Monday, May 02, 2011

An Italian Tradition Comes to New York

Riders of the 100-mile Gran Fondo will need to ride to Bear Mountain and back, largely on Route 9W
May 2, 2011. Photos, Gran Fondo NY.
A grand Italian tradition is coming to New York on May 8 and will include a star appearance by Italian rider Gilberto Simoni, kissy-face with Miss Italy 2009 and her sister, gifts from a pasta sauce maker, and prizes that include two Pinarello bicycles.

The event is New York’s first Gran Fondo, a race format that originated about 40 years ago in Italy and is now being brought to the tri-state region by a Pole and a German who have a great love for cycling

The style of race, a mass start with mixed fields in many cases combining men and women of all ages with some professional riders has risen to huge appeal in Italy, and is now catching on in the new world.
Uli Fluhme once raced with Gerolsteiner

“We decided that New York really needed this,” said co-organizer Ulrich “Uli” Fluhme who had ridden several Gran Fondos in Italy with his wife Lidia. “We have the races in Central Park, and big tours like the Five Boro Bike Tour, but we really needed something in between with a real challenge,” he added.

The George Washington Bridge will be the start
The top 10 percent finishers of the mixed format race that is a combination of a regular road race and a tour will gain automatic placement in the World Amateur Championships that will take place in Belgium this September 10 to 11.

Computer chips that riders wear will determine their times on four challenging climbs scattered through the 103-mile stretch from the start at the George Washington Bridge to Perkins Drive at Bear Mountain, plus a few bangers on the way back to the finish in Fort Lee, NJ. 

Using the climbs to time racers saved the organizers from having to time the whole race which they said was too difficult to arrange in New York, but also allows riders the luxury of riding together, male and female, and all ages groups, a total of nine from 18 to 65 and over in social empathy during the non-timed sections.

These are just some of the appeals of the Italian-style mass race which could be one of the most ambitious undertakings that has already attracted 2,000 entrants, many of them blasé New Yorkers who have seen and ridden just about everything, as well as cyclists from 55 other countries.

The start of a Gran Fondo in Italy earlier this year that Lidia and Uli Fluhme completed
The other major appeal is the introduction of the first Gran Fondo, which translates to Long Endurance, for New York, a tradition that grips Italy from the spring months through September and sometimes draws as many as 11,000 riders, among them the most famous, Gran Fondo Nove Colli (Nine Hills).

What’s more, the organizers managed to convince the officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close a portion of the lower level of the George Washington Bridge and oncoming ramps for the race start, an act that has never before been accomplished for a bike race in known history.  How did they do it? “Lidia’s persistence,” said Mr. Fluhme. The closing off of the ramp leading to the bridge on 165th and Riverside Drive as well as the two lower level lanes will cost the organizers about $10,000, a fee which includes laying down carpets so cyclists' wheels don't get stuck in the grating.

"The Port Authority is really happy to be involved in the Gran Fondo,” said Mr. Fluhme. Seventy other policeman had to be hired overtime for road closures along the route, among them along the stretch through New City, NY, the site of the Little Tor climb, and where avid road cyclist and Clarkstown police captain Bob Mahon will be organizing his force to police the event.

Lidia Fluhme at a Gran Fondo in Italy this spring
Little Tor is just one of the climbs that give even the most experienced weekend riders groans of pain, because it has the appearance and feel of a vertical wall. Buckberg Mountain Road in Tomkins Cove is a climb that looks and feels almost as hard even if it isn’t.

"That climb is really hard," said Nyack Bike Shop owner Jim Skelley. He knows, his house is on the road, and he has to climb it on every return from Harriman State Park.

Two distances will be offered, the “Gran Fondo” distance of 100 miles, and the “Medio Fondo” a mere 65 miles. Both races will have timed climbs, the only portion of the “race” which is timed, but only the Gran Fondo top 10 to 20 percent climbers will be eligible to qualify for the International Cycling Union’s 2011 Amateur World Championships, said Fluhme.

The Fluhmes took racers on pre-race training rides all spring along the arduous route
The rest of the ride can be done in a social fashion as long as riders make the cut off. "Him and her" categories are also included so couples can compete together, and the organizers also have a team competition category. Riders are paying handsomely for this torture with fees of $231 for the full distance, and $184 for the lesser distance.

