The sound of police sirens fills the air. Overhead a helicopter hovers above the peloton as the cyclists roar through the center of town at 30 miles per hour. Police are holding back traffic or motioning vehicles to pull off the road as the riders cross intersections. Sag and photography cars follow the main group, pulling alongside to feed or snap a picture. The feed zone was the usual chaos of team staff holding musette bags for riders to grab. Along the side of the road, pockets of people stand waving and cheering. And, no. This isn’t a scene from a European stage race. It’s the Gran Fondo Brevard in Florida.
This gran fondo is a combination of fun ride and competitive race. Participants wear a timing chip and a healthy prize list ensures the ride isn’t taken at a leisurely pace—something I discovered immediately as the peloton rolled out from the starting point at Rockledge Park in Brevard County.
Infinity Racing Organization, a non-profit cycling organization focused on supporting the local community, organizes the Gran Fondo Brevard. One hundred percent of the gran fondo’s proceeds go to the KLD Kids, a program that addresses the problem of unsupervised youth in Brevard County.
"I wanted to give back to a local non profit where I could look directly at the program and see the immediate benefit of the program," said Daniel Ciuro, president of Infinity Racing. "Eight-five percent of every dollar goes to charity."
This year approximately 240 riders participated in one of the fondo's different route options and saw more money donated to KLD Kids than last year's event—Infinity Racing is obviously doing something right.
Riders were offered several options at Gran Fondo Brevard. The main attraction that brought local heroes as well as former pros, Ivan Dominguez and Rahsaan Bahati, to Brevard was the 109.6 mile ride. For those who didn’t want to tackle a ride in the triple digits there were 80, 60 and even a 19 mile options.
The terrain in Florida is pancake flat with the treeline stretching for miles in front of the rider and doesn’t alter. The result is decidedly trippy. You feel like you aren’t actually going anywhere, instead pedaling on a never-ending treadmill.
To make up for the lack of altitude the wind is a constant companion—or curse. Depending on your direction you could face a headwind, tailwind or anything in between.
Another Florida factor is the heat. Having driven down from 40-degree temperature of north Georgia the now 80-degree plus climate was a drastic change that my body was desperately trying to adapt to. As I approached the state line into Florida the temperature started to rise and as I crossed into the Sunshine State it was almost 90 degrees. Welcome to Florida…
"We wanted to showcase the county of Brevard, natural beauty and diverse landscape of this part of Florida: Coco Beach, the NASA footprint, the farm lands, and the causeways," is how Ciuro explained the Gran Fondo Brevard course.
Almost square shaped, the loop skirted along the Atlantic Ocean, heading inland after traversing some causeways—the only altitude change in the ride—and then through rural areas, complete with signs warning: Don’t feed the alligators.
On the day of the ride, even at 0’dark early, it was short sleeves with liberal latherings of sun block. As the riders staged for the beginning of the ride a police helicopter circled overhead like a massive vulture. Tires were being inflated and there was the last minute scramble for number pins (Okay – that might have just been me).
The neutral rollout lasted a mere few moments as the peloton picked up speed like a snowball rolling downhill. The pack’s momentum, combined with the excitement of tearing through busy intersections with a police escort in full siren mode, kicked up the speed to a constant 30 miles per hour.
At one point the course ducked and dived through Coco Beach, with the Atlantic Ocean on the rider’s left. Over a causeway and it was into the beachside community of Satellite Beach, over another causeway and into the city of Melbourne. All the while the pace staying close to 30 miles per hour.
It wasn't until the 60-mile mark on the Gran Fondo route that the speed dipped. The lead group faced a 13-mile stretch of road that seemed endless. The only indication that there was anything up ahead was the blue flashing lights of the highway patrol cars keeping a buffer between us and traffic. That was followed by a right hand turn into rural farmlands, where cows were the only witnesses to the suffering of those last 25 miles.
These conditions have created a Florida rider with thighs that look like they’re honed from slabs of granite and calves that can pound the pedals with the consistency of a metronome. The Florida rider also has an innate ability to sense the wind direction and isn’t afraid to ride next to the curb—eliminating any chance of allowing the peloton to form an echelon. Remember, there was cold, hard cash for the top-ten riders so it got competitive on the streets of Brevard. If you wanted a draft, you had to earn it. Throwing the peloton into the gutter is part of the Florida style of racing.
A break of four went up the road and Calixto Manuel from Miami escaped to solo for the win. His strength was so impressive that his teammate finished in second place 11 minutes back. Manuel had just returned from a block of training in Brazil as he prepares to race in Belgium for the Continental ranked Start-Trigon team.
With the 2013 event behind them Ciuro is already planning for 2014.
"We are planning on more exciting guests to appear in 2014 as well as expanding our format to reach a diversity of riders. While the Gran Fondo Brevard has a competitive aspect there is a party aspect too. We want to reach out to more riders."
Gran fondo rides are a nice combination of competition against fellow riders, setting a personal best, and contributing to a good cause. Because of the competition that comes from gran fondos there is a national gran fondo championships in addition to a UCI sanctioned world championships. And yes, we’ve already seen our first doping positive—so you know this is a legitimate competition.
Regardless, gran fondos as an event are gaining popularity with every passing event, so expect to see one—or more—in your area soon.