Words & Photo | Gary J Boulanger
There's something partially exotic when telling friends about riding a gran fondo, as opposed to a frumpy century ride. Maybe it's the Euro tone of the words gran fondo; all I know is the recent Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia, held during the Sea Otter Classic on April 20 in gorgeous Monterey, California, had a little bit of everything thrown in, leaving my mind full of color and my legs full of lactic acid.
And two sightings of former Major League slugger Barry Bonds, slimmed down and looking good on his Italian carbon stallion.
Nearly 1,200 cyclists kitted up and toed the line for the 6:30 a.m. start, which began on the Mazda Raceway of Laguna Seca, the same hallowed tarmac shared by Valentino Rossi, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Nicky Hayden, and Alex Zanardi. Palermo Bakery owner Erasmo Aiello sang the Italian and American national anthems in a fine tenor as I and 1,199 new friends rolled across the line toward two routes: the 50-mile Coastal and the 100-mile Carmel Valley. I chose the more realistically-paced 50 miler, thinking twice about subjecting my backside to nearly 100 miles of torture on a new saddle, connected to a new bike, supporting a rider who hasn't ridden more than 80 miles in one day since the 1990s. There's also less machismo on the shorter route, where I was hoping to engage other riders.
I've ridden the popular Levi's Gran Fondo a couple times, and salmoning along the roads of Sonoma County among 7,499 others is a challenge. There's camaraderie among the ranks, but the roads are too narrow and the asphalt too broken to ride two-by-two. The dirt climb up Willow Creek Road was a highlight, something I shared with several custom frame builders. The Coastal route of the Giro was a bit pedestrian in comparison, but there were several happy campers, many of whom had ridden this route last year.
Fort Ord, Eastwood style
After a quick descent out of Laguna Seca on South Boundary Road, our rolling peloton surged north on General Jim Moore Boulevard into Fort Ord, a decommissioned military base strewn with empty barracks and buildings. The former mayor of Carmel, actor Clint Eastwood, earned his stripes here many decades ago, and now the broken windows and graffitied buildings have take on a surreal and soulless modern art form.
Our journey along the Pacific Ocean began when we crossed Divarty Street and the fabled California State Route 1, a regular thoroughfare for wayward voyagers. The Monterey Bay Coastal bike path became our magic carpet, providing a scenic view of the body of water made famous by John Steinbeck. Sebastián Vizcaíno was tasked by the Spanish government to complete a detailed chart of the coast several centuries ago. He anchored in what is now the Monterey Harbor on December 16, 1602 and named it Puerto de Monterey, in honor of then viceroy of New Spain, Conde de Monterrey.
I connected with a Santa Clarita, California rider named Kevin Sutton, a gentleman in his early 50s who only began cycling two years ago after he became an empty nester. His form looked natural on the bike, and he was rather surprised to see Barry Bonds turning onto the boardwalk near John Steinbeck's famous Cannery Row. Bonds has become an avid cyclist, shedding 35 pounds of body weight, not to mention $16,000-plus on a Campy-equipped carbon Pinarello. I shared lunch with Bonds and his girlfriend Mari Holden, a former time trial world champion and Olympic silver medalist, after the 2012 Levi's Gran Fondo, and learned quite a bit about the beleaguered slugger.
"Morning, fellas," Bonds said with a big grin, turning north as we pedalled south toward our turnaround point at the mouth of 17 Mile Drive near Pebble Beach.
After our brief encounter with fame, Sutton shared that he became a cyclist late in life to get fit, have fun and meet people. Living in southern California makes this goal quite realistic, and Sutton has grabbed the bike by the bars, racking up miles and relationships. This was his second Sea Otter gran fondo, and it was a double bonus: his daughter attends Cal State Monterey Bay, and was on hand to send him off and greet him at the finish.
Up and Away
The final four miles back into Laguna Seca included several pitches of 10-percent grade plus, forcing several riders to peel down arm warmers and take water handups at the midway point, where I saw Bonds descending toward me, a boyish grin on his face as his riding partner was struggling to keep up. I was riding a new bike for only the second time since building it last Wednesday, and the racerboy 53/39 crankset gearing took its toll at the midway point of the climb. My legs have grown wonderfully accustomed to a real-world 50/34 the past several years, and my saving grace was the electronic shifting, and the promise of a cool tent and warm food in the Italian pavillion at the finish, where I met Sutton after chatting with a rider from Pennsylvania, Bicycling Magazine's Brad Ford.
Results? Does it matter?
With 50 miles ridden and 3,000 feet of elevation gained, I discovered my time of 3:07:38 was good for 18th out of 400 finishers, with a 15.8mph average. Ours was never a hammer fest, and several riders were chatting at rest stops. My riding buddy Kevin finished 22nd, with a time of 3:09:01. In the 50 miler, Sally Welch, 58, of O'Neals, California, finished 400th with a time of 8:45:34 with a 5.63mph average. Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson, 54, finished the 100 miler in 5:25:36, for 23rd overall at 17.7mph, not too far off the pace of professional cyclocross racer Tim Johnson, 34, who crossed the line in 4:53:00. Dave Treen, 51, of Winchester, CA, finished 393rd in the 100 miler, with a time of 10:02:20, averaging 9.56mph.
The best part of a gran fondo? Every finisher receives the same bitchin medal, the same awesome food, and the same enthusiastic support from the dozens of volunteers out on the course. I only wish I remembered to bring my number plate into the Italian pavillion to pick up my free bottle of wine.