WHAT IS A GRANFONDO?
Take a scenic, challenging, mountainous course and add several thousand cyclists ranging from pros to eighty-year-old cycle tourists. Mix in roving and fixed mechanical and medical support, feed zones manned by cheerful volunteers serving up sandwiches, fruit, and drinks, and traffic halted at intersections to let you pass. Garnish with enthusiastic and supportive spectators lining the course. Top it off with coverage by major cycling magazines. Energy, excitement, atmosphere!-- this is granfondo, a phenomenon that took Italy by storm. Granfondo means long distance or great endurance (it does not mean "big ride"--there are running and cross country ski granfondos too). Some cyclists ride for the satisfaction and pride of just making it to the finish line. Others want to improve upon their previous times, and to challenge themselves, their friends, their teammates. And some ride to win. The phenomenon has grown so huge that there are specialized granfondo teams with (unfortunately) sponsored, salaried riders, some of them ex-pros (failed pros). As a result, the average amateur racer can forget about ever winning a granfondo. But if you'd like to know what it's like to race a stage of the Giro and feel like a pro, here's your chance, for this is as close as it gets! You just might find yourself riding next to cycling legends or even some current pros.
Granfondo races are, by definition, 121-160 km long. The majority offer an addditional medio fondo course (81-120 km) and sometimes even a fondo course (under 100 km) for those not willing or able to ride the longer distance(s). These shorter courses are usually abbreviated versions of the longer ones, utilizing most of the same roads, but taking shortcuts to avoid some of the climbs. There are also events which are fondo or medio fondo only (see below). An Italian granfondo is not a mass participation ride. It is intended to be difficult and challenging. so unlike the USA, there are no short, easy, courses for the inexperienced or untrained.
HOW DO THESE THINGS WORK?
Some events are competitive and others are not (yet they still award the "winners"). In the competitive versions, riders have timing "chips" attached to their bikes or race numbers; the entire classification is published, and finishing times may count towards ranking in one or more season-long series. In this type of granfondo, the cicloturista license holders are restricted to riding the shorter course(s) and may not be timed (if so, they are not listed in the GC). Make no mistake though--even the cicloturisti are serious riders: experienced, competent (for the most part), well-prepared (usually), and well-equipped. Casual riders know enough to stay away.
The larger events are started in grids, with the first grid reserved for the top granfondo riders with proven records, for others who can provide evidence that they belong there, and for elite, pros and ex-pros. The following grids are for those with a cicloamatore (amateur competitor) or ciclosportivo (sport/sportif) license. Numbers are assigned according to the order in which entries are received; women, however, are usually given places in the first starting grid. Some of the non-competitive granfondos have mass starts, while others are started alla francese (French style), which means that groups of riders are sent off every so often, sometimes at regular timed intervals. In this case, you may be given a start time. You will probably be given a card (foglio di viaggio or visto di partenza) which you are required to carry with you, have punched or stamped at a control point somewhere along the course, and hand in at the finish.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST AND WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?
Entry fees for major granfondos usually run about 30-40 euro ($37-$50). This assures you, in the least, mechanical and medical support, a broom wagon, and refreshments along the route. Virtually all events also give you coupons good for the post-race "pasta party," where you will receive, at the minimum, a bowl of pasta, a roll, and a beer or mineral water. Others offer more elaborate fare, such as a second course and dessert (the Maratona dles Dolomites is famed for its strudel). In your race packet, in addition to your numbers (one to pin on your jersey and one to zip tie to your handlebars), you will inevitably find some "gadget," which here means freebies/goodies/schwag. There are usually some giveaways from sponsors, such as energy bars or gels, water bottles, and massage creams; I've also received bottles of wine, big chunks of Grana Padano and Piave cheese, jam made from fruit grown on the Asiago plateau, a bag of cornmeal for do-it-yourself polenta, plastic bags and aluminum foil (not exciting, but certainly useful), commemorative plates, plaques, and trays, a really nice embroidered baseball cap and embroidered fisherman's hat, waist packs, tote bags, a plastic briefcase, a bandanna, a little package of apples, mini bottles of grappa and Amaro Ramazzotti, cookies, a logo towel, a manicure kit, an embroidered polo shirt, Limar helmets, a plastic rain jacket with the Gazzetta dello Sport logo, socks with the event logo, shoe covers, neck gaitor/head band, commemorative pins, packages of coffee, a glass, t-shirts, cycling vests, a handpainted Thun angel pin, a business card case, a hydration backpack, a Gran Fondo Campagnolo shoe bag and wheel bag, and a splendid backpack, travel kit, and duffle bag all with the Gran Fondo Pinarello logo! Souvenir jerseys were once standard, but though they may be welcomed by occasional or foreign participants, after you have about two dozen of them in your drawer, they are no longer so desireable (and riders on teams and in clubs, who make up the vast majority of participants, usually prefer to wear their team kits around anyway). Some events, such as the Maratona dles Dolomites, still give all participants a high quality Castelli jersey and vest; others, such as the Sportful Dolomiti Race, make them an optional item. Click to see my granfondo jersey collection (I've given most of them away).
