A sudden fondness for Fondos

9 11 2010

Suddenly there’s Fondos a-poppin’ up everywhere.

When the Whistler Gran Fondo was announced almost exactly a year ago, it was a first for Canada. It sold out in weeks.

At the time, the company staging the fondo said it would be organizing more across Canada. A few weeks ago they unveiled the Kelowna Gran Fondo, to be held July 16. That’s just a week after another venture just down the road in Penticton, the Axel Merckx Gran Fondo.

Axel is jumping on a North American trend started last year by Levi Leipheimer, who has his own Gran Fondo in northern California. European pros often lend their names and star power to Fondos in Europe.

Next year there will also be new Gran Fondos in New York City and Philadelphia.

What’s with all this Fondo love all of a sudden?

They’re not cheap; registration for next year’s Whistler event runs $270 all in, and that’s not including the cost of a hotel room and meals if you decide to make a weekend of it.

They’re not easy; at 120 kms, the Whistler Gran Fondo is actually one of the shorter events as most of the Fondos in the US are 100 miles.

And there’s only so many MAMILs to go around.

In case you missed it, a MAMIL is an acronym for Middle Aged Male In Lycra, a phenomenon coined last summer by the BBC for men treating their mid-life crisis by buying expensive carbon fiber bikes and taking up cycling. I’m quite proud to include myself in their ranks, although I’ve been cycling all my adult life, and my current bike is aluminum but it does have many carbon fiber bits.

Are there enough MAMILs and MAWILs to support all the Fondos that are being organized in North America?

When I was shivering in the pre-dawn darkness in the starting corral before the Whistler Gran Fondo, I remember looking around at all the cyclists stretched up and down Georgia Street as far as the eye could see and thinking I never realized there were so many roadies in the Vancouver area. Sure enough, most of them were just like me, men, and a good number of women (I guess they’d be MAWILs) in their 40s and beyond, aboard a dizzying array of impressive Treks, Cannondales, Specializeds, Cervelos, Litespeeds, Merlins, etc, all wearing lycra with varying degrees of panache.

But are there enough MAMILs in BC to sustain three Gran Fondos in a single year, including two in the same week? I’m skeptical. And this early in their North American evolution, a failed Fondo could be bad for the surviving Fondos.

As we saw with the first Whistler Gran Fondo, putting on such an event is a huge logistical undertaking. The organizers got a lot right, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. They’ve acknowledged that and vowed to make changes to further improve safety and the riding experience.

With all these newfound Fondos popping up, I’m treading carefully; I wouldn’t want to send in my registration fee only to see the event go up in smoke because the organizers bit off more than they could chew, or registration didn’t measure up to their financial obligations. I’m eyeing Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo in Sonoma; it’s in its third year and it already has a great reputation. And it’s likely to be a heck of a lot warmer than Whistler in September.