The Future of Road Cycling?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

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.


New bikes

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?

Pin It

{ 18 comments }

Touriste-Routier January 8, 2011 at 9:50 pm

As the author of the article you linked to on Italian Cycling Journal, I can tell you that yes, this is a future of road cycling; not "the", but "a".

From an event organizers standpoint, massed start recreational rides are appealing due to not necessarily needing to deal with the federations, inane rules, small field limits, officials, prize lists, or closing every single road on the course. Your target audience is larger, because you can attract riders from all spectrums if you market yourself correctly.

I had to cavalierly chuckle when the French race organizers were complaining about the new proposed cost of the Gendarmerie for their events, going from €2.40 per hour to €12.33, because in the grand scheme of things, this is very little (though I fully realize that it drastically affects their budgets, but the subsidized cost is not a sustainable model). For the Gran Fondo in Philadelphia, we had to pay $50.00 per hour per officer, officers working special events are contractually guaranteed 8 hour minimum days, and we had dozens of officers. Amortizing this over 1700 riders is do-able, for a 200 rider road race, it is very hard to justify.

The UCI has tried to jump in on the Gran Fondo/sportive scene in the past few years, as has USA Cycling in the US, and as is typical, they've mucked it up; not providing any value, adding complexity, and causing confusion. But nonetheless, they are in there, but really don't have much power or influence. However, they have thoughts of a "Gran Fondo" World Championships, which to me is contrary to the point of the whole scene.

In South Africa, most road races are in fact what most would call Gran Fondos. They are large events where competitors start in waves based upon their abilities. As you prove yourself, and gather results, your start zone/wave improves, which is similar in practice to moving up in racing category in the US

While there is no question that some of these Gran Fondos and Sportives are at heart races, they are the equivalent of running's marathons. The top 200 or so are going for the win, while the rest are out for the challenge and a personal best.

The success of triathlons is largely based upon age based racing. While cycling has Master's racing, it is much more cut throat and elite than running or triathlons; racing shoulder to shoulder is very different than a recreational ride or a time trial type effort.

There is room for both Gran Fondos and road races; they are similar but different beasts; one can feed the other. Gran Fondos serve as a terrific lower pressure intro to “competitive” cycling; there is no fear of getting dropped or pulled. Riders interested in further competing can “move-up” to traditional racing. And racers who no longer want to slug it out, but still have a bit of an edge to their riding, have a viable outlet. Those who are tired of doing the same old business park criterium have the opportunity to do something different on occasion.

Perhaps the South African model is the best of both worlds. They get to have road races, but the masses also get to participate at an appropriate level. If executed properly, the events can achieve commercial, sporting, and operational objectives.

Touriste-Routier January 8, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Part 2

While there is no question that some of these Gran Fondos and Sportives are at heart races, they are the equivalent of running's marathons. The top 200 or so are going for the win, while the rest are out for the challenge and a personal best.

The success of triathlons is largely based upon age based racing. While cycling has Master's racing, it is much more cut throat and elite than running or triathlons; racing shoulder to shoulder is very different than a recreational ride or a time trial type effort.

There is room for both Gran Fondos and road races; they are similar but different beasts; one can feed the other. Gran Fondos serve as a terrific lower pressure intro to “competitive” cycling; there is no fear of getting dropped or pulled. Riders interested in further competing can “move-up” to traditional racing. And racers who no longer want to slug it out, but still have a bit of an edge to their riding, have a viable outlet. Those who are tired of doing the same old business park criterium have the opportunity to do something different on occasion.

Perhaps the South African model is the best of both worlds. They get to have road races, but the masses also get to participate at an appropriate level. If executed properly, the events can achieve commercial, sporting, and operational objectives.

TheInnerRing January 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Great insight and a very useful follow-up. Thank-you TR.

Paul January 8, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I can't stand how The Comic (Cycling Weekly) has turned itself into a sportive magazine. Pages and pages devoted to 'middle-aged men in lycra' who've completed some 100 mile bike ride in under 10 hours or whatever. One page – ONE PAGE – is offered for the results of the races I, my team-mates, and other racers enter. No photographs of the winners. No small write up of a featured 2/3/4 cat race. I've stopped buying it.

David N. Welton January 8, 2011 at 11:48 pm

I used to do a few 'real' road races here in Italy. Frankly, they stink compared to a Gran Fondo: they are on short circuits that are not that much longer than what'd be called a criterium in the US. The fields are small and very competitive, which is fine if you are too, but for the average guy who can't train 5 times a week, it's just an exercise in frustration. Often they aren't in particulary nice or scenic areas.

Gran Fondos on the other hand, have routes that are much more like what we see the pros doing on TV: they're scenic, one big long route that is quite varied, and furthermore, there are tons of people doing them, so there's always someone in front of you to chase, and always someone you can try and drop.

The only good thing about the 'real' races is that they are close and plentiful.

Anonymous January 9, 2011 at 12:12 am

Paul: you're whining.

Paul January 9, 2011 at 11:01 am

Anonymous: you're posting inane comments.

