Sportives and Gran Fondos are an excellent way to get involved in the cycling community while enjoying a beautifully scenic ride with like-minded riders.
Gran Fondos (also known as Sportives in parts of Europe) are mass-participation road cycling events often taking place over large distances through stunning courses.
Due to their increasing popularity, Gran Fondos and Sportives are popping up all around the globe, often to take advantage of the epic landscapes of a particular area.
Although a few have specific entry requirements based on the bike you’re riding, Gran Fondos are generally aimed at recreational riders of all abilities.
But what sort of event is classed as a Gran Fondo? And where might you find the most famous Gran Fondos in the world?
To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:
- What Is A Gran Fondo?
- Gran Fondo Vs Sportive Vs Cyclo – What’s The Difference?
- 5 Of The World’s Best Gran Fondos
Let’s dive in!
What Is A Gran Fondo?
Gran Fondos, loosely translated from Italian as “Big Rides”, are long-distance, semi-competitive road cycling events aimed at any level of cyclist.
Well, there’s actually a clear and precise definition of what can be classed as a Gran Fondo given by the Italian Cycling Federation. A Gran Fondo must:
- Be at least 120 km in length
- Require a chip timing system to time participants
- Award the fastest riders in different demographic categories
- Be mass participation, accessible to all
Although this definition is rarely strictly adhered to, many Gran Fondos tend to follow a roughly similar structure to this.
The most important of these four criteria is the last one. It needs to be accessible to anyone who wants to enter. The level of participants can often vary from actual professional cyclists to complete beginners.
Given the number of participants – often in the thousands – if you’re playing to win in a Gran Fondo, you need to be exceptionally fit. For this reason, the majority of people who enter a Gran Fondo are taking part for reasons besides winning.
Although Gran Fondos are technically races, they’re not truly competitive for most riders; perhaps better described as timed group rides with a race at the pointy end.
Often, people enter a specific event as a goal-oriented exercise, providing an end-point to dedicated training, with the added bonus of camaraderie and epic countryside vistas.
The events are usually supported, with well-stocked aid stations, mechanical teams on-site, and plenty of food and refreshments for before, during, and after the race.
Understandably, they’re not usually free but charge a nominal fee that, most of the time, can only be considered good value given the freebies, food, support, and experience you get in return.
Their popularity spread through Europe in the late 20th century, and in 2009, they eventually crossed the pond and began springing up in the US.
The original Italian Gran Fondos were fully timed events that would take place on closed roads, allowing the riders to bunch like a peloton, or take any line they desire on the descents, giving amateur riders a taste of the format of a professional event.
However, the North American Gran Fondos are usually on open roads where the riders must adhere to the general rules of the roads, and often are timed for sections rather than the whole race, in order to maintain safety on the roads.
Since the spread to North America, the growing scene of Gran Fondos has become increasingly global, with events even taking place in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South America.
Gran Fondo vs Sportive vs Cyclo – What’s the difference?
Confusingly, however, this type of event is referred to with different names depending on where they are.
The word Gran Fondo was first used to describe Nove Colli (Nine Hills) race on July 12, 1970, in Cesenatico, Italy. To this day, the Nove Colli remains one of Italy’s most popular Gran Fondos, with over 12,000 riders tackling the nearly 200 km ride through Emilia-Romagna.
‘Gran Fondo’ has now been adopted in many other parts of the world to describe similar events, including the US, Canada, and other parts of Europe.
A Sportive is essentially the same thing – it’s the word given to a long-distance, semi-competitive road cycling event that takes place in the UK and some parts of Northern Europe.
It comes from the French word Cyclosportive, another word used to describe the same type of event taking place in France, Belgium, or the Netherlands – except the shortened version of the word in those countries is “Cyclo”.
5 Of The World’s Best Gran Fondos
There are an uncountable number of beautiful Gran Fondo courses around the world. The huge amount of choices can make it difficult to choose between a specific event to enter. However, here are some of the most renowned Gran Fondos from around the globe.
Hincapie Gran Fondo
Founded by American former pro-cyclist George Hincapie, who was an important domestique to Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, the Hincapie Gran Fondos are a series of multi-day events throughout the US.
Each course is individually routed and tested by George himself, and the events include a festival, lots of food, and a bunch of freebies.
The participants vary from professionals to weekend warriors to complete newbies, and as such there are three different lengths that you can enter, a 15, 50, or 80-mile ride.
There are five different events to choose from; California, Tennessee, Maine, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
The Eroica Gran Fondos are a unique series of events taking place all around the globe. The key aim of the events is to “rediscover the past of cycling to inspire the future of this beautiful sport”.
What this means in practice, is that all riders must be sporting a full vintage get-up, from bike to accessories to clothing.
The bikes must be pre-1987 steel frames with down tube shifters and external cabling. The clothing and accessories are slightly less strict but in general, they must have been manufactured no later than the late ’80s.
This makes for an extremely unique event with a distinct appeal – to ride in a race as if it were the ’80s.
The original Eroica ride was in the gravel Strade Bianche or “White Roads” of Tuscany, but now there is a multitude of choices, including California, the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, South Africa, and Japan.
- Check out our Complete Guide to L’Eroica Cycling here!
GFNY is another organization with a plethora of races around the world.
Attracting thousands of riders, the GFNY Gran Fondos are well organized, with closed roads, a chip timing system, support, and lots of free food and freebies.
The most famous of these is in New York, but with 35 events to choose from, there is a race for anyone, no matter where you live.
The GFNY Gran Fondos are some of the most widespread, ranging from Uruguay to Sweden to Bali to Peru, they are some of the most globally-inclusive events you can enter.
They also have courses during each event that range from 40-180 km, to cater to every rider’s abilities.
Tour des Stations
One of the hardest day events in the cycling world, the Tour des Stations is a collection of routes that tour the ski stations in the Swiss alps.
The hardest of these routes, the “Ultrafondo” is 242 km, and 8848 m of elevation gain, exactly the difference from sea level to the tip of Everest.
This route takes in 11 categorized climbs over the course of the race and is harder than any individual Grand Tour stage.
Although perhaps not as inclusive as some events – due to the difficulty – the Tour des Stations can technically be entered by anyone and attempts to cater to different skill levels with four different routes.
That being said, the shortest of these is still 74 km with 2900 m of elevation, so if you’re a complete newbie, this might not be the perfect Gran Fondo for you.
The Mallorca 312 is another extremely challenging event. The route takes place in one of the most legendary cycling destinations in the world: Mallorca.
One of the reasons for its difficulty, however, is the distance, at – surprise, surprise – 312 km!
Mallorca is a very varied island and the course changes from flat, winding ocean roads to long, steep, climbs such as the famous Sa Calobra.
If like us, the idea of riding 312 km in one go makes you sweat behind the knees, there are also the Mallorca 225 and the Mallorca 167. However again, these still are not easy rides by any definition and somewhat restrict the “all abilities” aspect of this particular Gran Fondo.
Now you know all about Gran Fondos…
All that’s left to do is take your pick and enter one!
They are a fantastic way of meeting like-minded cyclists while enjoying spectacular scenery around the world.
Whatever your level, if you’re new to the cycling world or you’re cycling your own personal Gran Fondo every week, there’s a that will provide a new challenge for you to work towards.
Remember to train for the specific event that you’re doing – some are much shorter and flatter and require a less stringent training program. Some, like the Tour des Stations, require an immense amount of training, including plenty of climbs.
But whatever your plan is, the most important thing is to have fun with it!