Are you thinking about taking on a cycling challenge in 2021? Wondering what a gran fondo is, but a bit embarrassed to ask?!
Never fear, just read on and get all your questions answered.
Our gran fondo guide shares everything from the difference between a gran fondo and a sportive, to how to pick the best event for you whether you're an experienced cyclist or a beginner.
We hope this article answers all your questions about gran fondo cycling, but if you've got a question we haven't answered, just add a comment at the end of the article and we'll respond!
Written by John Vicars
1. What is a gran fondo/sportive?
If you're new to these events, you might be wondering what "gran fondo" or "sportive" means.
Quite simply, a gran gondo is a long-distance cycle ride for recreational cyclists of all abilities. The term ‘Gran Fondo’ is Italian and can be roughly translated as ‘Big Ride’.
The Italian Cycling Federation give the following gran fondo definition: a cycling event which
a) is at least 120 kilometres (75 miles) in distance
b) requires participants to use a chip timing system
c) awards prizes to the fastest riders in different age/gender categories and
d) is a mass participation cycling event for all.
However, not all gran fondo cycling events comply with this strict definition - read on to find out more.
2. What is the difference between a gran fondo and a sportive?
With the huge growth of cycling as a participation sport over the last decade gran fondos/bike sportives are now extremely popular all over the world.
Sportive vs Gran fondo
Some countries have retained the term gran fondo whilst other countries have decided upon a different term. For instance, in the UK they are referred to as sportives, you will find cyclosportives in France, in Spain locals talk of a marcha cicloturista (cycling tour) whilst North American cyclists have adopted the original gran fondo name.
But wherever you are or whatever they are called they pretty much all run on the same theme of a one day event, with certain modifications of course (e.g. length, timed sections etc) and level of services provided to cyclists (e.g. number of aid stations, mechanical support etc) existing from event to event).
Not all the requirements of the Italian definition of a gran fondo above necessarily apply.
But in Italy...
However, if you ask the question ‘What is a gran fondo’ to an Italian then the likely response is that in their purest form gran fondos only really exist in Italy!
3. Gran fondo bike race or bike ride?
Gran fondos are not races
If they're timed, it's because you're competing against yourself rather than everyone else.
Gran fondos first came to prominence in the 1970s in Italy and basically took the form of marathon running races whereby all participants would start en masse with the objective for the majority being to complete the course and race against the clock rather than necessarily compete with other runners.
The concept then spilled over into cycling.
The first ever gran fondo was reportedly the Nove Colli (nine hills) which was first held in 1971 and is still today an extremely popular event.
While gran fondos are about mass participation and competing against yourself rather than the clock, it should be noted that a small number of top amateur riders and occasionally the odd professional, take a different view and race from start to finish.
Different events/countries sometimes also have a slightly different emphasis - for example in Italy, there is often more of a "gran fondo race" mentality.
4. What kind of distances should I expect?
Cyclists that are new to the gran fondo cycling scene often ask "how long is a gran fondo?". The answer is an unhelpful "it varies"!
While the strict definition of a gran fondo, outlined in Q1 above, means the event has to have a route that's 120 kilometres+, many events aren't this long and most have courses of varying length.
To encourage participation and cater for a range of varying abilities most gran fondos offer a choice of two or three different routes with long, medium and short alternatives or as the Italians refer to them - lungo, medio and corto.
For a lot of amateurs, the amount of associated vertical elevation is often the main point of focus, so the amount of climbing is always proportionate to each distance.
The start and finish point are normally at the one venue, so everyone starts out in a circular loop from the same point with the turn off points for the different distances well marked and usually colour coded, allowing participants to select the most appropriate route back to the finish.
5. Tell me about the start of a gran fondo ride
A notable difference in a true gran fondo from the more modern derivative is sometimes the method used to actually start the event.
One of the pre-requisites of a true gran fondo is the mass start whereas a lot of events nowadays, especially post-Covid, due to the sheer number of competitors and for safety reasons have phased starts where riders, sometimes graded on their ability, are released from the starting pens in phases.
