As racing grows complicated, gran fondos are thriving in North America

While cycling's governing bodies posture over licenses and technical rules, mass-start events are taking off in North America

While cycling’s global and U.S. governing bodies, the UCI and USA Cycling, have spent the first quarter of 2013 alienating licensed racers for competing in unsanctioned events, and several Spanish pro races have been postponed or canceled due to sponsorship woes, in North America, gran fondo events continue to grow, both in the numbers of events and participation.

Also known as cyclosportives, gran fondos are mass-start cycling events that fall somewhere on the spectrum between races and casual century rides, complete with race numbers, aid stations, and course marshaling. Similar to a marathon, only a few participants toe the start with a realistic chance at crossing the finish line first, while for others, just completing the distance is a victory in itself. Racing licenses are generally not required, while insurance is provided through event organizers and covered in registration fees.

With a rich history in Europe — the Maratona dles Dolomites has run for 26 years and attracts nearly 10,000 riders — gran fondos often provide closed roads, mechanical support, a cycling expo festival, and a competitive environment that allows riders of all abilities to ride at whichever level they desire. The Ronde van Vlaanderen cyclosportive annually attracts over 15,000 participants to tackle one of three distances over the cobbled Flandrien climbs the pros race across the following day.

In line with the Flanders event, Tour de France organizer ASO puts on an annual Paris-Roubaix Challenge, also offering three different routes, including a 170-kilometer course that travels across all the cobbled sectors tackled by the pros, including the vaunted Trouée d’Arenberg and the decisive Carrefour de l’Arbre, finishing on the track of the fabled Roubaix Velodrome.

The two biggest stage races in North America, the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge, have taken note, offering events held on the same roads used by pro racers. The Amgen Tour hosts L’Etape du California, with two routes this year — Livermore to Mount Diablo, on April 28, and a route in the start city of Escondido on May 11, which will climb Mount Palomar. Both rides will be fully supported with fluids, nutrition, and mechanical assistance.

(While a web page exists for a USA Pro Challenge gran fondo, no route has been announced; the event soft-launched a low-key sportive in Durango, Colorado, last year and partnered with the Gran Fondo New York by sponsoring its defining Bear Mountain climb.)

Gran fondo series taking off

Two North American gran fondo series have sprung up in recent years — the Gran Fondo National Championship Series (GFNCS), which boasts six events in cities along the Eastern Seaboard and into the Rocky Mountains, and the Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia series, a four-event series spanning both coasts, organized by RCS Sport, the parent company of the Giro d’Italia.

The second event of the 2013 GFNCS series, the Tour of Georgia Gran Fondo, was held Sunday, utilizing many of the same hilly roads made famous at the now-defunct Tour de Georgia.

Every GFNCS event has a 32-, 62- and 100-mile route. The 100-mile events are where titles are earned, and the series rules are simple. Each 100-mile route has four chip-timed sections. The lowest cumulative time of all four sections decides the day’s winner across any of 10 categories, from junior men (14-18) to “Super Senior” women (55 and up). For series standings, individual event placings are equal to points; first place on the day takes one point, second place takes two points, and so on. Racers must attend at least three events to qualify for a series title, and series standings are determined by adding the three lowest scores together (lowest points wins).

Former pro mountain bike racer and race director Ruben Kline founded the Gran Fondo National Championship Series last year.

“I see gran fondo bicycle racing becoming the next endurance sports discipline,” Kline said. “Whereas the sport of cycling has experienced strong growth here in the States, the racing industry has not reacted to provide a competitive outlet for people entering the sport or racing independently. In general, one could say the sport of bicycle racing has not been user friendly in the States. Gran fondo bike racing eliminates the ‘peloton dependency’ of traditional bicycle racing. The rider is timed against the clock then compared to the other competitors to determine placement.”

This coming weekend, the first of four events of the Giro d’Italia series will be held in conjunction with the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California; a fifth event, in Beverly Hills, is tentatively scheduled for November.

As the name implies, the Giro d’Italia events are rich in Italian flair; participants refuel on Italian pasta and receive a bottle of wine, and optional event jerseys are styled after the Giro’s maglia rosa. Top names associated with the Giro d’Italia, such as Mario Cipollini and race director Michele Acquarone, have shown up to the start at Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia events; organizers expect that former world champion and Giro champ Gianni Bugno will ride this year’s New York City event.

And like the GFNCS series, and most gran fondos, participants do not need a USA Cycling license to ride.

