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11-05-2023 | Wouter Fioole

GF Espace Cycles: not all gran fondos are equal

Poor roads full of cracks and potholes. Racing at high speed through small villages with lots of traffic furniture. Little or no communication beforehand and a website that doesn't give a whole lot of information. On-site registrants who get their start documents faster than the pre-registrants. Moderate signage to parking lots. Faithful readers will expect a critical story from now on, not all gran fondos are equal. GF Espace Cycles gets away with it all as far as I'm concerned. It was another wonderful day of hard riding in the Walloon Ardennes.

© Espace Cycles

The benefit of the doubt

After several regions in Belgium decided to start enforcing the "royal decree" that cycling races can only take place on a fully enclosed course, the Vélomediane officially ceased to be a gran fondo and went continued as a sportive. That leaves the Espace as Belgium's only real gran fondo. For that reason alone, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Besides, you know in advance that the roads in southeast Belgium are full of potholes and holes, Pogacar himself can talk about it after LBL. The organization does its best to find the better roads. They even adjust the course at the last minute to avoid construction work. By comparison, in southeastern France (66 Dégres Sud) there are plenty of beautiful roads to be found, yet the organization sends the peloton over gravel sections. This difference still matters to my perception of an event.

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Pop-up tent and speaker

As far as that goes, of course, judging the quality of a gran fondo is also subjective. When the UCI attaches its name to an event or when an event carries the "Trophee Label D'or", I expect more than average quality. Of course, it's not convenient of the Espace organization that you don't get any additional information beforehand. Or that the start location or parking facilities are actually impossible to find out in advance. You have to search quite a bit to find the start time and stand in line longer for your stuff if you are pre-registered. But standing in line in the just slightly run-down canteen of the local Etalle soccer club (the start location) doesn't really matter. It's all cozy conviviality. No pretentiousness or trying to make things bigger than they are. Just set up party tents, a sound system with a speaker and go. Gotta love it!

© Espace Cycles

Great day

At 3 to 9 I finally ride into the box at the very back of the race. Ready for 170 kilometers and almost 2200 meters of elevation through the Luxembourg of Belgium. For a moment I was afraid I would be too late, but then I would just join the 120 kilometer race that started half an hour later (240 participants). In the two-kilometer neutralization, I can already see the big group slowly but surely pulling away. Narrowings, riders who still want to get to the front at all costs, braking and acceleration cause small crashes and holes in the tail of the group. On the 'flat' sections, I ride along nicely in the larger and smaller groups I end up in. The total of 18 recorded climbs, ranging from about 700 meters to 4 kilometers in length, I always try to use them to move a group or bunch of riders to the front. Although the route was just short of being completely car-free, the motards and volunteers kept the course safe. For a very large part of the race I rode behind the motard with vest number seven, who gave a series of little honks at every threshold or obstacle and waved his arms drily at every turn.

After just under five hours of pedaling, I arrived safely and happily back in Etalle. Over 40 minutes behind the winner and about halfway through the 300 rider field. Fine, I had a great day! So on second thought, forget about the first paragraphs above all. Organizing a gran fondo is not easy. Just look at the once again cancelled L'Étape Rotterdam and the sportives that the Criq now officially is. Above all, we should be happy and grateful that Espace Cycles manages to pull it off! Chapeau!

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