Want to feel like a pro cyclist for a few hours – no pricey bike or ridiculously low body fat required? Check out a gran fondo, or great ride, as they’re known in Italy, where these mass-start events originated. Hugely popular in Europe, gran fondos, which are a combination of recreational bike riding and competitive race, are popping up everywhere in the States and are an excellent way to cruise through beautiful scenery, partake in vibrant post-race party and maybe even rub elbows with a pro along the way.
Gran fondos can be pricey – around $100, depending on the length of the route – but registration costs usually cover a great swag bag, discounts on gear, and a meal ticket for some gourmet grub (and maybe even a beer). Spring is the unofficial kickoff for gran fondo season, which continues through the fall. Here, some beginner-friendly rides to get in the saddle for.
Sea Otter Classic, April 19-22, Monterey, Calif.: Added to the agenda in 2010, the Sea Otter’s three gran fondos complement a four-day cycling extravaganza that bills itself as the world’s largest cycling festival. It encompasses 200 classes of pro races, an international food court and beer garden, and a Big Air Bag, where mountain bikers can learn tips from on-hand pros on how to make spectacular jumps. The festival also features specific activities for women athletes, including clinics, demo rides, product displays, and a wine and chocolate reception.
As far as the ride itself, recreational riders should check out the 49.3-mile Coastal Route, which winds around the spectacular coastline near Monterey, through Pebble Beach, or the 20.2-mile Mountain Bike Route.
Several nearby hotels are offering a discount for Sea Otter participants, and when you’ve had your fill of bikes, don’t forget to check out the world-famous Monterey Aquarium.
Levi’s GranFondo, September 29, Santa Rosa, Calif.: Named after Tour de France star and beloved local Levi Leipheimer, this epic ride draws more than 7,500 participants of all skill levels with its screaming descents, spectacular scenery, and celeb participants, including Leipheimer himself and avid cyclist Patrick Dempsey.
The toughest, or “gran,” division is already sold out, but intermediate riders will be plenty tested with the 65-mile medio, which includes 3,500 feet of climbing, or 32-mile piccolo route, with 1,500 feet of climbing. I completed the piccolo last year, and it was a fantastic – and challenging ride – with some thrilling descents and an impressive mid-ride fueling station.
Participants get a meal (and beer) ticket for the post-race festival, which last year boasted gourmet food such as Korean BBQ and paella cooked up in a palatial pan. And because of its location in wine country, the ride is an ideal complement to a weekend of wine tasting. Local hotels tend to sell out quickly, so be sure to book quickly.
GranFondo Colnago Miami, fall date TBA, Miami: Part of the GranFondo USA series, the Miami ride, in its second year, is ideal for newbies because of its flat terrain. Both 25- or 55-mile route options are available (though there’s also a 100-miler for more serious cyclists, too).
Though this year’s route hasn’t been officially announced, last year’s lower-mileage options started at Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, through the Spanish architecture of urban Miami, and beyond to the palms and tropical flora of surrounding areas. The final leg of the ride returns to downtown to the GranFondo Expo in front of historic Miami City Hall, featuring a lively post-ride pasta party.