Since the first Gran Fondo in Cesenatico, Italy in 1970, Gran Fondo events have grown to dominate the amateur cycling community all over the world. And yet, there is a bit of mysticism around the infamous Gran Fondo.
First of all, what is a Gran Fondo? By definition a Gran Fondo roughly translates to “Big Ride”, and are typically 70 miles (120 kilometers) or more. Every year, more and more Gran Fondo events are taking place in the U.S. as cycling continues to grow and become more mainstream.
For many, the Gran Fondo is a rite of passage, their official indoctrination into the sport of cycling. Obviously there are a few things one needs in order to complete their first Gran Fondo. Well, maybe only two: get a bike, and sign up for the big day. However, as you will quickly learn, 70 miles is quite a long ride, and many Gran Fondo events have courses that stretch out to 100+ miles of riding on some pretty challenging and steep courses. So we strongly recommend that between getting a bike and your race day you strongly consider some cycling specific training.
Training for cycling can be complicated. Lucky for you, we are here to simplify it a bit with these 12 steps to help you prepare for your first Gran Fondo. Note that the first 7 steps will help you to prepare in the weeks prior to the event, while the final 5 steps will help you during the event itself.
Step 1: Choose your distance
Gran Fondo events can range anywhere from 70 to 100 miles or more. Do some research - there is most likely a Gran Fondo event or two in your local area. Choose one that looks like fun, with a distance that you think will be manageable for your first event. Also consider signing up for multiple events, starting with a shorter distance at the beginning of the season and gradually progress to the 100 mile races over time.
Step 2: Give yourself some time
Anyone who thinks they can buy a bike and bust out 70-100 miles a week later is either completely naïve, or is in for an incredibly long, miserable day, and some incredibly sore nether regions... Your average healthy American is not designed to spend upwards of 7 hours on a bike, pedaling constantly on flat and grueling uphill terrain. Do yourself a favor and allow some time to let your body adapt to riding. Unfortunately, there is no magic number for this as everyone responds differently to training stimuli. But a general rule of thumb, if you're completely new to cycling, allow yourself a good 4-6 months of consistent guided training. If you’ve recently logged some time on the bike, maybe commuting to work, or if you're no stranger to the weekly spin class but need some time to dial it all in, maybe 2-3 months is more appropriate.
All of this is dependent on your base level of fitness and the amount of time you put in to your training (see below), as well as your bike handling skills, which you will want to spend some time perfecting, as well.
Step 3: Put in the hours
When asked how to improve one’s cycling, it was Italian cyclist and 1949 and 1952 Tour de France winner Fausto Coppi that answered with “ride a bike, ride a bike, ride a bike”. You can drop $10,000 on a bike, but it won’t make you suffer any less, or ride any faster (don’t tell my wife I said that). Time on the bike, or saddle time is going to be your biggest tool in preparing for long events such as a Gran Fondo. As I mentioned above, you will be spending upwards of 3-7 hours on the bike. If you go into a race with your longest ride to date being only an hour and a half, you’re not going to have a great experience and you risk serious injury.
Step 4: Assemble the crew
Recruit some friends to join you… this is a two-pronged piece of selfish advice. First, riding 3-7 hours alone can be very therapeutic, however your first Gran Fondo is something that only happens once, you should have friends or family with you to share in the adventure. Plus it’s nice to break up the silence when you start asking yourself why you decided to do this.
Second, riding 3-7 alone can be very therapeutic (sounding familiar?) but I can tell you from experience riding for 6 hours by yourself in a headwind is about as bad as it gets. Nothing will suck the life out of you faster. Get a crew together, tell them it’s going to be the most fun they have ever had (most will hate you later for this), and spend some time in the weeks leading up to the event learning the art of drafting. This allows the rest of the group to comfortably ride in the slip stream of the leading riders, expending up 27% less energy. Riders will then rotate so that everyone takes a turn “pulling”.
Note: Be willing to put in the work. Don’t be that "guy" who hugs your wheel all day and never takes a pull just so they can look fresh in a sprint to the finish line.
Step 5: Get yourself a coach
Ok, you’ve got a team. You’ve got a bike. You’ve logged some hours on the bike and have a pretty solid base of fitness… now what? How do you dial in the intricacies of training for an event like this? How do you know if you’re training correctly? Reach out to a coach about designing a training program to help you progress safely towards your end goal. 70-100 miles is no joke. It requires a lot of effort and energy. Give yourself the greatest chance of success by hiring a coach with the knowledge and experience to guide you through the entire journey.
Having a coach not only adds an education-based approach to your training, but also gives you someone to hold you accountable to your weekly training regiment. A coach may also be able to identify indicators of overtraining or overreaching before it becomes detrimental to performance or turns into an injury that knocks you out for the season. A good coach will provide mobility and strength exercises to help keep you injury free and complement your cycling specific training.
