Chess on wheels. That’s how I would describe a Gran Fondo.
The length and complexity of the race/event (depending on how you are treating it) means that every move needs to be planned and calculated, otherwise you could pay for it later. Every action has a consequence and it’s your job to manage these consequences so there are more positives than negatives.
It is this continuous balancing act over the course of several hours that makes riding a Gran Fondo so different than other rides on Zwift.
The longer routes, large number of riders, and mountaintop finishes mean this is the closest many of us ever get to racing a stage similar in style and stature to that of the Tour de France or other Grand Tours.
Having raced the Gran Fondo – Bambino in November, I decided to try the middle distance event, called the Medio, measured at 72.6km in length. Unlike last time, I wouldn’t be racing this event alone – this time I would be racing alongside Michael, the experienced Dutch rider who I met in my previous Fondo. It seemed natural to invite him along for this ride.
Unlike the previous Gran Fondo, all of the different routes had staggered start times. This small change made a huge difference as instantly you were able to identify who you were racing. The start was not as manic as previous races and it felt more measured. There could be two reasons for this. Firstly, it could be that due to the length of the race, there was not a big panic for road position given we had 72km to race. Secondly, it could be that I have become accustomed to the starts on Zwift and my experience with other races such as the TTR Mini race has changed my perception of what constitutes a “fast start.”
The Game Begins
Following a “steady start”, we hit our first challenge, the Zwift KOM. With the experience of my previous Fondo fresh in my mind, I was conscious of not getting split from the front group so I made sure I was at the front. My early bit of aggressive riding ensured that I secured a new PB of 3 mins 42 seconds, up the Zwift KOM. This climb had split the front group into two and I was desperately searching for Michael. It would have been disastrous if he hadn’t made it. There were frantic messages between us via the Companion App as we tried to establish where each other was r, fortunately, his avatar appeared alongside mine. “Game-on!”
Having made light work of the Zwift KOM, we quickly approached our second challenge, the Volcano Climb. I feared this climb, knowing full well that this favoured riders with a very strong 5 minute power output. I feared that they could be up and over the climb before most of us had even reached the summit. If enough riders escaped, then the race would be over.
The First Move
My prediction was correct, the climb up the Volcano was fast – so fast I obtained a new PB, 6 minutes and 43 seconds! Again, like the previous climb, I was ready for the increase in pace and I went straight to the wheels of the early escapees. Despite this, they simply had too much power for me and I struggled to stay with them, all the while marveling at how their explosive acceleration left us trailing behind.
Prior to the start of the climb, Michael mentioned that “he didn’t have good legs” and instructed me not to wait for him. (The reason Michael wasn’t feeling special was later revealed and he’d actually had a big crash on the road the previous evening and landed heavily on his hip, making efforts like the Volcano climb more challenging.) I got detached from the lead riders as they crested the climb and Michael chastised me for waiting for him, to which I replied “I didn’t, they were just too strong, I did a PB up the climb!”
Over the top of the climb and fearing that I was missing the main move of the race I went into “time trial mode” and pedaled frantically downhill, attempting to generate as much power as I could and close the gap to the top 9 riders. It was impossible. I was gaining no ground and I felt deflated.
Then within seconds, the race changed again as help arrived in the form of a mini bunch of riders, led by Michael! He gave me a quick message warming me about his approaching group, so I sped-up and got successfully swallowed by the bunch.
Now sat comfortably in the group, the leading few riders realised that there wasn’t enough of them to escape, so they relented and their breakaway was pulled in. I was back in the race! But their explosive acceleration and my failed chase had done damage. I was exhausted and the temporary ceasefire that ensued was much needed.
Break in Play
It was during this lull that I was desperately trying to recover by drinking a combination of water and Energy drinks, interspersed with sweets to give me a much-needed sugar boost. It was clear that everyone was doing the same because riders in the group kept “yo-yoing” from the group as people’s concentration waned.
