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Tips to Master Your First Gran Fondo or Charity Ride

By: Jim Rutberg  May 26, 2022

We take a deep dive into preparing for your first Gran Fondo or Charity Ride, and how to manage your ride to keep it fun!

Gran Fondos and charity rides occupy an important space within the range of cycling events. Notably, they feature some of the best aspects of local group rides and bike races. You can ride with friends of all ability levels and experience on-course support, aid stations, professional timing, and post-ride festivities. If a gran fondo or charity ride will be your first experience with an organized cycling event, here’s a guide for getting ready, having fun, riding safely, and finishing strong.

Preparing for your first Gran Fondo or Charity Ride

The best training plans take your fitness level, training history, and personal schedule into account. To have the best experience and achieve the best results, we advise working with a USA Cycling Coach. If personal coaching is not an option, consider interactive or static training plans created by USA Cycling Coaches. And if you’re preparing on your own, keep the following considerations in mind:

Prioritize consistency

Training consistently over a long period of time is the most effective way to improve fitness and performance. Each ride creates some level of training stimulus, but that stimulus decays over time. When training frequency is haphazard, rides are less likely to build upon each other and lead to progress. Particularly for beginners, consistency has a bigger impact than the specific activities and intensities within individual rides. Three rides per week is a good starting point, and many cyclists increase this to 4 to 5 rides per week over time.

How long does it take to train?

The training time necessary to be ready for a gran fondo or charity ride depends on several variables, including your training history and the specific demands of the event. Conservatively, a beginner should train for a minimum of 3-4 months (12-16 weeks) to develop the endurance necessary to finish and enjoy their first ride. More experienced cyclists or those aiming to achieve a certain finishing time or competitive result should shift the focus of their generalized cycling training to address specific event demands at least 6-8 weeks prior to a goal event.

Ride easy most of the time and go hard sometimes

Although there are a number of effective endurance cycling training protocols, a common denominator is that you should spend most of your riding time at an easy to moderate intensity. Riding too hard too often is a mistake many novices make. Harder rides and high-intensity efforts play important roles in training, but from a total time perspective, you should spend far less time going hard than going easy.

Eat and rest to support adaptation

The time you spend on the bike applies stress, which creates a training stimulus. The food you consume and the rest you take between training sessions create the conditions necessary for positive adaptations. Underfueling leads to lower quality workouts, hinders recovery, and slows progress (read more here.

Pre-Ride Readiness Tips

It takes time for training activities to manifest as improved fitness. The fitness you have about two weeks before the event is the fitness you’ll have on the start line. The hay is in the barn, so to speak. Now it’s time to make sure you can use that fitness to have a great day on the bike.

Back off your training volume

By lightening up on your training volume (miles or hours) in the week or two weeks prior to a goal event, the cumulative fatigue from training fades and your ability to perform rises. Although there are some very specific tapering protocols, you can get most of the benefits by simply keeping your riding frequency the same, shortening those rides, and including some short but hard efforts.

Prioritize sleep

High quality sleep is crucial for effective training and for feeling fresh and strong on the start line. If your busy lifestyle frequently disrupts or shortens your sleep, try to make arrangements that enable you to get at least a week of consistent, high-quality sleep (then, ideally, make those arrangements permanent…). To promote restful, restorative sleep, make the environment cool, dark, and quiet. Also, establish your pre-sleep and wakeup routines, and prioritize a consistent wakeup time over a consistent bedtime.

Pre-ride fueling

What should I eat before a big ride? According to USA Cycling Coaches, that’s one of the most frequently asked questions they receive from new athletes. Again, it can be highly individual, but there are a few keys to remember.

  • Eat what is familiar: Don’t try something new the night before or morning of an event. This includes new foods, but also applies to nutritional strategies. Eat like you normally eat before a long training ride.
  • Don’t worry about carbohydrate loading: Consuming a pre-ride dinner that’s rich in carbohydrate (i.e. vegetables, pasta, rice, potatoes) is a good idea, but overemphasizing carbohydrate in the days before an event is generally unnecessary.
  • Base your breakfast on how early you eat: You want your breakfast to be digested before the start. A big breakfast might be fine four hours before the start but reduce the size of your pre-ride meal if you only have 1-2 hours to digest it. The less time there is between your pre-ride meal and the start, the more you should prioritize carbohydrate and reduce the amount of fat, protein, and fiber. Read more about fueling morning workouts and races here.

Managing Your Ride to Keep it Fun and Safe

From start to finish, gran fondos and charity rides have some unique features compared to traditional road races or your local group ride. Here’s what to expect and some tips for having a safe and fun experience.

Expect a mass start

Instead of starting separately by age group or category, everyone starts together at gran fondos and charity rides. This reinforces the social aspect of these events but being surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other cyclists can be both exciting and unnerving. During your training, include group rides to become comfortable riding in a pack. During the event, the large group will break up quickly and you’ll be able to find a smaller group you feel comfortable riding with.

Start with two full bottles on your bike, ideally both plain water or one water and one containing your preferred sports drink. In your jersey pockets you should have enough food to fuel yourself for at least two hours on the bike. This way you have what you need even if you miss an aid station.

Pay attention to the weather forecast, particularly to anticipated rain or increases/decreases in temperature during the hours you’ll be riding. Starting with a rain jacket in your pocket on a sunny morning can save your day when the afternoon thunderstorm rolls through.

Start fast, but not too fast

Gran fondos and charity rides are the most fun when you spend the day riding with people who have a similar fitness level as you. Riding with a group that’s too fast for you means you’ll be on your limit and you’ll burn energy much too quickly. On the other hand, you don’t always want to be the strongest rider in a group because the others may not be strong enough to help share the work.

The best way to find your Goldilocks group is to start reasonably hard (think 7 or 8 on a 0-10 scale of effort). Then, as the pack starts to split up you can drift back until you reach a group that’s maintaining a pace that’s challenging but sustainable for you. You can always drop back; moving forward to a faster group is far more difficult.

Start eating and drinking early

Depending on the length of the gran fondo or charity ride you choose, you could be on the bike for 2 to 6 hours, or longer. For sustained energy during long rides, it’s important to start consuming calories – mostly carbohydrate – early on. Start within the first 20 minutes and make a habit of eating small amounts of food two or three times each hour.

In total, aim for 30-60 grams (120-240 calories) of carbohydrate per hour. Energy gels, for instance, typically contain about 25 grams (100 calories) of carbohydrate. So does a full-sized banana. Stick to foods you are familiar with from training. Intake can increase to 90 grams/hour for cyclists who ride at high intensity and train their digestive system to process carbohydrate more quickly.

Utilize the aid stations

Grand fondos and charity rides typically have aid stations every 15-25 miles that are stocked with water, sports drink, and a variety of snacks. Stick with foods and drinks you have previously used during training rides, but also pay attention to your taste cravings. Many sports nutrition products are sweet. Sometimes, after a few hours riders stop eating simply because sweet flavors become unappealing. The best sports nutrition products in the world are useless if they stay in your pocket or on the table. Variety in flavors (sweet, salty, savory, tart) and texture (gel, crunchy, soft) can keep you interested in eating throughout the event.

Always leave aid stations with two full bottles of fluid. Your fluid intake during warm weather summer events should be 1-2 bottles per hour, more in high temperatures or high humidity. Even if you know the distance to the next aid station, you don’t know how long it will take to get there. A flat tire, mechanical problem, a headwind or a large climb could make that next leg longer than you expect.

Pace yourself conservatively

In many cases, your first gran fondo or charity ride will also be one of the longest rides you’ve undertaken. That’s part of the challenge and appeal. After burning some energy to start quickly, settle into a conservative pace so you conserve energy and can finish strong. This means staying in the draft as much as possible and resisting the temptation to charge up every hill. Riding the early hills at an easy pace makes the hills at the end of the ride more fun (and faster).

Watch out for yourself and fellow riders

During gran fondos and charity rides, all riders depend on each other to stay safe. Courses are often open to traffic and have limited traffic control at some intersections. Stay aware of your surroundings and communicate with riders around you about upcoming turns as well as potential hazards from vehicles, potholes, and debris. If someone crashes or appears to be experiencing a medical incident, stop to render assistance commensurate with your abilities and either call or send someone to call for additional help. Although far less of an emergency, ask riders who have stopped with a flat tire or mechanical if they have everything they need to get going again. Similarly, make sure to carry a tube, multitool, and inflation device so you can be self-sufficient or help someone else. Read more about what to carry on a ride.

Above All, Have Fun!

Preparation is the best way to ensure you’ll have a great time at your first gran fondo or charity ride. Train consistently in the months leading up to the event, get plenty of rest, practice your eating and drinking habits on the bike, and ride with friends so you can ride comfortably in a pack. During the event, communicate with the riders around you, make new friends, and catch up with old ones. Take in the scenery, thank the volunteers, and soak up the opportunity to spend a long day outside and on your bike!

The right preparation is key when planning for a Gran Fondo. An often over looked area is being prepared if something goes wrong. USA Cycling recognizes that riding can be dangerous which is why they now offer a membership for riders that includes $0-deductible on-the-bike injury coverage from SPOT insurance. If you crash, you will receive up to $25,000 of on the bike injury protection without spending a dime. To learn more about the RIDE membership click here or visit For a limited time we are offering $10 off our RIDE membership so you are protected on your next Gran Fondo, use code USACGF_10 at checkout.