You just finished a Gran Fondo – barely- and as you reflect on the day, you try to pinpoint where you can improve. You trained for two months straight, scoured the Internet for helpful insights, but you’re completely spent – more than you expected after a big ride.
You soft pedaled a longish ride to prep for the race and on race day you had plenty of caffeine since you got such an early start.
Before too long, you had to dismount for an emergency restroom pitstop.
Plus, you realize you didn’t have enough energy gels to last you to the next food station.
Despite constantly tugging on your bib shorts and adjusting your position on the saddle throughout the race, saddle sores have crept up making each pedal stroke painful. You’re feeling sluggish and you’ve hit the wall – and you’re wondering if you did all that training for nothing.
Perhaps the advice you read online didn’t prepare you like you thought. You should never do a long ride the day before a race and too much coffee right before race time can cause an ill timed emergency stop.
And if your race clothing and bike doesn’t fit you properly, forget it!
Whether you’re new to Gran Fondo’s or have several races under your belt, finding the right formula for a successful, happy event involves lots of preparation.
But don’t despair! Below, we’re detailing valuable tips for your best Gran Fondo race yet.
After all, how can you brag about your next Gran Fondo if you don’t feel good about your performance?
TRAIN WELL, RACE WELL:
Most Gran Fondo training programs are between eight and ten weeks and begin with endurance and cadence exercises, interval work, and 50-65 mile weekend rides. As the program continues, you will gradually increase your strength training and time spent on your bike. It’s essential to train properly to maximize your performance and reduce injury.
An integral part of training is interval work. Interval work will help you prepare for the long-game, which is the name of the game for long races.
Short intervals: Practice bursts of high-power intervals – where you’re cycling at your maximum ability – for two minutes, then ease into two minutes of spinning recovery. Once you’re able to surge above your VO2 or lactate threshold, you’ll reap the benefits: developing the ability to quickly recover from the surges will help you bridge gaps or make a climb without wasting your strength and resources later on.
Climbing (long) intervals: To maintain a steady, sustained power output during a long climb, complete a long endurance ride (around 90 minutes) and then do two 20-minute sweet spot training (SST) circuits at your lactate threshold with a five minute rest period in between.
It’s likely that a Gran Fondo will be your longest ride of the year, but between work schedules and family obligations, it can be challenging to find enough time to meet your goal mileage.
If you’re unable to ride for many hours a day when you need to, try incorporating back-to-back training blocks with two days of 3-4 hour rides. Here are five exercise plans for time-crunched cyclists you can incorporate.
While each week of training is imperative, the week leading up to the event is as important as the preceding weeks. Remember, this is only a one day event, so you’ll want to rest, stay hydrated, and focused so you can crush it. Here’s how to prepare:
- Begin tapering your training 4-5 days out, especially if you need to travel to the event or feel over-fatigued.
- About 2-3 days before the race, spend quality time on core work and stretching. You may find foam rolling beneficial, too. If you haven’t raced the course before, now is a good time to pre-ride part of the route so you can be familiar come race day.
- For a few days leading up to the race, do some hip and leg opening exercises.
- During the ride, be patient when you get started. I find I often feel super fresh in the first 20-30 miles and push it harder than I should. Try and taper your efforts early, get into a comfortable rhythm and know that you’ll need that energy from mile 70 on.
Training doesn’t stop at leg work and long rides. Nutrition and hydration are paramount for quality training and optimal performance.
OPTIMIZING YOUR NUTRITION:
BEFORE YOUR RACE:
For your pre-race meal, eat a digestible carbohydrate that contains 100 to 200 calories.
The primary goal for your first meal of the day is to freshen glycogen stores, so you’ll want to eat a low-GI (glycemic index) food that won’t cause your muscles to throw off your digestion.
- Instead of a small stack of pancakes or toasted white bread, reach for a yogurt or have a slice of pumpernickel bread. Eating low-GI foods will ensure a sustainable carbohydrate release during your ride.
- We’ll be the first to tell you how great a pile of bacon is first thing in the morning, but not on race day. Since bacon is mainly fat, it doesn’t digest as easily and will take at least two hours to provide the fat-for-fuel benefit.
- If you don’t have enough time between breakfast and the race to digest your meal (or if you have gastrointestinal sensitivities), avoid high-fiber foods and caffeine pre-race.
