 80 riders. If this trend continues then there’s the risk that fewer and fewer riders become elite amateurs and then pros.
Big money, big teams
But there are other avenues to prove talent. Italy has a flourishing scene of gran fondo teams where riders are full-time or semi pro and some successful riders have joined the pro ranks. There’s money here because it’s a way to reach thousands of weekend warriors. If pro racing can sometimes be too far removed, a typical rider could find themselves on the start line alongside a pro on a shiny bike and it’s a way for these teams to market their wares right in front of potential customers. With the money and prestige inevitable there is doping.
|Sportive: soft ride, hard price?|
It’s a whole new market. Manufacturers are producing new frames with slightly more relaxed angles, for example the Cervélo RS frames. Britain is awash with bikes labelled “sportive”. The aim is to offer an easier ride with more forgiving geometry, after all most riders are not looking for maximum rigidity in order to launch searing attacks.
For participants, it’s a big day on the bike and despite the expense associated with participation commercial ideas are forgotten once the entrant is suffering. It’s a chance to remember just how good cycling can be, to test themselves in a beautiful arena. The popularity of these events is soaring. Is this the future of road cycling?