Gap-to-gap challenge looms as country readies for ‘gran fondo’ bike ride

ADDISON COUNTY — Having earned recognition from Yankee and Bicycling magazines as a top-level destination for cycling, bicycling enthusiasts in Addison County look to expand offerings for bikers this summer with the Green Mountain State’s first fondo-style event.
A gran fondo — loosely translated from Italian as “big ride” — describes a cycling event where participants ride not for the sake of a podium finish, but for a personal challenge. Gran fondos can be found throughout the United States, and on June 14, Addison County will host the inaugural Vermont Gran Fondo.
“There’s a romance to Italian things,” said Alex Wolff, a Cornwall resident and senior writer for Sports Illustrated, explaining the origin of the cycling events that are gaining popularity in the United States. “It’s a way of showing an appreciation for all the finer things in life in an event where you show off your endurance.”
And it is indeed a test of endurance.
Starting and finishing at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl off Route 125 in Hancock, the inaugural ride has been organized into three rides of increasing difficulty. The three distances traverse two or four gaps with up to 7,600 feet of climbing back and forth across the spine of the Green Mountains. The Lincoln Gap features the steepest paved mile in the U.S. — a grueling 24 percent grade.
The route distances and ascents are:
•  Piccolo Fondo, 46 miles/3,100 feet (Brandon and Middlebury gaps).
•  Medio Fondo, 69 miles/7,300 feet (Lincoln and App gaps).
•  Gran Fondo, 104 miles/10,700 feet (all four gaps).
Depending on their level of fitness and aggression, riders can expect to be in the saddle four to 10 hours with refueling stops available every 25-30 miles. Two Vermont-based tour providers, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations of Bristol and Discovery Bicycle Tours of Woodstock, will provide mechanical and sag support.
Andrew Gardner, a Ripton resident and veteran rider with race experience all over the United States, is another event organizer. Gardner said that until now rides in Vermont have typically fallen into one of two categories: races or extended tours. While the Lincoln, Appalachian, Middlebury and Brandon gaps (known in acronym as L.A.M.B.) already hold prestige among regional cyclists, the fondo promises be a tough first event of its kind on an already legendary course.
“This is a formalized version of something that already happens,” said Gardner. “If you talk to anyone who’s tied to cycling, they know what a four gap ride is. It’s in the lexicon of cycling.”
Plus, he added, cyclists are looking to try something new.
“People are raising the bar in terms of what’s considered a challenge,” he said. “First it was a century, then it was a gap ride. Now it’s a gap century. People are biting off more and more.”
The ride will run parallel to a weekend series of events titled “Cyclefest” that will feature a series of cultural events in Middlebury including a series of bike-related art installations, a screening of the documentary film “The Armstrong Lie” and a talk by Reed Albergotti, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and co-author of the book “Wheelmen.” Both the film and the book discuss the downfall of disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong.
Sue Hoxie, advertising and marketing director for the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, said the ride is a good way to drive visitors to the area in a time when traffic to the area typically plateaus.
The expectation is that the ride will grow into an annual event with people returning to Addison County every year to ride as well as visit local attractions. The ride has been scheduled so it won’t conflict with other local events.
“In the eyes of folks from outside of New England, Vermont is synonymous with integrity,” said Gregg Marston, president of Vermont Bicycling and Walking Vacations. “Vermont has a very appealing panache and people want to come here. It’s a panache that people want to touch. We’re doing it to promote cycling, but more importantly we’re doing it to promote Addison County as an active destination.”
While the Chamber is involved in organizing other athletic events like the Middlebury Maple Run half marathon (a May 4 race now in its sixth year), planning the fondo has proven to be a much larger task. Organizers have received permission from the 14 towns on the routes as well as approval from those towns’ police departments and first response groups. The Addison County Chamber has also filed for permits from the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Public Safety.
All they need now are the riders.
While the number of registered participants remains low, organizers remain optimistic. Gardner said he expects the event to attract bikers who also participate in other early-season rides as well as locals who come to ride the gaps in the summer.
“Some people that aren’t tied to cycling might be nervous. I think it bodes really well,” he said. “Especially with the late winter we’ve had, I’m blown away that we have the people signed up that we do.”
With just a little over a month to go, organizers are planning a major marketing push, including targeting bike shops across the Northeast, sending out blasts of emails and inviting teams of riders. Gardner said he’s optimistic.
“If everyone that’s tangentially tied to this reaches out to their networks, it should be a really good premier event and then snowball,” he said.
Complete event details can be found on www.VermontGranFondo.com. The cost to participate is $75-$100 and participants can register via BikeReg.com.

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