You don't have to be a pro cyclist with 5 percent body fat, a $10,000 race bike and million-dollar lungs to enjoy the feeling of riding like a pro.
All you have to do these days is enter something called a gran fondo, decide how much or how little you're willing to suffer, and pedal your way to your own kind of glory.
A mass-start bike event with origins in Italy, gran fondos, or big rides, are a booming new style of cycling activity in the U.S. The rides are timed, unlike most traditional century rides, and they introduce an element of friendly competition that straddles the line between recreational riding and racing.
That means you can go hard from the gun and push yourself all the way to the finish, or you can pull over at every rest stop, sit back and enjoy the gourmet spreads, making new friends along the way.
There may be professional photographers on course, plenty of mechanical support via motorcycles, major sections of roads closed to vehicles, a chance to pull up alongside three-time Tour de France champ Greg Lemond, and pretty much a dream-come-true cycling experience for someone with a day job and all-too-mortal cycling abilities.
Long a hotbed for cycling of all kinds, the Sacramento area is getting its first taste of the gran fondo bonanza with the inaugural Legends Gran Fondo on May 6 in Davis, sponsored by the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. There will be two course options a faster-paced and more challenging 90 miles, or the more user-friendly 63-mile route.
Both rides start and finish at Central Park in Davis. This gran fondo, unlike several others throughout the country, is starting conservatively, limiting the number of participants to 1,000 and opting for courses that are less severely challenging and lack the pro-caliber climbs. Levi's Gran Fondo (hosted by world-class pro cyclist and Santa Rosa resident Levi Leiphheimer) in Sonoma County, for instance, cuts off registration at 7,500 riders and features a significantly hillier route.
While century rides remain popular, gran fondos are winning converts who say they are more challenging than centuries but less snooty than organized amateur road racing.
"You're seeing gran fondos pop up all over the place," said Joe Herget, executive director of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. "I don't want to say it's a craze, but it's an exciting evolution of the sport."
Some of the more serious cyclists might be disappointed that the course won't be harder, even though the open roads around Davis can be notoriously windy and, especially with blustery crosswinds, will give stronger and savvier riders an advantage.
"We elected to keep the course moderate and stay away from some of the significant climbs. It's rolling countryside," Herget said. "Being the first year, we wanted to maximize participation and we didn't want to scare people away. For the people who want to go fast, they can go fast. For people who aren't into pain and suffering, they won't have to do that."
These rides aren't cheap, but participants are pampered with on-course mechanical and medical assistance, premium food, a police escort through town at the start and a premium meal after the ride. Both distances have the same two entry fee options $95 or $135, which includes a souvenir cycling jersey.
Greg Fisher, who has helped organize Levi's Gran Fondo since it began four years ago, said "The spirit of it is intended to evoke more of a professional cycling event than a regular club century ride. It's supposed to be, while not necessarily competitive, have a strong sense of personal challenge."
Rob Schott, who has raced in the amateur cycling ranks, says he can't get enough of gran fondos ever since he tackled his first one in Tuscany in 1999. Back then, the events were all but unknown outside Italy. Now they're taking off throughout the U.S. and he says for good reason.
"The highlight is it's welcoming to cyclists of all skill levels. It lacks some of the snobbery you see in the race scene," said Schott, a cardiologist who lived for eight years in Sacramento but now resides in San Diego. "Some riders take off at 27 mph at the start line and race, and for them it's a 'suffer-fest.'
"Then there are those who take their time at all of the stops and enjoy the food and aren't in a hurry. There's this sense of a shared adventure with lots of other people."
Schott has ridden in eight gran fondos and counting and believes more than anything that they make a powerful statement about physical fitness and well-being.
"I think it's one of the most enjoyable cycling experiences," he said. "That's why I keep going back to them."
For more information or to register, visit www.usbhof.org/gran-fondo-home.