We are living in an age of great richness when it comes to what we can watch on DVD as we are exiled to the Tour de Basement, riding our trainers. There are videos that show us indoor training classes, videos that take us outside for training sessions, and others that just show scenery or help us stretch or strengthen our mental fortitude. Into this mix comes a series of very interesting DVDs from Cyclefilm, based in the United Kingdom and yesterday I enjoyed watching two of their DVDs while training at home.
A Gran Fondo, or cyclosportive, is an organized, long-distance, mass participation cycling event, generally held annually. A route would not only be lengthy but include challenges such as hard climbs or cobbles. It generally has food stops enroute and a time limit for participants. Although technically not a race, riders have numbers and often finishing times are taken. The fastest riders do in fact ride them as a race and although directed at amateurs, these events have seen their share of pros, both active and retired, participate. Among the most famous are l’Etape du Tour, which began in 1993 and traces one stage of the Tour de France during that event, usually on a rest day. L’Etape sees the roads closed to vehicular traffic, which is not always the case. The only classic Gran Fondos I have ridden were the Eleven-Cities-Bike Tour in the Netherlands(with 15,000 participants), the Tour of Lake Constance and the Tour of Flanders and the roads were not closed for any of these.
These are often huge events. L’Etape is limited to 8,500 riders, while South Africa’s Cape Argus Cycle Tour is the world’s largest timed bike tour with over 40,000 participants. The latter is only 109 kms, compared to the typical 180-300 kms length of a Gran Fondo. Many Gran Fondos offer shorter routes in addition to the “classic” one as well. The increasing popularity of road cycling and the interest of people in participating in these events has caused a small niche travel industry to pop up as tour companies arrange to get cyclists to these events as part of a trip package.
For participants, there is clearly a significant investment in training time and travel costs, in addition to equipment. To get the maximum from one of these trips, Cyclefilm has come up with a series of “reconnaissance ride” DVDs to familiarize you with what to expect on the route and it was with great anticipation I opened the box for “the Italian Job, Part 1.” This contained two DVDs: l’Eroica and the Nove Colli.
I have written here about l’Eroica and my interest in riding this classic course along the bianca strada, or “white roads” of Tuscany. The DVD is 45 minutes in length and opens with two very fit-looking cyclists, Ian Holt and Ross Muir, in matching kit, explaining that they will be leading us through the ride. Actually, Ian does most of the talking as Ross disappears pretty soon into the video. He keeps up a steady monologue talking about the road surface and the climbs as he pedals. There is some music, with lots of electric guitar in the background. As Ian rides, every so often a profile appears, with a red section highlighting where we are on the course. Tips are flashed on the screen, indicating where you have to be careful or where the climbs are particularly hard. He also gives a nice demonstration of the famous “sticky bottle” technique for getting some speed from your team car. Since this is a pleasure ride, halfway through the course Ian takes a break in Montalcino with a glass of the local vino. The route through the quiet Tuscan countryside looks remote but quite beautiful. The course for l’Eroica is marked with permanent signage so if you want to ride it outside of the Gran Fondo in October with its 2,500 retro bike fanatics, you can do it as Ian is doing it here.
L’Eroica is, of course, meant to be ridden on period bicycles but I, for one, will ride it with a helmet. I was thinking the famous gravel sections did not look all that bad but then in the second part of the 205 km course the roads look pretty frightening, with some sections of gravel road having sections near 20 percent grade downhill. In parts of the video, the image is speeded up, particularly in the descents, to get you on to the next segment. Ian suggests keeping off the brakes and using your knees to turn during these fast downhills. He also tells you where to try and save energy as you approach the finishing stretch. As he rolls into Gaiole, where the course begins and ends, light is starting to fade and you feel that you have climbed those 3,800 vertical meters yourself.
At the end of the show we see some outtakes showing the crew, and then we learn that Ross overcooked a turn in the gravel and fell off, images captured on video that he will always be taunted for but a reminder of the trickiness of this course. I would definitely recommend it for anyone considering riding l’Eroica but also if you enjoy training to beautiful Italian scenery.
The second DVD in the box is the route of the Gran Fondo Nove Colli, featuring the famous nine hills course in Emilia-Romagna. The program is structured in the same way as the l’Eroica DVD, with Ian Holt, joined by Cameron Fraser and Ross Muir (who finishes the ride this time), riding the entire course and pointing out features to be aware of. Although this route is entirely paved, I suspect that the challenge at the beginning will be dealing with the 11,000 other cyclists who will be with you. The three seriously underfed cyclists here are by themselves, yet when they ride side-by-side they take up most of the road!
In terms of the production, we have some more funky rock music in the background, but the sound quality when the cyclists are providing information on the road is distorted badly in the first part of the ride, although it improves after they stop for an espresso break halfway through. Also, when the course profile appears there is no red marker as in the first DVD so you have to count off the climbs.
Ah, the climbs. Each of the nine climbs is highlighted as the trio rides them and while individually each col looks manageable, their cumulative effect must be pretty wearing. As in l’Eroica, there are permanent signs marking the Nove Colli course. One of the cyclists mentions that the Gran Fondo, held in May, has all its registration space filled by the previous December so it is important to get in early or else to sign on with a tour company. Ian Holt and Ross Muir are principals of a bike touring company, La Fuga, specializing in Gran Fondo events in France and Italy, and although they wear their own company clothing and the La Fuga name appears in various places, the DVDs are definitely not infomercials. The outtakes are fun as well: at one point, one of the cyclists plaintively says: “I’m good at beach volleyball” as tall, bikini-clad Italian girls play on the beach in Cesnatico.
The Gran Fondo experience is a marvellous one that I would highly recommend. And with experienced racing cyclists taking you through the course in the loving detail shown here there is no excuse for not being properly prepared. At £21.99 (roughly US$36, or 24.50 Euros) for a double DVD set, they are a bit more expensive than some of the other DVDs I have reviewed but are very enjoyable. “The Italian Job” is actually six DVDs in total and the complete set is £59.99 (US$96.65 or 65.70 Euros); you probably won’t have to come out of the basement for weeks. Cyclefilms also has a set of three Gran Fondo DVDs, each of which goes for £14.99 (US$24.55 or 16.70 Euros), and cover rides in France, Italy and Spain.
The DVDs may be ordered directly from Cyclefilm at their website.
(Incidentally, I see that they are producing a “rider profile” series and the first will be about Liz Hatch, cycling’s most recent It Girl and the subject of a Maxim photospread. This probably has better market prospects than a DVD about, for instance, a climber nicknamed “Chicken”.)