By Lisa Ingarfield
I arrived early to Golden, as instructed, to collect my race packet and ensure I got parking. I probably didn’t need to be so enthusiastic with my arrival time, as there was sufficient parking and not a whole lot of people. A little over 300 riders participated in the Giordana Golden Gran Fondo, one of a series of races held all over the country. It consisted of three ride options: the Piccolo (19 miles), the Medio (63) miles, or the mother of all rides, the Gran (90 miles). A Gran Fondo is an Italian term, that can be loosely translated to “big ride.” What is great about Gran Fondo rides, is that they are open to everyone who wants to try. They are a mix of riding with friends, racing against friends and strangers, and challenging yourself individually. You have a wonderful mix of experienced riders and folks new to the cycling world. This was definitely represented at Golden’s Gran Fondo event on Sunday, August 27th.
Most Gran Fondo rides are timed, and in the U.S. they often include timed sections so that you can test your stamina and speed at various points over the course of the ride. Golden’s featured several timed sections–one for the Piccolos, two for the Medios, and four for the Grans. The awards are given for the fastest cumulative time in your age group for however many timed sections you ride through. Awards are not given for total time on the course, although there are cut-offs. For the 63 and 90 milers this past Sunday, they were required to maintain a 10 mph average inclusive of all aid station stops. The roads were not closed to traffic, so there were traffic lights, stop signs, and cars to contend with on many parts of the course. During the timed sections however, cyclists had right of way.
I signed up for the Medio ride, as a means to challenge myself. I did have some trepidation going into the ride about whether I could complete it given its massive elevation gain of over 7,600 feet (my Garmin showed 10,300), but figured I would give it a try. The 90 mile ride, had 10,800 feet of gain with some brutal climbs before descending back into Golden. I chatted with a few women in the line for the porta potty (what better place to strike up a conversation?) about the ride and what they were doing. Both were doing the Piccolo, one on a borrowed mountain bike (now that’s grit!) and the other because of time constraints. One of the women had done the 63 last year and affirmed that, yes it is hard but absolutely achievable. Just don’t forget to eat, she said. That ended up not being a problem for me, thanks to some very well stocked aid stations along the way.
It was a perfect blue bird day and the energy was high at the start of the race/ride as cyclists gathered under the “Welcome to Golden” arch in downtown Golden. After some safety announcements, a reminder that we are ambassadors for the cycling world, and a review of the course, we were off. And almost immediately several cyclists broke the safety recommendation of not cycling on the wrong side of the road as we wove our way through Golden and up to Lookout Mountain. The in-town section was well staffed by volunteers and police, with even a few spectators cheering us on as we travelled up 19th Street.
The speedsters took off once at Lookout Mountain and the start of the first timed section. But most of us took the climb steadily, not wanting to blow up our legs jeopardizing the rest of the ride. As we left Lookout in our rear view mirrors, the Piccolo riders headed to the finish and the Medios and Grans headed on the long climb up Golden Gate Canyon road. This climb was beautiful and intense. It was about 18 miles give or take but felt endless. While the grade wasn’t too steep, it just went on and on like the energizer bunny. As we “summited,” we were rewarded with a nice long downhill into a well stocked and friendly aid station. The crowd had really thinned out by this time, and I was seeing the same faces along the route and at the aid stations. Everyone was very friendly and encouraging and willing to strike up a conversation about the ride. Many were solo riders like myself, out for a long and challenging ride on a beautiful Colorado day. A few more were in teams or with their partners or spouses.
Next up was our second timed section of 3.1 miles around the 33 mile mark. I am not going to lie, this was tough and differently so from Lookout Mountain. As we approached the end, there were two volunteers yelling positive support and encouragement to each rider as they crested the hill. That was excellent and I thank them dearly for their cheers. Riders for the 90 miler had to reach 40 miles by 12 noon, or they would be turned toward the 63 mile route. Several riders didn’t make the cut off because this course is so challenging. The additional 30 miles are no walk in the park either. The Gran route is definitely a time where you have to dig deep and find reserves of strength and energy you might not know you had. The 63 mile course was just enough challenge without tipping you over the edge. At the 63/90 split, the 63 milers looped back through aid station #2 and then on a loop that included the infamous gravel section with the 17% grade. Riders could elect to bypass that section and head back the way they came, up and over Golden Gate Canyon Road, which is what I chose to do. And I am so okay with that.
Welcoming riders back was a beer garden, some delicious tamales (yes, they had a vegan and vegetarian options – worthy of massive bonus points in my book), and lots of chatter and race reviews. For those riders who made it up the 17% gravel road on their road bike without falling, they earned a second free beer from Mountain Toad Brewery. A worthy challenge, achieved by quite a few. The awards were later than I was used to (~4pm) because they needed to wait until most riders had returned to determine the winners. You could feasibly win your age group based on your timed sections but be one of the last people back to Golden.
The day rounded out with a raffle – so many prizes available – and more beer and cheersing from all the riders. The finish line was very family friendly and the (mostly) shaded beer garden was full of happiness and celebration (and some tired legs too). A very satisfying end to a long day. Overall, while this was by far the toughest ride I have ever done – and I am no stranger to long rides or hills, together or separately – it was a well executed, friendly, and challenging event that I highly recommend. It would definitely be worth training for (a comment several people made), versus just winging it, especially if you are not an experienced rider. But the nice thing about the three distances is each year you can challenge yourself differently, building to the mother of all rides, the Gran itself. I didn’t pick up any pomp or circumstance with this ride, just a bunch of cyclists wanting a challenge in beautiful mountainous surroundings on a sunny summer day.
Check out this ride and others in the series at the Gran Fondo National Championship Series website.