Marathon cycling events are gaining ground as new events fill the season's schedule.
Photography courtesy of Centurion Cycling
Randonnee, a French word for ramble or tour, describes a long-distance cycling event in which the participants follow a prescribed route within certain time limits between control points along the way. Riders, called randonneurs, cannot receive support, except at the designated control points, so each rider must be prepared for mechanical mishaps, changes in weather and so on.
A century ride is usually 100 miles, but can also be 100 kilometres. They are usually put on by small cycling clubs and are often fundraisers for charities. They usually have two or three distances in miles or kilometres, such as 25, 50 and 100. There is usually not timing for these events
Commonly referred to as cyclesportifs in the rest of Europe, gran fondo is Italian for "big ride" and can be anywhere from 120 to upwards of 200 km. In Italy and Europe, there have been gran fondos for many years and they regularly attract thousands of cyclists, with some events selling out very quickly (sometimes in hours). Gran fondos are gaining momentum in North America.
Medio fondos (medium length) rides are usually offered at these events, giving older, younger or less-experienced cyclists a chance to participate with less distance involved.
One of the oldest and largest of the gran fondos in Italy is the Nove Colli Gran Fondo. Nove Colli translates as "nine hills" and has 3,840 m of climbing. This event rolls through the Marche, Tuscany and Emilia Romagna regions along a 200-km route with lots and lots of climbing. Demand is very high for the 14,000 spots in this event and it regularly sells out in hours.
In France, there is a cyclesportif event called the Etape du Tour. It follows a different stage of the Tour de France each year. About 9,500 cyclists ride against the clock and each other, and then watch the professionals ride that same stage several days later and compare their results. Some gran fondos are now starting to have chip timing as part of their events.
Centurion Cycling events are focused on three new events - in Colorado, Wisconsin and Ontario - in 2010 that set to standardize the century ride in North America with three distances - 25, 50 and 100 miles. All participants will have chip timing and will have several starting corrals based on average speed. All events will have the same distances so one can compare times from each event and with each other.
Why the increased demand?
Organizers of large and new marathon cycling events in North America have a variety of ideas about why the demand for these events is growing.
Dave Douglas is the Cascade Bicycle Club's event co-ordinator. One of the largest cycle clubs in North America, the Seattle, Wash.-based club holds events including the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic with 10,000 participants.
"Cycling is hot right now as we are noticing the Lance (Armstrong) effect," Douglas says of the growing popularity of long-distance cycling events. Armstrong's return to professional cycling and the start of his own professional cycling team, Team RadioShack, have given added exposure to cycling and cycling events in the United States and Canada.
"Due to economic times, many people are less likely to travel as far for events and are looking for these marathon cycling events in their own backyards," Douglas says.
The Seattle-to-Portland event has sold out progressively earlier over the past three years. This year, it sold out on April 15, which is almost three months earlier than several years ago. Last year, more than double the numbers were camping out overnight at Husky Stadium before the start.
Cycling is gaining more exposure in North America now that several U.S.-based pro-cycling teams participate in Union Cycliste Internationale events such as the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, the pinnacle of professional cycling. A few of these teams have American and Canadian professional riders on them, which furthers North Americans' interest in the sport and these events.
The addition of large-profile professional cycling events such as the Amgen Tour of California, which have grown internationally over the last few years, has promoted cycling in not only California, but throughout the United States.
Television coverage of cycling events has increased in the U.S. and Canada, but even more so in the U.S. where Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) provides lots of cycling race coverage from Europe, as well as the Amgen Tour of California. In Canada, the coverage is limited to Tour de France.
Kevin Thomson of TOIT Events, which is putting on the inaugural RBC GranFondo Whistler in September, has several ideas about why cycling and marathon cycling events are achieving large growth in North America.
"The baby boom population in North America is aging, and many are turning to cycling as a way to keep active, but have low impact on their body," he says.
Douglas says the attraction to cycling reaches beyond an age demographic.
"In events like the Seattle to Portland, many participants getting into cycling and marathon cycling are not coming from a running background at all. They are attracted to it as a low-impact form
of exercise," he says.
Thomson points to improved bicycle technology as another factor contributing to cycling's popularity. Better equipment - more comfortable saddles, light carbon frames, easier shifting, better fitting and more functional clothing, and light helmets - has made cycling easier and more affordable. Many cities in North America have invested in upgrading their cycling infrastructure, including bike paths, routes and lanes.
"This added infrastructure is enticing more people out of their cars and onto bikes, which means more cyclists on the roads," Thomson says.
Putting some thought into how the events are staged makes it easier for more people to participate. Graham Fraser, president of North America Sports, is experienced in this aspect. His organization expanded Ironman races to several locations throughout North America, and he is now involved as a co-founder in Centurion Cycling events.
Similar to how Ironman competitions are set up - professionals and age groupers alike compete over the same course on the same day - Centurion Cycling events have standardized distances that are inclusive of cyclists from the elite to the ardent recreational to the beginner.
"Demographics are playing a large part in the increase in participation as marathon cycling is much easier on the ageing body of baby boomers and participants of all ages and the recovery is much faster than running a marathon," Fraser says.
Centurion Cycling is working with its bike sponsors to help create a new charity this year. Each Centurion Cycling event will include a community bicycle donation program, providing bikes to needy and deserving children in the community.
Many marathon cycling events have charity components to them. Some benefit directly to one or several charities, some have charity riders involved and some events, such as the Ride to Conquer Cancer, are completely charity-driven.
North America's cycling constituency has been quite fractured with recreational cyclists, racers, tourers and randonneur riders often sticking to their own types of riders and events. What is interesting and powerful about gran fondo, cyclesportif and Centurion events is they bring together many different groups that normally would not attend the same event.
Hopefully they will celebrate not only their differences, but the shared common ground (or in this case, roads), and perhaps this will help create a larger voice for safer roads and more cycling infrastructure throughout North America.
About the Author
Dean Stanton is a triathlon and cycling coach, and founder and head coach of My Group Ride, a cycling club for recreational riders, many of whom participate in marathon cycling events.
"Rise of the Big Rides" first appeared in the July/August Summer Sports Issue of IMPACT Magazine.