Even though I lived in Italy for three years, I never attended a Gran Fondo. There are plenty. I wrote about some. I had a few on my list for this year, but ultimately refrained from participating. Gran Fondos are really grand. They are long. They are hilly. They are truly a marathon of cyclists.
In Italy, there’s an actual definition of what a Gran Fondo is. They have to exceed 120km and their has to be official time keeping. Thus, they are actually races for hobby cyclists. For some of the big events, it’s a bit of a stretch to call the winners still hobby cyclists. Some former professionals have fun at these events. There’s doping involved also. But most importantly, it takes long hours of riding.
Said definition doesn’t really work in Germany. The situation is a bit special.
On the one hand, you have Jedermann races. That just says races for everyone. These races became popular around 2003/2005 and by now they are expensive gatherings of hundreds or even thousands of middle-aged men in lycra. However, due to the cost of blocking roads from traffic, they tend to be somewhat shorter. I’ve participated to about 50 of these races, but never on the long distance. Anyways, the long distance would rarely exceed 120-140km. Which is long, yet short in an international comparison.
On the other hand, you have the RTF events. Bike clubs host Radtouristikfahrten, or touristic bike rides, for those of their members who enjoy riding a road bike, but don’t enjoy the stress and danger of a race. Bike clubs associated with Germany’s cycling association have to host at least one such RTF. There is no time-taking. Streets are not closed for traffic. (In Italy, they aren’t always closed either.) Within a start window, anyone can start. Groups form on the fly. If you want to collect points for your rating as a touristic cyclist, you need to pass checkpoints within a certain time frame. The loops approach feed stations which become social meeting points. It’s really about riding with rather than against each other. It’s in these events that distances can also reach marathon lenght, i.e. more than 200km in one ride.
So that’s what we did. The distance of an international Gran Fondo. The climbing of an international Gran Fondo. The stress level of a coffee ride.
The Wendelstein marathon
Close to Munich, the Wendelstein is home to one of Germany’s most interesting cycling spots. There are not many passes that peak at above 1,000m altitude. The Sudelfeld in the center of the Wendelstein even has three approaches and is tied with a few more similar passes. Of course, the prominence as compared to the next valley falls short of what I know from Italy. However, road engineers in Germany occasionally seem to prefer straight lines rather than switchbacks. As in: it can be steep. (Actually, I think it’s more for the fact that much of the surrounding land has an agricultural purpose. Switchbacks use more land.)
At the bottom of the Wendelstein mountain, there’s a small village with a very potent skiing and cycling club. On the second-last Saturday in August, this village turns into the epicenter of the Bavarian cycling scene. The club organises the Wendelstein bike marathon for many years and has built a solid reputation.
For starters: while usually you leave a bike marathon with an empty belly, here you might actually gain during the ride. On the long distance, there are three feed stations. Not exceedingly many. Yet they offer high quality food. Scrambled egg at the first, excellent Kasspätzle at the second, and soup at the third. (I would have loved gelato at the third. It was a warm day. Some chocolate yogurt they had came close enough.)
The official track data indicates 205km with 3,000m elevation gain. For Germany, that’s a mighty lot. When we signed up, I therefore said to my friends: I don’t know where all this climbing shall be coming from. I then found out. The undulating terrain keeps you going up and down between the bigger climbs. It’s actually on those hills that I found it most challenging, as they tend to be the steeper farm roads in this area.
We started together, six of us. The twin brothers Martin and Mathias, Tom and Tom, and Reik and I. (One Tom also wrote about it on his own blog.) These were also the pairs of similar performance. The twin brothers only did 120km anyways as they had to continue to Austria, heading into holidays. They and Tom and Tom stood with us till the beginning of the first climb, 25km into the day. We then met again at the first feed station. From there on, it got lonely for Reik and me.
Actually, it did get really lonely. We had expected to find a few groups. Over this long distance, riders were spread out a lot. As we also had started a bit late… I mean, 7:40am. That’s early even for my standards, but late for these marathons. Anyways. We started later than the fast people, so we mostly picked up people slower than us. Hence, if we formed groups, then usually we dragged the other ones with us.
Just to quote two riders that we met:
You must be riding an e-bike.
You realize it’s going up the mountain right now, do you?
By no serious standard were we fast. Well, we were fast for our standards. 26.3km/h is not all too bad. I’ve cycled a lot in the mountains. I’ve never had that high of an average speed with as much climbing involved. To be fair, I think much of this I should credit to the cyclists who gave us windshield in the first hour.
The map reports the track of the Wendelstein marathon. The full distance. The right loop equals the 120km short distance. The medium distance takes a turn back at the most Western spot of the route. The more red a color in the elevation graph, the steeper it is. The intensely red section at the beginning marks the beginning of the Sudelfeld. It’s about 12-14% in that section.
After 25 flat kilometers, the route features a first steep climb. In exchange, you might not even recognize the second climb. It’s just a long false flat, at the end of which the first feed station offers rest. A short transition leads over to the Sudelfeld. That’s a very unrhythmic climb. There’s that very steep ramp, then a flat section, another ramp (longer, but less steep), another flat section and a final ramp (not very long and not very steep).
Now the character of the marathon changes, as the route moves into hilly terrain: short downhills, short climbs. It takes a long time to pass this section. Mentally, I found it most challenging. The final set of climbs (Wechsel and Spitzingsattel) were a welcome variation from it. We cycled those to counter-clockwise. They open with yet another steep ramp. The incline goes up to a more than 10%. The remaining two ramps are short and not that heavy anymore.
After a straight, very steep and super fast downhill, it’s another flattish transition back to Au. But beware: there’s a final steep hill left just 8km from the finish.
Curiosity led me on to take a look at the (estimated) power values for the climbs. I’ve counted 8 significant climbs (longer than 1km in length – even though the last hill wasn’t even anymore that long). There are two numbers you want to look at.
First, the absolute power output. I can do up to 210w over 20min. It was not consistently steep enough on many of these mountains, and I wouldn’t push on as hard on the flatter sections. At 190w average, I still felt very much in control, however.
Second, the decay over time. You see: all the way until the pen-ultimate big climb (Rottach – Valepp), I maintained basically the same power level. We had already cycled 180km at that point. I’m very much satisfied with that. Yet, the last summit and the remaining short ramp indicate where I reached my point of decay. My power values dropped about 20-25w. At the same time, I also couldn’t push my heart rate up as much anymore. I was tired.
On the graph, the decay appears to the right of the high peak in the black graph. The black line are the power values. I could maintain my speed (the blue line), because the route now kept losing altitude. I could not bring up the power anymore as much.
I’m glad I did it. I didn’t really know why I did it. But I did it, and I did it well. Tom had suggested it to Reik and he had suggested it to us and I had been hooked by the perspective of riding in a group. A long season of preparation formed the shape to sustain the effort at a high speed. Friends made this an enjoyment.
These marathons are an interesting alternative to me. The relaxed affair regarding the finisher time drastically reduced the stress of people. I did not witness a single hazardous maneuver to maintain a position in a group. Still, there was the joy of group riding. Streets were open for cars, but car drivers were respectful and supportive.
I’ve already had a look at possible destinations for 2019. There are some.