The Gran Fondo NY is less than a week away, but this year I won't be cycling the challenging, 100-plus mile course.

The event, known officially as the Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York, draws about 7,000 riders for a hilly 105-mile Century that starts at the George Washington Bridge near northern Manhattan. The course meanders north through New Jersey to Bear Mountain, the top of a four-mile climb that comes a little under halfway through your gran fondo.

The total amoung of climbing for the Gran Fondo New York is 7,000 feet -- a lot for Floridians. By comparison, I did the 68-mile Tour de Forts in Jacksonville area last month and did a total of about 400 feet of climbing.

Gran Fondos -- roughly "big ride" or "long distance" or "great endurance," depending on whom you believe -- are popular in Italy and increasingly in the United States. They share a common thread -- mass starts, a mix of riders, some timed climbs -- think of it more as a long social ride than a race.

I attempted my first cycling Century last May at the Gran Fondo NY. I'd been riding seriously then for about 16 months and wanted to challenge myself in my home town. I took a wrong turn at mile 89 and ended up with another rider heading miles in wrong direction. When we realized our mistake, we called the SAG wagon for a long, depressing ride by the New York. (Overall, I rode 102 miles that day, but it didn't fell like a Century.)

I planned to return to the Gran Fondo NY, which is Sunday, May 19. Tendon problems limited my training, so I'm skipping. But I wanted to offer some advice. Although some is specific to the New York area Gran Fondo, it could apply to other cycling Centuries and long rides:

  1. Train. Yes, it seems obvious, but if you've never or seldom ridden long distances -- above 60 miles say -- you need to have a good base to start and ramp up in the 10 weeks before the event. The Gran Fondo NY offers this Bicycling Magazine plan on how to ride a Gran Fondo. Get in some group rides by signing up for local events or getting with local bike clubs.
  2. Train on hills as much as you can. Many gran fondos and long rides cover hilly terrain, even ones in the Southeast, such as the Three-Gap and Six-Gap Challenge in Georgia or the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge in Chattanooga, Tenn. I live in Lake County, so it was a bit easier for me. Be sure to do some intervals on hills. The training plan in No. 1 offers some suggestions.
  3. Think about how you will ship your bike. Unless you are driving to a Gran Fondo, you will face a lot of choices about how to ship a bicycle. I couldn't imagine breaking it down for a travel case, so I opted for an AirCaddy, an easy-to-use (and reuse) box that only involved removing front wheel and turning down handlebars, and shipping through FedEx.
  4. Take the subway to the start of the Gran Fondo NY. The George Washington Bridge start area closes at 6:15 a.m. for a 7 a.m. start. Although you could ride there, it is easier catching a subway. There were hundreds of cyclists on my train from lower Manhattan. 
  5. Bring food to the start and more than you think you might need. Eat breakfast, of course, but for me, that was almost three hours before the start. I had a few things ready to nibble as we waited. Bringing more can help, since the first rest stop is always the most crowded of any event.
  6. Watch yourself as the Gran Fondo NY goes along River Road. It is a wonderful setting -- a tree-lined closed road along the Hudson River, but miles 2 to 9 are a bit rough and the field is packed there. And remember, this is a 100-mile ride, so don't start fast just to bonk at the end.
  7. Find some folks to ride with. I didn't know any other rider, but the tradition of gran fondos is social, so I hooked up with several pacelines as we rode. Even better, bring a friend or group to your next Century or gran fondo.
  8. Watch what and how often you eat. I didn't eat enough regularly, concentrating too much on the rest stops. I would have been better packing my pockets and eating more as I rode. There is a lot of advice on eating for a Century, but the best test is to try different rates of eating and types of gels, bars and drinks on your own long ride.
  9. Study the map and bring the cue sheet. I got lost with a few other riders late in the Gran Fondo NY when a sweeping left turn then took an immediate right. We didn't see the sign or it was missing. (I see that route was changed this year). Or invest, as I have now, in a cycling map computer, like those from Garmin. I have the Garmin 800.)
  10. Whether you finish or not, accept it and set your next goal. I technically am a DNF for the Gran Fondo NY, and it was a disappointment. As I look back, at photos from that day and the memories I have, I feel better about what I did. And I've set more goals since then -- including returning to the Gran Fondo New York.