Riding, not racing, the Niagara Falls Gran Fondo

granfondoThis Saturday I rode the inaugural Niagara Falls Gran Fondo with almost a thousand other cyclists. (They expected between two and three thousand but didn’t quite get that many. I’ve got some ideas why in my comments about the event.)

What is a Gran Fondo?

“Gran fondos are mass participation cycling events that have enjoyed incredible popularity in Europe for decades and are gaining momentum in North America.

Loosely translated from Italian, gran fondo means “big ride”. These rides are often a hundred kilometres or more and designed for a large number of cyclists at a variety of skill levels – everyone from the competitive cyclist to the amateur enjoy these events. The rides are judged by the challenges they offer: steep climbs, long distances and a combination of the two. While these are not races, top finishers are often recognized.

Imagine for one day, the best possible cycling roads  are yours to enjoy. Before you is an epic route with challenging climbs and thrilling descents. All you have to do is concentrate on the beauty around you. You’re feeling fit and you’re lined up for a huge ride with thousands of your fellow cyclists. It’s not a race, so there’s no pressure. You can ride whatever pace you want. You can even stop for a sandwich along the way – they’re provided. And no matter what pace you choose, you’re not likely going to be riding alone. There will be a fast bunch at the front if you want to keep up with them and you can count on local spectators cheering along the way. The scenery is better than you would see in a magazine. The ride ends with a massage and a party, and everyone’s invited.”

First things first. It’s Gran Fondo, not the Grand Fondo but my auto correct has been having fun calling it the Grand Fungi. I like that and often have let it slide. My friend David has been calling it the “Big Hobbit” from you know the “Grand Frodo.”

This is going to be a long rambling post about the things I liked, things I didn’t like, and things I am still thinking about. Let me quote Pascal: “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” It’s busy, start of term and all that.

I’ve been curious about these big rides for awhile. Locally there’s the Gran Fondo but also the Centurion series. The Centurion series says, “We’re combining the mass-participation buzz of a big-city marathon with the epic feel of riding in a stage of the Tour de France. If you want to race, you can race. If want to ride, you can ride.” And in theory I like the “let the racers race and let the riders ride” idea.

Cycling doesn’t have many mass participation events. What’s a “mass participation” event anyway? You know, where some people are racing for time and other people are racing to complete the distance. You don’t need to qualify to enter and people do it for a range of different reasons.  Tracy asked Why participate if I’m not going to win? and came up with lots of good reasons. Marathons have that and triathlons have that but cycling hasn’t. Some say for good reasons, and I’ll get to that.

I’ve ridden in the Tour de Femme in Canberra, Australia twice.  About 500 women and a fast 20 km course through neighbourhoods and roads around the lake. Again, about half the group was in it to race and for the others, it was a sociable ride on roads not usually closed to traffic. But I did that as a licensed rider and got into one of the early starting groups. As a result my experience was pretty different.

This time I started out with no racing license and no grand time ambitions. I was in for a ride and not a race. I did it with a couple of friends and we all had our own challenges. One of us battles nutrition issues and eating enough while riding, another of us was a novice rider new to cycling this season. and me, I’ve not been on my bike much. I’ve been rowing more than riding this summer. We pledged to stop at all the rest stops and to stick together, regrouping at the tops of hills. For the most part we managed that. We did skip the last rest stop and each went our own way for the last 10 km or so.

At the back of the pack, I’d say the riding skills of the people near me weren’t great. Many seemed not to have ridden in groups before and the etiquette and the “how to” of drafting, taking turns, and switching lead riders was new to them.  Rules and common sense say to pass on the left but the slower riders seemed not to have inclination at all to ride on the right. You were also told not to cross the yellow line but few people followed that rule. Within the first 20 km there was  a crash. Nothing serious but still. I gave most of the riders a wide berth and stuck close to the people I came with whose road skills I could trust. That’s the way in which a road race isn’t at all like a marathon or a triathlon. You’re riding close to other people and there are skills that matter that affect how everyone’s day goes. That’s why some experienced roadies hate mass participation cycling events.

Not me. I love the idea of mass participation but I confess I disliked the experience of riding with so many people whose riding skills weren’t up to snuff. I’d be happier being faster and riding with the racers. It might be faster but it’s also safer. One thing racing does is hone your group riding skills.

My next worry is about how accessible the ride was, despite the billing. They say “It’s not a race, so there’s no pressure. You can ride whatever pace you want.” But that’s not quite right. We started at 6:30 am and some of the roads opened to traffic again at 12:30. The Gran Fondo emails in advance of the ride said you need to maintain an average pace of 20 to stay in the event. Averaging 20 km/hr isn’t fast for a cycling club member but lots of the  people there, I think, were not club members. There were people with mountain bikes, recumbants, and even some folding bikes.The average speed you needed to maintain included stops and some pretty serious hills. There were more than 30 people, judging by the results, who finished the course but not the event.

Indeed, there was a car, the Fine Gara, that followed the ride at the 20 km/hr avg pace and it had a sign on the back that said, “If you are reading this sign, you are no longer in the event. Please obey the rules of the road.” Legally required? Sure. But ouch.

As you might expect, finishing times ran the gamut. The fastest man was Toronto’s Kevin Black. He finished in 3:15:58, with a KOM time of 4:47. The top woman was also from Toronto, Catherine Frieson, 3:37:51, with a QOM of 5:51. (What’s KOM? King of the Mountain. Ditto QOM, “King of the Mountain: During a stage race, points are awarded to the first few riders to cross the summit of categorized climbs. Difficult climbs are worth more points and the rider who has accumulated the most points over the course of a race is crowned at the King of the Mountain.” Here the KOM time was his time up a certain hills designated as the KOM/QOM hill.) You can see photos of the winners here.

