4 Key Features All The Best Gran Fondos Share

By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

As we announce the opening of registration for the third annual CTS Figueroa Mountain Gran Fondo on November 9 of this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for great gran fondo experience. I have been to a ton of amateur cycling events around the world, and when I decided to design a gran fondo I considered the best and worst of those experiences, what aspects of an event are vital and which are fluff, and what athletes care about most.

Unique Course

There has to be something very special about the course to elevate a run-of-the-mill fondo to a great experience. Many of the biggest sportives in Europe are held the day before major pro races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and feature sections or sometimes the entire racecourse.

Others feature iconic and hard to access routes. For instance, the Fig Gran Fondo is the only organized cycling event to climb Figueroa Mountain, a 3,000-foot vertical ascent (and descent) through the protected Los Padres National Forest. The twisty and narrow road is almost devoid of traffic, and includes (paved) stream crossings, a short uphill gravel section, and panoramic views from the summit.

Right Time of the Year

Timing is everything, right? Or was it “Location, location, location.”? The event calendar in the US and Europe are packed, and some potentially great events are just stuck in unfortunate time slots. The fondos and sportives around major bike races obviously benefit from being the day before the pros race. But for more stand-alone events, there are other factors to consider.

  • Weather: Extreme heat or cold isn’t appealing to riders, and neither is rain. Every region has its ‘sweet spot’, and thankfully they’re not all at the same time. In the Santa Ynez Valley, November is perfect. The mornings are crisp and cool, the daytime temperatures are moderate, it’s the dry season, and it’s a low-traffic time of year, too.
  • Competing Events: People can only go to one event at a time, no matter how great they are. A gran fondo appeals to competitors and non-competitors, so scheduling it’s best to scheduled it when the bike racers aren’t racing (as much)! November is a good time for training and long miles for cyclists transitioning out of the busier summer season.
  • Good for a goal: Putting an event at the height of the season sounds great, but those events become ‘one among many’. I wanted to schedule the Fig Fondo in a less crowded part of the year, and I also think cyclists benefit from having a fall goal to train for. It keeps people motivated to ride and stay fit further into the autumn than they might otherwise.


Great Support

Inclusiveness is one of the things I like most about gran fondos. Everyone starts together. You can choose to go fast and be competitive, or keep a more conversational pace. Even for the competitive folks, the fields and categories are mixed, so riders who never get to work together or compete against each other in traditional bike races can have some fun at a fondo! And you need distances that offer a challenge to riders of varying abilities and respect the fact not everyone wants to ride 100 miles. Initially, Fig Fondo had 96- and 40-mile routes, and in 2019 we’re adding a 62-mile metric century route.


That inclusiveness extends to the services available to support riders. You need to have great aid stations that take everyone’s needs into account. Aid stations have to have a variety of foods and drinks, including fresh foods and sports nutrition products. You need enough portable toilets so riders aren’t waiting in long lines. This was one of the aspects our female coaches advocated for, pointing out that compared to men, nature breaks for women often require more disrobing.

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To encourage groups to ride together and lower the intimidation factor of longer distances, I debuted the concept of coach-led pace groups at the Fig Fondo. Road marathons typically have a runner with a tall sign denoting the pace he or she is running. If you want to run a 3-hour marathon, stay with the 3-hour pacer. The coach-led pace groups are the same concept, only my coaches lead the groups.


Great Atmosphere

A great event is more than what happens between the start and finish lines. The best events buzz with camaraderie, positivity, and encouragement. I’ve found that the massive cycling events with 3,000-15,000 cyclists tend to disconnect people from each other more than bring them together. They’re so crowded it’s hard to find some space on the road or space to talk to someone new, so people stick with their handful of buddies or stay quiet and anonymous.

For me a great event is like a big family get together. We all connected to each other through cycling, kind of like distant relatives. When people have some space so they don’t feel like cattle, and then you make sure there’s great food waiting for them at the finish line, they talk, meet new people, share stories, and develop relationships. That’s why I’ve capped entries to the Fig Fondo at 800 riders.

While I certainly hope you will join me at the Figueroa Mountain Gran Fondo on November 9 in Santa Ynez, California, I think taking these aspects into consideration will also help you make decisions about other events as well.

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Comments 8

  1. Good article but I’d have to say the Fig Fondo took a big step down from Year 1 to Year 2. Course markings, properly stocked aid stations, and gear drop all had issues that didn’t exist the first time around. I hope to see you succeed as you have a great course, but I’m still debating returning for 2019.

    1. Lee-
      Thanks for your feedback on the 2018 edition of the Fig Fondo. While we were able to make some great improvements in year number two, we also acknowledge we missed in a few areas including bag drops and some aid station supplies. We are already making plans to make the event’s third edition the best yet! I hope you’ll be back to join us this November.
      Kirk Nordgren, CTS-Santa Ynez GM and Fig Fondo Director

  2. Thanks Chris,
    Well said, and I’m sure these points came up before The Gran Fig was organized.
    These are some of the reasons I did the Catalina Marathon for many years.
    Those photos probably signed the deal for me, (44 mile should do nicely). I enjoy those long, gradual, (or otherwise) climbs being rewarded with great scenery & nice weather.

  3. Chris

    As a part time competitor, i agree with your considerations for a great Sportif. I have found over the years that another critical element is the number of riders. It seems that even if a great route, schedule, and support , if there is not a critical mass of riders signed up then the event seems not able to make it over the bar. I reason. That organizers need the 1,000 riders to be able to fund the superior event. CTS events attract the rider interest. Keep up the good work.

    1. Terry: I agree there needs to be a critical mass of athletes but we cap our field limit for the Fig Fondo at 800 athletes. We believe that we can properly manage the event at this size and deliver a high quality Gran Fondo that people expect. If large than 800 athletes we find it challenging to meet the exceptions of our athletes on a high quality Gran Fondo. I hope you join us at the Fig Fondo 2019!
      Chris Carmichael

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