- Many cyclists swear by a boost of caffeine first thing in the morning, as multiple studies have shown its jolt has performance-enhancing results. But stick to one cup – or even have a shot of espresso, instead – to avoid a restroom crisis on the course.
- It goes without saying, but being well-hydrated is key for your success. Aim to have one or two bottles of water for every hour prior to the start of your race.
Whether you have whole-grain toast or opt for eggs, don’t try anything new on race day. It’s crucial to consume familiar foods, like the meals and snacks you have eaten throughout your training so you can know how your body will react during the race.
DURING YOUR RACE:
With all the hydration drinks you’re sipping and the hourly carbohydrate-focused snacks you’re methodically consuming, you may begin to wonder if A Moveable Feast is less about Hemingway’s experience living as an expatriate journalist in Paris and more about the race you’re currently competing in. Still, having adequate nutrition throughout the race is very important.
WHAT TO DRINK:
- For a Gran Fondo, you want to have at least two to three bottles of hydrating, low-carb drinks with plenty of electrolytes. When your heart rate elevates, you’re losing quadruple the amount of fluids versus what you would lose if you were resting. Since your body can’t replenish water as quickly as it loses it, don’t skip pre-race hydration and continue your water consumption throughout the race.
WHAT TO EAT:
- Depending on your training habits and your body type, you’ll want to consume around 30 grams to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
- Start with solid foods at race stations. As you clock miles, switch to chews, gels, bars, or even gummy bears. Be sure to swill water with your chews and gels to avoid gastrointestinal issues.
- Plan to eat about every 20 to 30 minutes. You may want to take your weight into consideration to help calculate the frequency of your micro-feeds.
- Remember that you’re eating to fuel yourself down the road, not for the moment you’re eating a snack. Once you are at roughly mile 80, it’s crucial you keep eating. It’s tempting to think you’re almost don’t so no need to keep food stores topped off.
AFTER YOUR RACE:
Completing a Gran Fondo is cause for celebration, but that doesn’t mean you should have a free-for-all with greasy chips and guacamole and 1 or 3 cold beers at the beverage tent. Try and hold off and recharge with a simple protein and a carbohydrate-filled recovery drink. Instead of pizza, opt for grilled chicken or a tuna sandwich. And drink plenty of water!
Restoring your depleted nutrients is vital to reducing inflammation and repairing muscle damage. For a snack, have some fruit or seeds. At dinner, go for an oily fish, a cruciferous vegetable, and a generous helping of berries.
Of course, if this is your last event of the year, go ahead and have that margarita. You earned it!
CHOOSING A SADDLE FOR MAXIMUM COMFORT:
Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all saddle. Since each one of us is built differently, the design, position, and size of the saddle that works best for your body may not work for you. With proper measuring, you can find a saddle that’s completely personalized for your body to help prevent saddle sores.
A thick, plush saddle may seem more comfortable than a thin, hard saddle, but since you want your weight resting on your ischial tuberosities (sit bones), you want a saddle with very little flex.
Excess padding will help distribute your weight, but it will also put more pressure on your nerves and perineum. Ouch! (You can also relieve concentrated pressure by standing – getting out of the saddle – every couple minutes.)
There are some saddles that have a center channel, too, that will help eliminate nerve pressure and encourage arterial blood flow. You may want to consider a slightly curved seat, as well, so you can slide side-to-side comfortably. Over time, you will become accustomed to the thin, narrow saddle, but if you’re still struggling with it, you may need to change its position.
It’s very possible to have the right saddle in the wrong position. Most positional issues can be corrected with the right tilt adjustment. If you are pushing yourself back onto the saddle or feel your hips sliding forward toward the handlebars, the saddle is tilted too far downward.
Having the saddle tilted too far upward will cause strain reaching the handlebars, which will create neck, shoulder, and groin pain. Before you begin to tinker with the tilt, mark the current position with a paint pen, then, as you adjust, use a level to ensure proper positioning.
To discover which size saddle you need, consider your traditional riding position and personal physique. (Generally, men with a larger build and most women have wider pelvises and will require wider saddles.) Then, determine the width of your sit bones.
