By Warren St. John
A few years ago I was near Lake Como in Italy preparing to ride several of the epic climbs of the Giro di Lombardia. I was especially looking forward to grinding my way up the legendary climb to the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo – a small church full of bikes that a pope blessed as a shrine to cyclists. I envisioned my arrival at the top of the Ghisallo in religious terms. I was ready to be touched by the spirits of Coppi and Bartali, to light a candle in honor of riders past, and to be cosmically realized as a cyclist.
Before setting out from across the lake that morning, I met a local cyclist I knew to confer about my route.
“Don’t do that stupid Ghisallo,” he snarled, mumbling something about motorcycle traffic. “It’s shit.”
I thought about that moment, and my crestfallen reaction, as I sat with roughly 4999 other riders on the George Washington Bridge just after dawn on Sunday, at the start of the Gran Fondo New York. The sun was rising over the shining spires of Manhattan, and below us, a south-bound tug was unzipping the calm waters of the mighty Hudson. Judging from the cacophony of accents around me, folks had come a very long way to ride the roads we’ve all grown tired of. They were excited, and I wasn’t about to reprise my experience from Como by letting on that a spin up 9W was a New Yorker’s equivalent of a Computrainer ride in a windowless basement. After all, one cyclist’s Bear Mountain is another’s La Montagna Dell’Orso, which, you have to admit, sounds a lot more romantic.
I was a somewhat reluctant Gran Fondee. I’d committed to ride as part of the Transportation Alternatives team (yes, there is a team competition in GFNY), which a) got me up front in the “racers corral,” and b) meant I didn’t have to pay the $250 entry fee. (More on the value proposition of GFNY in a moment.) As the day approached, a number of factors weighed on my enthusiasm. A 110-mile ride didn’t exactly fit into my super-scientific training plan. I was afraid of getting crashed out in the mayhem of ten thousand bicycle wheels (rightly so – more on that in a moment also). I had to wake up at 4:30am, the day after waking up at 4:30am for a park race. And yes, I’ll admit it: as a (little b, little s) bike snob, I felt that a gran fondo might be beneath me, so much so that I’d kept silent about my GFNY plans to most of my teammates.
It didn’t take long though for things to turn around. Maybe it was the music blaring from speakers set on the lower deck of the GWB. Maybe it was seeing so many bleary-eyed friends ready to roll, all of them decked out in matching GFNY jerseys. Perhaps it was the inspiring and slightly terrifying sight of a GWB’s-worth of cyclists clipping in, or the absolutely perfect weather, seventy degrees and cloudless. But pretty soon I was as chipper as the guy next to me, who, by the way, turned out to be former cyclocross national champ Tim Johnson (thank you commenter)– a very amiable Bostonian who was as excited about the route as any European, though a tad anxious about New York’s world-famous potholes. (I assured him most of those were within the actual city limits.) As the sun rose, the national anthem was sung by an actual human being who could actually sing, giving the whole scene an air of officialdom. And then we were off. By this point I’d totally bought in. After all, when you’re sitting at the front of 5000 anxious bike riders, there is only one thing to do: pedal like hell.
A gran fondo has an impossible task: it wants to be all things to all kinds of riders. There are folks at the front who want to race, and folks at the back who just hope to finish. In between, and not necessarily in any particular order, you’ll find pretty much every kind of cyclist there is – including a guy whose rear fender was affixed with a live, begoggled Chihuahua. There were riders with hairy legs, and riders (mostly Italian) with pornographically lubed hairless legs. There were road bikes, and yes, for drama’s sake, there were TT bikes. In a gran fondo, it takes all types.
GFNY’s solution to making everyone happy is a format that is part race, part ride, part multi-stage time trial, part party. The main event is the gran fondo itself, a 110-mile course (the less masochistic can opt for a 60-mile medio fondo) which is punctuated by four timed climbs, tracked by bike-mounted timing chips. If you care about seeing your name up on 8 ½ x 11 at the end of the race, you’re welcome to destroy yourself on the climbs. Overall placement is determined by your total for the four timed sections. If you’re focused on finishing or just riding with your friends, you can ignore the menacing beeps that indicate the start of a timed section and pedal at your own pace.
Racers face a choice. Do you go easy on the untimed sections, saving your energy for the climbs -- a strategy that will put in you in the wind by yourself for much of the day, since most racers will roll on? Or do you try to hang with the lead group, benefitting from the draft of the faster riders while risking that your legs will be shredded by the time you get to the timed sections? I chose the latter strategy, not necessarily by design. After a harrowing trip in the pack down River Road and up Alpine, I looked back and saw empty road. A few hundred riders had vanished, Bermuda Triangle-style. A strange sort of panic set in. I felt like a character in a Left Behind novel facing a choice with eternal implications. Did I want to ascend in glory, or languish in the nether regions? For the sake of the plot, I hit it and fought my way onto the tete de la course, where I remained for the next thirty or so miles.