At the large granfondos, free pre and/or post-race massages are offered by manufacturers of massage oils and creams.
Some of the smaller scale events cost only a few euro, a real bargain. You won't find electronic timing, and lunch isn't always included, but there will be free refreshments and support along the route, and thanks to the sponsors' generosity you will always receive a giveaway (such as chain lube or bike cleanser) or a gadget or commemorative item of some sort . There are always plenty of prizes and sometimes a raffle too. These low-key local affairs with a more down-home atmpsphere are equally fun to ride.
BESIDES GRANFONDOS, WHAT OTHER KINDS OF ORGANIZED RIDES ARE THERE?
There are also fondo and medio fondo cicloturistiche, i.e. touring rides, which may be touring competitions as well. This may sound like an oxymoron, but it's not at all: in this type of event, clubs having the most riders who cross the finish line not only win team prizes, but accumulate points which go toward intra-club, provincial, regional, and even national cycle touring championships. Clubs may also gain additional points for traveling a great distance to participate in an event, and if there's more than one course, the distances ridden by the teams' members are factored in. These championships are taken very seriously and spirited "battles" take place between teams. (I was once asked to be a ringer for a local team that was in a neck-and-neck battle for the national title. When I replied that I wanted no part of such tactics, they replied, "Would you rather a team from another region win?" Could I let my fellow Veneti down?) There are individual points tallies and champions as well. Riders with cicloamatore (amateur racing) licenses are permitted to enter these cicloturistico events.
One of our favorite annual outings used to be Ritrovarsi con Francesco which began as a farewell ride with Francesco Moser when he retired from competition. Only it kept on going...and going, for over 25 years! It was a delightful 80 km ride which embodied all the camaraderie, fun, good cheer, and natural beauty that are the heart and soul of cycling. It finished in Palù di Giovo, Moser's (and Simoni's) home town, where an abundant lunch was served, cycling greats were presented, and prizes were awarded to the youngest participant (one year it was the 12-year-old son of Moser himself), the oldest (who was actually Moser's uncle, born in 1914, though the prize was given to a younger man--born in 1915!), the rider who travelled from farthest away (one year it was Australia), and the most courageous, a one-legged cyclist, and a handbike cyclist, who used to pass me every year--going uphill! (He was Roland Ruepp, a world-class athlete who won Paralympic and world championship medals in several sports). Everyone went home with a commemorative jersey, a bottle of wine from Francesco's vineyards, and many happy memories.
In 2015 it became a vintage ride, La Moserissima, which starts in Trento.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
The best part of granfondos? Olympic champion Antonella Bellutti, writing about the Maratona dles Dolomites for Il Gazzettino, expressed it well: "What is it that attracts people from all over the world to massacre themselves on a such a difficult course, which calls for a 6:30 a.m. start, not to mention paying an entry fee that is not exactly small? I asked lots of participants and their answers were all the same: the satisfaction of completing such a hard test, pulled along by the enthusiasm and energy that so many people, all peacefully together, know how to produce! The satisfaction is that of being there, of being a protagonist in a moment of collective joy, of the sublimation of fatigue in the name of the bicycle...Young and old, men and women, competitive and touristic, well trained and less so, alone, couples, and groups, Italians and foreigners: a variegated universe but with one passion: the bicycle!"
