woman cyclist riding uphill

Tips for Success in Gran Fondos and Mixed Fields

By Julia Priest, CTS Coach

Before Gran Fondos and gravel events grew in popularity, male and female cyclists of all abilities had few opportunities to compete together on the road, dirt, or velodrome. Sure, non-competitive century rides and charity events always had mixed fields, but once there was a competitive element to a cycling event fields were divided up by sex and category. Gran Fondos changed that dynamic by combining all fields into one mass-start event and, unlike road races, allowing riders of any sex and ability level to work together. What fun! Succeeding and achieving your goals in a field of men and women of varying ability presents some new challenges and opportunities, so here are some tips to help you out.

Start like you mean it

Most Fondos have a first come, first served layout at the start line. If you know you can ride at the front of the field be sure to position yourself close to the start line. The front group in a Gran Fondo often starts hard (after a neutral rollout) to create a separation and leave the majority of the field behind. You want to start near the front to have a better chance of staying ahead of this split. This may mean getting to the start line early, so you may want to bring a old jacket you can peel off and hand to a friend right before starting.

Position Yourself Wisely

Don’t make your job harder than it is. Racing a Gran Fondo depends on how you manage your efforts. There is no reason to burn matches trying to move forward in the first 10 miles when you could have started there. Commonly, a Gran Fondo will have a neutral roll out. It is important to hold you positioning in the group during this neutral roll out, which takes more skill and focus than it does physical strength.

Once the groups start to split, keep your head on a swivel so you don’t get caught behind a gap. Remember, fondos have riders of all strength and ability levels, so you can’t always trust the rider ahead of you is strong enough to hold the wheel. If a gap opens up, act quickly and get across it and back onto a wheel; the longer you wait the more energy you’ll burn getting across. 

Pace Groups

At the CTS Figueroa Mountain Gran Fondo on November 10, 2018 in Santa Ynez, CA, we are going to have coach-led pace groups based on estimated finish time. Much like they have in running marathons, the coach leading the group will maintain the pace necessary to finish with a specific goal time, enabling riders to stick with a group with similar goals. No one is required to stay with a pace group, but as coaches we look forward to utilizing these pace groups to help athletes challenge themselves, work together, and have a great experience on the bike!  Register for the Figueroa Mountain Gran Fondo today!

Know the course

Knowing the course is one of the least physical things you can do and one of the most beneficial when racing a Gran Fondo. Be sure to know where the hardest climbs are, where the aid stations are, where the technical parts of the course are and what the finish line is like. Be sure to identify parts of the course where it will be worthwhile to work at threshold or higher in order to stay with the group. Equally important is identifying areas of the course where you need to ride at your own pace. For a ride like the Fig Fondo, staying with the front of the race to the base of the climb will be in your best interest. You will have much of the group behind you and you will be able to latch on to those riders at the top of the climb. The climb will be selective because of its length. Ride the climb as hard as you can without blowing up and then immediately look for a group to ride in.

Know Who’s Who

Consider doing a little research on who is attending the Gran Fondo. You will want to know both the males and females attending. The men in contention for the win will dictate the pace for you, particularly at the start. The more you know about the ability and fitness levels of the men attending the Gran Fondo, the better you can anticipate the starting pace/effort. Female cyclists should research the women registered, as well, as they will be who you are racing to the line… know what you are in for. Both male and female cyclists should look at the start list for cyclists they know who have similar or slightly greater abilities, and try to work with them through the day.

Power in numbers

Whenever possible utilize a group of cyclists to your advantage. If you find yourself in no-one’s-land, don’t blindly hammer yourself into a pulp. Take a look behind you for a group coming your way. While you’re waiting for them to catch you, use the time as an opportunity to eat and drink. You’re going to need the energy because it’s likely you will need to be one of the driving forces in the group. You may need to do a little work to initiate a group to ride and work together, but once the group has been established and is functioning remember to reduce your workload so you’re not over-committed.

Take Smart Pulls

When you find yourself riding in a strong group, decide whether you can/will contribute to a rotating paceline. If you are not strong enough to take a pull at the speed of the group, either pull through immediately or stay out of the rotation altogether. Instead, sit on the back of the group and allow the group to rotate without slowing them down. Odds are they would rather have you sit on the back than slow the rotation of the paceline. Remember to analyze how much work you are doing in a group. Even if you are taking pulls, there are no extra points for taking longer pulls.

