bikelionsmsimple
granfo6
serpentone

WHAT IS A GRAN FONDO?

Take a scenic, challenging, mountainous course and add several thousand cyclists ranging from pros to eighty-year-old cycle tourists. Mix in roving and fixed mechanical and medical support, feed zones manned by cheerful volunteers serving up sandwiches, fruit, and drinks, and traffic halted at intersections to let you pass. Garnish with enthusiastic and supportive spectators lining the course. Top it off with coverage by major cycling magazines. Energy, excitement, atmosphere!-- this is gran fondo, a phenomenon that took Italy by storm. Gran fondo means long distance or great endurance (it does not mean "big ride"--there are running and cross country ski gran fondos too). Some cyclists ride for the satisfaction and pride of just making it to the finish line. Others want to improve upon their previous times, and to challenge themselves, their friends, their teammates. And some ride to win. The phenomenon has grown so huge that there are specialized gran fondo teams with (unfortunately) sponsored, salaried riders, some of them ex-pros. As a result, the average amateur racer can forget about ever winning a gran fondo. But if you'd like to know what it's like to race a stage of the Giro and feel like a pro, here's your chance, for this is as close as it gets! You just might find yourself riding next to legends such as Francesco Moser, Gianni Bugno, Maurizio Fondriest, and Gianni Motta, or even some current pros.

Gran fondo races are usually 160-225 km long. The majority offer an addditional
fondo course (120-160 km) and sometimes even a medio fondo course (under 120 km) for those not willing or able to ride the longer distance(s). These shorter courses are just abbreviated versions of the longer ones, utilizing most of the same roads, but taking shortcuts to avoid some of the climbs. There are also events which are fondo or medio fondo only (see below). (NOTE: there are no universal regulations specifying distances, so there are so-called gran fondos that are less than 160 km, and the terms medio fondo and fondo are sometimes reversed, with the medio being the longer course. It's a matter of interpretation.)

(left) the 2000 edition of the Gran Fondo Campagnolo (now named the Sportful Dolomiti Race): The 2500-strong pack heading from the start in Feltre towards Arsič, where the climbing fun begins. Photo courtesty of Gran Fondo Campagnolo News.

serpentemaratona

HOW DO THESE THINGS WORK?

Some events are competitive and others are not (yet they still award the "winners"). In the competitive versions, riders have timing "chips" attached to their bikes or race numbers; the entire classification is published, and finishing times may count towards ranking in one or more season-long series. In this type of gran fondo, the cicloturista license holders are restricted to riding the shorter course(s) and may not be timed. Make no mistake though--even the cicloturisti are serious and competent riders: experienced, well-prepared, and well-equipped. Casual riders know enough to stay away.

The larger events are started in grids, with the first grid reserved for the top gran fondo riders with proven records, for others who can provide evidence that they belong there, and for dilettanti, elite, pros and ex-pros. The last grid is for cicloturisti. Everything in between is for those with a cicloamatore (amateur competitor) license--that includes you and me. Numbers are assigned according to the order in which entries are received; we women, however, are usually given places in the first starting grid. Some of the non-competitive gran fondos have mass starts, while others are started alla francese (French style), which means that groups of riders are sent off every so often, sometimes at regular timed intervals. In this case, you may be given a start time. You will probably be given a card (foglio di viaggio or visto di partenza) which you are required to carry with you, have punched or stamped at a control point somewhere along the course, and hand in at the finish.

The colorful serpent of 8000+ riders in the Maratona dles Dolomites.
Photo from
www.discoveryalps.it

friuli

(left) The start of the GF del Friuli, 2000. We departed from Udine and rode 150 km through Slovenia into Croatia. Our lunch stop was in a small Slovenian town where the inhabitants welcomed us with a brass band playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and similar tunes. We had a police escort, including a helicopter, all along the way, and were whisked non-stop across the borders. We spent the night in Rijecka, a resort on the Adriatic Sea, and returned by a different route the following day. We rode the event again in 2003, that time heading north to Villach, Austria, where we slept on the shore of Lake Ossiach, returning through Slovenia the following day. (The event became a race in 2007, but is returning as a touristic, non-competitive, gran fondo in 2013).

What a thrill and delight it is to ride in a pack of 500 cyclists, heading off on a sunny spring morning to a place you've never been, wondering what adventures lay ahead, seeing new sights and making new friends. What romance! Isn't this the essence of cycling?

