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The gran fondo survival guide

Everything you need to know to enjoy your mass-start event this summer.

GranFondo Banff
GranFondo Banff

Sportives, sportifs, gran fondos, etapes, marchas – whatever you prefer to call them, these massparticipation events are growing in popularity. In 2013, there are more happening in Canada than ever before. For many of us, lining up with a few thousand other riders to tackle an epic ride on legendary roads and having some frills lavished upon us are the highlights of the year.

Whether it’s in British Columbia with a group of friends or over the Col du Galibier with a few pros and 10,000 other riders, these great challenges mean something different to each rider. For many, these semicompetitive events soon lose the “semi” bit, while others are spurred on by the challenge, the terrain or simply the atmosphere. Here are some tips that will see you to the finish line.

On the wheel
During the ride, you should shelter yourself from the wind as much as possible. The best shelter is the rider in front of you. This time-honoured cycling strategy will reduce your effort and also keep you safe at the same time. In order to draft well, you need to see how the rider ahead rides. Is he or she smooth? Does the rider get out of the saddle a lot? How safe is it to follow this rider?

In a relaxed situation, you can ride as much as one metre behind. But as soon as the pace heats up, you need to stay close – the closer the better. The wind direction ultimately determines where you must ride: if it’s head on, then ride directly behind, but stay six inches back. If the wind is blowing from the side, then overlap the rider’s rear wheel slightly on the sheltered side, but be sure he knows you are there. If the rider ahead doesn’t know your front wheel is overlapping his rear wheel, there could be disaster if he changes his line.

Get in (pace) line
If you and the riders you find yourself with have the skill, a paceline can form to make drafting more efficient. This technique makes life easier and faster for the riders by sharing the workload. In the paceline, the front rider moves over a metre and eases his pace slightly for the next rider to take the lead. The new leader maintains his pace and then slips back for the next rider. The riders take their turns, moving like the track of a tank.

Prime locations
If you are riding in a larger group that can’t organize itself into a paceline, you should aim to be toward the front of the group. Take your pulls at the front, but don’t make it too hard on yourself. If you shirk your pulling duties, you will not be very popular. Your wheel sucking will be remembered and repaid some time later. However, if you are suffering or noticeably weaker than the other riders, stay farther back and take an easier ride. Don’t be intimidated by the others. Popularity with your peers goes a long way, but conserve enough energy to last the ride.

The back of a group is not a really good place to be unless it’s a small or social bunch. In larger groups, you have to work much harder to compensate for the lengthening of the pack that happens at every corner. You may even have to fight harder to survive the climbs.

Handling mass hysteria
In a mass participation event, you will find yourself surrounded by hundreds, or even thousands, of riders. The number of riders will affect the way you ride. Be aware of the differences in experience and fitness levels of the riders, which can vary greatly and make for tense situations at times.
The first hour or so of these events can be hectic. The key is to stay calm and below your physical limit at the beginning. Avoid risks or hard riding until the field thins out. Also, avoid those riders who are obviously inexperienced. Try to find a group with whom you can ride confidently.

Staying fuelled
It’s easy to get carried away with the occasion and to forget to eat or drink enough. Carry your food and eat as you go. You should be eating and drinking small amounts from the time you start sweating. Make use of any event refuelling options too. But try not to hang around at feed stations as you can get cold, cramp up or simply succumb to a dose of lethargy. Also, don’t rely only on those fuelling stations: always carry enough food and drink, as well as money and spare tubes to get you through the ride. Outside help is a bonus.

Get me to the race on time
It may sound obvious, but it’s vital that you make it to the ride in good time. Check out the start venue and parking facilities well in advance. That tiny village with one narrow road in and out will turn into a bustling and overcrowded metropolis on the day of the event. For every two riders, you can anticipate one vehicle.

The ride’s route will probably make for some road closures. It’s best to park a short pedal from the event site and to ride in and out. Also, make sure you get to the sign-in well in advance.

Remember to leave a change of clothing and extra food and drink in the car. You might want to stash the car keys in a safe place so that every rider in the car knows where to find them. It’s no fun in sitting in the rain for a couple of hours waiting for your buddies to return.

Do you speak cycle-ese?

There are a number of warning shouts and signals that cyclists need to recognize. These shouts either start from the front or rear of the group and should be passed on through the bunch. Here’s eight of the most important.
Out/swing out: An obstacle, a car or a slower rider is on the inside of the road, so move over.
Car back : A vehicle is approaching from behind, so ride accordingly. See also car up.
Car up: A vehicle is ahead so ride accordingly. See also car back.
Right /left /inside: Spoken by a rider coming past from behind. Hold your line.
Come through: Time to take your turn at the front.
Up: Either a late warning of a pothole or obstacle or a rider wants to slip in front of you.
Swing off : The leader should move off of the front of the group.
Easy/ease up: Slow the pace. There’s likely an issue behind.

Semaphore for cyclists
Sign language is often the easiest and clearest way to signal within a group. It’s best combined with a shout and should be passed through the group.
Turning: A straightforward hand signal in the direction of the turn that is often accompanied with a point and a wave.
Houston , I have a problem: One arm up in the air, accompanied by the rider moving out of the group or slowing down. It could be a puncture, an impending nature break or the rider could simply be finished for the day.
Pothole /obstacle: A thigh level point in the direction of an obstacle, usually with a wagging hand.
Single file: A sweeping, waist-level gesture of the lower arm signalling the riders behind.
Slow down: An up-and-down patting of the hand to the side.
Come past me or come through: A knee-level side gesture to the rider behind to come past.
I’m changing my position in the group: A long point from the side of the handlebars to where a rider is intending to change his position in the group.

How to prepare for the big ride
Learn to enjoy the suffering: Cycling is tough. Any serious ride will cause some suffering, but persevering through the pain yields great rewards. Learn to appreciate your suffering – everybody else will be hurting too, and it makes the memory and the reward so much sweeter. Always remember the old quote: “the pain is temporary.”

Make a training plan: No matter what you want to achieve, you have to focus on a steady progression in skill and ability. Build that base level of endurance and fitness. Short cuts simply don’t work; you have to put in the time on the bike.
Short rides and intervals are all very good, but there is no substitute for getting in a few long rides whenever you can. You may survive a long ride with only short rides under your belt, but it will not be fun. You need to build your fitness like a pyramid: a good base first. Don’t try and cram it all in during the last couple of weeks before your ride. It doesn’t work, and will leave you in a heap.

Map out the ride mentally: Before you tackle a long pedal, first break it down and set targets and intermediate steps to focus on. Work on reaching certain points of the ride in good shape, and then move on to the next. Broken down this way, even the longest, hardest rides are manageable.