DADE CITY — The rolling hills of east Pasco hosted a new type of cycling challenge Sunday that county and event organizers believe will become a highlighted day on the calendar of cyclists around the region.
The inaugural Central Florida Gran Fondo welcomed about 150 riders to Pasco-Hernando Community College in Dade City, the location of both the start and finish, for a race that differs from most cycling events in America. Typically, races run in a criterium format in which riders do laps on a closed course that is usually shorter than a mile. But the Gran Fondo provides participants with a 100-mile course with four timed segments varying from 2 to 10 miles that determine the winner, plus free rides stuffed in between.
"The great thing about a Gran Fondo is that it isn't a start-to-finish race, it's about those timed segments along the route," organizer Reuben Kline said. "Bicycle racing hasn't been a user-friendly sport because races can be very dangerous. But with a Gran Fondo, anyone can come out and get a challenge in the timed segments, but spend the rest of it just touring around some of the most beautiful country in the area."
Kline and other organizers believe the turnout would have been even stronger, had a scheduling mishap not placed it on the same weekend as the Tampa Twilight, a well-established race that is part of the national cycling circuit. In the future, Kline hopes to hold the Gran Fondo just before the Tampa Twilight so the two can feed off each other.
"We intend for the Gran Fondo to be much bigger, but we selected our date based on where they (Tampa Twilight) were on the calendar last year," Kline said. "The national cycling calendar moved their event to the same day as ours, but in the next two to three years we'll have that straightened out and we believe this event will attract more than 1,000 participants to the area."
The course traversed rural rolling hills, past horse farms and orange groves, briefly going through the Withlacoochee State Forest and the hills surrounding Brooksville. It's an environment Floridian cyclers like Steve Mlujeak and his junior development team from Pembroke Pines in south Florida aren't used to, but need to experience as they train for national events.
"We'll be going to a national championship in Wisconsin this year, which is a lot of climbing," Mlujeak said. "The Gran Fondo is a little longer distance than what we usually do to train, which was good, but the rolling hills that we don't have in south Florida is a big thing for us. I think the Gran Fondo format may actually take off because it's a great training tool for distance cyclists."
The landscape surprised some riders, even if they were from this part of Florida. Tampa's Ken Vida, a first-place finisher in the event, has lived in the state for nine years and enjoyed the opportunity to race in the Gran Fondo format on different terrain.
"The route was the nicest I've ever done in the state of Florida," Vida said. "I'm used to criterium races mostly, so I have to admit I wasn't sure how to ride this race and didn't spend as much time as everyone else taking in the scenery, but I plan on doing it again next year. I really like the format because with the four timed sections, you can ride it differently than you normally might and then meet a lot of different riders in between those timed sections while you look at the scenery."