How To Train for Your First Gran Fondo or Sportive

In 2013, I decided to become a road cyclist. Random decision, I know. I had been commuting to work on my mountain bike and I guess I just got tired of all those road cyclists with their bald, skinny tires blowing past me like I was going backwards.

So late in the season, when bikes were on sale, I bought a road bike. Then I made the decision that the following summer, I would ride in a Gran Fondo.

I did not know how to train for a Gran Fondo. But I learned. And now you will, too.

Cyclists launching from start line in a race after training for a Gran Fondo or sportive
© SD Gran Fondo | Creative Commons

What Is a Gran Fondo?

The Gran Fondo is the next step for most cyclists after a century ride. It’s often called a Sportive in the UK, but they are essentially the same thing.

The definition of a Gran Fondo has evolved, but it now usually refers to a single-day, mass-participation ride ranging anywhere from 40 to 200 miles. Some have only a little climbing, others gain more than 10,000 feet of elevation. Many events also offer a shorter version for riders who don’t want to bike off more than they can chew.

A Gran Fondo looks and feels like a bike race. You’ll see lead cars and follow cars, police escorts, mechanical and medical teams, and aid stations along the course.

These days, riders wear a chip that keeps track of their time, and the winners in various categories typically receive prizes. Some Gran Fondos have designated segments of the course that are timed, so if you go back to the same event year after year, you can compare how you fared on a certain climb against your efforts in previous years.

The event always has a festive atmosphere along the road and at the end of the ride. It’s not unusual for an amateur weekend rider to be cheered on by strangers as though they were riding the Tour de France.

A Gran Fondo can cater to the casual rider who just wants to test herself with a significant ride or competitive riders who want a challenging race against other strong riders in their age group. Where a century ride is purely for fun—and you can certainly treat a Gran Fondo that way if you prefer—for most people, the timing chip and the race atmosphere of a Gran Fondo make it an event for pushing yourself.

I would equate it to a marathon. The nice thing is that cycling is a lower impact activity than running, so even though you’ll be committing to a training program and hours that are probably even longer than marathon training, your chances of having the whole thing derailed by an Achilles injury are quite a bit smaller.

Long line of cyclists pedaling uphill after training for a Gran Fondo or sportive
Depending on where the event takes place, a Gran Fondo can involve some challenging inclines, which is why it’s important to train for uphill pedaling. (© Jussarian | Creative Commons)

History of the Gran Fondo

Gran Fondo is an Italian term that translates more or less to “big ride.” It’s got an Italian name because it has Italian origins. The first one took place there in 1970.

Gran Fondo events really grew in popularity in Italy during the 1990s. Some of the longest-standing events are the Gran Fondo della Cooperatori near Reggio Emilia, the Gran Fondo Dieci Colli in Bologna, and the Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi in Bergamo.

In North America, the RBC GranFondo Whistler in British Columbia, the Garden State Fondo in Morristown, New Jersey, and Phil’s Cookie Fondo in Malibu, California, are the big ones.

How To Train for a Gran Fondo

The best thing you can do to prepare for a Gran Fondo is to ride, ride, ride. Oh, and don’t forget to rest.

The ideal training program (we provide one below) focuses primarily on endurance, but that’s not all. It should include:

  • endurance
  • hill climbing
  • speed work
  • core strength
  • flexibility

Don’t Try To Wing It

I’ve known people who have tackled a Gran Fondo without proper preparation, and they’ve regretted it. (Full disclosure: I may be partially to blame here. I once invited a buddy to join me very late in the season!)

It’s easy to think, “Hey, I’ve been been getting out on my bike for a couple of hours every weekend all summer long. I should be good to do a Gran Fondo.” But there’s a big difference between two hours and six or seven hours. Throw in the elevation gain, which probably hasn’t been a factor in your casual weekend rides, and you have a recipe for real suffering.

It’s a hard race. And I don’t just say this because I did my first one in my 40s after never having been a serious cyclist. I believe the Gran Fondo is challenging for everyone who rides it, whether they’re at the front of the pack or the back. Some just do it a lot faster, but they’re still suffering at the end.

You could just try to gut it out without proper training, and you wouldn’t be the first, but I don’t recommend it. You need to build a solid base of fitness, then include some anaerobic fitness work, and some training that is specific to the race.

You can start by building your base throughout the winter or start in late winter with aerobic, low-intensity riding.

Build Up Endurance With a Weekly Long Ride

As you build up to the Gran Fondo, you want endurance rides to make up about 80 per cent of your training, with incremental distance increases on your long rides each week. Each month, you’ll dial back this “long ride” by about 25 per cent for a recovery week.

The weekly long ride is essential and not to be missed. In fact, if you can do no other riding during the week, you should still do the long ride. Although I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s possible to have a good Gran Fondo when you’ve only ridden once per week to build up distance.