If you want to know what a touring fondo is like, watch this nicely-made video of Oderzo-Falcade-Oderzo, a 2-day event that I have ridden a number of times.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST AND WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?

Entry fees for major gran fondos usually run about 30-40 euro ($37-$50). This assures you, in the least, mechanical and medical support, a broom wagon, and refreshments along the route. Virtually all events also give you coupons good for the post-race "pasta party," where you will receive, at the minimum, a bowl of pasta, a roll, and a beer or mineral water. Others offer more elaborate fare, such as a second course and dessert (the Maratona dles Dolomites is famed for its strudel). In your race packet, in addition to your numbers (one to pin on your jersey and one to zip tie to your handlebars), you will inevitably find some "gadget," which here means freebies/goodies/schwag. There are usually some giveaways from sponsors, such as energy bars or gels, water bottles, and massage creams, in addition to commemorative items. I've received bottles of wine, big chunks of Grana Padano and Piave cheese, jam made from fruit grown on the Asiago plateau, a bag of cornmeal for do-it-yourself polenta, plastic bags and aluminum foil (not exciting, but certainly useful), commemorative plates, plaques, and trays, a really nice embroidered baseball cap and embroidered fisherman's hat, fanny packs (known here instead as marsupi--marsupial pouches, as they are worn in the front, often bandoleer style), tote bags, a plastic briefcase, a bandanna, a little package of apples, mini bottles of grappa and Amaro Ramazzotti, cookies, a logo towel, a manicure kit, an embroidered polo shirt, Limar helmets, a plastic rain jacket with the Gazzetta dello Sport logo, socks with the event logo, shoe covers, neck gaitor/head band, commemorative pins, packages of coffee, a glass, t-shirts, cycling vests, a handpainted Thun angel pin, a business card case, a terrific hydration backpack with many handy features (great for carrying extra clothes when heading into the mountains), a Gran Fondo Campagnolo shoe bag and wheel bag, and a splendid knapsack, travel kit, and duffle bag all with the Gran Fondo Pinarello logo! Souvenir jerseys were once popular and may sound like a fine idea, but after you have about two dozen of them in your drawer, they no longer seem so desireable (and those in clubs, who make up the vast majority of participants, usually prefer to wear their team kits around anyway). Some events still give everyone a jersey; others, such as the Sportful Dolomiti Race, make them an optional item.

At the large gran fondos, free post-race massages are offered by BTS and/or Ozone, manufacturers of massage oils and creams. Click here to see my gran fondo souvenir collection.

Some of the smaller scale events cost only a few euro, a real bargain. You won't find electronic timing, and lunch isn't always included, but there will be free refreshments and support along the route, and thanks to the sponsors' generosity you will always receive a gadget or commemorative item of some sort (such as spray bottles of bike cleanser--very useful). There are always plenty of prizes and sometimes a raffle too. These low-key local affairs with a more down-home atmpsphere are equally fun to ride.

  gfmelinda
moser01  

Gran fondos also offer the chance to meet and ride with some of cycling's greatest. At the GF Melinda in 1999, 1966 Giro winner Gianni Motta and former world champion Maurizio Fondriest pose with us fans. At right, all-time legend Francesco Moser, after his annual ride.

BESIDES GRAN FONDOS, WHAT OTHER KINDS OF ORGANIZED RIDES ARE THERE?

As mentioned above, there are also fondo events (usually 120-160 km), most of which also offer a medio fondo course (under 120 km), to give younger, older, or less capable cyclists the opportunity to participate. Most of these are cicloturistiche, i.e. touring rides, and touring competitions as well, which may sound like an oxymoron. Not at all! In this type of event, clubs having the most riders who cross the finish line not only win team prizes, but accumulate points which go toward intra-club, provincial, regional, and even national cycle touring championships. Clubs may also gain additional points for traveling a great distance to participate in an event, and if there is more than one course, the distances ridden by the teams' members are factored in. These championships are taken very seriously and spirited "battles" take place between teams. (I was once asked to be a ringer for a local team that was in a neck-and-neck battle for the national title. When I replied that I wanted no part of such tactics, they replied, "Would you rather a team from another region win?" Could I let my fellowVeneti down?) There are individual points tallies (and champions) as well. Riders with cicloamatore (amateur racing) licenses are permitted to enter these cicloturistico events.

