Picture it: an upgraded century bicycle ride—with elaborate on-course food, a post-ride feast, live entertainment—crossed with a chip-timed race. Sounds like bike paradise.

That’s what you get with a gran fondo (Italian for “big ride”), a new kind of long-distance (at least 75 miles) bike ride that originated in Italy and has been catching fuoco in the U.S.

Many fondos are hosted by former pros, and give mere mortals a chance to rub shoulders with the elites. That’s what I found when a buddy and I recently rode the Hudson Valley Farm to Fork Fondo, a series started by ex-pro cyclist Tyler Wren that tours iconic Northeast farmscapes, stopping off at mom-and-pop farms to eat along the way. But it’s not an easy trip. In fact, we hadn’t even mounted our bikes when we saw we were in for a long, hot day in the saddle. Nevermind the 87 miles of rolling farm country ahead of us. I’d forgotten my water bottle, and my pal, Zeth, had a flat.

Tip 1: Carry water and a patch kit

Half an hour later, when farmer “Big Steve” Pennings paced 500 Lycra-clad cyclists out of the start area on his ancient red tractor, we still weren’t ready. “Looks like they’re leaving,” Zeth said. “No worries,” I answered cheerily. “Sure,” he said, “but I was hoping to let the fast guys do some of the work for us.”

When we finally limped across the finish line, we hadn’t won—but we’d earned every bite.

Tip 2: Get there early, and ride with a group to conserve 30% more energy

Soon we rolled out, too, and spent the next 10 miles frantically juking our way through a slow-moving peloton of wobbly newbies and easygoing joyriders until, at last, we met up with the pack.

There are worse ways to spend a day, I thought, looking out over a Rockwellian tableau of red barns and black-dirt fields. When we rolled into the first “aid station,” a farmhouse brewery, we got not bananas and protein bars but brick-oven pizza and craft beers, including a local IPA.

Tip 3: Never skip an aid station

It was then we decided to treat this fondo like a casual, rambling buffet. We ate maple-bacon quiche, apple turnovers, and award-winning ice cream, all just as tasty as the landscape was beautiful. When we finally limped across the finish line—legs crushed but spirits soaring—we knew we hadn’t won the race, but that we’d earned every bite. Because the true beauty of a fondo is, it’s only a race if you want it to be.