Way back in at the end of March, what feels like an eternity ago, we signed up for the Gran Fondo. Gran Fondo is an italian term for a bike event at least 75 miles long and individually chip timed. There’s a competitive element, but they’re not strictly speaking races – rather, sportives. For the third year running Belfast hosted the Giro D’Italia Gran Fondo, a sportive starting in Belfast and running into the Mourne mountains and finishing in the city. The last two years have started in the Titanic Quarter, but this year Stormont castle played host to the start/finish line.
There were two routes to choose from: the 174 km Mourne loop, and the 58 km Strangford route. Both incorporated plenty of hills. Whoever built this country had a certain twisted disdain for cyclists. I was tackling the 174 km route with my brother, Alan. Mum and dad had opted for the Strangford route, which was the much more manageable option.
Two months passed following registration for the event…and not much training happened. I continued to commute to work, but that totalled just over 10 miles a day. It was just about enough to get me through the NI Chest Heart and Stroke sportive, but that was 100 km, not 176 km. It was going to be a challenge no matter what. Thankfully Alan was organised, and had plenty of energy gels, bars, and equipment to help us on our way. The registration fee for the event included a Castelli jersey and a few bits and bobs in a goody bag. Amongst the loot was an energy pill with mainly Italian instructions, a water bottle, and a coupon for Gregg’s bakery – a healthy establishment, no doubt. We also had our numbers for the bikes, and the timing chip which was attached to the handlebars.
We had an early start on the day of the event, the 4th of June. The start time was 7 am, and the grid opened at 6 am, so we were aiming to be there for 6.30 am. That meant getting up at 5.30 am, shoveling in some carb heavy breakfast (bacon butties and porridge) and driving out to Stormont. The excitement was building as we drove up past the House on the Hill, and the sheer number of cyclists was starting to become evident. They were everywhere! And with an abundance of fantastic bikes. My little B-Twin Triban 540 paled in comparison to the Specialised’s and the Trek’s. We parked up did the final checks on the bikes. There were no more excuses. It was time to head to the start line to join the mass of cyclists. And a few friends.
And we were off! It was a slow start as the gates at the front of the estate proved somewhat of a bottleneck, but we sped up shortly after that. Riding with big groups of cyclists is great fun, and it’s much easier than cycling alone.
The first few hours were great – we were making good time, and even the hills didn’t phase us too much, but as the miles racked up it got harder and harder to the point where my legs gave out completely on some of the longer ascents. We had intended to do the full loop including Spelga Dam, but we just missed the cut-off time in Hilltown and had to take the diversion which cut out the worst of the mountain section. It was a blessing in disguise, as I may not have made it back at all without it. My fitness wasn’t quite up to scratch, but we did okay. There were a few food stops along the way, and a few more on the hills. We had a minor rivalry with another cyclist, Jane, who we overtook and were overtaken by on a number of occasions.
The last stretch through Dundonald was a challenge as I was running on fumes, but the feeling of riding up the Prince of Wales Avenue and over the finish line to collect our medals was fantastic. We did it.
And we beat Jane. That was all that really mattered.