7 Key Training Tips to Prevail Your Gran Fondo

road cyclists enter their gran fondo event as a mass start, all prepared through hard training.

A weird gathering happened in 1970 in Cesenatico, the town where Marco Pantani joined his first Club. People on Bikes with strange outfits waited for the starting signal for the first-ever Gran Fondo, the Gran Fondo “Nove Colli,” the race of nine hills. However, I think none at the time in Cesenatico was aware of the impact this event had on the future of cycling. None was aware that decades later the same event evolved into probably the biggest cycling meeting with a 2-day expo and a 12.000 rider field that tackles 80km, 120km, and 200km. 

Thank technological change for it. Due to chip timing Gran Fondos grew in popularity in Italy in the 1990s.

Fast forward and it’s 2023. Today Gran Fondos are talked of among all cyclists who want to experience a challenge and a journey. Now, the question is what should your training look like to increase the odds of success at your Gran Fondo? What are the demands of a Gran Fondo and how long do you need to train for it? 

In this article, I’ll give you 7 key training tips to ride toward Gran Fondo success, but first, let’s talk about what a Gran Fondo is in particular.

What is a Gran Fondo?

Gran Fondo is Italian and we can roughly translate it to “big ride.” A Gran Fondo is a mass participation event. Especially, in Europe, Gran Fondos enjoyed immense popularity, but its fame quickly transferred to North America, Australia, and Asia. 

And the success of Gran Fondos makes a lot of sense. I mean, a course with great scenery, great climbs, and fast descents, is all pros and amateurs are looking for. Additionally, Gran Fondos provide fixed medical and mechanical support as well as aid stations along the route to refuel, and even traffic has to stop on some occasions. 

Different courses open the event to practically everyone. Take Amy’s Gran Fondo in Australia for example. The event offers a Medio Fondo with 45km and the main UCI Gran Fondo with 130km and 1.903m of elevation gain. Most notably, roads are fully closed to offer perfect rider safety. 

So, a Gran Fondo is a race for everyone. It’s the atmosphere, the community, and the experience that makes Gran Fondos unique. 

1. Understand the Demands of Your Gran Fondo

Now, if you want to prepare successfully for a Gran Fondo you need to understand the demands of the event first. 

Let’s move on with Amy’s Gran Fondo as an example to look at its requirements. As we already know the course is 130km long and features two major climbs. From sea level, you have to climb up to 555m above sea level. 

Therefore, generally speaking, the race requires you to complete two medium-long climbs, and carry that fatigue for 55km from the roof of the Gran Fondo. 

The cut-off time is 7.5 hours for the course or an average speed of 17.3 km/h. 

From a physiological standpoint, your lactate threshold, or FTP is your biggest performance determinant. You achieve threshold development with VO2max work and aerobic training. Furthermore, you need great fat oxidation and endurance. So, with the bulk of your training done at zone 2 endurance, you increase your fat oxidation. Hence, you can ride faster for longer.

Now, the good news is that we can combine these goals with a sophisticated training strategy because some of the adaptations are intertwined. Let’s take these strategies one by one and then tie them all together.

2. Train Consistently

No matter what kind of “magic” workout you do or how hard you go out on a ride, if you train infrequently, you lose. Training consistently is the most fundamental part of the overall training process. 

So, if you aim for a Gran Fondo, write down realistically how many days you can train per week. Shoot for at least 4-5 days a week. Because no matter what kind of research I look at, every scientist emphasizes training frequency and volume. Training frequency and volume also built the base for Dr. Seiler’s pyramid of endurance training needs. 

Accordingly, the first step you should work on if you want to become a better Gran Fondo rider is to ride your bike more often. If you can manage to jump on your bike five times a week for an hour that will bring you very far. 

3. Build Your Endurance – Take it Easy

Building good endurance is as much about training often as it is about training at a low intensity. Training at low intensity is so important that I don’t know where to start. 

I see many cyclists make the mistake of surging way too much in an endurance ride. Thereby, the anaerobic contribution is a lot. This in turn might disturb aerobic contribution and increase fatigue. 

Because the reality is that science begins to understand molecular signaling. A review by Laursen gives a summary of the underlying mechanisms of low-intensity training. Repeated contractions define low-intensity training that triggers the calcium-calmodulin kinase (CaMK) pathway. 

This in turn increases the size and density of your mitochondria, improves lactate clearance capacity in your type-1 muscle fibers, and increases your fat oxidation. The consequence is a higher lactate threshold (LT2), an increased VO2max, higher fractional utilization, and therefore better endurance and efficiency. 

So, with easy endurance rides, you already achieve lots of the physiological demands for your next Gran Fondo. That’s why research suggests doing the bulk of your training at low intensity. Science recommends including a decent training intensity distribution when you have at least 5 weekly hours to train. This is also what I prescribe in my training plans.

