When is a sportive a race? Uncovering the UK’s emerging gran fondo scene

With the Tour of Cambridgeshire's return on the horizon, we uncover why it could be the racier answer to the traditional sportive you’ve been looking for

Despite being forever told by event organisers across the land that a sportive is definitely not a race, there’s an emerging type of event in the UK – a ‘gran fondo’ – that aims to be different.

With its roots set firmly in Europe, and Italy especially, and events now all over the globe, the gran fondo is a phenomenon that has begun to appear in the UK, with the Tour of Ayrshire, which took place for the first time last month, and upcoming Tour of Cambridgeshire, set to return on Sunday June 4, the two officially-sanctioned events on the calendar.

Gran Fondos are hugely popular on the continent, especially in Italy, but have found their way over to UK shores (pic: Sportograf/Gran Fondo Roma)

Instead of the get-to-the-finish mentality of a sportive, at its heart a gran fondo is a race, where riders are encouraged to finish in the fastest possible time. It’s even part of a UCI-supported series, with a season-ending World Championships to aim for and the holy grail of a rainbow jersey as the ultimate reward.

– Eight ways you can get involved in the Tour of Cambridgeshire –

And yet, the competitors are strictly amateur. Entries are split into two categories: Race, whereby riders start in an age classified pen and essentially race to the finish, and Sport, where things are a bit more mellow and riders start with other cyclists aiming for the same average speed.

As a mash-up between a competitive race and and an open-to-all sportive, it’s an enticing prospect. Want to find out more? We thought you might.

How is a gran fondo different from a sportive?

To get to the heart of the matter, we spoke to Malcolm Smith of Golazo Cycling, who, in partnership with the UCI, are the organising body of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, which includes 21 events in all, from Austria to Australia. When we speak, Smith has just come off the back of the Tour of Ayrshire, and has already begun to turn his attention to the Tour of Cambridgeshire event.

“It’s best explained as a mass participation race, much like a big city marathon. In fact, the big city marathon was probably one of the inspirations of the whole gran fondo setup,” Smith says.

“If you think about entering a marathon (or any timed running race) people tend to approach it with a time target in mind – their main focus is on a ‘race’ of some description. However, it’s the quintessential mass participation event.”

Where a gran fondo differs from a sportive then, is that the competitive element is actively celebrated, claims Smith – something that isn’t technically approved for a ‘sportive’.

“Generally speaking, British Cycling defines sportives as time trials, which can range from large-scale ‘Velothons’ to smaller-scale events,” Smith says. “But the key is that they can be held on open or closed roads, and there’s no recognised racing element between riders on the same piece of road at the same time. Gran fondos don’t fit this definition.

“Where gran fondos differ is that they must be on closed roads, because there’s racing going on, with the first rider over the line celebrated. As a result, gran fondos are structured to deliver this following a quality standard set out by the UCI Gran Fondo World Series.”

Gran fondos actively celebrate the competitive element, and are held entirely on closed roads (pic: Golazo Cycling)

As Smith explains, this standard sets out a numbers of important factors that an event must meet to be a ‘true’ gran fondo. That means there are specifications relating to things like medical support, insurance, route organisation, signage, as well as local authority support.

The intention is that entrants are buying into a ‘quality product’, he says – something that takes elements of pro race organisation and applies it to a mass market event.

How does a gran fondo work?

As Smith says, a gran fondo is an emerging form of riding in the UK and takes its inspiration from the attitude that the likes of the Italians and French have to sportives in general.

As we’ve anecdotally discovered at the likes of the Etape du Tour and Paris-Nice sportives in the past year, they’re commonly referred to as ‘races’, even though they’re technically sportives. In fact, head to a major gran fondo in Italy and you’ll quickly understand how seriously things are taken.

  • UCI age groups

  • 19-34 years
  • 35-39 years
  • 40-44 years
  • Continuing in five-year increments thereafter until the 70+ age group

“Gran fondos epitomise this racing attitude to sportive riding, and in doing so are a different product [to sportives],” says Smith. “However, it remains inclusive to anyone who wants to enter, with racing categories based around the UCI Masters age classification structure, with a more traditionally-approached sportive setting off just behind the racing groups.”

