Gran fondos are cycling events for everyone

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COTTTAGE GROVE, Ore. (AP) - Gran fondos are all about bringing different types of cyclists together.

Guys working in unison with matching team kits? Check. Dad on a triplet bike with his two adolescent daughters? Absolutely. Thirty-something journalist rocking his beloved aluminum-frame commuter, complete with rear rack? You betcha.

I rode in my first gran fondo last week, the Oregon Gran Fondo, which started and finished in Cottage Grove south of Eugene after miles of winding roads through the western part of the Willamette Valley and southern section of the Oregon Coast Range. Part race, part up-tempo social ride, the gran fondo - the Italian term loosely translates to “big ride” - was born early in the last century when spectators at some of cycling’s top races decided they wanted to ride the same scenic and challenging courses they were watching professional cyclists attack.

“The whole gran fondo concept comes from Europe,” says Alan Cline, the director of operations at Eugene-based Dark:30 Sports, which produces the Oregon Gran Fondo.

“You have all these great races there and all the enthusiasts want to ride the same great course.”

Fast and fit enthusiasts, that is. Fondos are not Sunday strolls. They start in one gloriously messy wave, and the fastest riders separate from the pack almost immediately.

Locally, the Cascade Gran Fondo was held the past three years before shutting down this summer due to scheduling conflicts. The Tour des Chutes, while not a gran fondo, offers riders some great long-course rides that feature parts of two Central Oregon routes that have earned Oregon Scenic Bikeway status.

“This is old school,” Cline says about gran fondos. “You go out and do the course and the first person that crosses the finish line is the winner.”

I was not the first person to cross the finish line.

A gran fondo rookie, I participated in the Oregon Gran Fondo’s “medio” course - I believe that translates loosely into “weak sauce” - of 71 miles. The “gran” route of the Oregon Gran Fondo covered 117 miles, and a family-friendly “piccolo” course went for 31.2 miles.

Everyone doing the gran and medio routes started together, regardless if you were trying to win the 117-mile race or just survive the 71-miler. This mass start is part of the romance of the gran fondo. Had I wanted to, my sticker-covered commuter bike and I could have squeezed up near the front of the start line and made a mad dash alongside true racers on rides that are worth more than my car. (In actuality, I started near the back and chatted with cyclists about good beer in the area, the upcoming ride, and what kind of good beer from the area we would drink after the ride.)

With a healthy mix of competitive cyclists and two-wheel sightseers like myself, the crowd of approximately 350 riders spread out fairly quickly. As a solo rider, I bounced from group to group as we ascended and descended the back roads of Lane and Douglas counties. (Riders on the gran route also dipped into Coos County.) The medio route, which was the same as the gran course for the first 42 miles, featured 3,900 feet of climbing amid some of the most beautiful - and rugged - forests in the southern Willamette Valley. While I dodged a skunk carcass and a startled deer during the ride, cars were never an issue. During the 5 1/2 hours I was on the course, I counted fewer than 10 automobiles on the road. (There were dozens more off the road, suggesting that auto repair is a popular hobby for residents of the greater Cottage Grove/Lorane area.)

As gorgeous as the scenery was, though, interacting with different riders on different missions made the ride for me. Early on I chatted with a middle-aged father who was just pleased that he was able to wrangle up his son and son-in-law for a half-day ride. During a particularly flat section I joined a peloton of about 15 riders that was led by a father on a triplet bike with his two young daughters. He owns a tandem, but both of his girls wanted to participate in the ride, so Dad borrowed a triplet, which he was riding for the first time during the gran fondo.

I ended the day on a 10-mile descent with a retired educator from Southern California - he happened to be the grandfather of the two girls on the triplet - who now lives in Bend. The 71-mile medio route was the longest ride he had done in years, he said, but his regular cycling trips up to Mount Bachelor seemed to prepare his legs just fine.

“Obviously we have a very strong racing crowd,” said Cline, referring to the top cyclists, who finished the 117-mile course in 5 hours, 28 minutes about two minutes after I completed my 71-mile adventure. “But we’ve also got families out there and people who have never done something like this before.”

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