Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia kicks off this weekend

Four-event series begins in California

The Giro d'Italia does not start until next month, but the maglia rosa, pasta, wine and Italian cycling passion are in full effect at the Sea Otter Classic outside Monterey, California, where the first Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia kicks off this weekend through the Salinas Valley and down the Pacific coast.

Gran fondos have caught fire in recent years in the US, with many new events springing up and many century events rebranding themselves as gran fondos. The original Italian gran fondos are quite analogous to marathons: long timed events over a given course where some come to race, some come just to finish, but most come for a fun challenge.

As a relatively new concept in the US, gran fondos have taken many forms, and many promoters are still fine-tuning their formulas. The four-event Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia series, for example, has different formats for each of its stops.

At Sea Otter, the Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia is simply a timed event, not a race, with 50- and 96-mile options. But the event in New York, the Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia Five Boro, will feature a time trial over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as part of the 40-mile, car-free ride. This event has been added as a VIP experience to the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, a longstanding New York event that draws more than 30,000 riders. Then the Los Angeles-Pasadena Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia offers three distances, with the 93-mile ride taking in a whopping 12,500 feet of climbing.

You can't race the Giro d'Italia. But you can ride the Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia, and hoist the trophy

But the main draw for the Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia events is the focus on the Italian-style cycling experience, says Lorenzo De Salvo of organizer RCS Sport.

"This is more than just a ride, and it's about more than just the route," De Salvo said. "We create an experience on Friday and Saturday, partnering with quality Italian restaurants for great food and wine. We bring the original trophy of the Giro d'Italia, and everyone can take a picture with the trophy with a nice backdrop."

While some riders will push themselves, the idea is not to host a race, De Salvo said. "We want to welcome every type of rider, not just the racer."

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