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Gran Fondo New York goes global

Gran Fondo New York owners Lidia and Ulrich Fluhme came up with an innovative business model to grow their series across the globe

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In late 2013, Lidia and Ulrich Fluhme, the owners and operators of Gran Fondo New York (GFNY), set out to organize a 100-mile race in Italy, the homeland of the marathon-style bicycle events. The duo worked with local Italian event company Largo Sole Eventi to create a 100-mile race that carried the same branding, look, and feel as their event in New York City. After the launch of GFNY Italia in 2014, other event companies from around the globe began inquiring if they could hold local versions of the GFNY. The Fluhmes saw a business opportunity.

In 2017, the GFNY series will include 12 total events. The 11 regional Gran Fondos — there are races in Argentina, France, Mexico, and Germany, among other countries — serve as qualifiers for the series championship event in New York City.

VeloNews caught up with the Fluhmes to discuss how they’ve built their series.

VeloNews: How did the series concept come together?

Lydia Fluhme: We never set out with the intention to build [a series]. After every [Gran Fondo New York], we would have participants from all over the world tell us they wish they could do the race every weekend, that they wish they had a race like that in their town. People would literally call us and ask if we could put on a [Gran Fondo New York] in their hometown. We’ve always loved Italy, so we figured that would be the first other race.

Ulrich Fluhme: We hired [Largo Sole Eventi] to help us get the permit, just south of Rome. Once we announced it, race organizers from Cozumel reached out and asked us if they could put one on. We knew we had to cover costs for the event. We wanted to start these new events that could grow immediately, because we knew we could bring the participants. Our contact list includes people from 93 countries.

LF: After Cozumel we were contacted by a group in Barcelona and then a flurry of others. It just kind of happened.

VN: What does the financial relationship look like? Are you organizing the races yourself?

UF: We have a franchise model, and we charge a licensing fee. It’s a percentage of the entry fee. Our goal is to grow GFNY, not squeeze money out of our franchisees. It’s a consistent [percentage] and we get more from some countries than other, and we think it’s a fair rate. We never saw this as a way to make a lot of money. Before this I was a lawyer. If I wanted to make money I would have stayed doing that. I can’t recommend event promotion if you want to make a lot of money.

VN: How do you vet your potential franchisees?

LF: We have experienced organizers, we have new organizers. We have a personal meeting to evaluate who they are. Event organization is so hard, that a lot of times, the older and more experienced ones can get too stressed. We actually realized that people 30-35 years old with less experience but a lot of passion and energy is better. We were that mold, after all. I had done small club events but never something that large.

UF: In Brazil the organizer also puts on the Tour de Rio pro bike race, and in Chile, it’s the owners of the Ironman Pucon race. It’s a full-time job, so we actually prefer organizers who don’t have other big-time events.

VN: How often do you say “No?”

LF: We wait for people to come to us, and we get a lot of requests, so we always have a chance to say no. A lot of people have the dream, but underestimate how much work it takes. When it’s people coming to you, it’s much more natural, because they want to do it. You need so many parts to come together for a Gran Fondo. You need the tourism, the logistics, the cars, the permits, the timing, the packet pickup, the course. Then you need to promote it and understand what motivates people to do a [Gran Fondo]. There are so many elements you need, and if one of them is missing, it can’t work.

VN: Do you have any plans to expand GFNY in the United States?

LF: It’s difficult in America with the fact that you can’t have a volunteer stop traffic like you can in other parts of the world. It can’t be a non-police officer here telling a car to stop. So when you have 100 miles with a lot of intersections, it becomes prohibitively expensive. You have people finishing in four hours, and others finishing in 11 hours. Those police officers are on call and being paid overtime the whole time. In New York, we’re paying half a million — actually more now — just in police overtime and permits.

VN: What brings in more revenue: your Gran Fondo New York or the licensing fees from the series?

LF: New York still brings in more revenue than the other races, but every year the global races get bigger.

VN: Your model looks a lot like Ironman. Is that something you were trying to replicate?

UF: Compared to Ironman, the model is similar, but they are older and are such a big thing. They don’t need New York, they have Hawaii. But yes, even if we have 30 GFNY races around the globe, New York City will still be the core of the series. No matter what the costs, this event is what people aspire to do.