The Dirt Dispatch: What is a gran fondo? Depends on who you ask

The beauty of this type of event is that it frees you, the participant, to define the experience in your own way

Editor’s note: After a hiatus while Spencer Powlison transitioned from freelance tech reporter to VeloNews web editor, the Dirt Dispatch returns, and Powlison comes out of the woods to consider the gran fondo trend.

What category are you? What age group do you belong in? Is this a criterium? A road race? Oh, a time trial? Well, that’s completely different.

When a roadie tells me that they just don’t understand what a gran fondo actually is, I see why they are confused. For the longest time, competitive road cycling has been based on important definitions, categories, and hierarchy.

While I don’t claim to be a dyed-in-the-wool road racer (but I do play one on TV!), I can see things from that perspective.

At Gran Fondo Italia’s first series event in Snowmass, Colorado, I was reminded that the beauty of this type of event is that it frees you, the participant, to define it in your own way.

For Alexi and Rishi Grewal, it was a family reunion of sorts. It was also a chance for these great champions (Alexi is the 1984 Olympic road race gold medalist; Rishi won multiple 24-hour mountain bike world championship titles) to throttle amateur roadies like me.

There was also the story of another rider, someone I never got a chance to meet, riding to remember his late wife. Each year he leaves a dried rose at the spot where he scattered her ashes, and though that was actually up Maroon Creek — not on the course — no persnickety marshal or referee told him he couldn’t take a quick detour to complete his personal ritual.

As for myself, I got off to a leisurely start in the cold mountain morning and missed out on the early breakaway the Grewal brothers initiated. Did I need to chase them for 30 miles up and then back down Castle Creek? No, but I figured I might as well give it a go.

By the time I reached the second aid station, all was lost. They were riding a savage pace and I was floundering. I suppose I defined the first part of my gran fondo as a painfully ineffective individual time trial.

Fortunately, my wife, Kate, was in a group just a little ways behind. I waited for her, because at that point I just didn’t feel like hammering away by myself, staring at my stem.

But that wasn’t the event’s actual “competition.” In fact, at this Gran Fondo Italia — and other gran fondo events — finish times don’t determine the winners.

Instead, the final results were based on one timed climb at the end of the 100-mile day, what the organizers called the Gran Premio della Montagna. How very Italian of them! It’s easy to see how this concept would be foreign to a racer conditioned to focus on being first across the line. Even Kate and I had to think it through to make sense of the system.

What it meant was that for the majority of the ride, I could hang with a fast, but not ruthlessly fast, group. I rode with my wife. And we even stopped more than once to fill up water and eat at the aid stations (I heard that the leaders stopped at only one station over the entire 100-mile ride. Ouch).

Of course, I did have a number pinned on, and I still needed to get my racer fix. So, I made sure I emptied the tank on the final timed climb.

I suppose I enjoy gran fondos, and my most recent ride at the Gran Fondo Italia, because they offer a lot of the amenities and camaraderie of a bike race without the rigid structure.

“Yes, but was it a race!?” The seasoned criterium warriors demand to know.

Well, sure it was.

Kind of.

But only if you wanted it to be.