The sensation of riding alongside one of cycling’s elite professionals is one few are fortunate enough to experience.
To cycle with one who has left a lasting impression on the sport is a still rarer opportunity.
Increasingly, however, amateur cyclists, fans of the sport and of those whose exploits on the bike have passed into legend are being offered the chance to ride with their heroes, albeit for a price. The pro-led Gran Fondo is becoming an increasingly frequent occurrence.
In common with the ability to sample the roads of the legendary races, the opportunity to share a sporting experience with the greats is something cycling alone offers.
Football’s ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ are unlikely to be offered a kick-about at Old Trafford with Rooney, Ferdinand, Giggs et al, and a ride as a passenger in a Formula One two-seater piloted by the likes of Brundle or Coulthard is a pleasure usually afforded only to the super rich.
Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist who ever lived, led a ride on these shores in 2011, and will stage another Gran Fondo in Italy next year (see below). In April, Mario Cipollini, one of the sport’s most successful sprinters, journeyed to England to host a Gran Fondo of his own near Bristol. American professionals including Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie stage their own Gran Fondo events in north America.
But what do the legends of professional cycling gain from riding with amateurs, apart from a fee? Those whose reputation is sufficient to attract hundreds of fans willing to ride in their company are typically involved with longer term and more lucrative ventures.
Maurizio Fondriest, 1988 world road race champion, and winner of the season-long UCI World Cup in 1993 and 1994, a man with victories at Milan San Remo and La Fleche Wallone on a shining palmares, will lead a Gran Fondo ride in the Emilia-Romagna region of north east Italy next April.
Known for his class on the bike (Bradley Wiggins identified him as the most elegant of all riders) those riding with Fondriest are likely to receive an object lesson in bike handling, but he is unlikely to pick up any tips from those surrounding him. Why do it?
“For me, it’s a huge satisfaction and pleasure to ride with people who followed my career and remind me of moments even I had forgotten,” Fondriest told RoadCyclingUK. “Sometimes cycling with them helps me to better understand my career – it’s almost incredible.”
Fondriest will lead a group through a corner of north east Italy between Bologna and San Marino, about 90km from each. Three routes will be offered: a long course of 133km with 1800 metres of climbing, a medium course of 91km with 1300 metres of climbing, and a 50km short course with 600 metres of climbing. The ride is described as ‘manageable’ by organisers, who are at pains to point out that snow capped summit finishes are not on the agenda. Like most continental events, a doctor’s certificate is required of participants; something Fondriest is unlikely to need, or in the unlikely event of having to do so, to have difficulty in attaining. When RCUK interviewed him in London earlier this year, he looked in sufficiently good shape to pursue one of the few prizes to have eluded him during his career: the Tour of Flanders.
He describes the Gran Fondo’s route as very beautiful. “It’s an inland route through Romagna hills of varying difficulty. However, the view and the landscape are amazing. It’s a pretty tough Gran Fondo, which rewards the cyclist.” Riders in the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali stage race, whose previous winners include Tour de France champions, Lauren Fignon and Cadel Evans, will know all about the challenges of the Emilia-Romagna region.
Fondriest describes the Gran Fondo as an event with potential as a ‘cycling school’, providing the professional – the teacher, to extend the analogy – is capable of communicating his insights on a host of topics and techniques. Fondriest lists posture, descending through corners, gear selection and training methods on his curriculum.
The obvious question remains, as ever, until last. When you have worn the rainbow jersey of world road race champion, and own a palmares that records victory in a Monument Classic, and some of the biggest one day races in the sport, who then would you choose to ride with?
“Since I was young, I was a big fan of Eddy Merckx,” he answers, to no-one’s surprise; that the Cannibal’s fan club contains his most decorated successors is a poorly kept secret. “I always really liked Hinault,” he continues, “so riding next to these two big champions would have been super.”
And of those from his own era, with whom he once shared the tarmac in the most hallowed races of European cycling? “I have been very happy and lucky to ride next to Indurain and Bugno,” he confides; selections at once familiar to the casual fan and respected by the connoisseur.
Reader meet rider: three more pro-led Gran Fondos
Levi’s Gran Fondo will be held in Santa Rosa, California, on October 5, 2013. Entry to the 103-mile Gran Route costs $145 and includes 9,000 feet of climbing. The 65-mile medio route costs $125 and includes 4,000 feet of climbing. The 32-mile Piccolo route contains 1,500 feet of climbing and costs $75. Will amateurs still want to ride with Levi following the USADA enquiry into organised doping at US Postal? Time will tell.
The Gran Fondo Eddy Merckx 2013 will be held next year in Verona on Sunday June 9 2013. Entry costs 30 Euros before Saturday June 1 2013, and 40 Euros for entry after that date; a small price one might think to ride with the Cannibal. Two routes are offered: the 155.5km Gran Fondo, which encompasses 3,204 metres of climbing, and takes riders to the summit of the 1656m Rif Graziani after 120km in the saddle. The shorter, medio route is 85.6km long, with 1700 metres of climbing that peaks with the 914 metre Fosse.
Like father, like son. The Gran Fondo Axel Merckx will be held in the Okanagan province of British Columbia, Canada on July 7, 2013. Three routes are offered: the 160km Gran Fondo, the 92km Mediofondo, and the 55km Cortofondo. Axel shares his father’s appreciation for the early bird and is offering a discount to riders booking before December 31 2012. Those who do so will pay 100, 160, or 185 Canadian dollars, depending on their choice of route.