by Mark Cohen

train for european gran fondo

Hill sprints. Tempo rides. Big accelerations. What if, in the ramp up to your first big European fondo, something like the Marmotte or one of the Haute Route events–you opted to train like a civilian and eschew all of it? Would it get you fondo fit and have you love riding more?

There’s no doubt that structured training is effective. It will get you fit but heading into the 2017 Maratona, we went another way, mostly because we like riding more than numbers and thought that that would be enough to get us ready for a mad dance around the Dolomites in a competitive fondo that bludgeons the unprepared. We think back on the training that got us to the Maratona dles Dolomites.

RELATED: 5 reasons you should ride the Maratona dles Dolomites

Here is what seems to have worked and a couple tips to make your first European fondo a success.

The rule of 5,000

Having moved to somewhere wet but warm(ish) a year ago, we now benefit from year-round riding and the boxing up of a basement trainer formerly used to train through the Canadian winter. That relocation led to the accumulation of exactly 4,981.2 km before arrival in the Dolomites.

There must be some Gladwellian multiple here that confirms whether or not this was enough mileage. No idea, really. But it sounded like a good number to target before riding this event. It got us lean and gave us fit enough legs to keep a high cadence up big 10km climbs. In the six weeks ramping up to the Maratona, we targeted 300 kilometres plus per week at minimum to get used to load and bolster confidence a little with the added strength that mileage brings. A former competitive rider in the U.S. and Europe suggests this may not have been junk science.

“The reason people are quick on a bike is that they just ride – there’s no shortcut,” says Rapha marketing man and former under-23 U.S. national team rider, Marshall Opel. “Ride your bike consistently and insistently – it is hands down the best way to get really fit.”

The number seemed to have been a good motivator for me. But if work and family allow, by all means, get in more miles, a couple races, too, and you’ll see the benefits.

Make one day a week strength day and two if you have time

Having never put much stock in strength training for cycling, we made a dedicated effort to incorporate some for the Maratona. It wasn’t much – maybe two 30 minute sessions closely supervised by a four-year-old twice a week – but it consisted of core, shoulder and tricep work that would pay dividends on descents and produce a couple extra watts going uphill.

With a couple kettlebells and some suggestions from Training Peaks, we actually got it into the weight training. Especially useful and fun were the renegade rows for building strength in the arms and shoulders, and kettlebell swings to strengthen the hips and core. Effective? Absolutely and really simple to build into your weekly routine.

Think about food as fuel not fun

There were two changes we made to diet in the build up to the Maratona. The first was abandoning packaged food on training rides and opting for spelt cakes and Nutella instead of a slower release carbohydrate. This lead to more sustained energy on training rides.

Training rides were gastro-incident and bonk free. A couple converts on shop rides started following suit and commented on the benefits. Whatever this looks like for you, experiment and find something real that delivers sustained energy for rides – a detail that could spell success or failure on ride day.

The second change was paying attention to calories going in by prioritizing food as fuel, not entertainment. This is the single biggest way to get fondo-ready, says Opel. “The average cyclist loves to worry about equipment and numbers, but the best way to enjoy going uphill on a bike is to lose unnecessary weight by following a clean and simple diet. There are no tricks here.”

Again, this is subjective and requires interpretation but cutting down on calories with the added mileage is a simple formula that’s worked in cycling forever. It is easily applied with a little discipline and has a massive impact on overall cycling fitness.


This sounds suspect and the dozen bike boxes loaded onto my plane from London to Treviso suggest otherwise but consider hiring a bike while overseas for your ride. We were fortunate to get one from Breakout–a nice Pinarello F10 with Shimano Dura Ace–and have found that most cycling meccas in Europe have excellent rentals bikes. It simplifies logistics for travel, take pedals with you and you’re done. With luggage costs this might even save you a couple dollars overall on your trip.

Trust yourself

The days before a big event is a heady time. You’ll be wrestling with a lot of emotions. Fear. Doubt. Excitement. To feel prepared and more relaxed get to wherever you’re going early, get in some mileage on local roads and wrestle all those emotions to the ground. If you’ve suffered on the bike through wet spring rides, summer burners and club rides, chances are you’re fit enough to make ride day a success. On event day, don’t forget to look up and away from your Garmin. Take home some inspiration with for your next training period which may or may not include a lot of numbers. Either way, enjoy it.

Mark Cohen is a contributing writer to Canadian Cycling Magazine based in the U.K.. Connect with him on Instagram and Twitter.


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