Yunnan Gran Fondo: Racing Through China's Stunning Southwest by Bike

Travel | by Daniel Carruthers
Posted: December 9th, 2014 | Updated: December 9th, 2014 | Comments

China is undergoing a leisure revolution with the burgeoning middle class population searching for outdoor pursuits; thus cycling as a leisure activity is on the rise, a stark contrast to 20 years ago when the bicycle was considered the main mode of transportation. With the growing number of new leisure cyclists hitting the roads, cycling events have been proliferating around the nation. Having realized that amateur races are an excellent way to promote tourism, local government authorities are increasingly willing to provide funding for events that draw visitors and showcase the unique natural scenery of their regions.

Enter the ‘gran fondo,’ which originated in Italy and simply means great ride or challenge over a long distance. Gran fondos are slowly gaining acceptance in China for amateur riders and are looking set to spearhead a new cycling revolution in the Middle Kingdom thanks to their focus on mass participation. Nordic Ways, a Swedish sports event company based in Beijing, has been the key organizer behind popularizing the concept of the gran fondo in China. In the coming years, expect to witness more regions hosting gran fondos.

The first gran fondo in China was held by Nordic Ways back in 2012 in Yanbian, Jilin Province, on the border with North Korea, but still it was difficult to convince government officials that amateur cyclists were capable of cycling long distances. Another company, SCP Shanghai, launched their gran fondo event in April 2014 in the famous Yellow Mountain region with some success, however, the distances did not reflect a true gran fondo. They will stage the event again next year.

The Gran Fondo peloton headed towards the towering Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Yunnan Gran Fondo

In November 2014, Nordic Ways was back again, this time with a week-long series of gran fondos held in five picturesque locations in Southwest China's Yunnan Province. The event had the full support of the local governments, had full road closure, and all participants were given generous time limits to complete the course. 

The inaugural Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo was a huge success, attracting more than 1,000 riders across all the categories and about 350 riders taking part in all five stages. The event kicked off with the Kunming stage around Dian Lake and ended in the stunningly beautiful Lijiang region at the base of the imposing snow-capped Jade Dragon Mountain. In between, participants circuited Fuxian Lake in Yuxi, completed a 24.5km mountain time trial ascending Zixi Mountain in Chuxiong and pedaled 108 km around Erhai Lake in Dali

The final days in Lijiang were particularly memorable for the participants, prompting Beijing expat Shannon Bufton (Serk Cycles) to say, “The atmosphere of the final stage was awesome. The kids on the side of the road, the daunting view of the snow mountain in the distance and the sense of achievement of finishing the week-long race.” David Johnson, who also resides in Beijing working for Trek Asia, thought the event was fantastic and is already looking forward to next year's race. “The course design was fantastic, winding through the small roads, then the steep ride though the town up to the temple, fun descent culminating with the long climb to 3,000m above sea-level. A great day of racing in Lijiang and great way to end an exciting week of racing around Yunnan,” Johnson said.



Yunnan Gran Fondo: The Verdict

From my perspective, having competed throughout China, this Gran Fondo week represents one of the most scenically beautiful races organized in China, topped only by Sailimu Lake in the far-flung western region of Xinjiang. I particularly enjoyed the final few days in the famous locations of Dali and Lijiang. Stage 4 was raced on the twisty, narrow roads fringing the edges of Erhai Lake, passing by numerous ancient buildings and temples, with the majestic mountains capped with snow rising up in the background. The finish had us going down a narrow cobble-stoned street hemmed in by tea shops into the old city of Dali; a perfect ending to a brilliant day on the bike.

The final day in Lijiang was unforgettable, with the imposing, white-peaked Jade Dragon Snow Mountain reaching into the swirling clouds as the racing action unfolded. The parcours was brilliant, starting in front of a large crowd in the old city of Lijiang. To begin with the roads were wide, smooth and newly made, reflecting the pace of modern Chinese development. However, it got exciting once the race hit the winding, narrow roads with dense trees on both sides as well as a short, steep hill climb through the village and passing through an ancient temple at the top. The finale was a tough 12-km climb with the stunning Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in full view. After the race was over, it was a brilliant, fast descent all the way back to the city of Lijiang for a well-earned rest!

