Mass-participation cycling events are reaching previously unheard-of levels of popularity. Cyclist gets to the bottom of why the gran fondo is becoming the new rising star…
Words: NICK SQUILLARI
One million dollars. Even without saying it in Doctor Evil’s voice, it’s an impressive figure. And sure, it’s New Taiwanese Dollars, but that’s still nearly $43,000 Aussie. A lot of coin for a race win. Hell, it’s not even a bad annual income in a lot of western countries. However, this isn’t the payday for a World Tour race, but rather the cheque received by the winner of the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
A recent addition to the upper echelon of Gran Fondos, the Taiwan KOM Challenge started in 2010 and has rapidly grown in calibre. This year’s Challenge was won by previous stage winner at the Giro d’Italia Damien Monier, while defending Vuelta a Espana KOM jersey winner Omar Fraile battled valiantly up the 87km-long peak. Start-lists this talent-packed are common in Europe, where Gran Fondos are well-established, but the rapid rise in popularity of events both abroad and at home begs the question: are we witnessing the rise of the Gran Fondo?
Gran Fondo Nove Colli – set in stunning Cesenatico, Italy – attracts more than 12,000 entrants. It recently sold out the next edition in four minutes. Four. How many events – sporting or otherwise – sell out that quickly? The Rolling Stones, maybe. The Superbowl would come close. Tell someone outside of cycling that a bicycle ride manages to match the sales of those events and they’ll think you’re mad. Honestly, even I was initially a little stunned when I learned of it. But when you consider the enormous popularity of La Marmotte, Etape du Tour, Mont Blanc, Gran Fondo Giordana, etc. – along with the immediate (and expanding) popularity of Haute Route – and it should come as no real surprise that tickets for one of the most sought-after Fondos disappear so quickly.
What is it, then, that has made these events – so popular in Europe – gain increasing popularity in Australia? Gran Fondo-type events are nothing new. They’re perhaps not as numerous, but Around the Bay in a Day in Victoria has run for over 20 years and has grown into a multi-distance challenge for thousands. The Great Victorian Bike Ride and Murray to Moyne both also have long and proud histories.
Multi-day events, like Bay in a Day, raise money and awareness for charities or chosen organisations. None of these events are timed. They’re not races. You enter with your mates. You take to the start line without fear that your heart rate will red line the moment the flag drops and will stay that way until you cross the line. You’ll actually get to appreciate and enjoy your surroundings – instead of focusing on the next 200m of road and the rider in front. And you can stop whenever you need to eat, drink and take some snaps. It’s the most organised of bunch rides.
All of the races mentioned so far, and others like them, constitute noble causes, no doubt. But there’s a certain pizzazz – a romance – that is missing. That element of pushing yourself against the clock, against the terrain, or against others. Gran Fondos/sportives are a similar format to the above, and technically are not races either. The difference is they are both timed and, on occasion, have prizes on offer, be it money, qualification for future events (like Amy’s Gran Fondo and the UWCT), or memorabilia to publicly recognise and celebrate completing an event under a certain time. It’s basically taking the competitive aspect of traditional bike racing, stripping away the ultimate placing focus, and repackaging it as a personal challenge. What more you want to make of it is up to you. With the stigma of not winning removed, the cost of a race licence one less hurdle for entry, and the atmosphere one of encouragement and achievement ever-present, it’s easy to understand their popularity in Europe and their increasing growth around the rest of the world.
As a society, we vote with our feet. You need look at the rise of cycling in general. The ‘new golf’ is the well-worn cliché. The Tour Down Under has gone from an easy earlyseason opener for the professionals to a flat-out WorldTour race, driven in large part by the fan support. Cyclists flock to South Australia for a week of sun, food and Euro racing. Fans want to see action, and the tourism boost has become such that other states now want a piece of the pie. And while not quite Willunga Hill in terms of crowd volumes, the Sun Tour stage up Arthur’s Seat has breathed new life into the historic race.