Two of North America’s largest one-off gran fondos are Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, and the Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York, with both events drawing well above 5,000 participants.

Leipheimer’s event, launched in 2009 in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California, was one of the first to capitalize on the growing popularity of the events. Other pros have jumped on board, lending their names to events, including Chris Horner, Freddie Rodriguez, Ryder Hesjedal, and George Hincapie.

And while some perks are standard, the spectrum between what a gran fondo entry costs, and what that provides, can vary wildly.

At the 105-mile Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York — which begins on the George Washington Bridge and winds upstate to Bear Mountain State Park — the registration fee, which started at $190 but increases as the date gets closer and is now $294, includes a cycling jersey, picked up before the ride, which is described as “mandatory attire” on the event’s registration page. The fastest man and woman each win a 2013 Pinarello road bike, equipped, of course, with Campagnolo components.

The event, which has the support of city council members and holds a press conference at the Italian consulate, is now in its third year, and is held in conjunction with the New York City Bike Expo at Penn Plaza Pavilion, across the street from Madison Square Garden. Gran Fondo New York organizer Lidia Fluhme told VeloNews that the event is spending $500,000 on road closures and police overtime “to enable racing in and around the world’s greatest city.”

“Some American cyclists don’t understand that gran fondos are races. There is a misconception that they are tours or century rides,” Fluhme said. “People from countries outside America perhaps better understand what we’re doing in New York City: a mass participation race, or personal challenge, just like a marathon for runners. At the front, the athletes race for the win. In the middle, the riders want to improve on a PR, and at the back, riders challenge themselves to finish the course within the cut-off time.”

Racing the North County, Flanders style

On April 7, approximately 360 riders paid $100 apiece to start the Belgian Waffle Ride, a 130-mile ride through North County San Diego with 10,000 feet of climbing, water crossings, and dirt trails, organized by Spy Optics and benefiting the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Several top pros, including cyclocross stars Jonathan Page, Ryan Trebon, and Ben Berden, rode alongside weekend warriors and elite-level amateur racers.

Modeled as a true Flemish classic — “The Hell of the North (County San Diego)” — the Belgian Waffle Ride featured moules-frites, Belgian–style ale, and, of course, waffles. The top non-pro finisher, surfboard shaper Dan Cobley, walked away with a Giant Advanced Defy SL frameset. Former pro Neil Shirley finished first, ahead of another former pro, Thurlow Rogers, while Spy president and CEO Michael Marckx, the founder of the event, finished in the top 10 for a second consecutive year. Spy utilized Strava to determine overall winners as well as the winners of the various segments, such as specific King of the Mountains and King of the Dirt sections.

“The 2013 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride ended up being something more than even I had believed it could be,” Marckx wrote in post-event release. “A rallying point for transformation, a real race, a conduit for new-found relationships, a backdrop for personal growth, a canvas for self expression, an opportunity to give to a wonderful culture, and the most unique event of its kind in North America.”

And while that may be true, given the rise in popularity of these types of events, it’s likely that more, similar, events will be popping up soon, offering even more opportunities to ride and race across North America.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that last Sunday, the Tour of Battenkill gran fondo — a mass-start ride held one day after amateur, masters, junior, and elite racing — boasted nearly 4,000 riders. That number reflects the total number of participants across all Battenkill races and its gran fondo; the number of gran fondo riders was closer to 200.

Gran Fondo National Championship Series
March 17: Dade City, Fla.
April 14: Clayton, Ga.
June 9: Newfoundland, N.J.
June 23: Golden, Colo.
August 4: Boone, N.C.
September 22: Frederick, Md.
GFNCS website >>

Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia
April 20: Monterey, Calif.
May 5: New York
June 2: Pasadena, Calif.
November 10: Miami
Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia website >>

Other major North American gran fondos
April 7: Spy Optics Belgian Waffle Ride, San Diego, Calif.
April 14: Tour of the Battenkill Gran Fondo, Cambridge, N.Y.
April 28: L’Etape du California, Livermore, Calif.
May 11: L’Etape du California, Escondido, Calif.
May 19: Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York, New York
August 4: Cascade Gran Fondo, Bend, Ore.
August 17: Fast Freddie Gran Fondo, Berkeley, Calif.
September 22: Ryder Hesjedal’s Tour de Victoria, Vancouver Island, B.C.
October 5: Levi’s Granfondo, Santa Rosa, Calif.
October 26: Gran Fondo Hincapie, Greenville, S.C.