Saturday, 11 June 2016

2016 Giro d'Italia Gran Fondo review

So five days later, and I still can't decide which was the biggest challenge of the 2016 NI Gran Fondo- getting up at 5:15am on a Sunday morning or the "Monte Braniel" that came after 6km. Actually the real answer is neither of these- instead it was an unexepected event (although come to think of it, Monte Braniel played a role, just on the descent rather than the ascent). After pushing it up "Monte Moneyreagh" I was feeling good and suddenly the roundabout appeared that marked the start of the fun part. This was what I had been envisioning as I struggled up the climb just 2 hours previously- when gravity and my mass would become  allies as opposed to contradictory elements that had spent the majority of the previous 30 miles fighting with each other. So I let fly, with the security of closed roads. However the individual in front of me wouldn't hold his line and in order to avoid any potential incidents I went wide to overtake him. This necessitated going over the chevrons and my back wheel clipped a cat's eye. I heard that distinctive "nick" sound that deep down means you know your hands won't stay clean today. Instinct meant I was able to feather the brakes and get across to the footpath just as the tyre deflated, around the half way point of the descent. Further hopes of a quick change were dashed when a wee friendly Belfast man decided to have a chat as I popped off the wheel and got my spare tube from my back pocket. Since he was basically a prisoner in his own street until the roads opened later that evening, I felt duty bound to engage with him in a pleasant way, as more and more cyclists flew past. Eventually I got back on, thanked the Lord for CO2 inflators and went on to finish 368th out of almost 2000 people and 20 mins quicker than last year, despite my little incident.

At the start- I am 3rd from left in the front row

 However things could have been worse a few minutes after my crevassé, just as the descent was coming to an end. The road had been coned off at this point to allow vehicles to get up and down  and some gabshite driving a church minibus did a sudden u-turn to get from the lane on the left to that on the right. This brought him right across the closed part of the road and some cyclists, including me were hurtling towards him. Luckily I wasn't up to full tilt after my enforced stop and my dickhead sensor was also quiet sensitive so I had sort of known what was going to happen before it did and was able to get stopped as other cyclists took evasive action. One marshal who saw it was seen sprinting up towards one of the police officers on duty so hopefully the driver won't be as skillful in avoiding their wrath as we were his stupid manoeuvre.

Heading past Strangford Lough and deciding to give the water stop a miss...

So small dramas aside, how was the whole event? Last year I felt kind of underwhelmed with the offerings over the two days, even with the Street Velodrome, and it was the same this year. Both registration day and the actual ride itself seem to promise loads of glitzy stuff when viewed from the outside but once you arrive it is slightly bare- it is lacking something which I can't quite put my finger on. I wanted to go and have my senses fulfilled with all things cycling but I got the impression of a lot of space with very little of any substance to fill it. You could visit the merchandise stall and pick up some t-shirts and those Belfast Grande Partenza cycling jerseys left over from 2014 (still so available it is hard to believe that there is anyone in NI who doesn't have one), lift some leaflets for various tourist initiatives or a wine company, gawp at some Garmin tech, order from a bar, amble over to the street velodrome or watch some of the cycling challenges for kids. The trophee senza fine was available for photos, but having had two taken last year I decided to forgo it this time. Really the only sense of wonder I had was the grudging admiration for the perky announcers at the street velodrome, who have mastered the art of the TV shopping channel presenter.

Stephen Roche and Gianni Bugno were guests over the weekend, but unless you had a few hundred quid to spend to go to the Friday night dinner or happened to be at the very front of the bunch at the start then you could have gone the whole time without setting eyes on either of them. Even the vaunted Maserati pace cars were often spoken off,  yet not really seen. I was at the front of the Strangford group for the first 6km and never saw the one that was supposed to be controlling the pace of our group. It is not that I really care about cars anyway but it seemed to be a good analogy for the event- stuff much promoted and hyped but when it comes to tactile engagement not really living up to the promise.

Gianni Bugno at the start of the Strangford route- helicopter not pictured...

Of course if all you were interested in was riding your bike on closed roads then it was a well organised success. Again  I would have loved a middle distance route but that would add to the logistical nightmare for the organisers and also reduce motivation to apply and train for the long route. The "pasta party" had food that was edible but still there was that sense of anti-climax when I arrived back- so much more potential that someone with the right ideas could make better use of. The goodie bags this year were pretty poor- mostly leaflets although I was one of the riders who got their event jersey for free in the bag by registering early. This was another sore point though- in an effort to provide even more corporate PR, a few days before the start we received e-mails that only those wearing the event jersey would be allowed to start at the front. This was not very well received. I prefer to wear the jersey after the event when I would feel I have deserved it, plus it goes against the cardinal rule of not using new kit on the day of the event. OK I was doing the shorter of the rides and could probably put up with a bit of discomfort for almost 60km, but if you are doing 170km up the Mournes, then a chaffing or badly fitting jersey would be more of an issue. Plus if people are wearing club jerseys, it is easier to work out who is more likely to be used to riding in groups as opposed to those who have ignored  Sportivelominati rule 2 and have decided that their first group ride will be in the midst of thousands of other cyclists.  Apart from the jersey though, the goodie bag was basically a waste of paper but at least it didn't include yet another bidon!

Improvements from last year including ensuring that at least one of the guest stars was with the shorter run- last year a lot of hay was made about Richie Porte being in attendance, but unless you were at the front of the long ride at 7am, you would have to rely on trust that he was there. Roche went with the Mourne Route while Bugno, as pictured above, rode with us lesser mortals (and I even made it back before him!). Reports from the Mourne route indicated that food stops had been better as well. I can't give any feedback on the Strangford stop since I decided to keep going as really there is no real need for one on a 38 mile ride.

In summary- the ride itself was fine and the novelty of closed roads was still worth paying for (this time at least). However if they want to promote it as more than just the Gran Fondo,they need to provide more of substance around it. Will I be back next year? Probably only if they provide a medium course or I shift another two stone and get my climbing legs back so that I can sign up for the long route. The cost and effort to get to Titanic Quarter for a ride that is shorter than my normal Sunday club run was just about justified by the organisation and road closures (errant church minibus drivers aside) this time but for a third year? Possibly not (although come January I will probably be afraid of missing something and will sign up!). So while the organisers still have some thinking to do ahead of the third Gran Fondo (the last they are contracted to provide) I will have my own decisions to make as well. Plus maybe by 2017 more of the participants will know it is GRAN and not GranD Fondo!

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