Use an App To Record Your Rides

One thing that I found really motivating was to use an app like Strava to record all my rides. It’s really encouraging to see yourself getting stronger as your training period progresses, and to see that you are tackling hilly segments more quickly in July than you were in April. The other great thing about Strava is it helps you remember your routes and how long they were. For example, if it’s July and you need to ride 80 miles, you can go back through your earlier rides and find a 30-mile and 50-mile route that can be combined.

Taper as the Event Gets Closer

It’s really important to taper your training before the day of the ride, usually over the last few weeks. You’ve been building up distance throughout your training, but your body needs recovery time to be strong for the big day. Trying to cram in another long ride one week before the Gran Fondo is likely to do more harm than good.

Training for Climbs

Most Gran Fondos have some steep climbs, but much more common is the longer, more gradual climb that never seems to end. They will tire you out just as much as a steep climb will. They’re psychological hurdles as well, because sometimes they come one after another and you can often see quite plainly how far you have to climb. High in the mountains, they also get windy.

The best way to tackle those hills is to pace yourself. Don’t attack it from the beginning. Think to yourself, “What’s a comfortable pace that I could maintain no matter how long this hill goes?” Find that pace, and start there. Be relaxed. You don’t want to clench the handlebars, and certainly not your teeth! Just relax your shoulders and keep your handlebars straight. Your legs should be working, not the rest of you.

A good way to build leg strength and climbing power is to take a climb at a bigger gear than you normally would and stay in the saddle as you pedal.

If You Don’t Have Any Hills in Your Area

If you live in a flat area, chances are you’ll be traveling to ride your Gran Fondo, since they always involve climbing. It can be hard to train for those hills if you don’t have them in your back yard.

One way to address this is to simulate climbing by going into a big gear for an interval. You can try doing one-minute intervals at 60 rpm, for example, and then recover at something closer to 90 rpm.

A lot of people tackle the “no hills” problem by using Zwift in combination with an indoor turbo trainer. Zwift is an app/game that connects to your trainer and puts your ride on an iPad or smart TV. You can ride in real time against other riders through virtual mountain passes that look—and feel—like the real thing. People find it very social, and even addictive.

Training bike in front of TV displaying virtual bike race for training for a Gran Fondo or sportive
It’s not as good as the real thing, but VR training can help you build and maintain your fitness when outdoor training isn’t an option. (© wuestenigel | Creative Commons)

Core Strength and Flexibility

Keep stretching several times a week, and mix in some yoga to hone your core strength. It will help you avoid injury and give you more power, stamina and comfort when you ride.

Nutrition While Training for a Gran Fondo

Nutrition is really important when you’re in training mode. You have to strike a balance. Ideally, you’d like to shed some pounds early in your training period to lighten your weight on the bike and make it easier to climb. However, as the season progresses and your training rides get longer, you’re going to need sufficient fuel to get through them without bonking, so it can’t be all lentils and kale.

I recommend limiting the sugars and carbohydrates going into your body in the early going, for at least the first month or so. You can gradually re-introduce them as your rides get longer. Your body will tell you when you need a bit more.

Be Realistic About Your Time

You need to be realistic about how much time you have to train. It’s easy when you set a goal to get really ambitious about how much time you’re going to put into it. However, the realities of life aren’t going to go away just because you decided to enter a Gran Fondo. If you can only be certain of two or three rides per week, then base your training program on that. Any extra rides will be a bonus.

And if you don’t get out for those extra rides, don’t beat yourself up. There’s nothing wrong with rest days.

Proper stretching before and after a ride is one of the most important things you can do for your body.

The first year I did a Gran Fondo, my time was very limited. The only commitment I made was to get out for a long ride every weekend. The rest of my riding was just casual commuting to work a few days a week. If the long ride is all you can do, don’t worry. You’ll make it. I did. 

Be Patient

Your training will take place over several months and it will build slowly. Be patient. Don’t decide that your rides are too short and double your distance without doing the gradual buildup. That’s a sure way to burn out and cause injury. And don’t cut short your tapering as you approach race day.

Gran Fondo Training Program

I’m sure there are many Gran Fondo training programs out there, but I’m going to give you the one that got me through my first Gran Fondo. I’m sure it will work for you, too.

This is from the RBC GranFondo Whistler in British Columbia. It’s a 20-week program designed to get you through a 76-mile ride (with lots of climbing) in 4–5 hours. It’s crammed full of activities, but trust me when I say you can take what you want from this program and leave the rest alone. What’s important are those rides scheduled for the Saturdays. That’s the day of your long ride. Commit to doing that every week, and then whatever else you feel you can squeeze in. The less you do, the less likely you are to hit that 4–5 hour goal, but that’s OK. I’m assuming your main goal is to finish the ride. The Saturdays alone in this program will get you there.

 

Top image: © Policia Nacional de los colombianos | Creative Commons