One of our favorite annual outings used to be Ritrovarsi con Francesco which began as a farewell ride with Francesco Moser when he retired from competition. Only it kept on going...and going...and 2014 was the 26th year! This delightful 80 km ride embodied all the camaraderie, fun, good cheer, and natural beauty that are the heart and soul of cycling. It finished in Palų di Giovo, Moser's (and Simoni's) home town, where an abundant lunch was served, cycling greats were presented, and prizes were awarded to the youngest participant (one year it was the 12-year-old son of Moser himself), the oldest (who was actually Moser's uncle, born in 1914, though the prize was given to a younger man--born in 1915!), and the most courageous, a one-legged cyclist, and a cyclist with a hand-pedaled trike, who used to pass me every year--going uphill! (It turned out he was Roland Ruepp, a world-class athlete who is still winning para-Olympic and world championship medals in several sports). Everyone went home with a commemorative jersey, a bottle of wine from Francesco's vineyards, and many happy memories.

The event changed its format and course in 2007, and we stopped going. In 2013 it returned to the Val di Cembra, except that it now starts in Trento and utilizes the facilities of a local festival, which makes things easier and less costly for the organizers.

  palu
festamoser2  

(left) Palų di Giovo in the Val di Cembra: il paese pių rosa d'Italia! (the pinkest town in Italy).

(right) the 2004 post-La Moser party. The always smiling and gracious Francesco with my friend Alda (on Moser's right) and me. His popularity hasn't diminished one bit..

Girolaguna (now Bicilaguna) is a unique touring ride which combines cycling along the lagoon of Venice with a transfer by ferry boat. As the highest point on the course is a bridge, it's an easy and relaxing ride. The atmosphere is cheerful, and it's fun to ride through tourist towns like Jesolo, where spectators are surprised and delighted at the sight of the colorful hundreds-strong pack speeding through town.

One kind of ride that you will not find much in Italy is fundraising rides for charities such as MS, AIDS, cancer, and so on. They do exist, but for the most part they are on the same level as pedalate ecologiche ("ecological rides"), which are short, easy, slow rides that the whole family can participate in, and definitely not for serious cyclists. Cycling among inexperienced riders is a risky undertaking which can be more stressful than it is fun!

  GL042
GL042  
GL042

Bikes ahoy!

GL042

Girolaguna 2004. Music, wine, and merriment are not lacking as the ferry carries the cyclists along the fascinating islands of the Venetian lagoon.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

The best part of granfondos? Olympic champion Antonella Bellutti, writing for Il Gazzettino, expressed it well: "What is it that attracts people from all over the world to massacre themselves on a such a difficult course, which calls for a 6:30 a.m. start, not to mention paying an entry fee that is not exactly small? I asked lots of participants and their answers were all the same: the satisfaction of completing such a hard test, pulled along by the enthusiasm and energy that so many people, all peacefully together, know how to produce! The satisfaction is that of being there, of being a protagonist in a moment of collective joy, of the sublimation of fatigue in the name of the bicycle...Young and old, men and women, competitive and touristic, well trained and less so, alone, couples, and groups, Italians and foreigners: a variegated universe but with one passion: the bicycle!"

On the other hand, gran fondos can bring out the worst in people. That which should serve as an antidote to the stress of modern life becomes in itself stressful, as participants' egos drive them to ride heedlessly, risk life and limb on descents, and cheat in a variety of ways--all just to finish a few places higher in the GC (of thousands of riders!). And for what? Absolutely nothing! Accusations of riders geting pushed uphill by their teammates or towed by motorscooters are common. At the all-women's gran fondo, I recall struggling up a climb alongside a woman named Loretta, with a younger woman in tow. At one point we glanced back and saw that she was no longer with us. Soon after, a car passed with her bike on the roof, and we caught a glimpse of her inside. It was clear to us that she'd packed it in--so imagine our surprise when, nearing the finish line, whom should we spot up ahead but that girl--on her bike, just as if she'd ridden the whole way! Riders familiar with the course may take shortcuts. One GF participant informed the authorities of a competitor he'd seen wearing two timing chips. The second one turned out to be that of a teammate who wanted badly to complete all of the events in the season-long Prestigio series, but had injured himself and was unable to ride the final event.

