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Five race-day tips to finish your first Gran Fondo


Photo credits: BrakeThrough Media (hero), Bike Channel

Music, food, and cycling celebrities make Gran Fondos an attractive option for first timers – but that doesn’t mean completing the event will be easy. We asked century-ride veteran and former cycling editor Marc Lindsay to give us his tips for getting to the finish on the day of the race.

More than a race, a Gran Fondo is a celebration of cycling. But while these events can be a lot of fun, they’re challenging too – and will require plenty of planning and preparation.

To help you conquer your first attempt at what the Italians call the “Big Ride,” use these five race-day tips I’ve had to learn the hard way to reach the finish with a smile on your face.

Have a game plan, and stick to it!

The biggest mistake beginners make is going too fast in the first quarter of their race. Rather than letting the excitement at the start line get the best of you, make sure you have a pacing strategy before the ride begins.

Use a heart rate monitor or a power meter to pace your efforts, staying at or just slightly below what you know you’re capable of from your training.

If you’ve never ridden the distance (most Gran Fondos are around 100 miles), it’s probably a good idea to be conservative during the first half of your race. Use a heart rate monitor or a power meter to pace your efforts, staying at or just slightly below what you know you’re capable of from your training.

But more than anything else, you’ll need to ride your own race. Don’t let other competitors dictate how fast you ride and always stay within yourself. Veering too far away from your strategy is good way to meet the fellow driving the broom wagon*.

*A van at the back of the race that picks up stragglers.

Save the feast for the finish line

When it comes to nutrition plans, what works for one person might not work for another. But that doesn’t mean it’s ok to fall into the trap of eating food you haven’t tested out during training.

Gran Fondos in particular are well known for providing plenty of good food before, during, and after the ride. Opting for the pre-ride meal provided by the race organizers or eating brownies or barbecue at one of the well-stocked rest areas can wreak havoc on your digestion system and lead to GI distress once you’re on the bike.

While you’ll want to enjoy the race as much as possible, it’s best to save the feast for the post-ride party. Before the race, only eat food you know works for you. If you’re normal pre-ride meal consists of oatmeal and eggs, don’t change it on race day.

The same goes for your nutrition during the ride. If you’ve been eating peanut butter sandwiches and energy bars during training, stick to it. Just make sure you meet your basic nutritional requirements of at least 500ml of fluid and 65 grams of carbohydrates for every hour you’re on the bike.

Be prepared for the unexpected

Whether it’s inclement weather or a flat tire, there’s a lot that could go wrong in a five-hour (or more) race. To get to the finish line, you’ll need to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.

In addition to being familiar with how to make basic roadside repairs, here are some of the tools and gear may need to have with you on the bike:

  • A rain cape that can pack down into a jersey pocket, depending on the weather forecasts for the day
  • A multi-tool for loose bolts or needed adjustments
  • A flat tire kit in your saddlebag, containing: An inflator with CO2 cartridges or a mini pump
  • An inner tube
  • A patch kit
  • A tire lever
  • A chain tool
  • A cell phone, just in case there is no broom wagon and you need to find a ride back to the start/finish line
  • Duct tape, which can be used for a ton of unexpected repairs such as making a boot for a gashed tire (along with a gel wrapper or dollar bill) or a shoe repair. Wrap a few strips around one of your water bottles to make carrying easy.

Tip: If for some reason a cleat screw comes loose, you can borrow one from one of your bottle cages since they are usually the same size.

Do your research

Weather conditions and the terrain of the race course will play a big factor in how you approach your race-day strategy. Whether it’s wind, rain, humid conditions, or a hilly course, you’ll need to do your research before heading to the start line to avoid any surprises out on the road.

Aside from your clothing choices, here are a few things you’ll need to consider:

  • Carbon rims: In wet weather, overall braking power on carbon rims is significantly reduced. If rain is expected, an aluminum rim or disc brakes are a better choice as far as safety is concerned – particularly if you’ll have to deal with long descents.
  • Wind: While it can be harder to plan for, wind can really slow you down. Instead of relying on your miles per hour numbers, pace yourself based on heart rate or power meter metrics. Remember, riding into the wind is similar to riding up a hill, and your effort will need to be conservative. You may also want to consider a wheelset with a shallow rim depth if cross winds are expected, which can make bike handling tricky.
  • Hot/humid weather: Even in the fall, hot and humid weather is still possible. If the forecast does call for temps reaching up into the 90s or higher (>30 °C), you’ll need to take your hydration needs into consideration. It’s likely that you’ll need more than the basic requirement of 500ml per hour, and including a sports drink with sodium and electrolytes to replenish what you’re losing through sweat is also generally recommended.
  • Steep climbs: Not all race courses are created equally. A 100-mile ride on a relatively flat course is not the same as riding 100 miles in the French Alps. This should be a major consideration before you sign up for the race and will dictate how you prepare for the event. On race day, keep in mind that every climb is different. Pay attention to your heart rate/power numbers and remember to listen to your body. The goal is getting to the finish line, not reaching the top of any particular climb faster than your competitors. Spending too much energy charging up a climb can lead to bonking later on in the race.

Don’t forget to have fun

Yes, taking on a challenge you’re not sure you can finish can fill you with plenty of anxiety. And while there is a lot to think about on race day, having fun should be a top priority. After all, the enjoyment of spending a day on the bike with your fellow enthusiasts is what cycling is all about – and it should be the main reason you signed up in the first place.

Instead of taking things too seriously, don’t forget to smile, say hello to your fellow competitors, and approach the event with a good attitude. If possible, get a few of your friends to sign up for the event too. You’ll have more fun and be able to encourage each other along the way when things get tough. And once you get to the finish, it’s always nice to have a few friends to celebrate with.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals or physicians. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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