Pick a Big Draft

Be smart about your position in a rotating paceline. Size matters. For a better draft, position yourself on the wheel of a bigger rider. If you are the big rider, do yourself a favor and don’t sit on the smallest person’s wheel. If you are on the smaller side, take advantage of your smaller stature in the group and get small. Ride in the drops in the group and try to catch as little wind as possible, especially in fast sections of road. This will slightly reduce your overall workload.

Fuel Quickly

If you are going for a fast time or competitive placing, plan on stopping as few times as possible. Take enough food with you to get you, at minimum, to the second aid station on course. Due to the initial pace and group you’re riding with, you’re likely to hit the first aid station before you need anything. If the selection has placed you in a strong group, your group could try to all agree upon which aid station to stop at. If you leave an aid station solo and it’s early in the ride, with no one in sight down the road, sit up and ride easy until the next group catches you. When you stop to fuel be direct and to the point. You should know exactly what you want when you arrive to the aid station. The volunteers can be a resource to quickly assist you with bottle refills. And try to gear your bike down before coming to a complete stop at the aid station. Gear yourself in the gear you’d like to start in when leaving the aid station.

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Eating Strategies

Early and often, it’s that simple. To ride at the front of a fondo you’ll likely be riding at a power that results in a higher-than-normal kilojoule expenditure. This high-paced riding can make it easy to get behind in both your eating and drinking. Make sure your food is easily accessible. Try not to worry so much about exactly what or even how much you are eating, but that you are eating. Look down the road for places where your work rate will be low in the group as a good spot to eat and chew. Moderate, straight descents are a good place to eat and drink, but be careful about fiddling with wrappers and bottles during twisting, fast descents.

Nature Breaks

When you gotta go, you gotta go, but hopefully this is timed with one of your other stops for fuel refill. The less you stop the bike the better your overall time. If you’re in a hurry and arrive to the aid station with a friend, give him/her your bottles to refill and put back on your bike while you hit the porto-jon. If you need food, give that person a shopping list. A quick streamlined visit can save you minutes, especially if it means leaving the aid station with a strong group. And it may sound silly, but try to minimize how far you have to walk in your cycling shoes. If you’re there for a nature break, pick the bike rack or parking spot as close to the bathrooms as possible. If there is anything slow about cycling, it’s walking in cycling shoes.

Nature Break Advice for Women

For women like me, who wear bib shorts, here’s a tip for speeding up your pit stop. Wonder Woman might have changed clothes quickly in small spaces (or was that Superman?), but getting out of a sweaty jersey in a porto-john can be… tricky. To save time, take your jersey off before you leave your bike and lay it open across the handle bars. Go do your thing and then get back out, jersey zipped up, and roll.

Unplanned Bathroom Breaks

What about unplanned nature stops? Ducking into the woods is not ideal, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Just don’t end up on the national news like Colorado Springs’ Mad Pooper! The issue of public urination has always been a conundrum for endurance athletes – men and women – because we train and compete in places where the nearest public bathroom could be miles away. Stopping in the bushes shouldn’t be your first choice, but if there’s no other choice, at least be as discreet as possible.

Learn to Read the group

Part of riding and racing is knowing what is going on around you. Try to identify the cyclists in your group who are riding the best, who have been fueling, and who are predictable. Align yourself so you have access to their wheels. When the group is not rotating, try to maintain a draft-heavy position in the front third of the group. When you find yourself racing for the podium, you also need to note where your closest competitor is and how to either ride up to her or keep her behind you. You’ll have to read the group and make decisions. Participating in competitive group rides before your Gran Fondo will give you opportunity to refine your tactical skills.

Gran Fondos are challenging and a ton of fun. With these tips in mind you will have an extra edge for a rewarding finish at your next Gran Fondo.

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Comments 5

  1. Excellent advice, first to last, especially (for guys like me) where to place myself near the start line. Thanks, Julia.

  2. Right on Julia. I’ve competed in 4 or 5 Gran Fondos a year and your advice is spot on. Over the years, I’ve made all the mistakes too. Like falling off the back of the breakaway group and blowing up trying to get back on rather than ease for the next group. Often times, the next group is just as fast but they didn’t form up after the mass start as fast as the breakaway group. They are just as determined to bridge as I am. Another point is to always play to your strengths. If a strong climber you can use it to your advantage, If you are a great descender, and the fondo has long descents and there is a split on the previous climb, that’s a perfect time to make up ground on the next group or to get back on. Your last point, Reading the Group is well taken. I’ve missed opportunities because I didn’t notice who was the stronger and weaker elements of the group. Getting behind the wrong people and missing a break/attack is tough. Thanks again,

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