Coaches Tips: Preparing For Cycling's Gran Fondo Season

Adam Mills of Source Endurance shares with us some of the knowledge and experience he’s gained over a decade as an elite racer and as a coach to a number of today’s top professional cyclists. He also earned a Bachelors in Exercise Science and a Masters in Clinical Exercise Physiology. He provides his expertise on getting the most out of your next Gran Fondo cycling event.

As the road racing season starts to wind down and the cyclocross season starts to wind up, there lies a scene that is much bigger than either, and growing. In this realm, it’s completely acceptable to ride hard, or just go at a casual pace. The rest stops are fully loaded with snacks and drinks and there’s usually an adult beverage waiting for you at the end. Welcome to the world of the Gran Fondo. They are big, small, in between, and they are everywhere.

Fondos, in a sense, are a type of group ride and therefore subject to group ride etiquette. Unlike racing where you’re measuring risk vs. reward and how it plays into strategy and tactics, at a fondo safety should be first and foremost. These events will almost always have a racer group of some sort and, because they’re often mass start events, they’ll find their way to the front quickly. Racers tend to be more comfortable riding fast in close proximity. That’s not a comfortable place for everyone, so instead of stressing out trying to be as far front as your fitness can take you, sometimes it can be more enjoyable to be behind that group and talk to your buddies. The racers will usually be out of sight soon enough. Then you can start to form up the “fun group.”

Eating & Drinking

Much of the draw around fondos is that they’re usually long and tend to lean towards the ridiculously difficult side of the riding spectrum. Nutrition is absolutely crucial for enjoying what should be a fun day on the road. You’ve probably heard the part about 250-300 kcal per hour. That’s all true. Here’s what I’d recommend as a quick and easy action plan:

  • Eat breakfast. No whining about a 7 am start. You signed up for this. Get up an extra few minutes early and eat something.
  • Eat something solid within the first hour of the ride. PB&J, some sort of bar–just something solid.
  • Drink mix. Always use an electrolyte replacement drink mix. That is unless you’re dumping it on your head, which you shouldn’t do anyway.
  • Eat something solid about every 90 minutes.  Watch the clock. If you start getting tired, eat more.
  • Towards the end of the day, add gels and cola and more simple sugars. If that’s not around, no big deal.  Eat something. Something beats nothing.
  • When you reach the finish line, eat something else.

Yep. Sounds simple. The biggest reason that most of us foul up this plan is because we forget.  Plain and simple. So practice it on all your long rides.

Gametime Decisions

The gun goes off. The excitement engulfs you and you’re riding flat out in a group of people going way too fast for way too long and the next thing you know, you’ve completely blown your pacing strategy, if you had one. If you don’t, here are some thoughts that may help to keep things more reasonable on your next fondo.

  • Decide what your goal is. Are you riding for a time-based goal or are you riding with friends to have a good time?
  • If you’re riding with a time goal, you’ll want to suffer a bit to make the fastest group you can manage. Otherwise, ride the first hour easy.
  • Stop when you need to but keep stops as short as you can. If you sit at a SAG stop for 30 minutes, that’s 6-10 miles down the road you haven’t gone in the same amount of time.
  • Know your sustainable power/heart rate and know what it means to ride above that.  Act accordingly: you’re going to burn matches on the day so make sure they’re for a good reason.
  • If you notice that the group isn’t talking anymore then you’re riding hard. Sometimes you need to ride hard. Sometimes you don’t.  Make sure you know what pace you’re riding and know why.

Finding The Proper Way To Train

Finally, training for fondos is always an exercise in balancing work and family life with your own athletic goals. The good news is that the fundamentals of physiology are the same for every endurance event. Knowing that they’re effectively group rides, there are a few key aspects to work on in your training.

Most group rides start pretty hard. But they only go hard for about 90 minutes. We’ve found that to be the case for nearly every group ride in the world. During that 90 minutes, separations will nearly always happen during efforts less than 5 minutes long. However, after the 90-minute mark gaps open due to individuals’ differing levels of fitness or ignoring the things above. This is where PR Lotion is especially helpful in helping keep the body's pH level in check during these short, intense efforts. Increased sodium bicarbonate available to buffer the muscles will allow greater repeatability of the intense efforts.  

Practice your skills. Riding in groups and descending are the skills most lacking in fondos. Getting better at this will allow you to ride more easily and safely during the fondo.

Finally, stay for a while and take in the atmosphere. You’re at a place surrounded by people who want to get in a good ride and enjoy the day. Make the most of it!

If you ever wanted to try and get in shape for a Gran Fondo, but wondered how, check out this plan to help you get ready for nearly any fondo you could imagine.

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