Why did gran fondos become so popular?

As gran fondos continue to grow in popularity, expenses rise and promoters have to innovate to stay afloat.

In the summer of 2010, Carlos Perez, event director for Levi’s Gran Fondo, examined the country’s nascent market for long-distance cycling races. New gran fondo events were popping up across the country, and promoters were reaching out to Perez to ask him about his race.

He had founded the event the previous year with Levi Leipheimer. At the time, it was just the second American race to use the gran fondo title, which translates to “big ride” from Italian. Like the other events spreading across the U.S., Levi’s Gran Fondo was an American version of the famed Italian cyclosportive event.

“You could tell people were looking at [gran fondos] as the next big thing,” Perez says.

Six years later, the gran fondo has become a popular addition to any American cyclist’s array of event choices. The website lists 82 of them across the country. There are five within a three-hour drive of Perez.

The races range in size from small, local events with several hundred riders to large events that draw thousands and boast an international marketing footprint. Levi’s Gran Fondo caps registration at 7,500.

The growth has increased competition between the events. Promoters now advertise in print magazines and on social media and try various strategies to keep participation numbers high. Some races align themselves with retired or current pro riders (including Jens Voigt and Phil Gaimon), or advertise the race’s selection of food and wine. Other promoters advertise their events as being part of a national or global series with prizes for repeat participants.

Expansion has also forced promoters to find innovative ways to cut overhead costs, which are sizable, due to the long courses. And this confluence of cost and competition has created a debate regarding what actually constitutes a gran fondo. On one side of the divide are races that, like a marathon, time a rider from the start of the race to the finish. On the other are events that measure a rider’s time on specific segments or climbs.

This variation may appear insubstantial, but it greatly impacts a race’s overall cost, as well as its marketing.

WITHIN CYCLING INDUSTRY CIRCLES, there’s an often-repeated explanation for the growth of gran fondos. The throngs of cyclists who entered the sport during the Lance Armstrong era entered middle age (or older) during the past decade. This cohort lacked the time or desire to race in regular criteriums or traditional road events.

Simultaneously, race promoters saw that marathons and long-distance triathlons had surged in popularity. In Italy, cycling events such as Gran Fondo Campagnolo and Maratona dles Dolometes served up a similar blend of competition with life-affirming challenge. But there was nothing like those events in American cycling.

In the months after Levi’s Gran Fondo launched, multiple promoters jumped into the market. In 2011, Ulrich Fluhme, a New York- based attorney for investment bank USB, quit his job and founded Gran Fondo New York, alongside his wife, Lidia. In 2012, Virginian Reuben Kline decided to switch from triathlon and multi-sport events into producing gran fondo races full-time and launched the Gran Fondo National Championship series.

“Our vision was to create a competitive event that also delivers a recreational experience,” Kline says. “We could do a century, but there was no racing.”

Across the burgeoning industry, promoters tried different strategies for creating both new and repeat business. Gran fondo promoters in Colorado and California advertise their events alongside vineyards. Kline’s series awards prizes to riders who participate in three or more events in his eight-race series in a year.

By 2014, Gran Fondo New York was attracting upwards of 5,000 participants. Fluhme pulled heavily from the country’s largest metropolitan center, and he advertised the race in major cycling magazines and bike shops. Gran Fondo New York participants must compete wearing the same lime-green kits, and images of the color-coordinated peloton rolling across the George Washington Bridge made their way into magazines.

In Italy, it’s normal to see current or retired professional riders front some of the larger gran fondos. Promoters in the United States have followed suit. In 2013, Tour of the Battenkill promoter Dieter Drake launched a gran fondo for disgraced Tour de France ex-winner Floyd Landis. The next year, George Hincapie debuted his Gran Fondo Hincapie in South Carolina.

The attachment and association with a pro rider provides a valuable marketing boost, Perez says.

“Everybody knew Leipheimer from his success at the Tour of California,” Perez says. “We eventually evolved past Levi, but the first year the customer base was a lot of his followers.”

GRAN FONDO NEW YORK DID NOT HAVE PERMITS FOR A START-TO-FINISH ROAD CLOSURE, so Fluhme launched his race with an innovative course design: Instead of closing the entire 100-mile circuit to traffic, he instead closed only a handful of shorter segments, which were timed during the race. This allowed Fluhme to hire fewer police officers.

In 2013, he ditched the format and instead paid for police officers to secure every intersection along the route. The move added substantial cost, but Fluhme favored the format. The Italian Cycling Federation’s rules for gran fondos require a timed event from start to finish. Fluhme advertised this distinction in his race’s literature, and promoted it to his growing European customer base.

“Globally, people are asking us for the true gran fondo experience,” Fluhme says. “Our customers don’t want to do timed climbs.”

These days, Gran Fondo New York’s format is a rarity. Based on anecdotal evidence, the lion’s share of American gran fondo events opt for the timed-segment format, where a cumulative time produces a winner. While the format requires a promoter to pay for multiple timing pads — an expense that can quickly surpass $10,000 — the money saved on safety personnel and police is often worth the headache.

Fluhme believes the format is great for cutting costs, but it creates a less-satisfying experience for customers. It’s hardly a unanimous opinion. The format allows for participants to regroup and ride with friends between segments, for example. It also eliminates racing on descents.

“We think it’s safer,” Kline says.

Both promoters perform customer surveys after each event. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both say that their riders prefer their own format.

LIKE TRADITIONAL BIKE RACES, gran fondos struggle to keep costs low. In rare cases, they can boast smaller overhead costs than larger road or stage races. Promoters do not need to pay for UCI officials, for example, and the single-start format is less expensive than a race with multiple fields.

But the sizable courses can send the final bill soaring. In order to shut down his entire 100-mile course, Fluhme spends upwards of $600,000 for police and road closures. Perez’s bill is closer to $100,000, but the added expenses for food, entertainment, and transportation quickly eat into the race’s income.

And each year, the overhead costs go up. All three promoters said that host communities ask for more safety personnel and payment for road closures, which drive up their costs. Kline said the permitting costs for his Colorado event tripled from 2015 to 2016.

To cope with costs, the races have raised entry fees, which are already much larger than traditional bicycle races. Fluhme has kept his early entry price at $199, but his race-week entry has gone from $219 to $329. Perez’s fee has increased from $135 to $165.

Promoters believe the rising costs could eventually limit the growth of the gran fondo industry. First-time gran fondo promoters may see growth in the initial years, but eventually racers will come back only if they have a positive experience.

“People who get into this to make a quick buck might be in it for a couple of years,” Perez says. “After that, it’s all about investing in your race.”