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Training for Gran Fondos, part 2: Speed

Editor’s Note: Today we are publishing the second in a series of training articles for riders preparing for Gran Fondos, mountainous centuries, multi-day tours and other ambitious long rides (notice how we didn’t use the word ‘epic’?) The series’ authors are pro road and cyclocross racer Chris Jones of Team Type 1, former pro racer and coach Kristin Eastin, and amateur racer and coach Curtis Eastin. More on the authors is at the bottom of the page.

Part 2. Speed Work and Leg Speed

When training for a specific event, whether it is a Gran Fondo, a century ride, or sustained multi-day bike tour, there are some tricks to help get the most out of your effort. This article focuses on spinning at a higher cadence, and on speed work.

When we talk about “speed work” in the context of this article we don’t necessarily mean racing. What we mean is keeping the pace of whichever group you find yourself riding in, be it two or 20 riders. This has many benefits for riders of long tours; sticking with a group and drafting helps to save energy and promote recovery.

Incorporating some speed work into a training regimen teaches the body to recover from hard efforts and will help to save significant amounts of energy in group rides over long distances.

Riding in a group can save energy, but requires the ability to change pace rapidly.

An early introduction to this kind of training will help you to accustom yourself to the increased efforts of group riding and will pay dividends especially in the second half of a longer tour or multi-day Gran Fondo.

Closely associated with learning to incorporate speed work, is the Gear-Masher Syndrome — riding at relatively low pedal revolutions. Adjusting to changes in speed is much more difficult in a huge gear at a low cadence. Moreover, pushing a big gear fatigues the leg muscles more quickly than spinning. When pedaling, think about spinning in circles. Be aware of picking up your power stroke as early as possible over the top of the pedaling cycle. Similarly, at the bottom of the cycle, think of scraping mud off a shoe to help get through the so-called dead-spot.

It is not necessary to emphasize pulling up on the upstroke, as this can irritate hip flexor muscles and lead to fatigue or injury; moreover it is ineffectual, since most power by far is generated in the down-stroke through its full power phase.

Choose a cadence that is efficient, rather than comfortable (this may require practice). Usually, somewhere between 75-85 rpm is a good target for climbing. Again, this may warrant practice and some months of training the legs to achieve.

Riding in a group also requires you to be comfortable in a pack.

When climbing multiple passes per day for successive days in a long event or multi-day Gran Fondo, one must conserve energy and recover on the bike. This can be done by careful use of gears. Many riders despise the idea of using a triple or compact system. It’s important to realize that while you may conquer the biggest and steepest hill in your neighborhood on any given day using your standard 39/23 or 25, we rarely climb those tough mountains in our respective locales three or four times in a day, and then go do it again the next day, then again the next. Therefore, selecting a good gear set up will insure that you complete each ride every day, if that’s your goal. It can also prevent overuse injuries caused by pushing too large a gear. It is worth noting that even the strongest riders will benefit from having a compact system, a triple, or a standard chainring matched with a wide-range cassette (perhaps with a 30-tooth largest cog).  Even the pros in the Giro d’Italia have been known to use compact setup on various mountain stages.

Paying close attention to gear selection, cadence and incorporating some speedwork into a training routine can dramatically enhance performance over the course of a challenging mountainous event.


Don’t avoid speed work, even if you’re not a “racer” per se, and try to avoid gear mashing.

Riding with a “quicker” group could save you energy in the long run, so safely practicing speed in groups could be an option.

Choose a cadence that is efficient — somewhere between 75-85 rpm is a good target for climbing.

Remember pedaling technique is also important and can help save energy in long endurance events.

Select your gear set up carefully for the mountains. Don’t fall into the trap of copying the pros with the lowest gear of 39×23.

Remember to practice these tips – the more you practice the easier it will get.

About the Authors:

Chris Jones: Chris is a third-year professional with Team Type 1. He is a two-time top-10 finisher in the US Professional Road Championships and has scored 10 professional wins and multiple podium appearances. Chris has been a USAC certified level 3 coach since 2006 and coaching clients since 2005.

Kristi Eastin: Kristi was a professional mountain bike and road racer from 1995-2000. Having won nearly all of NorCal’s challenging road races over her career, Kristi knows how to train for going up hills. She has extensive coaching experience ranging from elite racers to beginners.

Curtis Eastin: Curtis raced as a Category 1 during the early/mid-1980s through the early 90s before quitting cycling because of an injury and starting college. Never too far from cycling, he now coaches riders and races with Sierra Pacific Racing Team, in Northern California.

Both Kristi and Curtis are expert ride leaders with Thomson Bike Tours, which leads performance bike tours to the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites. Thomson Bike Tours assisted in the preparation of this series.

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