Racing bikes is fun, and chances are that if you’re visiting MarathonMTB.com to read this, you’d likely agree with me there. ‘Fun’ may be an interesting way of putting it though, because we go through quite the emotional rollercoaster during our racing exploits. I don’t know about you, but on race day I always feel a heavy sense of apprehension during the event registration. That’s then followed by increasing tension levels whilst standing around at rider briefing. Then of course there’s the nervous pre-race queuing at the portaloos…
But even for the most uncompetitive rider, there’s something about the thrill of taking off from a start line that raises the bodies adrenaline whether we admit to it or not. Hurtling around corners at race-pace and then attempting to overtake your newly found arch nemesis on a fireroad climb is a sure-fire way to get the blood pumping like nothing else. And when it feels like the legs and lungs can take no more, there’s that final burst of energy and excitement as you sprint towards the finish line. And for me, that’s why racing is fun.
But sometimes, you don’t have to race bikes just to have fun. Sometimes it’s about riding bikes purely for the sheer pleasure of being on two wheels. Sometimes it’s about immersing yourself in the natural environment and having the opportunity to hang out with your mates while exploring new terrain. In essence, that’s why all of us enjoy mountain biking. Because we seek adventure and we seek fun. And that’s exactly why the crew at Big Hill Events created the Dirty Gran Fondo.
While the Dirty Gran Fondo may share certain aspects with a traditional mountain bike race, it really is anything but. This is an event that puts the focus on riding, not racing, and that is fundamentally why it’s so good.
What is the Dirty Gran Fondo?
The Dirty Gran Fondo first started back in 2012, making this year’s event the 4th time that Big Hill Events have put it on. The original concept was relatively simple; create a ride that could include riders on mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, and anything in between. From there, string together a series of backcountry fire roads into a circuit that would take riders deep into the bush. Offer up lung-busting climbs, fast and bumpy descents, and sweet views of the beautiful landscape surrounding the course. Then throw in some well-stocked feed stops, great coffee, and live music, and you’ve got yourself a cycling event like no other.
The name itself comes from the traditional European-style Gran Fondo, which is essentially a long distance, mass participation road ride. The Dirty Gran Fondo gives things a muddy twist by shifting the event from the bitumen to the dirt. Instead of smoothly paved switchback climbs, riders are taken along a combination of dirt roads and rough 4WD tracks. Because there isn’t any dedicated singletrack, it’s not what we would call a mountain bike race, but because it’s all on dirt, we wouldn’t call it a road race either.
“Like to race? Or just cruise with mates? Looking for a challenge? Bring it all together. It’s time to mix it up. It’s time to get dirty” – Big Hill Events.
Although it may defy conventional definition, the real beauty about the Dirty Gran Fondo is simply how it brings together riders of all abilities from all disciplines. Mountain bikers, cyclocrossers, gravel grinders, singlespeeders, off-road tourers and all sorts of other cyclists turn up each year. Except for fat bikers. Fortunately there have been no fat bikers.
This year’s Dirty Gran Fondo was held towards the end of Autumn on Sunday the 17th of May. The event is based in Wandong, Victoria, which is about an hours drive north of Melbourne.
Riders were able to choose from three distances: 90km (Dirty Gran Fondo), 65km (Fondo), and 30km (Medio Fondo). There were male, female and junior categories, as well as specific divisions for the mountain bikers, the cyclocrossers, and the ‘mongrels’, which is basically everyone else.
The timing of the Dirty Gran Fondo ends up working well as a sort of prologue to the cyclocross race season in Melbourne, so there were a lot of flashy new ‘cross bikes sidling up to the start line with fast legs straddling their top tubes. There were quite a few ‘gravel grinders’ too, with a plethora of boutique steel frames and Rapha kit on show.
But while drop bars were common, mountain bikes definitely had the biggest showing on race day. The general consensus from previous years is that a lightweight 29er hardtail is the ideal weapon for tackling the rough fireroads of the Dirty Gran Fondo, though there were plenty of full suspension rigs and rigid singlespeeds too.
I ended up tackling the 65km Fondo distance aboard a Soma Wolverine, a bike that is commonly known as a ‘Monster Crosser’, or if you’re riding the Dirty Gran Fondo, a ‘Mongrel’. It proved to be a whole lot of fun for tackling the rough dirt roads around Mt Disappointment, with the fat 29” tyres allowing me to float over the rocks and ruts. Keep an eye out on MarathonMTB.com for a closer look at the setup I choose for this burly drop-bar machine.
The event organisers changed up the course for 2015, with a reverse in direction and the cutting of a serious hill climb from previous years. Last year saw a very wet leadup to raceday, creating super muddy conditions that had riders slipping and sliding all over the shop. Fortunately for all us, the weather gods played nice this year, and although we faced a fresh start to the day, it was otherwise blue skies and sunshine all day. As a result of the course changes and some bolstered marketing, the 2015 Dirty Gran Fondo ended up attracting a record field of riders with some 440 turning up on raceday.
Despite the fresh start, there were lots of good vibes at the event village during the hour lead up to race start. Unlike other cycling events I’ve been too, there was no tension, no apprehension and no nervousness. Just an excited buzz.
Big Hill Events worked hard to maintain the atmosphere out on course too, with well-stocked feed stations providing muffins, muesli bars, and plenty of hydration. At the first feed station we were greeted with a live band that had been transported with all their gear out on course to play music for riders cruising past. At the second feed station, DC from The Fitzroy Revolution had his van setup with an espresso machine, where he dealt out hundreds of coffees for all the caffeine-hungry cyclists. It’s worth noting that DC’s coffee killed pretty much every coffee I’ve ever had at a cycling event, despite the fact that he was situated in the bush in the middle of nowhere.
Thanks to the vibrant feed stations, the huge variety of different bikes, and a field of energetic competitors dressed in some of the most vivid riding kits I’ve ever seen, the Dirty Gran Fondo ended up being just as fun as it sounds. And it wasn’t even a race. I ended up riding alongside a whole range of different riders throughout the day, and unlike a race, we were able to have real genuine conversations (mostly about bikes), and the opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds of the environment around us. On that note, massive props must go towards the course designers for taking us along such a scenic course.
For the full results and race times, head to the Big Hill Events website for the full rundown. I can’t really remember who won because I was having too much fun on the day.
Wanna get Fondo’d?
Having had a blast at this years Dirty Gran Fondo, I can recommend it to anyone who wants to just simply get out and ride their bikes for fun along with other like-minded riders. For sure we all want to do rides like that with our mates every weekend, but I don’t know about you, trying to organise my riding buddies always feels like herding cats. What the Dirty Gran Fondo does is create an organised ride so that you don’t have to. Plus, they provide an amazing course, great food and coffee and plenty of atmosphere.
So grab your mountain bike, grab your ‘cross bike, or grab anything you like really, and put the 2016 event on your calendar, as it’ll surely be the ripper day that this year’s event was.
Sure it’s an event that’s about riding and not racing, but that’s a-ok with me.