BY JASON NORMAN
SANTA ROSA, CA—The Italians call it “The Big Ride” or “The Big Endurance.” American promoters and industry types are calling it “The Next Big Thing.”
No matter the translation, the long distance, mass participation cycling event known as the Gran Fondo—once thought of as a European phenomenon—is infiltrating the States at a rapid rate.
“Why has this sleeper awoken in the U.S.? I just think there are some really talented cyclists in this community that really possess a prowess on a bicycle” that don’t have the time to train for more pro-type races, said Greg Fisher, editor for Bike Monkey, a publishing and promotions company that organizes Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa, California in October.
While Leipheimer’s isn’t the first big Gran Fondo to sprout up in the United States—that distinction goes to the Colnago Gran Fondo San Diego, which launched last March—it has been one of the most successful thus far.
It has caught the eye of a handful of American promoters who are testing the waters for the first time this year. (Go to bicycleretailer.com and click on event calendar to see the Gran Fondos for 2010).
Last October’s inaugural King Ridge Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa attracted 3,500 participants and sold out in six weeks. Not bad considering Bike Monkey had a little more than three months to put it together. This year’s event is also well on its way to selling out. No doubt these numbers are aided by the opportunity to ride with the three-time Tour of California champion Leipheimer.
“That’s massive,” Fisher said. “It would be nothing without him. Levi’s very much a community guy. He’s very humbled by his riding surroundings. He wanted to give something back.”
Gran Fondos, which aren’t races per se, typically involve three courses, usually in the 30-, 60- and 100-mile range. Gran Fondos typically have mass starts and each rider wears a timing chip, allowing organizers to score athletes over key sections of the course like a long climb. Most also continue in the European tradition of being named after a famous cyclist (Leipheimer) or company (Colnago).
But what separates Gran Fondos—at least in the States—from many other cycling events is the community aspect. King Ridge, for example, features a festival-like atmosphere with live music, a food court and kids’ events. “It makes it where people want to be a part of it,” Fisher said.
The industry is also showing it wants to be part of this recent Gran Fondo thrust. “It was surprising the amount of industry support we got during a dark economic time,” Fisher said.
Nick Howe, road and triathlon brand manager for Trek Bicycle, said that it made sense for Trek to be involved with King Ridge considering the company has taken advantage of Gran Fondo opportunities in Europe for many years.
“John [Burke] is über passionate about Gran Fondos,” Howe said of Trek’s president. “He’s definitely a believer in the Gran Fondo. King Ridge was one of the best events all year for us in the U.S.”
Howe said one reason why Gran Fondos are quickly popping up stateside is that Yankees are bringing their European Gran Fondo stories back home. “Part of it may be exposure,” Howe said. “The markets are ready for us, and promoters are seizing the opportunity.
“As riders I think everybody wants to feel like that pro,” Howe added. “It’s about getting more people on bikes.”
Hed Cycling owner Steve Hed said that although European Gran Fondos have been around many years, they have really picked up over the past 10 years.
Part of it, Hed said, is the formation of the European Union in 1993, which made it easier to travel to the different countries throughout Europe.
“Obviously we think it’s going to be a big deal,” Hed said of America’s Gran Fondo growth. Hed Wheels is a backer of King Ridge.
Catering to the tri market for many years, the company sees the Gran Fondo movement in the States as something akin to when Ironman events spread out over the mainland a decade ago.
“When I was out at Levi’s event I saw a lot of my customers who are triathletes,” Hed said. “I think this is the same thing that drove tri riders to buy aero stuff.” Hed hopes the Gran Fondo crowd spurs sales in what’s been a struggling category as of late.
Ironman/tri icon Graham Fraser—the man responsible for spreading Ironman events throughout the United States—is banking on Hed’s theory with the recent launch of his company, Centurion Cycling, which combines the mass participation buzz of a big-city marathon, the epic beauty of a European Gran Fondo and the more inclusive nature of a century ride.
“We created a certain level of standard with Ironman,” Fraser said. “We’re doing the same business model as we did with Ironman.”
One of the major differences is his events, slated for Colorado, Wisconsin and Canada this year, will feature closed roads.
Gran Fondo USA, which produces Colnago’s San Diego event, has added two more to the lineup this year in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
“Ernesto [Colnago] really believes in the concept,” said Rob Klingensmith, event director for Gran Fondo USA, about the founder of the Italian road bike company. “And a lot of other Italians fell behind him like Campy.”
Aligning Colnago with this Gran Fondo also made sense to him from a business perspective since his company launched a U.S. subsidiary in February 2009. “Ernesto asked himself, ‘What would best define Colnago as a brand in the United States?’”