Staggered starts represent a stark contrast from the full on en masse start where riding in a group of a few thousand others all riding at different speeds and jostling for position can be quite intimidating for a few kilometres. It normally calms down though when you hit the first climb of the day as the wheat is slowly separated from the chaff and the testosterone fuelled youngsters drop the majority of the field never to be seen again!
Which is preferable?
Having ridden a few large field ‘mass start’ gran fondos, I can testify that the first ten kilometres or so can be a very nerve-wracking experience. The speed out of the gate is fast and often way above your normal average speed. No matter how hard you try to pace yourself you do get sucked into the atmosphere and buzz of the event and of course of sitting behind hundreds of others you get to enjoy the drafting benefits.
The quicker riders want to get past you at any cost and you are also always fearful of someone ahead in a tightly packed field suddenly applying their brakes and having to deal with the inevitable concertina effect...
6. Are gran fondo cycling events always on closed roads?
Gran fondos were originally intended to be on ‘closed roads’ with local police and stewards ensuring the safety of the cyclists by preventing access to vehicular traffic on the route during the material times.
Whilst there are still a few ‘closed road’ gran fondos in existence (mainly for the more prestigious events - check out some of the UK closed road events here), nowadays they are very few and far between due to both the costs of stewarding and a general reluctance by local authorities to disrupt busy transport routes for several hours during the daytime.
The exception to this is in Italy where closed road sportives are still common.
7. How should I prepare for a gran fondo/cycling sportive?
Other than working hard and sticking to a rigid training plan ahead of your chosen event, here are a few other tips for how to ride a gran fondo/sportive. These are things I've found make your big day run along as smoothly as possible.
In some countries (including France and Italy), you will need medical certificates signed from your doctor stating you are fit for amateur cycling events. The vast majority of the big events will supply templates for you to take to your doctor beforehand to sign to say you are fit.
Always check the level of insurance you need to take part. In some countries you can buy a day licence (approx. 10 euros) to provide adequate cover or you may be already covered if you have a comprehensive cycle insurance policy. Our article on cycling insurance has more information.
Remember that even though you have received confirmation of your entry you will have to make your gran fondo registration in person ahead of the event. This is when you will receive your race number plaque, and in the bigger events a commemorative cycling jersey.
Try to find a hotel within walking distance of the start. Most events start quite early in the morning and you will be asked to be on the line around 30 minutes or so before the scheduled time. You will need time to get yourself ready and to ensure your bike is in proper working order and also have time to eat a hearty breakfast so the last thing you then need is an hour’s drive to get to the starting pen! You will need all of your energy for later in the day!
I'd also suggest always making a note of the mobile number of the mechanical assistance vehicle and having an idea where the feed stations and big climbs are on the route.
Not all sportive courses are well-equipped with toilet blocks. If you're not keen on wild toilet breaks, make sure you study the course map for toilets before you set out!
8. How do I get a space?
Due to the exponential growth in gran fondo participation in recent years sometimes the most difficult aspect is not actually riding the route but more in managing to gain entry to some of the more well-known events.
The Italian events Nove Colli and the Maratona dles Dolomites sell out within hours of places being released as does the Spanish epic, theGran Fondo Quebrantahuesos. By way of example, Nove Colli, the ‘Queen of Granfondos’ is held in the Romagna region of Italy every May and attracts 12,000 competitors. Upon release the first batch of 10,000 places sell out in less than 30 minutes!
The big event in the UK is Ride London (here's our guide to it) - although it's being downsized for 2022, and again applications always outnumber available places.
Very often the only way of guaranteeing an entry on the most popular gran fondos/sportives is to obtain a charity place whereby you are committed to raising a certain amount of money for a specific charity in exchange for your start number.
9. What is a gran fondo/sportive bike?
Gran fondo bikes are uniformly referred to though in the cycling world as ‘endurance bikes’ and are designed and sold by manufacturers to specifically target gran fondo/sportive riders.
What's the difference between a gran fondo bike and a race bike?
Endurance bikes are designed to be as comfortable as possible for riders who participate in these types of events. Comfort is essential when you consider that you could be spending around 10 hours in the saddle in some of these events!
