Words: Jamie Wilkins
Photos: Sportograf Images
The UCI Gran Fondo World Championship is pitched as the pinnacle of amateur competition and, as we discovered when we raced it back in August, in Albi, France, it does not disappoint. It has a gravitas that goes beyond the sheer scale – 3000 riders from 56 countries – and stems from the pride each athlete feels in pulling on their national jersey. As I zipped up my Team GB kit on the morning of the road race, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I swear I stood an inch taller.
Previously known as the World Cycling Tour Final and the Masters World Champs before that, this is not a revival of the old Amateur Worlds, with teams selected by a national coach as per the pro version. Rather, riders earn qualification by finishing in the top 25% of their age group in one of the events in the UCI Gran Fondo World Series. Pros on Continental teams and above are not eligible, but elite license holders and retired pros are free to enter.
“It’s a buzz to see all the national jerseys at the start, a reminder that this is no ordinary gran fondo”
The road race is 97 miles for the men with 5600ft of ascent, 60 miles for the women and seniors, and each age group is set off at seven minute intervals from the shadow of Albi’s colossal, iconic, 13th century cathedral in the city centre. My 35-39 peloton is 178-strong, almost Tour de France sized. It’s a buzz to see all the national jerseys at the start, a reminder that this is no ordinary gran fondo.
The start is neutralized until we’re clear of the city but nervous nonetheless and it takes 20 miles for the race to settle enough that it doesn’t fill the road entirely, just in time for me to move up ahead of the short, sharp first climb. Having done a recce, I decide to hit it hard and right at the front, both to ensure I’m on the right side of any splits and to give the peloton a poke to see what we’re dealing with. Four minutes of intense effort later, I look back to see the bunch strung out but still very much intact. Darn. This is going to be a tough day.
The long, fast, false flat through the valley sees a few attacks, all shut down quickly. Then four riders go clear and, with the bunch relaxed, I decide to jump across before they get too far away. They’re motoring and it’s a tough chase but I feel good and make contact just before the main climb, the four-mile Côte de Font Bonne. I’m riding at my threshold power just to hang with them when, about half a mile up, I get another shock. The main bunch has hammered into the climb and closed our 40-second gap. I’ve now burned two matches for no gain and, as we continue to smash up the mountain as if the finish lay at the summit, I start thinking more about surviving in a slowly shrinking lead group that’s a level above anything I’ve ever experienced.
While the second big climb is tough, it’s the little stingers that do more damage. I’m glad I drove the whole course because it’s tougher than the profile graphic suggested. I’d considered running SES 7.8 wheels but it’s no good being wicked aero in the finale if you got dropped on a steep climb 20 miles earlier, so I’m on my road race go-tos, 4.5 tubulars. They’re still really fast yet weigh just 1300g for an incredible aero-to-weight ratio. No wonder they’re also Team Dimension Data’s default choice. They help me hang on up the last, five-minute climb and again in the crosswinds at the top as the group suddenly lines out in the gutter.
“every roller hurts and has me dangling near the back, dreading the moment that the elastic snaps”
Compared to the 100 degrees of the previous few days it’s mild, high 70s, but that’s still hot to an Englishman and my fifth and final bottle is nearly empty as I get the first flicker of cramp with 80 miles covered. We’re hauling as the route descends gradually back to Albi but every roller hurts and has me dangling near the back, dreading the moment that the elastic snaps.
The finish is on Albi’s motor racing circuit, so it’s wide and safe, but there’s still a horrible sounding crash almost as soon as we touch its smooth asphalt. I don’t have the legs to position myself very well but do all I can in the sprint, make up a few places, and then nearly fall over as I unclip through a blizzard of savage cramps. I’ve never felt so utterly broken at the end of race, the result of clinging onto much better riders.
Later, I find out that French Elite racer Jean-Marc Maurin won in a two-up sprint against a Portuguese after the pair of them attacked with a couple of miles to go. I also learn that the bronze medal was decided just a few seconds ahead and that I placed 21st, but there isn’t the slightest disappointment. I gave all I had and feel only a deep satisfaction.
Alongside hobby racing as a cat 2, I’m lucky to have ridden many top events, such as L’Étape du Tour, and the Gran Fondo World Champs are the zenith, the ultimate amateur racing experience. Add it to your list, I’d suggest at the top.
Next Year’s Event
The 2018 Gran Fondo World Championships will be held in Varese, Italy. 2019 is in Poznan, Poland and 2020 Vancouver, Canada. Complete series information is available online: http://www.ucigranfondoworldseries.com/