Remember to base your training on low-intensity so that it accounts for 80-90% of total training volume and you’re primed for continuous progress.

4. Incorporate Interval Training

Getting faster is about putting your body under sustained stress. With interval training, you can increase your training load in less time. In addition, you can maximize training stimulus through repeatability. 

For example, French researcher Billat showed that to improve your VO2max, you need to accumulate at least 10 minutes above 90% of VO2max. Now, research shows that compared to riding steady at your VO2max, dividing the stress into several efforts is way more effective. This is due to the VO2-slow component because the aerobic system needs some time to ramp up. In contrast, power is immediate as you push the pedals. So, with a 4x3min VO2max effort, you gain much more valuable time than trying your luck at one long effort.

The mechanism of high-intensity training is also well described by Lauren’s review. While high-intensity and low-intensity both trigger PGC-1α (door opener for mitochondrial biogenesis) activation, the signaling pathway is completely different. High intensity causes high-energy contractions and lots of ATP release. Your glycolysis (ability to break down muscle glycogen) is highly active during HIT, so HIT also improves glucose transport capacity, as well as lactate buffering and removal capacity.

These effects lead to an increase in VO2max, Lactate buffering, and removal capacity, increased lactate threshold (LT2), as well as better fat oxidation. On the other hand, tempo training will push up your FTP from below and improve your economy, so getting in a range of specific intervals is key. Science is clear here and suggests 2 or on occasion 3 high intensity sessions per week. 

A Gran Fondo training week sample

5. Train Hard, but Recover Harder

As you might know, you don’t get faster instantly after your session. Instead, the process of training adaptation is complex and takes time. Therefore, adequate recovery is crucial if you want to perform your best Gran Fondo ever. 

The biggest factor for adaptation is sleep. So, you want to get in 8 hours of sleep consistently. Break away from the belief that “ I feel best with 6 hours of sleep.” Science tells us that we are pretty shitty at knowing what is optimal for us. Don’t fool yourself and get quality sleep consistently. 

Another factor for training adaptation is acute and chronic recovery. The most important determinants to name are carbohydrates and proteins. While carbohydrates have acute effects on recovery and adaptation, proteins have long-term effects. However, it’s important to consume both nutrients consistently in a balanced healthy diet. 

6. Challenge Yourself and Go Long

The reason to go out for a long endurance ride lies in the recruitment pattern of our muscle fibers.

Now, research shows that muscle fatigue causes a similar effect on muscle fiber recruitment as intensity does. At first during your long ride only type 1 fibers work actively. Then, after 2 hours, for example, these fibers get fatigued and now more and more type 2a fibers are recruited to maintain the intensity. 

In the end, by training adaptation (if you sleep enough hours) type 1 and 2a fibers become more aerobically efficient. Especially, the type 2a fibers work more like type 1 fibers. So, going long at least once a week increases your odds of success.

7. Practice Your Gran Fondo Nutrition

Training the gut received quite some attention recently. And that’s for good reason. When you consume carbohydrates during and out of exercise regularly, you can increase your carb intake and reduce stomach problems. 

And to be honest, dealing with gut issues on race day is exactly what you don’t need. Therefore, go out and practice your fuelling strategy regularly. I recommend including sessions, where you use the products you want to use on race day. If you lack experience start with 60 g/h and try to increase up to 90 g/h of carbs with multiple sugars. Read more about how many carbs you need here.

Ultimately, the research couldn’t agree more that carbs improve endurance performance. So, training quality also improves.

The Gran Fondo – Your Journey

At the end of the day finding success in your Gran Fondo is about putting in the work. There’s no shortcut or magic workout to become a faster cyclist. 

If you want to improve steadily, you have to have a plan and train consistently. You have to find joy in the stress of interval training. You have to find joy in the simplicity of low-intensity training. However, you need a healthy lifestyle and solid nutrition to fuel your workouts. If you add proper sleep and recovery to the aforementioned, then you’re primed toward your best Gran Fondo ever. 

Keep in mind, that the Gran Fondo is your destination, but it’s the process, the journey, the experience that decides how you get there. So, by falling in love with the process you create an absence of difficulty.

Ready to Step Up Your Gran Fondo Training?

If you enjoyed this and you want to become a faster Gran Fondo rider, then try my structured training plans. These plans result from research and experience as an elite bike racer and professional cycling coach. The plans train the fundamental components of endurance like anaerobic threshold, VO2max, lactate clearance, and durability. In addition, you find my Gran Fondo Specific Plans below. Enjoy!

  1. The Gran Fondo Build Plan, 6 Hours, 8 Weeks
  2. The Gran Fondo Build Plan, 10 Hours, 8 Weeks
  3. The Gran Fondo Build Plan, 15 Hours, 8 Weeks

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