My time was more than two hours longer than theirs, though I did stop at all the rest stops! It put me in at 165/225 women in the event. (Right, but it’s not a race.) My friend David was asking if a woman ever came first in cycling events and the answer is no. Twenty nine men finished before the first woman. Cycling, like running and swimming, favours men over women. I’ll blog about the differences and why that’s so another time. This course was also made for climbers. Often in road event the person who wins the KOM/QOM doesn’t win the race. There’s a polka dot jersey for the hill climber and a yellow jersey for the overall winner. This was a course for climbers. Both Kevin and Catherine, the overall winners, won both jerseys.

Niagara Fall is a beautiful region. Just gorgeous. Stunning scenery. But when you think about the area’s features–vineyards, waterfalls, the escarpment–you realize that means hills. The KOM/QOM was on Effingham, or Effing Hill, as it’s aptly called. I knew I was in trouble when I saw a radio tower on top of it. Right. Highest point in the region and we’re getting up there. Also, the street that runs off Effingham is called “Lookout Street.” Another hint.

I’ve ridden lots of the roads before as I’ve take quite a few holidays in this region for its amazing cycling. And theatre. And back when I drank alcohol, the wine. It’s a wonderful region for cycling holidays with great roads and great bike paths. But this was spectacular doing it without cars. What a rush speeding along the Niagara Parkway and through the Thorold Tunnel without cars. There were lots and lots of friendly police officers out on the route along with eager locals cheering on the riders.  (Read more about the route here.)

You can read more about the ride in the local paper, Gran Fondo Cyclists Take Over Niagara.

What else stood out?

  • A pretty heavy presence from the event’s corporate sponsors Cervelo and Lululemon. There was a Lulu stretch area after the event and special parking for Cervelo riders.
  • A reasonable number of women. About 1/4 of the riders were women which is good for a cycling event. I thought there were more at opening night but it turned out there were a lot of wives and girlfriends along for the holiday. I mean, why not, it’s a beautiful location but I wish they’d brought bikes.
  • The early morning start, while definitely too early, was also beautiful. We lined up in self seeded corrals according to our estimated finishing time and that seemed to work pretty well. With the falls roaring off to our right it was kind of spectacular.
  • There seemed to be a lot of American riders as it was close to the US border. I heard quite a few conversion conversations about  the 125 km distance. “What is that, like 80 miles?”
  • Vegetarian food at the after party. Wow.  Vegan jumbalaya.  But sadly my post ride drink ticket was only good for wine or beer. Another corporate sponsorship issue, I’m guessing.
  • I loved that the first band playing at the after party also did the ride and performed in their cycling garb!
  • I loved that the Denny’s allowed us to bring our bikes in for breakfast before the event. It was a 630 am start which meant a 5 am trip for breakfast. We sang O’Canada badly, in the dark.
  • It was expensive and it wasn’t primarily a charity ride but I think well worth it to ride on those roads closed to cars. There was a lot of emphasis on the inaugural part and on the founding rider bit so clearly the organizers have their sites set on years to come.
  • Oh, and I’ve never had that many photos taken of me on a bike! Every hill climb, every descent, the start, the finish, near especially scenic bits of countryside..I think they took about a dozen photos and I expect an email soon offering to sell me the package. I’m hoping there are no Effing Hill shots.

Will I do it again? Maybe. I’d like to go with a larger group and all ride together. This would give you the advantage of drafting and group riding without having to mix it up with the other riders too much. I’d also make a plan for managing the rest stops. I’m still not completely comfortable with the ride/race thing. If it’s a race, let’s race. If it’s not, let’s ride and look at the scenery. But maybe that’s just me. (No, actually it’s also Kim Solga who blogged here about her feelings regarding the “not a race” line about the L2P24.) I don’t like people passing me, thinking I’m racing, when I’m just out for a ride. (Read my bike path post on that same topic.)  It also made me want to vacation in the region again with my bike. Certainly, I’ll do that. If you’re considering coming from away for next year’s Gran Fondo Niagara Falls it really is a beautiful part of the world. Stay for a few days and have a look around. Noodle on the canal side bike path and try the country roads around Niagara on the Lake. Head over to Fort Erie (about 100 km return). Read more about cycling in the Niagara region here. Get a map here. Read more about routes here.

Here’s some of my photos taken (of course) before, after, and the rest stops.







16 thoughts on “Riding, not racing, the Niagara Falls Gran Fondo

  1. Fantastic, Sam! Wish I had been there. Maybe next year! Looks like a real treat, even with the hiccups; closed roads are such a dream (and in British sportifs, the traffic can cause problems and some slowing down, especially in towns – it’s like extra feed stops). Effing hill sounds familiar… I rode to Brighton on Sunday, and did Ditchling Beacon, a category-4 bitch of a hill with an equally hilarious name. What was your total elevation gain?

  2. That sounds really cool, issues and all. The idea of having access to closed highways for cycling sounds like a dream come true.

  3. I think after this post, if the ride is going to take place again next year (there are some talk that it’s done), we should get as many friends to do it and try to leapfrog the stops.

    1. Agreed. A large group and group ride in formation etc…..I’m doing my bit recruiting people. 🙂

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