I was at the stage starts for two of the 2009 editions, won by Bradley Wiggins, fourth at that year’s Tour de France. There was only me, a couple of grades of school children and a couple of dozen adults (at most) at the stage start in Colac. He threw me his leaders jersey, which I later got signed at the time trial in Geelong. The crowds were so small I could get to Sir Wiggins! I cheekily walked into the riders area and asked for his autograph.
Could you imagine similar scenes if, say, 2015 Tour de France fourth-place-getter Vicenzo Nibali came and raced in Australia this summer? Even in sleepy old Colac you’d be mobbed trying to grab a tossed jersey. Crowds would be so deep that grabbing a signature would be a real mission. And all this before you throw in the extra UCI race Australia now has, named in honour of Cadel Evans, the man so instrumental in bringing cycling into the spotlight.
Racing is now popular, aspirational. Recreational cyclists wanted to roll in a peloton, tackle epic climbs and be measured against fellow riders without the complete buy-in that comes with racing. A bit like sliders, they wanted the ‘hamburger’ taste but without the full commitment. Gran Fondos offer precisely this. It’s no mere coincidence their popularity is following the same trend as professional cycling. It’s why sportives are already so popular in Europe and the reason behind the rapid rise of new events like Haute Route, where you tackle the famed French cols and mountain passes seen in the Tour de France – just like the pros.
Most riders can take on a challenge, but few take on the epic ones. Pushing themselves to the limits of their cycling ability. In 2010 our first riders took on the peaks in Victoria’s rugged High Country. Riders were pushed to their limits and beyond, but still rose to the challenge. The legend of the series was born. It’s not a race – it’s much more than that. It’s the ultimate personal challenge.
Emulating your heroes
Before I started racing, I rode Around the Bay. It was 2009. There were not as many distance options as are on offer in 2015, and there were less riders in total. It was the hardest day I’d ever done on a bike; I experienced every emotion. The exhilaration of chopping turns with a bunch that was flying, my first time going too deep and bonking, the relief of hitting a feed zone, and the satisfaction of recovering and storming home. I was the epitome of the aforementioned aspirational cyclist. As an avid fan, a sportive like Around the Bay finally gave me the real-life taste of what it might be like for the heroes I stayed up late into the night watching.
Interestingly, 2009 was similar to 2015 in that both were very nearly 100 per cent sold out across all distances – except that the ride options on offer in 2015 exceeded those six years earlier. It’s a sign of healthy growth. Additionally, Falls Creek Peaks Challenge sells out earlier every year. I spoke with riders after this year’s event; they make soft bookings for their accommodation before they leave (taking a guess at the dates), and purchase entry as soon as tickets are on sale. It’s no Nove Colli, but I imagine the time during which tickets are on sale will soon be measured in hours instead of days.
All this popularity sees benefits to more than just cycling. The income generated through tourism is enormous – a fact not lost on Tourism Victoria. In 2010, it released its Cycle Action Tourism Plan. The estimate in for the 2010 year was that $362 million was spent by cycling tourists. The action plan was to facilitate ways of increasing that over the following five years.
I recall travelling to Bright with a mate in late October 2012 – my first trip to the Victorian alps. It wasn’t my idea, but it seemed like a great way to spend a week. We stumbled across the 7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge. Not many people back home knew about it, and heading to Bright wasn’t commonplace. Fast forward only two years and riders are flocking to the alps as soon as enough snow has melted. The 7 Peaks Challenge – a choose-your own-adventure-style sportive where the aim is to tick off all seven Victorian climbs (a brilliant tourism initiative) – is in full swing. So too is training for the Peaks Challenge Gold Coast held in August this year. Bright and the surrounding towns are now absolutely pumping; it was only a few years ago that the melting snow signalled the end of tourist season. And to be certain, there’s no better way to guarantee the continuation of your favourite Gran Fondo than by having the local government benefit from hordes of lycra-clad visitors boosting tourism revenue in the town.
