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Gran Fondo 2016: Cycling event's rich vein of history

From humble beginnings in scenic Italy, event has continued to grow into worldwide phenomenon

By Declan Bogue

Gran Fondo. What does it mean?

Not in a philosophical sense, but in a translation, it loosely means ‘Big Challenge'.

Gran Fondos are mass participation cycling events that have enjoyed incredible popularity in Europe for decades and have grown in North America, Asia, Australia and increasingly, worldwide.

Take a scenic, mountainous course and add several thousand cyclists ranging from pros to beginners. Mix in roving and fixed mechanical and medical support, feed zones manned by cheerful volunteers serving up healthy snacks, 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 and atmosphere — this is Gran Fondo, a phenomenon that took Italy by storm.

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The very first Gran Fondo was the Nove Colli, staged on July 12 in 1970 in Cesenatico, Italy.

This tradition has maintained to this very day, with a huge two-day event while the field has grown to accommodate 12,000 riders. They operate three distances — 80, 120 and 200 kilometres.

The introduction of chip timing led to an explosion of popularity in the 1990s with the growth of events in Italy. Nowadays there are over 100 events held between February and October, with the average participation numbers around 1,000.

While Northern Ireland’s cycling fraternity have been galvanised and given a higher profile by the visit of the Giro d’Italia in 2014, it was the turn of Netherlands a few weeks ago to be inspired.

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In cycling terms often left in the shadows of their more illustrious neighbours, Belgium, the first stage of the Giro earlier this month began in the Netherlands with an 8.1 kilometre time trial in Apeldoorn.

In terms of participation, cycling has always been incredibly popular in Holland, with the cliché that there are more bicycles than citizens. It is estimated that in cities such as the Hague and Amsterdam up to 70% of journeys are made on two wheels.

The flat lands and the picturesque scenery of windmills and small villages makes Holland a cyclists’ paradise. This culture has filtered down into public attitudes, where streets can be designated as predominantly cycling streets, with cars being considered ‘guests’.

In that kind of environment, cycling as a pastime and as a competition flourishes, and Gran Fondo is the ideal competition for cyclists of all abilities.

One of the greatest elements to Gran Fondo is the closed roads. Many Gran Fondos do not have this privilege, but the rich tradition of cycling in Italy means this is practically always guaranteed. In America, the Gran Fondo New York is staged with closed roads, leading to much controversy given how traffic operates in the Big Apple.

Chipped timing, and the ability to have certain sections such as hill climbs timed, adds to the appeal.

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The emphasis of a lot of stages can veer towards one of ‘participation first, competition second’. They are not always necessarily races — some are competitive, but others are non-competitive rides.

A winner is typically declared in both types of race, but prizes will vary from a pat on the back to cash rewards.

The pool of riders will also vary. Some races attract sponsored pros or retired athletes, but most events will include everyone from casual riders looking for a challenge to aggressive weekend warriors working to smash their personal best.

Overall, Gran Fondos are known for their friendly atmosphere: a party on wheels, if you will. Cyclists get to gather with like-minded folk and enjoy the challenge of a long distance route, with luxuries like road closures and water stations.

Gran Fondo routes obviously vary depending on the geographical location of the event, but most courses tend to be quite scenic, meandering through placid countryside, along sparkling oceans or through treacherous mountainsides.

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Some notable routes? La Marmotte in France involves a 5,180 metre (17,000 feet) climb, while the Gran Fondo Internazionale Girodana in Italy is feared by even Lance Armstrong – with or without whatever help he got along the way.

The intimate Gran Fondo Las Vegas is limited to 300 entrants and tackles some epic western scenery.

The French partake in Gran Fondos, although they call it ‘Cyclosportive.’ Other countries that host their own iterations of the event include Australia, Finland, South Africa and Sweden.

While riders of all levels are welcome, it is advisable to have had a fair bit of experience on the bike.

More: Gran Fondo Northern Ireland: Take a ride of the 2016 Strangford route

It’s not exactly a walk (or bike ride) in the park. Many training programmes exist, most of which require at least eight weeks of practice, with 14 to 16 weeks being preferable. In other words, don’t sign up the night before the event on a whim without having done some prep work. Your legs will never forgive you.

Most Gran Fondo events are seeded at the start to avoid bottlenecking, so beginner participants don’t have to worry about holding up a semi-pro rider. Still, with some events counting thousands of participants, riders can expect to get cosy with their neighbours.

So if you are heading out today on your bike in preparation, or reading this to get your buzz on for the big event, we wish you all the best. Stay safe on the road, and remember you are taking part in a proud cycling tradition.

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