The enhanced comfort is provided by innovations such as a more relaxed geometry than an all-out racing bike, an improved suspension to reduce vibration through the seat post and saddle and a wider clearance between the forks to accommodate a slightly wider tyre.
Endurance bikes are also normally manufactured with a slightly shorter top tube, which reduces the distance between the saddle and handlebars which provides a more upright and relaxed position which should reduce the strain on your back and neck.
Do you need a specific kind of bike to do a gran fondo?
No, definitely not.
While some people might notice a big difference when riding a gran fondo bike/endurance bike, I've got both an endurance bike and a more classic race bike and I don't feel much difference between the two. So in my opinion, definitely don't feel it's necessary to buy an endurance bike to ride a gran fondo.
It's also worth saying that if you're a beginner cyclist looking to take part in their first gran fondo, don't feel you need a specific bike for it. Choose the right event and you can do it on whatever bike you have. Decide if you enjoy cycling and gran fondos/sportives before you spend a lot of money on a new bike!
10. How to pick the best event for you
Most gran fondos are arduous tests of mind and body (with many taking place in the height of summer), particularly if you decide to take on the long route option of the most popular events.
Pick the right course for you
Sportives do vary in terms of length, elevation and style. For instance, if climbing is not your strong point then the Mallorca 312 may be your best option with three routes on relatively flat terrain consisting of 312, 232 and 167 kilometres respectively.
If you can climb like a mountain goat then the Marmotte or the Stelvio event may be more suited to your level of ability. However, if you are a racer looking for a gran fondo bike race, then there is no doubt about it the Gran Fondo Nove Colli should be your preferred option. Shown live on Italian TV some of the best amateurs in Europe race up and down the famous nine hills to win the prestigious gold medal.
Sportives and gran fondos for beginners
For beginner cyclists or those that aren't so keen on riding mega distances, there are lots of cycling events that will work for you. Just keep an eye out for the events with flatter courses and lots of flexibility on the route distances.
In the UK good places to start could include flatter courses the Suffolk Coastal or the Cambridgeshire Classic. The New Forest Classic starts at just 17 kilometres while the Belles of Belvoir and Belvoir Blast events in the East Midlands have a reputation for being very friendly.
Don't be intimidated into thinking that sportives and gran fondos are just for lycra-clad experts; all sorts of people ride these events. They're usually very friendly affairs and you'll find some people riding them in normal clothes on everything from hybrids to Bromptons!
The main things is to pick the distance and elevation that's right for you. You should also try and get some experience of riding in a group before the event. You'll be sharing the road with other cyclists and the events can be quite busy; knowing what it feels like to ride with other bikes around you will make you feel more comfortable on the day and help you avoid an accident.
11. What is the Gran Fondo World Tour?
The Gran Fondo World Tour, or Gran Fondo World Series as it is officially known, is a global competition sanctioned by sport’s governing body the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale).
In 2020 it was due to comprise of 27 qualifying gran fondos across the world - although of course things got disrupted by Covid-19. In 2019, a total of more than 60,000 riders - representing 76 different nationalities - took part in these events of the series culminating in the Poznan, Poland.
In order to qualify for a place in the annual Gran Fondo World Championship riders must finish in the top 20% of their age group at one of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series qualifying events.
The aim of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series is to contribute to the spread of cycling internationally, while offering cyclists an opportunity to race like professionals and an opportunity and right to wear the coveted rainbow jersey as a UCI World Champion for their age group.
12. How do I find out about gran fondo events?
If, having read this article, you are interested in entering a gran fondo, then sign up to our email list (at the bottom or top of this page!) as we write regular in-depth guides to the best gran fondos and sportives out there.
In the meantime, you might like to check out our existing guides to the following gran fondo cycling events:
Tell us about your gran fondo cycling experiences!
Which ones have you done? What were they like? What's on your bucket list?!
Let us know in the comments below.
Also just drop us a comment if you have a question we haven't answered. We monitor all comments and would love to help!
About John vicars
John divides his time between England and Spain and, together with his wife, clocks in around 10,000 miles each year searching out Europe's finest roads. John loves to share his experiences (good and bad) from the saddle and has a particular loathing for double digit gradients, sub-zero temperatures and red traffic lights!