Gran Fondos also represent a huge opportunity for marketing cross-over. The 30-50 age bracket is the primary demographic within which riders fall. These rides are many things – cheap, however, is not one. Even if you live within driving distance of your chosen event there are still the trips away for training and preparation; the latest equipment riders need to have (you don’t see the pros conquering the cols with a 10-year-old bike in battered kit and dirty bar tape); the accommodation for the night before (and possibly after). And that’s on top of the cost of the ticket itself.
Thirty years and above lends itself to disposable income (and possibly wanting to relive a childhood dream, but I digress), so what better opportunity for non-cycling brands to hit a key market? Bupa sponsors Around the Bay and the Tour Down Under Challenge Tour. Momentum Energy sponsors the Cadel Road Race People’s Ride. And Jaguar is a sponsor of CyclingTips Giro della Donna. These are all brands whose key market fits perfectly with the majority of those entering the events.
Cycling brands are also able to leverage off the goodwill that comes with being the naming rights sponsor for a Gran Fondo. Pinarello hosts one, as do Campagnolo, Giordana, Wiggle and Castelli. Rapha had its Gentleman’s Ride, which – although unofficial (and not strictly for the gents) – created a terrific sense of community for both their current and prospective customers. Gone now, it was a terrific example of the win-win a sportive can generate.
All of this can sound a little cold. No one likes being ‘sold’ to. But Gran Fondos took cues from professional racing in not just harnessing the good aspects but also learning from the bad. It’s an all-too-common story: historic races unable to continue due to lack of finances or corporate backing. The marketing may, at times, be blatant. You might think, “Hey, I just want to ride my bike, not be pitched products.” Only it’s these products that keep your cherished event running in the first place. Hell, you might even end up liking one of the products (I know my High5 gel connection stems back to a couple of free ones in a Fondo). It’s not even “a small price to pay”. Rather it’s a necessity, which, done right, is also a great value-add to the event.
If Gran Fondos are your “thing”, then the future – both home and abroad – looks bright. That teams exist whose sole focus is racing Gran Fondos is a testament to the rise of this form of cycling. I (semi) joked recently that ‘Fondo specialist’ is going to be added to tags like ‘sprinter’, ‘puncheur’ and ‘climber’. It could very well be the best fit for a rider in the years to come. And if it is, you can be sure it’ll be off the back of a thriving sportive scene.
Gran fondo numbers: Peaks Challenge Falls Creek
Like Haute Route and the Taiwan KOM Challenge, Peaks Challenge Falls Creek (or ‘3 Peaks’ for those still clinging to its original name) has quickly grown into Gran Fondo legendary status. With 4,500 metres of vertical gain over 235km over three major climbs – Tawonga Gap, Mount Hotham and the beast that is the back of Falls Creek – the sub-10hr jersey has become a coveted prize for those fast enough to achieve it. But how challenging is it to make it within the 10hr window so you can proudly wear the jersey as you devour the inevitable post-ride pizzas? Statistics say only a quarter (25.1%) of the 2,146 entrants for the 2015 edition made it in 10 hours or less. Chapeau if you are one of the 500-odd riders to earn yourself a jersey. The 2015 time brackets are listed below…
7-8 hrs 0.7%
8-9 hrs 4.7%
9-10 hrs 19.7%
10-11 hrs 16.9%
11-12 hrs 19.4%
12-13 hrs 17.7%
The figures don’t lie
Bicycle Network – cycling advocacy body and event promoter for Around the Bay and Peaks Challenge – has over 50,000 members. Around the Bay alone had more participants than the combined number of racers in all Cycling Victoria-run events this year. Include Peaks Challenge participants and that number beats all state-level races’ combined entries. Membership alone is more than Cycling Australia and Triathlon Australia combined, with little to no cross-over.
This isn’t to imply that national and state-level racing is on its knees. It also doesn’t include club racing (which during summer crit season draws large fields). It does, however, paint a picture of the increasing popularity of sportive events, and the significant number of cyclists who identify with a format of riding that is competitive while not being (officially).
Up for a challenge? Take a look at what Peaks Challenge Gold Coast has on offer…