The View from the Back: The Gran Fondo (Jan 3, 2021)

The View from the Back: The Gran Fondo (Jan 3, 2021)

Have you heard the story about finishing a Zwift Gran Fondo with only two gears? No? Well sit down, make yourself comfortable, and get ready for the ride!

The supporting cast

Having ridden the Bambino and Medio Fondos the last couple of months, I had decided to ride the full Gran Fondo for January’s event, totaling 97.5km and climbing 1,196m.  Having completed the Rapha Festive 500 Challenge (which was riding 500km in 8 days), I felt that I would have the endurance to have a strong ride. 

To accompany be in this adventure, I had Michael, the Dutch Ironman athlete. He had ridden with me on the previous two fondos as well.

Setting the scene

There were 1920 riders signed up to the Gran Fondo alone.  A huge field, which meant that it was imperative to be at the very front of the pen otherwise it would be impossible to get into the front group.  35 minutes before the event started, I logged into Zwift and my avatar was sat at the side of the road, in Watopia.  However, so were about 50 other people! I immediately realised these people were also waiting to join the event, as soon as the option allowed. 

Sure enough, as soon as the “Join Event” button appeared, these riders suddenly disappeared and soon we were all decked out in the same grey jersey and at the front of the pen, for the start of the race.  Despite not being the “fastest finger on the button” I sat about 3 rows from the front, in a good position. 

With the first task achieved, I went about getting my supplies ready for the race.  Soon the table next to my bike was decked out like a kiosk, full of fruit, sweets, chocolates, gels, water and sugary drinks. 

I moved the turbo trainer closer to the monitor to get a better view and repositioned the fan.

I had left nothing to chance… or so I thought.

Michael was soon in the pen. We were ready to go.

Start with a bang!  

“How ironic!” I thought to myself as I endured a start to a race like no other. You see, I had only just written how the start to November’s Medio Fondo had been sedate by Zwift standards. But not this one!  The first comment I read was “OMG” followed shortly by “Wow”. I did want to reply, but I was pushing over 450 watts and holding the handlebars with a vice-like grip as I desperately tried to keep pace. 

A frenzied start

Within seconds of the start, I had been swamped and was down in 125th place.  I pedaled hard and was pushing well over 300 watts for the first few minutes. 

I got a message from Michael indicating he was near the front and by that time I was in 33rd position so replied “Me to” – I was too focused on pedalling and my position in the group to write any more, a theme that would continue.

I have never been in a start where changing position was so fluid.  One minute I was second, then 22nd, then 122nd, then 22nd again.  It was as if I was on some kind of weird ride where the position of my avatar kept changing amongst the melee of riders.

Hang On

“Hang On” Michael wrote as we approached the Zwift KOM.  He wasn’t wrong.  The melee of riders turned into a line as people were stretched by the pace.  I was pushing 6.9 watts per kilo and just holding my position. In the Head-up-Display unit I was able to see riders and their watts per kilo were exceeding normal parameters as they turned orange.  I wasn’t surprised, as I was on my limit and we had probably only been going for 15 minutes. 

Soon we were over the top of the climb and I had somehow survived in the front group, and so had Michael.  The descent was rapid and at the bottom we were joined by the second group.

To give you an indication of how insanely quick this was, as we approached the Volcano I remember seeing 18 minutes next to 15 kilometres and thinking “What?”

Too hot for me

As soon as we hit the Volcano, the pace got quicker and it was too hot for me.  I wasn’t going slow – pushing over 5 watts per kilo up the climb – but the front 50 riders had this power and pace that I and other mere mortals didn’t possess.  I reached the top in 6:44 and was already 40 seconds down with the top time being 6:04. 

There was some consolation as I think on the climb I passed Bryan Coquard, a French pro cyclist who rides for B&B Hotels-Vital Concept. He was a silver medalist at the 2012 Summer Olympics in the Omnium

I didn’t have too much time to think about Bryan as I was on the descent and in a good group, which now sat 2nd on the road.  We were joined by another group and we now occupied positions 56-89. 

Michael was in the group behind.

