Wednesday, January 5, 2011

At the Birth of the USA Gran Fondo Movement

Guest contributor Brian, from the U.S., writes about his Gran Fondo Colnago San Diego experience.

"Having ridden L’Etape du Tour* in 2007 and consequently having a love at first sight relationship with events of the sort, as a US resident the weekly email messages received from highlighting the number of sportives available in the UK had left me feeling as if I had been in a very long distance relationship.

Thus it was with great pleasure to learn in early 2009 that someone finally had put together a Gran Fondo in the US in San Diego, CA, albeit way across the country from my home in Pennsylvania. I was never been able to ride the only other similar domestic event (at the time) that I was aware of, the Univest Grand Prix Cyclosportif, well, because I am the race director and staging manager, and I need to focus on getting other people on their 2 wheels that weekend.

Sometimes fate or coincidence smiles upon you, and I was able to conjure up several excuses to go to California just before the inaugural Gran Fondo Colnago on March 1, named in honor of the maestro of Cambiago, and benefactor of the event. I just happened to have some business (and family) in Los Angeles, and oh how convenient, I had a road bike stored at my father’s house there; being an event director, it would have been a true shame to miss such a unique opportunity for market research just 130 miles away. Fortunately registration was still open, and I was able to secure my spot in the starting grid, though the ride did sell out (1000 rider limit) the day before the ride.

With 2 rides to choose from, both starting from the same place, and partially overlapping, I had a tough decision to make: 45 miles flat (Medio Fondo) or 98 miles hilly (Gran Fondo)? While I had flown too far to ride only 45 miles, it had been a cold winter in Pennsylvania, and I didn’t think I had a century in my legs. But, considering my last road ride was a wannabe Flahute adventure of 5 hours in the rain at a high temperature of 38 degrees fahrenheit, I decided I couldn’t let the fine Southern California weather go to waste, thus I let passion take hold, and off I went on the Gran Fondo course (as-if there really was any other viable choice).

With a few rehearsed words in English, Signori Ernesto Colnago himself dropped the Italian Flag (passed to him by none other than the voice of the Giro's Barbara Pedrotti) sending us and the leading flotta of Ferraris and Ducatis (we were in Southern California after all) out of Little Italy and onto the streets of San Diego, up past one of the US Olympic Training Centers, into the canyons of the eastern regions of the county, returning to the city, and Little Italy later on.

I will spare everyone most of the grueling details of the percorso, except to say the 7 mile climb of Honey Springs Road was indeed grueling! Once outside the city the route was scenic, and traffic disappeared. The hills and wonderful rest stops/feed zones broke up the field. The ride through the Olympic Training Center was a unique experience, where a photographer grabbed many a rider, myself included, to pose for a photo on a permanent 3-tier awards podium, perched in front of the Olympic Rings.

Those of us brave (silly?) enough to strap the timing chips to our ankles were timed on the climb up Honey Springs Road; awards were given to the fastest times. Needless to say I won’t be challenging for any Maglia Verde Jerseys in this lifetime.

Campagnolo, whose US headquarters are in the San Diego area) provided tech support, and to those willing, beer shots at the 60 mile point (it may be a Gran Fondo, and though California is wine country, we were so geographically close to the Mexico border that Tecate beer was apropos). I passed on the fermented malted barley, knowing I was going to have enough problems with the remaining 38 miles, and the head and cross winds that inevitably would blow in from the Pacific Ocean.

In true Gran Fondo fashion, there was generally good spirito di corpo. Fortunately my legs didn’t let me down, though they did noticeably groan on several occasions, and after crossing the finish line under the Little Italy arch (who needs inflatable arches?), I, and all the other riders were greeted with a cold bottle of water and our finishers medals, before being invited to lunch; pasta of course. Ernesto and family were among the people all day, quite happy to shake hands, pose for photos, and sign autographs.

The expo area was filled with all sorts of paraphernalia from the sponsors, which included Colnago, Speedplay, and Accelerade, but the highlight of the expo (at least to most aficionados) was the show case of dozens of vintage Colnagos and related articles from a group of Southern California bicycle collectors. Ernesto himself spent a good bit of time there, inspecting and autographing many of his labors of love.

In an amazing show of craftsmanship, legendary frame builder and restore expert Brian Baylis (formerly a frame builder with Masi) showcased a vintage “tribute” bike, which even Ernesto didn’t identify as an imposter. This is very impressive considering the number of fake Colnagos that have graced these shores for many years that Colnago has identified. And for those of you offended by Brian’s reproduction, let me assure you this truly is a case of imitation being the finest form of flattery. Brian Baylis is a man of impeccable integrity, and occasionally produces tribute bikes for his own amusement/challenge, and never tries to pass them off as the real thing.

To sum up the ride, a good time was had by all, and the organizers did a nice job especially considering this was a first time event. My love affair with sportives was restored, and I had great hope that the US would take a cue from Europe’s lead on this front. I think it is safe to say, that all who were there were anxiously awaiting the announcement of the 2nd annual Gran Fondo Colnago.

Among the souvenirs I picked up, was a Gran Fondo water bottle, which I had Ernesto Colnago sign, as a present for Brian Palmer at the washingmachinepost, and a nasty case of sunburn, which just so happened to match the color of my finishers medal, and that of the marinara sauce on my post ride rigatoni.

As a follow-on tale, Gran Fondo Fever took hold in the US, with Levi’s King Ridge Gran Fondo held for the first time in October of 2009. Prior to this, I made contact with the organizers of the Gran Fondo Colnago San Diego, and a partnership was forged, where I became the event director of the inaugural Gran Fondo Colnago Philadelphia; 1700 (more than sold out) cyclists started on August 8, 2010, which was a terrific follow-up to the 2nd Gran Fondo Colnago San Diego, where a sold out gruppetto of 3000 had registered. The fever has now reached epidemic proportions, with a dozens of similar rides being held in 2010, and even more slated for 2011. The 2011 Gran Fondo Colnago series in the US will have 5 events, San Diego, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Miami."

*a mass participation event that allows amateur cyclists to race over the same route as a Tour de France stage.

Share your story. Write a story about your cycling trip, or an aspect of your trip, in Italy. Or, it can be about a granfondo experience, a special encounter, your favorite ride, etc. The period for story submissions for prizes will be January 1-February 15, 2011. Prizes will be awarded on a random basis, stories will not be judged on which is the "best" one. Nevertheless, it should be a good story for the enjoyment of all readers. Photos accompanying the story are most welcome. If you have any questions email me at See photos of prizes here. Prize donated by:
CycleItalia, specializing in cycling tours in Italy, the premiere site for gifts and merchandise for cyclists
Enzo’s ButtonHole Chamois Cream,chamois cream for the ultimate protection
FreeBirdVelo, Italian themed T-shirts
Strada Hand Built Wheels, custom wheel building
Velo-Retro, all things retro for cycling
La Gazzetta della Bici, massage oils for cyclists

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