By Sal Ruibal
People of a certain age and certain habits will recognize the sub-title of this week’s rantette as coming from John Prine’s song, “Illegal Smile.” But my topic this week is legal smiles. This is Gran Fondo season in bike world and nearly every weekend until it snows will see hundreds or even thousands of bike folk heading off to some sort of fondo event.
The definition of a fondo is pretty vague because, by their nature, large gatherings of cyclists in beautiful locations tend to evolve over the course of the event. Gran Fondos are large cycling events that usually include a timed long ride of 100 miles or more and several undercard rides of shorter distances. Though fondos are technically not races, they become races about two pedal strokes after the start.
I’m sure you’re not shocked by that fact because whenever two or more cyclists are gathered in one place, a race will occur. With the advent of Strava and other digital gerbil-wheel devices, you don’t even need other people to race, since you’re really just racing the past. But the beauty of fondos is that you don’t have to race. You can go for a nice ride at the pace you like, meet new friends and old friends and get some exercise in the fresh air, followed by the copious consumption of beer and ale at the finishing line picnic.
This Saturday is my local fondo, Jeremiah Bishop’s Alpine Loop Gran Fondo in and around Harrisonburg, Virginia. Jeremiah is a badass pro mountain biker but also a gentleman and a cycling advocate — and a great dad and husband. Most fondos are linked with a cause and JB’s cause is prostate cancer awareness and prevention. My dad died from the complications of prostate cancer, so I have a dog in this fight. I’ll write more about the Alpine Loop after the event.
The first fondo I ever participated in was the Gabicce Mare Fondo in Italy in 2005. I was working in Germany at the time and some of the folks from Radsport Wolf bike shop in Landstuhl talked me into going.
Within five minutes of arriving there, I realized my bike was not cool enough, my kit was crap, my sunglasses were lame and I didn’t have hair gel. Ten minutes after arriving there I had a bottle of wine in one hand, a salami sandwich in the other and about 50 new friends.
The beach was incredible, the food was amazing and the riding was like swimming in a pod of 1,000 orcas. I relaxed and went with the flow.
There were a few pro riders there but no Cipollini or Basso. They may have been there, but I couldn’t tell because all the guys looked like Cipollini.
In the U.S., a lot of pro riders have fondos, with Levi Leipheimer’s event the most famous. Levi gets dozens of top pros to ride at his fondo and the Sonoma County course is tough and gorgeous.
“I had seen some amazing photos of Italian fondos in the Dolomites,” he says. “I thought it would be great to have something like that in Sonoma wine country. It is close to major metropolitan areas and there’s easy access. The county is dedicated to cycling and a lot of pros live in the area.”
I wish there were more fondo-like events in mountain biking. There are great mountain bike festivals going on in the summer in places such as Crested Butte, Aspen and Durango, but we could use more in regular towns where mountain biking is popular but not an industry.
Fairfax County, where I live in Virginia, is thick with trails and riders, but we still have to drive two hours to the Shenandoahs to get our fill of steep ups and fast downs.
Next week I’ll tell you about a fondo-like event in rural Maine that blows away even the biggest fondo rides with stars from cycling, auto racing and Hollywood, plus a fantastic post-ride meal that you’ll need a month to burn off.