Gran Fondo NY: Advice from my first Century cycling ride

I recently participated in the Gran Fondo New York, my first attempt at a Century cycling ride. I have been riding for about 14 months, since I bought my Trek 1.2 in an attempt to re-establish an exercise routine. I decided on the Gran Fondo NY because I needed a goal to encourage me to stick to my bicycling. Plus as a native New Yorker, it sounded like fun to start a 100-mile-plus ride on the George Washington Bridge and ride out to Bear Mountain and back.

The ride was set for Sunday morning, May 20, 2012. No matter how I looked at it, 110 miles sounded long. But I felt I had trained well, with a fair amount of hill work in the area where I live outside Orlando. (I won’t bury the lead: I was riding outside the time limit when another rider and I missed a turn at mile 89. We ended up riding another 7 miles in wrong direction before calling for SAG wagon. Overall, I cycled 102 miles that day — doesn’t feel like a Century, since I didn’t finish the Gran Fondo, but there is always next year.)

But for those like me who are trying to go from couch to Century or who are planning to do Gran Fondo NY, here is my top 10 pieces of advice:

  • As much hill training as you did, it isn’t enough. For a beginner and a flatlander like me, I thought I had done my share of hills and hill intervals. But the Gran Fondo NY is hillier than I expected — at times, I though the hills that were NOT part of the four timed hills were harder than the timed ones. About 8,000 feet of elevation change will kill you unless you are physically and mentally prepared. Do more hills.
  • Take the subway to the Gran Fondo NY start. It was one of the most fun things that day, seeing the A train to 168th Street get taken over by cyclists. I considered cycling along the Hudson River Greenway to the start, but this saved energy and got me pumped for the ride.
  • Bring food to the start and more than you think for the ride. This might be obvious to experienced cyclists but since I ate three hours before the start, I was glad I had an extra bagel and banana to munch on before the 7 a.m. start. Also, the rest stops of Gran Fondo NY were overwhelmed — lines for food and water — so I wish I had stuffed my pockets with more to get in and out of them quicker. (Note: Organizers promise to address the lines next year. The volunteers were great but the waits were exceptionally long this year.)
  • Riding with 5,000 other people is a lot different than riding with a few dozen on your Sunday morning training sessions. I had never been to a cycling event with more than a few hundred people, so it was intense as we headed north along the Hudson River with so many people (on what turned out to be one rough road.) I’d suggest finding a couple of large events to prepare yourself for Gran Fondo NY peloton-like first 10 miles.
  • Remember to pace yourself. You’ve heard this advice if you’ve read anything on cycling your first Century, but I had to keep reminding myself this was a ride and not a race for me. I tried to take it easy on first third, then cruise through middle and hope to have something left for end. (For me, I was strong for first 50 to Bear Mountain area, dead between 60 and 70, when there were two timed climbs, then felt better after mile 80.)
  • Make a friend. I didn’t know any other riders, so I tried to find people to ride with. The tradition of Gran Fondo is it is a social ride as well as a test of your skills.
  • Bring a map and cue sheet. As I mentioned, I missed a turn between mile 88 and 89 — a quick right after a left. I had studied the map well, but didn’t have it or cue sheet with me. And trust your instincts — if the road you are on makes you wonder why the organizers would send you on it, you might want to question whether you are in right place. (Or get a Garmin 800 and load the map!)
  • If you are outside the time needed to finish your Gran Fondo or Century, consider the consequences of trying to finish. In the end, even if I hadn’t missed a turn, I would have finished about 5:45 p.m., about 15 minutes beyond the max time that Gran Fondo NY allowed. Fortunately, I was with another rider for support and organizers were great about coming to get us. But I should have pulled out at the fifth rest area, which was packing up when we arrived. There will always be another Gran Fondo or Century to try again.
  • Consider your achievement and not your failures. This one was hard for me. I didn’t enter Gran Fondo NY to come up short of the finish line. But I went from riding nothing to riding more than 100 miles in a day — all in course of 14 months. Not too bad.
  • And set another goal — if you are like me, it might be easy to let your cycling wane some after a year-long prep for your first Century. Pick another event and start getting ready.