TheInnerRing January 9, 2011 at 11:19 am

Easy guys. I think Paul is reflecting some of what I was saying, that media coverage and advertising money is moving to this new and fast-growing area and leaving road racing behind. The more traditional area of the sport needs to think how to up its game, with so many people riding "sportives", there's room to tempt many into an organised race. Like many before them, one try and they might be hooked.

TheInnerRing January 9, 2011 at 11:22 am

David: I agree. The road racing scene is often "all or nothing", you need some dedication and it's this that can make it difficult for newcomers.

curium January 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Paul I understand your feelings about Cycling Weekly but feel that you've perhaps misunderstood the target market of Cycling Weekly versus something like Cycle Sport.
All the Pinarellos and Williers I see being rode around London are being ridden by Middle-Age Men in Lycra so I'm guessing these are the market Cycling Weekly are after.

Anonymous January 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Inner, mate please quick fact check. Grafton – Inverell is an Open yes, but it's still a race. And you need a race license to enter. In no way is it a 'Grand Fondo'.

Paul January 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I'm inclined to agree with you. However, I would say that the change in CW is a fairly recent development. My brother used to race on the continent in the mid-/late 90's and subscribed to CW. Back then, there was coverage of the amateur racing scene; coverage that was – and is – never going to get featured in the likes of Cycle Sport who concentrate on the pros.

CW appears to be bookended by pro coverage at the front, and glorified bike rides (sportives) at the back. Very little for the amateur racer in the middle.

I'd also add that many of those Middle-Age Men in Lycra race, and race on £4k Pinarellos and Williers. Just take a look at The Cycling Laywer blog (I think he races on a Condor).

TheInnerRing January 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Anonymous: yes. It's also the case that you need a licence to ride some in France and Italy, or failing that a medical certificate and insurance. But as you say G-I is a proper race, what I meant was that it's not only for riders with an elite licence, something more normal in France, Italy etc.

Bruce January 10, 2011 at 12:39 am

In New Zealand sportive events have become very popular over the past few years. The annual lake taupo 160km event attracts up to 12,000. There are many similar although not quite so big events around the country which has recently prompted Ridestrong NZ (www.ridestrong.org.nz) to set up a ranking system for participants. to be involved you need to ride in just two or three events around the country each year. The program has the slogan "It's not about winning it's about beating your mates".

Angelo senza la o January 10, 2011 at 2:08 am
hamncheeze January 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Here on the west coast of Canada there is a Gran Fondo explosion. Last September was the inaugural Vancouver-Whistler. July 2011 has the Axel Merckx Fondo in the Okanagan, and then the Whistler group is putting another one on the week after in the Okanagan as well. And I believe there is one scheduled for the Rockies (most likely Banff).

The Whistler event had a "race" category, the poorly named "Giro". It was a mix of elite racers, very amateur racers, and some old guys who wanted to start up front. In the grand scheme of the event, the Giro category was only 2.5% of the total entries and seemed rather insignificant. This coming summer the Merckx fondo promises a "Giro" race category as well. Problem is their date overlaps the Tour de Delta, one of the biggest and best elite races in all of Canada. Needless to say the Delta organizers are upset. Looking at the Merckx site, it does not seem like the Giro category is open for registration yet so I think there is still some wrangling going on. But if the provincial/national body gives the Merckx event a race sanction on the same day as the Tour de Delta, I will be surprised and disappointed.

The growth of Fondo is great for road cycling in general. More bike sales, more riders on the road, etc. In fact this weekend I did a ride in an area that used to be almost devoid of anyone on a road bike, and I saw three separate groups of at least 10 riders out there. And there is an explosion of older racers who are now capitalizing on the growth by running coaching services targeted directly at the Fondo types. But the Fondo events are going to kill sanctioned, licensed amateur road racing in my area. For the average guy – job, family, limited training time – where does he get the most value for his $$? Is it lining out in a cat 4 road race in the puckerberries, with 10 people at the side of the road, in the pouring rain? At the cost of $140 for a licence and maybe $50-70 per race entry? Or is he better off doing 2 Fondo events, with entries at $200 each but making them into a big weekends? (Whistler had quite the after-party!)

I hope road racing survives out here, maybe even if it is just at the big event elite-only level. Even before Fondos, there has been a slow erosion of the club structure as more clubs started to fancy themselves as "teams". As a result the number of events has been dropping every year and I think the rise of Fondo will only continue to slowly snuff road racing out.

TheInnerRing January 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Thanks for the detail there, great to hear it is growing. I hope you get good courses to exploit the great scenery and landscapes available.

Quentin January 11, 2011 at 5:01 am

I agree with the comments about cyclosportives being to recreational riders what marathons are to most recreational runners. Rather than a competition against others, for 95% of participants they are a measuring stick for oneself. I see this in my friends and relatives who run marathons regularly. The same is true of triathlons for the most part as well.

I raced as a teenager and I had to train like crazy just to finish with the pack (it was the 80s in Colorado, and people with names like Julich and Vaughters were in my age group). I haven't raced in nearly 20 years, but I still enjoy riding. I have a job and a family and can't see myself finding the time to train enough to make racing enjoyable. On the other hand, I dream of riding the Etape du Tour or a similar event. It provides the opportunity to ride on a "real" road course as opposed to some office park criterium, and it would provide a goal for a guy who's a few pounds above his racing weight.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: