How hard is hard? Is a Gran Fondo a real race?
As you'll know, I recently took part in the Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Fondo. It felt really hard, I suffered like a dog and maybe qualified. It's now been confirmed that I have qualified!
Read the story of what happened to Coach Ric at the Tour of Cambridgeshire here
However, speaking with some people they're very much of the opinion that this isn't a real race, and is 'just' a sportive. Of course, though, if you race at the World Championships (and let's not forget that this is an event that is UCI recognised) then, should you win, you get a Gold medal and a Rainbow Jersey. That in itself, sounds like a race to me. For sure, this isn't a World's that Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome, Michael Freiberg, or Vincenzo Nibali are allowed to turn up for, but this is an age related Worlds. Still, some people seem awfully upset that this is allowed to happen.
But, what is a race? And, how does it become a real race? Back when I was a kid, I recall lining up with my mates, on the road where I lived, and we used to have a 'bike race' around the road we lived on, and a couple of adjoining roads. This wasn't a UCI race, and it wasn't authorised by British Cycling. We were kids playing. Eventually, I grew up (although some may disagree with that! ;-)), and at the tender age of 14 I started time trialling, because bike races on TV (ostensibly the Tour de France), looked amazing and I wanted to race bikes like they do in Le Tour.
Of course, by and large, TTing is nothing like the TdF, but in the UK, it's run by a governing body and it's proper racing. At 16 I started road racing. My first few races were around a tarmac perimeter of a large field. I guess (because hey ho, this was 33 years ago!) the circuit was about a mile long and we raced for 30mins or an hour (I've no idea?). Again, this was nothing like the TdF, but it was controlled by British Cycling. This was proper racing.
Over the years, I continued racing. Up to about 1995 I mixed road racing and TTs, and from 96 onwards just road racing (I think). Occasionally, I'd do touring/Audax events which were pretty much just a challenge event - my favourite being the Wild Wales Challenge which takes place every August Bank Holiday in north Wales (everyone should ride this event, it's epic). In 1995 I spent some time racing in France (Brittany). All good fun. Lot's of short circuits that you'd ride around multiple times. Some circuits were less than 1-mile, and some were perhaps as long 20-miles. This applied to both the UK and France. Again, nothing really like the TdF, other than a group of people with a motorbike and car at the front and rear, a ton of heavy breathing, and lots of sweat. I'm struggling to think of any races I've done that were point to point (like most stages in the TdF, or indeed, like most pro races).
The Tour of Cambridgeshire, was (perhaps???) the first road race I've done that's point to point (although I'm strongly prepared to be corrected on this!), and seemed to twist and turn for ~130km, without using a loop (that was ridden multiple times). Given the roads were closed, we started in a large peloton and it was ridden flat out from the gun, this felt like a real road race (to me at least).
Everyone who started in the race section had to have a road racing licence -- if they're from the UK, this would be from British Cycling. Accordingly, in my age 'pen' there were people I regularly race with in BC races (but given there were people there from all over the UK, and other countries, I of course didn't recognise lots of people!).
So, this felt like a race, it looked like a race, and I was racing with people I regularly race with... Seems like a race, but of course, I wanted to know how it compared to a race. I've been racing since 1984, and as luck would have it, I've been collecting power meter data from races since 1993 - so I've got lots of historical data to compare it with.
First off the bat, I need to point out that some races are easy, and some are difficult. I've got a power meter file from the late 1990s from a Rabobank rider at the TdF, who finished a particular stage in the main field. He averaged *98* W (ninety eight, no missing hundreds) for the stage. I've done a ton of races that are harder than that (in fact I'll wager that every road race I've ever done has averaged more than that, even the ones I've been dropped in). So, we know that some pro road races can be very easy (if you know how to ride well on the wheels).
But what of my races? At the Start of the ToC, while waiting for the gun to go, I kept hearing people saying that the start was harder than any criterium they'd ever done (to be honest that worried me as I've done some really tough ones!). For all intents and purposes, every Wednesday I ride the 40s and over criterium race at Dunsfold (in the south east of England). Last year I rode these and Goodwood on a Tuesday. I prefer closed or almost closed road circuits.
These races are approximately an hour long (about 48 km) and ridden hard. If you race, you'll know what these events are like. You probably ride something similar. Looking through the data from these races, I tend to average, somewhere between 200 and 220 W for about 70-mins. With a best 20-min power of around 240 W. Best 1-min power is around 400 W as I attempt to break away with a best 30-sec power of around 470 to 500 W. I've tons of races like that...
So how does the ToC compare over those durations? The highest 60-mins power was (for me) 235 W (which is higher power than the criterium), the highest 20-min power was 257 W (again, higher than the crit), with a best 1-min power of 402 W (we'll call that the same as the crit), and a highest 30-sec power of 440 W (about 60 W less than the crits highest 30-sec). The first 2 hours of the race averaged 220 W (which is as high as my criteriums are for approximately twice the duration), and the entire race was 198 W average (although that was skewed due to a race interference - see the other blog Horse-Gate). However, that's pretty much as hard as the Wednesday (or Tuesday) crits I do, for 3.5 times the duration with a pretty similar average speed for both events. The power data seems to suggest that the ToC is by and large, *harder* than the 1 hour criterium... Interesting!
I tried to explain, quite recently, to someone about the Fondo style events. I likened it to both a race and a challenge event all in one -- using the idea that these events are perhaps something like the London Marathon. That is, someone like Kipchoge is an elite marathon runner (men's winner of the LM in 2018) and that this is a race, even though some people dress up like Mickey Mouse (etc) walk round and finish in 8 hours. Some people will run round in 4 hours and some will go sub 3 hours. Some people are racing, and some people are just taking part in the challenge of completing the event.
Is the ToC a real race, or is it just a sportive with pretend racers (as some people have suggested)? Based on the facts that is a UCI event, with a competitive element to it, with power data showing that it is as hard or, in fact substantially harder than a proper criterium (which are always regarded as being harder than a road race), then I think we can say that it is indeed a proper race. And boy did my legs know it!