Bend in the Road: DIY dirt fondo

How to create your own backroads gran fondo

If you want something done right, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

Elements of massive events — like the Wiggle Dragon Ride, the Tour of Flanders Sportive or Bupa Around the Bay — can be great. Staking a spot on a calendar and training for it, rising to the challenge with new and old friends, and competing in a professionally organized event make riding a bike fun in ways you don't get just riding around on your normal weekend loop. But other elements of big-scale events can be a drag: the cost, the logistics, being a little fish in a big sea of participants.

What if you took the fun elements of a big event, rode with your friends, and ditched all of the other noise? With a little planning, you can have your cake and eat it too.

In the last two or three years in the US, we have seen a surge in participation of rough-road gran fondos, whether they are faux Roubaix events like the Barry-Roubaix and Rouge Roubaix or gravel grinders like Rock Cobbler or Dirty Kanzaa 200. Getting out of traffic, off the beaten path and straight into some new terrain is a great way to ride. 

But do you really need to pay someone to do this? No, you sure don't. Here's how.

Friends, bikes and quiet roads — you don't need to pay to pin on a number to have a great ride

Plan the route and the hot spots

Using local knowledge, Strava and a little creativity, piece together stretches of paved and unpaved roads that will keep you and your friends out of traffic. The more unpaved sections, the more challenge and the less car traffic you'll have.

Ride the route, and take note of the least-trafficked areas. Designate two or three of these sections hot spots, where your riders can 'race' for a few miles, sprint for a given marker, and then sit up and regroup. Whether with length, elevation gain or other difficulty, make the route hard enough to be memorable, yet still doable for your group.

"The hook for the ride is the route," said Colorado resident Kevin Burnette, who has put together several such DIY fondos, both single-day and multi-day. "Think about those places you and your riding buddies talk about riding but few have experienced. Those memorable sections, climbs that have become local cycling lore. From there, start piecing them together. A one-day event should be challenging enough to push everyone beyond their comfort zone. For multi-day you've got to have a queen stage. Defunct races are another great option as you can have the routes 'live on' within the community. We recently put together a ride based on two popular dirt road races that had been cancelled."

 No numbers needed here

Get your friends stoked

Once you've got a good route together and a proposed date and time, share it digitally with your friends, along with a healthy dose of smack talking. Most riders are eager for a new challenge, but most of us are too lazy to create anything ourselves. So if you serve up something enticing, chances are they'll bite.

If your group is big enough, you can divvy up into teams. Come up with a basic points scheme for 1st, 2nd and 3rd for each of the hot spots. Then promise beer, cake or some other small and random 'prize' for winning. You're not putting on a local crit, much less the Tour de France, so keep it fun. Natural competitiveness will take care of the rest.

"If possible, the team aspect is a draw and a bonus feature to the normal group ride," Burnette said. "This is an alternative to racing so the camaraderie is welcomed. Casting a wider net on your invite list brings together riders who don't normally get out on the roads together and offer opportunities for new friendships. Build the route with enough race sections to get the competitive juices flowing but allow ample time for everyone to socialize and meet each other along the way."

If you build it, they will come

Pay a buddy to sag, or alternate for multiple days

Of course you can just ride self-supported like you normally do on your rides. But why not make it special, with a support vehicle following or leap-frogging the ride, with plenty of cold drinks, food and spare tubes? The 'support vehicle' doesn't need to be bright yellow and adorned with Mavic logos (although that would be cool). Just ask around for a friend with a bigger vehicle to drive, then take up donations from your riders to pay for gas and their time.

If you are really ambitious, plan a two- or three-day point-to-point event. This way you can take turns being the driver, hauling overnight gear as well as ride supplies. The more specific your plans — including cost of hotels, if any — the easier it will be to get buy-in from your friends.

"A support car with a mechanic behind the wheel is another bonus over the common group ride and recommended for groups of 10 or more," Burnette said. "At $10-$15 per rider you have pro level support. You don't have to worry about delays with mechanicals, can stash extra gear and fueling suppliers in the car and it is always there when a sticky bidon is needed. For overnight trips look at a service like VRBO and bring along someone that knows their way around the kitchen. The riders will be hungry!"

Pooling your money for a follow vehicle can just mean paying a friend for gas and their time

Stake your claim

It seems like whenever you go to a big event, be it Leadville or Dirty Kanzaa, there is always somebody talking about how much better it was back in the day before it got big. Back when it was just a few friends and a crazy idea; that's when it was really cool. Now, I'm not suggesting you be that guy, looking backwards and annoying those in the present. Instead, look forwards and create that crazy cool idea that people can enjoy now. Then let somebody else, years later, talk about how cool it was.

"The goal here is to deepen relationships and meet new friends through a memorable experience," Burnette said. "An awesome, challenging ride with a bit of team competition amongst like-minded folks is the perfect vehicle. We all have those secret routes, but we all know they are better shared."

Get out there and make some memories this summer

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