Step 6: Dial your nutrition
As I mentioned in the previous step, this is going to require a lot of energy to complete. And energy means calories. Remember, you’re going to be on your bike for 3-6 hours, in constant movement. Hydration and nutrition are going to make or break your day. In the training rides leading up to the big day spend some time playing with different nutrition options. Typically you want something easy to eat while moving and loaded with energy rich nutrients. Many people struggle with nutrition during endurance exercise and suffer from gastrointestinal issues. Do yourself a favor and figure out what your body can and cannot absorb while on training rides close to home… or a bathroom.
Some of our current favorites: Gu Energy Gel, First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot and Electrolyte Powder Drink, Skratch Labs Sport Hydration Drink Mix, Honey Stinger Organic Waffle, Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gel
Step 7: Learn basic roadside bike maintenance
Most Gran Fondo events will have what’s called a SAG car (support and gear). SAG is responsible for trolling the course to pick up those who call it quits early, or more commonly, to assist in roadside bike repairs. Now, some events will only have one or two SAG vehicles (sometimes none) spread across the entire 70-100 miles course. If you find yourself in need of mechanical help you could be waiting for some time. I recommend taking some time to learn some basic roadside triage techniques. First and foremost, how to repair a flat. You should always carry with you a spare tube (at least one for the longer distances - possibly more), tire levers, CO2 inflator (or small pump), and an extra CO2 cartridge. Now, this part might sting a bit, but if you don’t know how to change a tube, you have no business being on the road. This simple skill is absolutely invaluable on training rides or in a race and can keep you from getting stranded without support. Make sure it's one of the first skills you learn.
Step 8: Start easy
The big day is finally here! You’ve trained hard, and you’re ready to make your coach proud. Avoid one of the biggest and most common mistakes, going too hard off the starting line. I see it all too often: you hear the gun go off and all of your excitement erupts and you just start smashing the pedals. But then you hit mile 10 and you’re out of juice, you’re done, no gas left in the tank, and you pray you can muddle through the next 60-90 miles. Instead, place yourself at the back of the line and start out at a nice slow, comfortable pace. As you start to warm up and build some miles you can start to add some grrrr to the pace. Trust me, it’s more fun to pass people feeling fresh than it is to start fast and watch 300 riders pass you with ease and more than half the race to go.
Step 9: Beware of other riders
This sounds a bit callous, but throughout the day you will be presented with many opportunities to injure yourself. Cars, road debris, weather conditions, but first and foremost will be other riders. The field of riders will range from elite to beginner and the first few miles will be a lot of people riding in very close proximity to each other. Be aware of your surroundings and ride with the understanding that anything and everything is trying to kill you. Don't assume that the 300 people next to you have excellent bike handling skills (just because you've put in the time to dial in your skills doesn't mean all the other riders have unfortunately), and DEFINITELY don't assume that any car on the course sees you. Just because it's an organized event doesn't mean that rules and laws don't apply - Stop signs still mean "stop", etc. Unfortunate accidents happen when riders get caught up in "race day" mentality and forget to remain attentive to their surroundings.
Step 10: Pack for weather
This one’s easy, if it looks like rain, pack a rain jacket. Most events will carry on rain or shine, so be prepared. Throw some arm warmers on in the morning, maybe some gloves. I would much rather shed layers than wish I had packed them. On a side note, know how to ride in inclement weather. Take those turns slow and stay off the paint/lines (it's slick).
Step 11: Stay on top of your nutrition
I cannot stress this enough. Whether you’re hungry or not, eat. Whether you’re thirsty or not, drink. Eat, drink, repeat. Just keep repeating this statement in your mind. I personally set an alarm on my watch to remind me to eat a GU packet every 25min. Also, keep in mind that race day is not the day to try something new. No matter how tasty that hot dog might look, if you didn’t train with it, don’t eat it. It’s not worth it. Pack your own nutrition and pack what you know your body likes.
Step 12: It’s not a race
Ok, I know I keep referring to it as a “race” or “race day”, but don’t let that fool you. Gran Fondo events, though often timed, are rarely considered a race. There will be a lot of intimidating people in matching spandex*, don’t let it get to you. This is a test of your determination, hard work and strength, don’t ruin it by getting caught up in the race mentality. Get out there, have fun, make some new friends and enjoy the scenery.
*That being said, I can't stress enough the importance of a good chamois (nice pair of shorts). Your bum will thank you.
Step 13: Recover
(I know, we said 12 steps.)
This step seems simple enough but cannot be overstated. You just rode 70-100 miles, kick back, relax and give yourself a pat on the back. It’s ok to wear that finishers medal for a few days, but don’t forget to stay hydrated in the days following your first Gran Fondo, and keep up on your stretches and mobility. Once you feel ready, get back on the bike and get ready for the next one.