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30-08-2023 | Frank Jansen

Should (ex)-pros be banned from gran fondos?

The recent win by Alejandro Valverde in Quebrantahuesos sparked debate: should pros and ex-professionals be riding gran fondos?

Photo: our administrator Pieter in the wheel of Alberto Contador.

Is it possible to keep pros out?

Gran fondo events have the autonomy to define their regulations and establish participation criteria. Three primary approaches exist concerning professional involvement:

  • Pros are welcome: This is evident at GFNY gran fondos, where pros are encouraged to participate.
  • Excluding pros: Seen in UCI Gran Fondo World Series, pros with UCI team affiliation or points are barred from competing.
  • Allowing pros with non-competitive participation: pro's can join but aren't ranked, like in GF Alé La Merckx.

With regard to ex-professionals, the rules are much more lenient. Only at certain Italian gran fondos (including the Maratona) is it a requirement that you cannot have a pro license for at least two years.

But what's a pro?

The definition of a pro, however, is fodder for debate. Certainly in the gravel world there are plenty of riders who do not fall under the UCI definition described above, but could be considered pros. Laurens ten Dam and Ivar Slik, for example. They are paid by equipment manufacturers, among others, and still live (partly) from cycling. You could also see influencers, who live off YouTube revenue, as cycling pros. Even Valverde can be debated. He may ride in a Movistar jersey, but it is uncertain whether he gets paid as well. Moreover, he no longer rides in the WorldTour.

The (former) pro as mascot

Active pros and ex-pros have different goals when they ride a gran fondo. In most cases, they ride along as a mascot. Alberto Contador and Ivan Basso, for example, do this annually in Mallorca 312. At the GF Alé La Merckx, Jonathan Milan rode along. They do not interfere with the race, take extensive time for selfies and the fans in general. Often they ride the medio fondo, or they don't finish the event at all. Or they ride without a chip.

There are other variations possible. For example, Sebastian Reichenbach once rode the Tour des Stations as training. He stopped five meters before the finish and let the rest pass so that he himself did not get on the podium. A gesture that was greatly appreciated.

With this kind of participation few gran fondo enthusiasts will have a problem.

Photo: editor Wouter with Jan Ullrich at GFNY.

Challenging for victory

It's another story when pros do get involved in the race, as Valverde did in Quebrantahuesos. Indeed, he made it a real goal, came to the start with a bunch of domestiques and set a course record. Afterwards, he took off like a hare and took no time for the fans. Unfair according to critics. 'I want to compete with someone who has a full-time job like me,' said one on social media.

Valverde's story is not an isolated one, however. Increasingly, we are seeing unknown pro riders with UCI points competing for prizes in gran fondos (and often winning). Due to the lack of UCI races with lots of climbing, they are increasingly managing to find their way to gran fondos.

The discussion revolves around desirability, rather than strict prohibition. Similar to how professional football teams avoid amateur matches, gran fondos maintain their amateur essence despite being open events.

Ex-professionals competing for prizes attract less controversy. Riders like Johnny Hoogerland and Marcel Wyss enjoy success without sparking debate, possibly due to their job commitments and self-organized support.

Relevance vs. desirability

Incorporating pros and ex-pros elevates gran fondo events' appeal, garnering widespread support regardless of proficiency.

For active pros, balancing participation is crucial. Overwhelmingly dominating an amateur event might diminish the enjoyment for others, akin to a parent outpacing their child in a race.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of participants prioritize camaraderie over winning, irrespective of pro status. Pros, in turn, acknowledge the importance of engaging with fans for a fulfilling experience.

Stay tuned for part 2: should ex-dopers be banned from gran fondos?

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