Those fees are pretty hefty compared to prices people pay in Italy, from $30 to $70 per event, but Fluhme said the prices reflect the cost of road closings, racing chips, permits and jerseys which become more expensive when you order closer to the event (riders who signed on earlier received discounts, and paid $195 and $165 before processing fees).

A rider on a training ride this spring
Those kind of fees however stand to pay off well for fondo organizers in the U.S. who with efficiencies could earn from $50,000 to $200,000 a race.

The handsome pay explains the sudden explosion of Gran Fondos in the U.S. with stiff competition from a series put on by another organizer with events in California, Florida, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia this year, fondos that are co-sponsored by Colnago bicycles.

But the fees also compare well to the growth in the outdoor race industry. The New York City Triathlon costs $400 per entrant, the NYC Marathon $270 per person, and the Iron Man NYC for 2012 is expected to cost close to $1,000 per competitor.

American based Fondo organizers also gain from the pre-race commercial expositions.

New York's will be held at the Roseland Ballroom on Friday and Saturday, with booths going for a minimum of $2,000 a piece for bicycle retailers and suppliers who want to reach the cycling market in the city.

That rate is on par with the cost of booths at Interbike, the biggest commercial bike show in the U.S. that attracts approximately 20,000 visitors for its three-day event held annually in Las Vegas.

That price is a pass on for rent, furniture, Internet, lighting and security, said Ms. Fluhme who said that the expo was not to make money but to give exhibitors a chance to show their wares.

Mr. Fluhme says his Gran Fondo overall this year will be an investment and may not even break even. In any event he says his event is a competition while the majority of Gran Fondos in the U.S. are not.

Despite high entry costs, the new format promises to unleash a flurry of fondos across America, perhaps each claiming to be "the" U.S. based fondo (Colnago's fondo website is called Gran Fondo USA, which gives the appearance that it is the only fondo game in the U.S.) It's unclear if there can be more than one fondo held in any one city, but given the complexity of organizing them, so far it's been first come, first served.

Participants will also be amply rewarded by the experience, a great loss of weight in one day, guest appearances and many participant goodies.

For one the whole aura of a mass ride adds an element of fun to the day. One blogger April Pedersen Santinon describes the Italian Gran Fondos in a way that makes them sound like one big cycling party.

In addition to participation by climbing specialist, two-time Giro D’Italia winner ex-pro rider Gilberto Simoni, the event will also be attended by Claudio Chiapucci three time podium placer at the Tour de France. Both riders were implicated in doping scandals during their hey dey, Simoni for cocaine, a charge that was eventually cleared.

Chiapucci was known to be a client of Dr. Francesco Conconi, an infamous provider of banned performance enhancing substances to the cycling profession. Conconi was found “morally guilty” of drug use but never convicted, according to several news sources. 

A jersey is part of the package
Regardless of the drug implications in their pasts, both riders will prove to be substantial pulls for Americans who have never ridden in the field alongside such iconic racers of European ilk. Just the anticipation of riding with this crowd of seasoned racers gave some registrants a thrill.

Along with the famous Italian riders will be one surprise appearance by a previous American pro whose identity will not be revealed until the day of the race.

Part of the Italian tradition, to not allow riders to go home empty handed means that the Gran Fondo NY will be heavily stacked with promoters wanting a stronger connection with the U.S. cycling market. For that honor they’ll be handing out goods generously, including goodies from Pinarello bicycles (for the two overall winners), Mavic (carbon wheelset,) Campagnolo (Chorus gruppo,) Limar helmets, Diadora riding shoes, Selle San Marco seats, and Gioradana apparel—not to mention Delverde Pasta, Lucini pasta sauce, and Erin Baker cookies.

Documenting this first ever event for New York will be television crews from Bike Show TV, and a host of other Italian journalists eager to capture their tradition being played out on American soil.

Heavy competition from other Gran Fondo organizers in the U.S. and other countries outside of Italy have led to comparisons and claims about what makes a real Gran Fondo.

Mr. Fluhme who himself once raced professionally for Gerolsteiner in Germany left racing for a job as a lawyer in finance, and now at the age of 36, has come full circle and left his UBS banking job for cycling. “In Italy the level of competition at the Gran Fondos is really hard, and that is what we are trying to bring here."

If you want to read more about Gran Fondos in Italy, read Ms. Santinon's blog Gran Fondos and Other Big Rides. She'll give you the pros and cons of this cycling format in full detail.

1 comment:

Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

You Gran Fondo picture is incredible, look at all those bikers. Amazing.