Cyclists gearing up for ‘Fondo’ rides

HANCOCK — With Memorial Day marking the unofficial start of summertime riding, local bicyclists already have their eyes set on some of the most challenging outings in their neighborhood. Crisscrossing the spine of the Green Mountains, a ride through the Lincoln, Brandon, Appalachian and Middlebury gaps makes for a fearsome quartet of climbs and descents with thousands of vertical feet gained and lost as one passes from the Champlain Valley to the Mad River Valley and back again.
Cyclists from all over the Northeast are blowing up their tires and putting in some miles before tackling those four gaps on June 13 in the second annual Vermont Gran Fondo.
A gran fondo — Italian for “big ride” — describes a cycling event where participants ride not for the sake of a podium finish, but for a personal challenge.
Weybridge resident Bill Roper rode three fondo-style rides in 2014 and said Addison County’s was by far the most difficult and the most scenic.
“There’s more elevation gain over the course of 100 miles,” he said. “It’s steeply gained and they’ve chosen the steeper route to the top of each gap.” 
Starting and finishing at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl off Route 125 in Hancock, the ride has been organized into three rides of increasing difficulty. The three distances traverse two, three or four gaps with up to 7,600 feet of climbing back and forth across the backbone of the Green Mountains.
Last year’s rides (each with its own Italian name), including distances and ascents, were:
•  Piccolo Fondo, 46 miles/3,000 feet (Brandon and Middlebury gaps).
•  Medio Fondo, 69 miles/6,100 feet (Lincoln and App gaps).
•  Gran Fondo, 104 miles/7,600 feet (all four gaps).
The only informally competitive portions of the rides are the ascents. Using Strava GPS tracking software, race organizers will time the riders’ ascents and award jerseys to the fastest cyclist to the top of each gap.
Dan Ober, a cyclist from Lincoln, recalls flying down Route 125 from the Snow Bowl in a peloton of more than 100 riders and then traveling at over 20 miles per hour north on Route 116. For him, this year’s 104-mile ride is one final training ride before he leaves the following week on a trip with a friend to the French Alps for a tour of 10 sections of the Tour De France.
“You reach that point in your training when you finally feel like you’re getting into good form,” he said. “I think I’ve found that.”
Bristol cyclist Todd Warnock attempted the Gran Fondo last year. After helping with registration, he got a late start behind the pack and found himself riding alone.
“Because I was chasing the pack the whole time I was burning more fuel than other people, that put me at a bit of a disadvantage,” he said. 
Warnock made it through the Appalachian, Lincoln and Brandon gaps before he had to quit.
But this year, he’s back and plans to complete all four gaps. This spring he’s been riding the gaps two to three times a week, participating in a spinning class and completing longer rides from Bristol into the Champlain Valley.
“This year, the plan is to take it a little easier in the valleys to save some energy for the climbs, especially on the Lincoln Gap,” he said.
On the winding and narrow gap road from Warren to Lincoln, which features the steepest paved mile in the United States — a grueling 24 percent grade — many riders last year chose to hike up, leaving their shoes clipped to their pedals and carrying their bikes over their shoulders as they hiked barefoot.
“When people start taking off their shoes, that’s how you know you’re in trouble,” Ober said.
Last year drew 180 riders to the starting line, the vast majority of which came from the Northeast. The 2015 Vermont Gran Fondo’s data on BikeReg.com shows 107 riders registered as of late last week; with most coming from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and one from Texas. Sixteen Vermonters had signed up.
The Fondo also attracts riders from the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Alberta, and one rider from the United Kingdom. About 80-percent of riders are signed up not for the shorter Medio or Piccolo Fondos, but for the longer, steeper Gran Fondo. 
“I think there’s this lore around doing the L.A.M.B. ride,” said Sue Hoxie, indicating the first initials of the four gaps. Hoxie is president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the ride. “This is a way people can accomplish it while being fully supported.”
With weeks before the ride, Hoxie hopes to attract 300 riders. In the future, Hoxie says the goal is to increase participation to 1,000, as large as the Killington Stage Race or the Green Mountain Stage Race, two of the largest races in the state that are held in central Vermont.
For those looking for an easy ride, veteran biker Bill Roper has some advice. Addison County’s fondo will be a challenge, but those with physical and mental stamina should have a good experience.
“You have to be up for the challenge,” Roper said. “If you’re up for it, then can be fun.”

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