As this video demonstrates, you can measure the width of your sit bones at home with a tape measure, chalk, and corrugated cardboard. (Be sure to elevate your knees!) The simple chart below dictates what size saddle you will need based on the width of your sit bones:
- Narrow: 100mm or less
- Medium: 100mm to 130mm
- Wide: 130mm or more
While indoor training sessions are beneficial, it isn’t comparable to riding on the road. If you do the majority of your training on an indoor saddle, try switching up your routine so you have a healthy mix of indoor and outdoor sessions – especially so you can be comfortable on your saddle.
SELECTING BIB SHORTS:
Since elastic shorts can restrict blood flow and cause chafing through retained moisture in the waistband, cycling bibs are crucial for a comfortable ride. Keep in mind that expensive bib shorts aren’t necessarily the best – just because they’re costly doesn’t mean the quality matches the price. Here’s what to consider when selecting new bibs:
- Style and Fit: Like jeans, there are high-cut waist bibs and low-cut waist bibs – but, thankfully, bibs have nothing to do with denim. Whether you choose high-cut or low-cut bibs, the nature of the design does make it challenging to quickly use the restroom during a race.
- Many brands are working to improve the style of the bibs to include a back clasp or adjustable straps, so when you are shopping for new bibs, keep that in mind. Once you choose high-waisted or low-waisted bib shorts, the next step is to ensure the straps fit well. Generally, you want the straps to be a little tight on your shoulders while standing because they will slacken a bit when you’re seated on the bike. If the straps are too loose while you’re standing, the shorts will definitely move out of place when crouched on your bike in aero position.
- Materials: Made of Lycra, cycling bibs are lightweight and stretchy but close-fitting. Bibs are also made with certain fabric blends that encourage wicking and breathability. (If you want to shill the money, there are bibs with aerodynamic features that promote improved circulation, too.)
- Chamois (Padding): While you don’t want plush material on the saddle, padding is important in bib shorts. The chamois, a pad made of synthetic materials, provides cushioning, discourages bacterial growth, and reduces friction. For extended rides, you’ll want a dense, open cell foam chamois for optimal comfort.
Having a well-adjusted saddle and well-fitting garments are all for naught if you don’t have the proper wheels and tires.
It’s no surprise to Gran Fondo aficionados that there are a plethora of tire options out there. Despite the numerous choices out there, bike tires come in two primary categories: tubulars and clinchers.
Here’s the difference:
- The unique design – sewn-on fabric with a special glue adhesive – is the safer option between tubulars and clinchers, but mainly because there is still research and development to be done on clinchers and its technology.
- While tubulars flat less than clinchers, it takes longer to repair a tubular roadside than it does a clincher. However, you can usually come to a full stop with a flat on a tubular while a clincher would be prone to crash.
- It’s worth noting that while tubular rims feel lighter than clincher rims, it doesn’t mean tubulars are faster.
- Clinchers are more a bit heavier but more affordable than tubulars.
- Clinchers are easier to install and maintain.
- Because of their popularity, there are numerous options to choose from.
Whether you choose tubulars or clinchers, make note of the PSI of your tires and modify accordingly for a safe, stable ride. When adjusting your PSI, hop on for a quick spin and consider the following:
- Do the tires seem to be absorbing little blips in the road without deflecting? If the tires seem to bounce on every split and rock in the road, alter the PSI.
- Do the tires seem to be planted? If there’s surface drift, change the PSI.
- Does the surface feel firm and stable? If not, adjust the PSI.
Now that you have the right equipment for peak performance, check out one of our favorite podcasts,Ask a Cycling Coach, to stay current with advice on performing your best.
You’ll want a wheelset that can take on unpredictable weather, varied terrain, and long mileage. Stock wheels on many road bikes don’t provide the comfort, performance, and durability required for long rides so many cyclists are anxious to upgrade wheels for an immediate boost in performance.
What you choose to spend will depend on a number of personal factors. My best advice is to opt for wheels that make you want to ride more be that a low end wheelset for $400 or a high end set of hoops for $2,500.
For more advice on choosing wheels, check out our buyer’s guide.
Now that you know how to train, hydrate, and optimize your bike, it’s time to ride!
There’s an old joke that goes, “How do you know someone has completed a Gran Fondo? They’ll tell you about it.” But if you train well, hydrate and nourish properly, and set up your bike to help you perform your best, you won’t even have to tell folks what you did – they’ll be able to tell by your results!