The week-long event is a perfect introduction to Yunnan Province and will leave you wanting to experience more. If you choose to do this gran fondo, I highly recommend that you allocate a few extra days after the event is finished so you can explore places like Tiger Leaping GorgeShangri-La and more of the Lijiang area; it is simply fantastic. I remember cycle touring in the region back in 2002 and being absolutely gobsmacked by the profound beauty. You can spend quite a few days just exploring by bike, seeing plenty of hidden-away villages and rice terraces. People are also very welcoming and will invite you in for a cup of tea if you are friendly enough and know a few words of Mandarin. If you can't wait till November time for the event, there is nothing stopping you from embarking on your own tour of Yunnan. The province is full of immense treasures and the Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo only just scratched the surface.


How to Participate in the Yunnan Gran Fondo

The Yunnan Gran Fondo is open to all types of cyclists from beginners to experienced riders; there is a general classification competition for the competitive riders should you see yourself racing at the head of the peloton. 

This gran fondo event is one of only three stage races in China for amateur riders – the other two are the three-day Genghis Khan MTB Adventure in Inner Mongolia and the five-day Tour of Sailimu Lake in Xinjiang. So, if you are looking for an event with stunning variety and scenery along with a rich cultural experience then add the Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo to your bucket list of events to do in China: it does not matter if you are completely new to cycling, it is a perfect way to experience the thrills of cycling in an organized event. You’ll also make plenty of new friends along the way.

Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo is going to be an annual event, with the next fixture set for November 2015. Keep an eye on the Gran Fondo website for announcements. Each year when the event is announced, you will be able to sign up here.


What to Expect

Terrain & Conditions

Routes are on a variety of terrain, including highways, wide roads and narrow winding roads. The conditions of the roads vary from smooth, new asphalt to surfaces full of potholes and covered with debris. For the most part, road conditions are acceptable. All riders need to be self-sufficient with a spare tube and pump in case of flat tires.


The racing is as difficult as you make it; if you are just there to enjoy the scenery and take photos, there are plenty of people who do just that and ride at their own pace. If the distances (which vary from 83 km to 181 km) seem too daunting to you, a short course option ranging from 42 km to 82 km is available for each stage. 

To gain the most out of the event, a reasonable level of fitness is expected.

The racing level is suitable for the high-end amateur all the way down to the beginner rider; rest assured this Gran Fondo caters to all abilities.

Costs & Prize Money

The event entry fee is CNY 150 for each stage or CNY 750 for the full course. There is a CNY 500 reimbursement incentive if you complete all five stages.

You are responsible for your own hotel accommodation arrangements, however, you can purchase the five-star hotel packages provided by Nordic Ways.

There is daily prize money for the top six riders across the line and there is prize money for the top 15, with CNY 20,000 awarded to the overall winner.

Getting There

It is best to bring your own bike packed well in a bike box (cardboard is the cheapest option).

The event starts in Kunming and thus you will need to fly to the Kunming airport and take a taxi to the race hotel (about CNY 100). All details are on the event website. There are regular flights from all major Chinese cities to Kunming. At the end of the race, it's best to fly out of Lijiang for convenience rather than endure a long transfer back to Kunming.

If you are searching for epic cycling events in China, the Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo is one of them. It will be a highly memorable eight days in Yunnan – three rest days are slotted in between stages for your additional relaxation and/or exploring.


About the author: Daniel Carruthers is a well-known cycling journalist and racer in the Asia-Pacific region and has resided in Hangzhou, China, since 2010; he has been coming to China since 2000, having studied Mandarin in Harbin. He has cycled extensively in China and throughout Asia.

His adventures can be followed on his website:

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