Smith explains that there are 18 different pelotons organised into the age group categories, set off with a timed gap between them. After these, the big sportive group sets off on the same course. In each ‘racing peloton’, the first three over the line are celebrated on the podium, with the top 25 per cent of each age group qualifying for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, in 2017 to be held in Albi, France.

“This is where the inclusivity continues,” explains Smith. “The qualifiers for the World Championships are decided on time, so it’s the top 25 per cent of finishing times in each age group that receive the invites – not the top 25 per cent of each racing peloton. Those age groups extend to the ‘ordinary’ sportive riders too, so if you don’t start in a racing pen but still set a time in the top 25 per cent of your age group, you’d still receive an invite to go to Albi.”

Is gran fondo ‘racing’ becoming more professionalised?

Nevertheless, there’s also a team racing element too, with gran fondo squads setup to target these events and get as many riders – or just a nominated one or two – into the World Championships. In essence, it allows those who fancy the job of a domestique to really play to their strengths, sharing in the success if their protected rider (and others in the team) qualifies.

“Getting the win, or riders in the World Championships, can be important to these amateur teams, because they sometimes have sponsors and backers to impress,” says Smith. “Think of a GB age grouper triathlete – some carry sponsors on their GB tri suits, but they’re still amateurs in the pure sense.

“It means there’s a more organised way of approaching gran fondo racing emerging, but that doesn’t put it out of reach of the individual who trains hard, as they might for a normal sportive.

With prizes for the various age and gender classifications, and places at the Gran Fondo World Championships up for grabs, some amateur forms will enter gran fondos (pic – Golazo Cycling/Sportograf)

“It appears the team approach is here to stay though, with teams being set up in Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, France – so much so, that it’s become a recognised form of cycle racing thanks to the continental heritage of the gran fondo.

They can field many people in a single age group and assert their influence. It gives riders a taste of the culture of racing as a team and savour the competitiveness.

“In a way, it’s pro-level behaviour played out in a mass participation event – which is another thing that separates a gran fondo from a sportive, especially in the racing pens. However, the bottom line is that all riders must not hold a pro contract or be serving a current drugs ban to compete.”

How is the Tour of Cambridgeshire Festival structured?

The upcoming Tour of Cambridgeshire weekend is structured in as close a manner as possible to the Albi World Championships, for which there are two qualifying events for the age-group standings: the individual time trial as well as the flagship gran fondo.

  • Friday June 2
    Expo starts
    Fixie fondo
    Folding bike fondo
    e-Bike Trial
  • Saturday June 3
    Family fondo
    Individual time trial
    Team time trial
    Gravel Enduro relay
  • Sunday June 4
    Gran fondo
    Medio fondo
    Tour Classic
    Summer Cyclo X

The individual time trial (and the innovative team time trial) is held on the Saturday, while the gran fondo (as well as the more sportive-esque medio fondo) is held on the Sunday.

The medio fondo is also a feature of the World Championships, for older riders only. While the Tour of Cambridgeshire is relatively flat, and as such the medio fondo does not include qualification to the Worlds, there are tougher gran fondos on the calendar at which the medio fondo also includes qualification places.

“This is because the course in Albi is much more challenging in terms of elevation than ours in Cambridgeshire,” Smith says. “If you went and did the Charly Gaul qualification gran fondo in Italy, that event is much harder, meaning older riders can also qualify for the World Championships through the medio fondo for that one.”

However, at its heart, the Tour of Cambridgeshire is organised as a festival, so there are a host of other events taking place including the aforementioned team time trial, medio fondo, family fondo fun ride, as well as other bike-related events including cyclo-cross, fixie and folding bike races, and a classic bike race held on the medio fondo route.

“We’re expecting up to 10,000 visitors for the Tour of Cambridgeshire festival this year, and we’ve created it with the intention to create an inclusive festival atmosphere,” says Smith.

Entries for the 2017 Tour of Cambridgeshire close on Sunday May 14. For more details, head to the official website. To discover more about the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, visit the UCI website, and click here for more on the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships.

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