On the other hand, granfondos can bring out the worst in people. A sport that should serve as an antidote to the stress of modern life becomes in itself stressful, as participants' egos drive them to ride heedlessly, risk life and limb on descents, and cheat in a variety of ways--all just to finish a few places higher in the GC (of thousands of riders!). And for what? Absolutely nothing! Accusations of riders geting pushed uphill by their teammates or "towed" by motorscooters are common. At the first (and last) all-women's granfondo, I recall struggling up the climb of Passon Xon alongside a woman named Loretta, with a younger woman in tow. At one point we glanced back and saw that she was no longer with us. Soon after, a car passed with her bike on the roof, and we caught a glimpse of her inside. It was clear to us that she'd packed it in--so imagine our surprise when, nearing the finish line, whom should we spot up ahead but that girl--on her bike, just as if she'd ridden the whole way! Riders familiar with the course may take shortcuts. One GF participant informed the authorities of a competitor he'd seen wearing two timing chips. The second one turned out to be that of a teammate who wanted badly to complete all of the events in the season-long Prestigio series, but had injured himself and was unable to ride the final event.
Even more ludicrous, however, is the presence of pro granfondo riders. Real pros and ex-pros often ride these events for training, for pleasure, or at the request of organizers and sponsors, and the rest of the participants enjoy the opportunity to ride with them. But professional granfondo riders are another matter. These characters, for the most part washed-up pros, failed pros, or never was-es, actually make a living by "beating" thousands of cyclists who work for a living. What satisfaction could there possibly be in this? Don't they feel foolish and embarassed? Seeing them crossing the finish line and celebrating as if they'd won a stage of the Giro, is pathetic and ridiculous. A large number of gran fondo riders have even tested positive for doping: The latest (2019) was Enrico Zen, from Bassano del Grappa, found positve at the Sportful Dolomiti Race. Unfortunately, even many of the smaller, local granfondos are invaded and "won" by these so-called champions. I suppose they are paid a bonus for each "victory" or placing, and such events are easy money. Since they have cicloamatore licenses, there's no way to keep them from "competing."
Who cares about their hollow "victories" anyway? The non-cycling public is barely aware of these events, let alone cares who crosses the finish line first. There are plenty of real pros and real races to watch. For many years now, Cicloturismo magazine's granfondo coverage has given instead to the stories of ordinary participants selected at random, to the hundreds of volunteers who make the event happen, and to interesting incidents that occured during and after the race. That is what granfondos are really all about.
It wouldn't be difficult to eliminate all these negative aspects of granfondos: all that's needed is to make them non-competitive. Instead of watching the clock and obsessing about their times, riders would relax and take in the magnificent scenery. They would chat with and encourage their fellow cyclists, instead of trying to leave them in their dust. (And organizers would save a lot of money by eliminating expensive timing systems).
This is not just my personal opinion. The Gazzetta dello Sport, which has a section dedicated to gran fondos, states:
"In this space you will never find GC's: we respect those who desire healthy competition but there are already other channels for this type of activity. Classifications do not interest us; rather, we hope for the creation and proliferation of events without a GC, better yet without a mass start. Events where the only challenge is against one's self, always with the pleasure of pedaling and doing a healthy physical activity."
The organizers of the Gran Fondo del Friuli stated, "All of the Italian granfondos have betrayed cycle tourism. They have become competitive races, commiting the participants to spasms by equiping them with technological timing contraptions...[resulting in] numerous time trials which provide the illusion of being champions. The Gran Fondo del Friuli was, and wants to be again, two days of celebration and friendship on bicycles."
My hope was that more granfondo organizers would return to this path, so that granfondos would be enjoyable once again. It is doubtful that this will happen, however, as it seems that most riders desire a GC, which offers the fantasy of competition.