Even more ludicrous, however, is the presence of pro gran fondo riders. Real pros and ex-pros often ride these events for training, for pleasure, or at the request of organizers and sponsors, and the rest of the participants enjoy the opportunity to ride with them. But professional gran fondo riders are another matter. These characters, for the most part washed-up pros, failed pros, or never was-es, actually make a living by beating thousands of cyclists who have to work for a living. What satisfaction could there possibly be in this? Don't they feel foolish and embarassed? The sight of Maratona "winner" Jamie Burrow (who once rode for US Postal), crossing the finish line and celebrating as if he'd won a stage of the Giro, was pathetic and ridiculous. GF pros ride the events accompanied by team cars and scooters carrying spare wheels, food, water, jackets, and whatever else they need, even though it's forbidden. Why should they receive special privilages? (The UDACE federation, which sanctions many well-known gran fondos, has reaffirmed that it strictly forbids support vehicles of any kind, and requires riders to receive to receive food, mechanical assistance, etc. only from the organizers, upon penalty of disqualification). A number of gran fondo riders have even tested positive for doping: in 2009 it was ex-pro Emanuele Negrini, who was on the podium of the GF Sportful (ex-Campagnolo); in 2010, Michele Maccanti, "winner" of the GF Sportful and the Maratona dles Dolomites, was discovered to have been found positive for EPO at a race in mid-May (this was not immediately known due to a lack of communication among the various federations). The latest (2012) was Giuseppe Mazzocchi Sorrenti, found positve for EPO at the GF Bellunese, which is not even a famous or prestigious gran fondo. Unfortunately, even many of the smaller, local gran fondos are invaded and "won" by these so-called champions. I suppose they are paid a bonus for each "victory" or placing, and such events are easy money. Since they have cicloamatore licenses, there's no way to keep them from "competing."

Who cares about their hollow "victories" anyway? The non-cycling public is barely aware of these events, let alone cares who crosses the finish line first. There are plenty of real pros and real races to watch. For many years now, Cicloturismo magazine's gran fondo coverage has barely mentioned the "winners," giving space instead to the stories of ordinary participants selected at random, to the hundreds of volunteers who make the event happen, and to interesting incidents that occured during and after the race. That is what gran fondos are really all about.

It wouldn't be difficult to eliminate all these negative aspects of gran fondos: all that's needed is to make them non-competitive. Instead of watching the clock and obsessing about their times, riders would relax and take in the magnificent scenery. They would chat with and encourage their fellow cyclists, instead of trying to leave them in their dust. (And organizers would save a lot of money by eliminating expensive timing systems).

This is not just my personal opinion. The Gazzetta dello Sport, which has a section dedicated to gran fondos, states:
"In this space you will never find GC's: we respect those who desire healthy competition but there are already other channels for this type of activity. Classifications do not interest us; rather, we hope for the creation and proliferation of events without a GC, better yet without a
mass start. Events where the only challenge is against one's self, always with the pleasure of pedaling and doing a healthy physical activity."

The organizers of the Gran Fondo del Friuli are returning their event to its roots, after several years of running it as a competitive race:
"The principal characteristic of the Friulan event is that it has maintained faithful to the concept of cycle touring. All of the Italian gran fondos have betrayed cycle tourism. They have become competitive races, commiting the participants to spasms by equiping them with technological timing contraptions...[resulting in] numerous time trials which provide the illusion of being champions. The Gran Fondo del Friuli was, and wants to be again, two days of celebration and friendship on bicycles."

My hope is that more gran fondo organizers will return to this path, so that gran fondos will be enjoyable once again.
 

HOW CAN I DO IT?: PART 2 - ENTERING, PREPARING FOR, AND COMPETING IN A GRAN FONDO
 

item2
item1

Š2001-2014 The BiciVeneto lion logo and all text and photos on this site are, unless otherwise noted, the sole property of April Pedersen Santinon. Duplication, reproduction, or use of the text, images, and photos without the author's permission is strictly prohibited.

SITE MAP Monte Grappa Journal Testimonianze Dino Buzzati's Giro La Donna Giro d'Italia & Pro Races Mountain Biking Virtual Tour Favorites Local Scene Riding Map Intro Home Italian Cycling Terms Climbing & Descending