This break in the race was short-lived. As we approached the Reverse Epic KOM, a group of 4 riders put in a massive attack of 6-7 watts per kilo just before the start of the climb and before the right turn to the Jungle. I still hadn’t recovered from the previous big effort and could not get close to them. They were up the road before the majority of other riders could react. It was a well-timed attack and clearly pre-planned. By the time the second group had formed, the lead riders had built a 10-second advantage over our group. This was the definitive move of the race and I had missed it.
As my chase group turned right at the T-junction and headed towards the Jungle, the lead had grown to 20 seconds. The front group were clearly organised and working well together. Fortunately, Michael had made my group and noted he was the last rider that did. Our group spanned positions 14-26 out of 652.
No one likes this part of the game
Three things of note happened in the Jungle:
- The front group extended their lead to 1 minute 20 seconds
- It was universally agreed in our group that we all hated the Jungle
- Bizarrely, one rider from the front group thought it would be a good idea to stop and change their bike
When I saw the message about changing bikes I thought it was a joke. But moments later, our group flew by a stationary rider! Indeed, one rider decided it would be preferable to change bikes. By their own admission, that was a mistake. I learnt “never change your bike in the Jungle mid race!” (The rider decided to change their bike due to the surface being dirt. This is also why our group universally agreed we did not like the Jungle. Nothing wrong with the route, more an issue with the slow road surface.)
Out of the Jungle and back on terra firma our group started closing the gap to the front. We were approaching the end game, the Epic KOM. I tried to sit in the group whilst I refueled but again found myself surging as I was distracted. It was during this moment that I nearly missed the fact the several riders from the front group had become detached and the gap was now down to 1 minute. I figured, if we could get the gap down smaller, I might be able to make some gains on the climb.
I pushed to the front of the group and started to try and drive the pace, messaging all that would listen that we needed to chase. Michael and I exchanged messages and I explained that I was going to attack at the very start of the climb. He warned against this and advised to attack at the Castle halfway up, but I was undeterred. I was going from the start of the climb. Better to attack and fail, then to be cautious and wonder what might have been. This was my big move.
The Final Move
The blue line indicating the start of the climb approached, and I went, taking 3 riders with me. I didn’t look at the gaps behind, I just focussed on getting into my rhythm. To me, this was now just another ZWC Hill Climb Battle and I led our group up the climb, through the village, on through the Castle and up to where the snow started to line the side of the route.
It was just before the underpass that the tempo was too much for one rider, who dropped back. I was still leading this select few riders, with the main group losing time as we pushed on. Just after the underpass and before the road descended over the bridge, one of the riders attacked! I had to increase my effort and struggled to catch, but I used the momentum of the descent to gain speed and soon I was back on their wheel. The gap to the riders ahead had been halved and now stood at 27 seconds, but I was running out of road and lnew I was now racing for position, with the last kilometre to go.
The last kilometre before the Epic KOM banner is always longer than you think. As the road descended, I pushed the pace and gave it everything. I now sat 10th on the road. The finish line came into sight. I used the “Feather” powerup that I had saved all race exactly for this moment, and started sprinting.
But I wasn’t the only one with this idea. The rider who attacked earlier pulled alongside and we were sprinting it out for 10th position. My mammoth effort earlier in the race had left me with nothing for the sprint finish and I rolled in 11th on the road, 10th on Zwift Power in a time of 1:56:51.
I climbed the Epic KOM in 20 minutes, 50 seconds. Michael finished a few minutes behind which was impressive, given his accident.
The winning time was 1:53:35 by Yuki Tanaka, who rides for Team ZWC and had a blistering time of 18:40 up the Epic KOM. That in itself deserved the victory.
Personally speaking, it was a fine result and one where I know where I got outmanoeuvred. But I’m already looking forward to this weekend’s zFondo challenge.
What About You?
Do you treat fondos like a race, or a personal challenge? Got any tips to share? Post below!