Gran Fondos and Gran Fondon’ts
Originally Posted By: Dave Kilpatrick at November Bicycles.
Life doesn’t often hand me a blog title like that so even if it’s not 100% for what I have in mind, I’m rolling with it. This Saturday, my friends Pat and Eric and I rode the Vermont Gran Fondo. It was Eric’s first GF, while Pat and I had each done one before. The course is 103 miles with about 10,500 feet of climbing, so while it wasn’t my biggest ever day on a bike (the Garrett County Gran Fondo has that honor), it easily slotted into a podium spot in terms of scale of rides I’ve done.
So why would you do a gran fondo in the first place? After it was over, the three of us settled on a few points. First, it’s a chance to do a huge ride that’s beyond what you might normally attempt, all in a reasonably consequence-limited environment. Events are generally well supported against mishaps of any kind. Crashes or mechanicals are quickly attended to. You can do a bag drop so you don’t have to jam all sorts of extra gear and crap into your pockets. I rode with no more stuff than I’d have taken on a 30 mile after work ride, and if it warms up during the day you can offload your extra gear. Food and drink are taken care of along the route, and you meet a bunch of interesting people, all in an environment where you’re not sizing them up to decide how you’re going to try to beat them at the finish. And typically the organizer has put a lot of effort into creating a memorable route that you wouldn’t necessarily have the knowledge to plan. We ride in the area of the VTGF all the time, and the route took us to places we’d never thought of going – plus it’s really hard to go off course. The after ride meal was exceptional at VTGF, and we had a great time at the after party. The entry fees for these typically float around the $100 to $130 mark, so they’re not cheap, but some races are already getting up there. “It’s a pretty good value for what you get” seemed to be a common feeling at VTGF.
For gear, I used my disc-braked Timoneria in standard every day setup. Nimbus Ti CLD wheels, with 23mm Schwalbe One tubeless tires installed. Before you ask what kind of an idiot rides 103 miles over a lot of gravel and dirt roads and 5 or 6 huge hills and a bunch of smaller hills, the 23mm Ones inflate to 26mm. 70psi front and 78psi rear at the start worked great for me. Pat rode his rim-brake Timoneria and Rail 34s. We talked about the ins and outs of using carbon wheels and particularly clinchers before we went, and he made his decision. When you weigh 140 pounds and you set the fastest time up each ascent, you get a little more latitude on wheel selection. I weigh 160 and was top four on the first three (of four) timed ascents but crawled up the last one (more on this in a bit), and was unquestionably the most aggressive descender of anyone we saw all day, and I would not have used carbon wheels with rim brakes for this. Personally, I think at this point if you plan to do this type of riding as your big events and you choose a rim brake bike over a disc bike for your next bike purchase, that’s a foolish move. The benefit of disc brakes in this application is profound.
Talking to one of the moto-drivers after the event, we learned that there had actually been several fried carbon clinchers during the day. None of them ours, but even with outstanding heat resistance there’s only so much you can ask of a carbon clincher, and white knuckling it riding the brakes down an unpaved 15% section just ain’t it. We’d ALWAYS counsel using a great set of alloys for these kind of events.
The one piece of gear that I would have changed was my cassette. I use 50-34 compact cranks, which lulled me into thinking that my cassette choice didn’t much matter, and I wound up with an 11-25 (yup) on there, and that makes me an idiot. A little bird told me that Lincoln Gap has the steepest paved mile in the US. That little bird told me that while I was walking up parts of said mile. 75 miles and 9000 or so feet of over geared climbing in, my legs gave me the middle finger when I asked them to push 34-25 up a 25% grade.
None of us wore gloves, which is probably stupid, but none of us had any hand troubles of any sort. The thing that we did all notice was that our feet got a bit worked over by the high frequency bumps on the unpaved descents. Nothing too profound, and certainly on a ride of that magnitude you can’t expect it to be all sunshine and puppy dogs, but no way would I do this sucker in shoes that weren’t known quantities and really comfortable.
If you want to have a goal event, or just do something different from the typical race experience, a gran fondo is a great option. In addition to the Garrett County event linked above, people in the northeast can try the Farm Fork series (of which I plan to do at least one or two), while people on the west coat have Phil Gaimon’s Mailbu Gran Cookie Dough (which is pretty tempting…) and there are probably a zillion others throughout the country which you can search for here.