The intermission

During the descent, I refueled from my homemade kiosk and got to the front of the group so I’d be ready if anyone decided to attack near the base of the reverse Epic KOM.  Fortunately, no one did, so off on our Jungle trek we went.

Carnage in the Jungle

We had been cycling hard now for about an hour.  The change in surface in the Jungle makes this part of any Fondo the most challenging, yet somehow, despite now being a little tired, I was able to sit comfortably in the middle of the group.

The kilometers ticked over and I was able to get some form of recovery, that was until some ‘bright spark’ went to the front of the group and started pushing the pace on the exit to the Jungle!  I’m not sure what their plan was, as the group was working well and it seemed pointless to try and start attacking with such a long way to go (45km).  The pace upped and people were pushing 5 watts per kilo and then as I changed gear to keep pace, there was a loud crunch and my rear derailleur shifted to the smallest chainring and the gear shifter went loose. I knew instantly that the gear cable had snapped.

I watched in pain as the group eased away into the distance. 

In an instant I had gone from riding my Trek Madone with all the gears in the world to a single-speed bicycle. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad – my front derailleur worked so I did have two gears!

Honestly, I hate the Jungle.

Decisions, decisions

Any aspirations of a strong finish disappeared with the group ahead of me and for a moment it was quite depressing.  It wasn’t like I had just 10km to go, or even 20km, I had 56kms including an ascent of the Epic KOM and that was a daunting thought.  There was no way I wasn’t going to finish the race, quitting hadn’t entered my mind, it was more the question of “How am I going to do this?” 

You see, with no cable tension to hold the rear derailleur in place it was stuck on the smallest chainring, which is only really used for descending at speed or sprinting.  It was the worst gear to have.

The irony was that in my well-prepared kiosk, I had every food and drink beverage but I did not think to include a gear cable and multi-tool.  It just goes to show that despite planning for everything, there are always surprises that can trip you up.

Faced with few options I just pedaled on. Fortunately, I still had two pedals, which was more than I had a few years ago.

A brief interlude – Col du Galibier on one pedal

Several years ago, I was cycling the big mountains in France and on the ascent up the Col de Télégraphe, the carbon plate in my right Look Keo Blade pedal broke, leaving me to pedal the Col de Télégraphe and Col du Galibier with effectively one pedal, as it had no tension to keep my shoe in place!

Back in Watopia

Back in Watopia, the next 56km’s were just painful.  With a strong finish all but a distant memory, I was in “survival mode.”  I knew that my best chance to finish was to get in and stay with a group.  If I could “sit-in” I would save an awful lot of energy and time.  The problem was, how could you do this with two gears?

The first group that approached me, I got the timing all wrong.  I was in the small chain ring, which gave me a high cadence but a low power.  So when the group was on top of me, I shifted to the large chain ring and started putting the power but they sped past me.

I watched the map for the next approaching group and this time my tactic worked.  I shifted from spinning to all out power and managed to not only get in the group, but overshoot it.  They easily caught up to me and I was able to settle in. 

Staying in the group over the next 30km involved some of the most bizarre cycling I have done.  Left with a meandering, rolling route to the Epic KOM, surviving in the group meant paying close attention to the terrain and using it to my advantage.  As soon as we hit a slight incline, I changed to the small chain ring and span my legs like crazy.  This momentum would take me up the short rolling climbs, then I would change to the large chain ring and pedal as hard as I could, resulting in me passing through the group and up the next set of rolling climbs, where I would need to change to the small chain ring and repeat the whole process again.  This worked well until the rolling hills were in short succession and I didn’t have time to change gear, resulting in me grinding at 40 rpm up the second climb, pulling the pedals with all my force. 

I honestly wondered what the people in the group thought, but unable to let go of the handlebars to message them, they were now witness to the bizarre sight of me shooting through the group, only to be caught again. I prayed for the flat.  Ironically, it was during one of these efforts to keep in the group that I achieved the quickest time on a sprint near the Roman Villas.

