Saturday, April 25, 2009

Gran Fondo Chianciano Terme

Today I rode my first Gran Fondo in Chianciano Terme. It was the most exciting single-day cycling event that I've ever experienced. I've dreamed about this day for years, and today was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gran Fondo is an Italian institution, which is making its way to America with some modifications. Gran Fondo means long distance or great endurance. These races are usually 160 - 225km long, and usually include a Medio Fondo, which in today's case was 88km. Today's fondo was a licensed, competitve race with a field of thousands. You wear a riding chip around your ankle, you are timed and the results are published. Some Gran Fondos calculate points for time, which then count towards an annual series such as the Granducato. Regardless of the format, all the riders are all skilled, experienced, competent racers.

So, Gran Fondo has some attributes of a century, some attributes of a USCF Race and some attributes of an American long-distance endurance ride. For the most part, American road events are either licensed USCF races (including amateur and Pro categories), amateur centuries and double centuries, amateur endurance rides (such as the Breathless Agony), brevets and ultra-marathon rides. Put the best of these together.....and you've got Gran Fondo.

Most Gran Fondos are as competitive as a USCF road race because they attract dilettanti....elite, pros and ex-pros. There are great rivalries between teams. Unlike a USCF race but more like a century, the field is enormous, there's a mass start, and all categories are mixed together, except that the ladies are permitted to start in the front. But like a USCF race, you have to be licensed, unlike an American century ride which is open to all types of riders. Unlike a USCF race but more like a century, there's a pasta party at the end including wine, prosciutto, cheese, dolce, a free "pacco gara" (goodie bag) including a bottle of local wine and many other local specialty items. And unlike a USCF race, nobody warms up on their trainers before the race and everybody eats and laughs together under the chestnut trees after viewing their results. Doesn't get better than this.

Then you top it off with some of the most stunning scenery in the world and roads that weave through ancient hilltop towns like Pienza and Montepulciano. Thousands of people, excitement in the air, high adrenaline, and the most animated cyclists that I've ever seen anywhere.

It was an extraordinary race start with an energy and atmosphere beyond description. Us women were up front, just behind the starting ribbon. Being my first Gran Fondo, I did alot of observing of how things are done, but you can't really do that when you're up front. Well, being up front was only a momentary experience! Lorenzo warned me that the race starts at a furious pace, and with thousands of riders behind you, I was cautious of making any lateral moves. I was maybe was a little too timid, but having thousands of frenzied cyclists trying to pass you at 25 mph was a pretty new experience for me. I paid strict attention to keeping my line, as those in front are "carrots" for the rabbits... At the top of the first hill, I had a technical problem with my rear number was wrapped around and was strangling the brake cable. I tried to loosen it while on the bike, but had to stop to fix it. I lost alot of time, and ended up riding solo until I saw Lorenzo in the distance waiting for me.

We rode together for the rest of the race through fantasyland. Being way in the back isn't a fun place to be, but the territory made that feel totally irrelevant. Going through Pienza, Montepulciano, through quintessential wine country, in this, the country that I love, was intoxicating. We showered, changed, returned our chips, checked our results (ugh!) refuled at the pasta party under the chestnut trees eating local cheese, hams and wine, and talked all the way home. I slept well.

Now I know what Gran Fondo is all about. I didn't perform well, but neither was I mentally prepared. Racing is 40% mental attitude, 50% physical conditioning and 10% luck, as one ex-pro used to tell me. I know I can improve a little bit on the physical aspect, but it's the mental conditioning that I know will make all the difference. The next time I will put on my best race face, be more tenacious, and more willing to grit my teeth and endure pain.
Isabelle Drake, my dear friend and very accomplished ultra cyclist will be my insipiration.