And that’s where things really got weird. As the peloton passed – very quickly -- through the riverside hamlets of Piermont, Nyack and Haverstraw, police officers, including one who had recently stopped me for running a red light in Piermont, were stopping cars at intersections and waving cyclists through. They were looking out for us. They were even smiling and saying things like, “Have a good ride folks.” It was eerie. Maybe we were in a Left Behind novel after all – for a New York City cyclist, blowing through Piermont and Nyack without slowing was a kind of rapture. The first time I had to stop at an intersection on the GFNY was at roughly mile 75, and that was only a toe-touch because the smiling policeman had just waved through another bunch of enraptured riders. GFNY promoter Uli Fluhme has said he would spend around $500,000 for local permits and road closures. I don’t know about the business wisdom of that expenditure, but from a purely cycling point of view, it was money gloriously spent. It’s one thing to ride to La Montagna dell’Orso and back; it’s quite another to do it uninterrupted. We may have been riding in the New York metropolitan area, but we were rolling like Nebraskans.
Alas, on the climb of the Mountain of Bear, I encountered the bogeyman of gran fondi and bike races alike: crashiness. Two riders in front of me touched wheels on a flat section where the speed had kicked up. Through some puzzle of physics that still confounds me, the second rider flew sideways as if shot from a cannon – right into my escape route. I went down, landing inartfully on my butt. I untangled myself from the other rider’s bike, checked my own -- and more importantly, my new Castelli team bibs – for damage. Good news on all fronts, and rears. I was back in the saddle in less than a minute. And here I experienced another difference between races and gran fondos. As I was pedaling away, the rider who crashed into me called out in what I believe was a German accent: “Ahm sorry!”
By now, I’d fully drunk the Powerade of fondo-ing, because I reflexively responded, “No worries.”
I lost contact with the leaders, but the cool thing about a fondo is: it didn’t matter. All I had to do was crush it on the timed sections, and I stood a decent chance of hanging in for glory on the leader board back in Weehawken. Realizing this, I stopped at the bottom of the (untimed) Perkins descent to top off my water, eat fourteen bananas and to wait for riders I knew, to have some company for the remaining 50 or so miles.
Somewhere along the way, I began to appreciate all the work that had gone into Gran Fondo New York. The route was well conceived, and I even found myself on several unfamiliar roads and on two climbs I’d never ridden before. There were lots of banners, flags and distance markers to reassure you that you hadn't actually taken a wrong turn somewhere back in Haverstraw. There was on-the-road support from the yellow Mavic motorcycle with the cool wheel rack on the back. Rest stops were ready with bike mechanics, race racks, oceans of sports drinks, a plantation’s worth of bananas, palettes of Power Bars, and mountains of bagels, ready-smeared with peanut butter and jelly. Water tanks the size of Volkswagens had been trucked in on flat-beds to each stop. Apparently 5000 bike riders drink a lot of water, which the GFNY team anticipated. Then there were all those municipal governments and police departments cheering us on. There were even random citizens cheering us on too – with GFNY thundersticks, no less. Did GFNY rent strangers just to add to the experience? Who knows? I never saw Deiter Senft, the famed ‘devil guy’ from the Tour de France, but maybe he was hiding out in one of the seemingly hundreds of port-o-lets GFNY had rented when I passed.
There’s been some grumbling from the New York racing scene about the cost ($250), which is certainly a lot of money to ride on roads you might be riding anyway for free. To many – if not most – of the riders, though, that $250 is a drop in the bucket against the airfares, hotels bills and the costs of a weekend in New York City. Many probably paid more than that just to ship their bikes. But whatever your economic frame of reference, you get a lot for your money. GFNY plies participants with all sorts of goodies: a race weekend-quality tote bag, a bottle of red wine, surprisingly stylish Giordana jerseys (which act like wrist-bands at Club Med – they entitle you to all sorts of stuff along the way without requiring you to reach for your wallet). Winners of the overall KOM and QOM got new Pinarello Dogmas. GFNY ended with a kind of party on the Hudson River, with a post-ride meal of penne pomodoro, yogurt and drinks, along with a bike shop's worth of free helmets, shoes and gear, handed out in a raffle-by-race-number. To get back to the city, you just hopped on a chartered ferry with your bike and your magical jersey and you were good to go.
It all amounts to a pretty impressive logistical heave – pulled off with élan by GFNY founders and spouses Uli and Lidia Fluhme. In year two, GFNY was better run than many, if not most, long-established local bike races. (Because the last timed climb was at mile 67, GFNY managed to post results before riders even reached the finish line.) The event also managed to get together the full array of New York cyclists, from the hardcores to casual riders – folks who may not be able to hold a line, but who prop up the bottom lines of local bike shops and who are racers’ allies in the push for better cycling infrastructure and police policies toward cyclists.
So is GFNY worth $250? That’s an individual decision. For one thing, early registration for 2013 is $190. Either way, for what you get, it’s literally a bargain: the total take for GFNY fees doesn’t cover the huge logistical costs of the event. Sponsors are needed to make up the difference and to get GFNY into the black. Fortunately, there seem to be a lot of them.
In the end I finished 40th out of the 2361 riders who completed the 110-mile format – not bad considering I lost a minute or so to my crash. (Just as with conventional races, gran fondoing is an excuse-friendly format.) Team Transportation Alternatives finished 2nd overall, so take that, other teams – whoever you were. Next year, I plan to re-fondo, with an eye toward cracking the top ten, or winning my age group, or maybe just riding and stopping for PB&J bagels every 25 miles – depending on my fitness. I'll happily pay retail. In the meantime, I’ll be out training on the hallowed shoulders of 9W with a bit of renewed appreciation. GFNY was a useful reminder that, as with an ascent up the Ghisallo or any other ride for that matter, a spin up 9W is what you make of it.
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