Epic by name, Epic by nature   

As I approached the Epic KOM, I got a message from Michael who had a technical issue and had slipped down to 800th. He had worked himself to 400th position and was making progress.  I, however, was sitting around 130th position, and I knew I wouldn’t stay there for long.

I realised it would be near impossible to climb the Epic KOM competitively without shifting the rear derailleur into an easier gear, so I made the desperate decision to get off my bike and try and pull the gear into position.  I knew that without any cable tension to hold it in place, it would be impossible, but I needed to try. 

Predictably, without tension from the cable, the derailleur would not hold in position and slipped back to the smallest cog. 

I reluctantly got back on the bike, put it in the small front gear, and just started spinning up the mountain. With too little resistance I was only generating 3 watts per kilo.  I did consider changing the trainer difficulty setting, but the purist in me would not allow it, so I sat and spun and watched as riders streamed past me as a slowly climbed the mountain.  The climb up the Epic KOM was a stream of riders, like a conga line without any fun music to accompany the sight.

There was no swashbuckling finish, just a slow crawl to the finish in a time of 2:35:29, in 193rd position, nearly 30 minutes behind the leader.  My legs were in bits from the 45kms with two gears and I was exhausted. But at least I had completed my trilogy of Fondos. 

The Epilogue

My Gran Fondo experience just shows that cycling really is a metaphor for life.  There are thrills to have, mountains to conquer, and despite the best-laid plans and preparation, there is always something that comes along and changes them.

Ultimately the key is to not give up, but to “get round” the best you can. In the end, just to finish is the achievement, and at least there is a story to tell!

What About You?

Did you ride in January’s fondo events? Share your experience below!

About The Author

Tim Perkin

Tim is a six-year cancer survivor who has finally regained and surpassed pre-cancer fitness levels through the intense use of Zwift.

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Daan de Jonge
Daan de Jonge
1 month ago

Great story, good reading. Hope to never have the same derailleur trouble haha..
bit depressing to read about your “only” 3 w/kg ascent, I ascent with like 3.2 max 😕

Ben Pitt
Ben Pitt (@benjamin_pitt)
1 month ago

A quick trainer control swap to your headunit would have been an option, set the resistance as required, or even erg. Sure, it wouldn’t be possible to maintain the group you had.

Ben Pitt
Ben Pitt (@benjamin_pitt)
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim Perkin

You can get your wahoo or garmin to control the trainer (just like you do in zwift during workouts) – just unpair the trainer from “trainer control” and keep it as “power”. Then connect your headunit with ant+ and you can choose the resistance you need. Ie, on the wahoo you can set resistance or levels between 0-10, using level 5 or so would have been good for the 39-11. If you wanted to keep the theme of difficulty, you could increase and decrease difficulty manually as gradient changes.

Oliver Radermacher
Oliver Radermacher
1 month ago

Interesting story :-), well done!. So I htink we will see you back in February’s Gran Fondo :-). I always do the Gran Fondo rides as well cause that means so much fun and meeting nice and interesting people while having to ride strong. So I hope we see in February. Maybe Zwift will give us a new route after 3 years 🙂

S Durant
S Durant
1 month ago

Great ride considering the bike dilemmas! I managed to ride most of it with Eric, funnily enough the conversation about changing bikes in the jungle came up but not enough people agreed.

Eric Schlange
Top Member
Eric Schlange (@eschlange)
1 month ago
Reply to  S Durant

I blew up on the final Epic KOM… underfueled and overcooked. But it was a great event nonetheless!

Ian Batker
Ian Batker
1 month ago

The same thing happened to me! On New Years Eve I had a 95km Zwift ride to complete my Rapha Festive 500. The gear cable snapped and I rode the last 45km with two gears! Luckily it wasn’t a race so I rode to Tempus Fugit and stayed on there using the turn around!

Adrian Amos
Adrian Amos (@ahamos)
1 month ago

That…uh… “bright spark” might have been me. I was riding the medio out of frustration and got on the front coming out of the jungle and just drilled it. No good reason other than just a heaping pile of frustration that day. Sorry! And don’t worry: I completely fell apart later on the mountain.

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