Gran Fondo NY 2012: I Know It When I See It
My choice for doing GFNY was heavy on novelty, light on challenge. No idea what to expect, would it seem like a race, a group ride, a tour, an ‘athon? There was the challenge component to it. Of course, doing well is something, and winning would be nice, but it wasn’t a reason for participating.
Looking at the numbers, it seems that novelty and tourism were high on the list of reasons to come. According to the promoter, there were 5,000 registered riders. Of that, 20% were from outside the United States, and 50% of the foreigners, or 10% of the total, were from Italy. Of the remaining 4,000 riders, about 2,000 were locals and the remaining 2,000 were from outside the NY-Metro area.
Indeed, getting to the start demonstrated the importance of tourism and novelty. To get to the start line, participants rode onto the highway access ramps to the George Washington Bridge, part of Interstate 95. Many riders stopped to capture cyclists riding on the ramps. The payoff was standing still on the bridge; looking south you see Manhattan’s skyline beginning to shimmer, looking north you see the beginning of the Hudson Valley through a gauzy fog.
When the Fondo started at 6:59am, it was suddenly a race. Speeding off the bridge was great, but hitting the first park road along the Hudson, eight miles of hills, curves, and potholes, perched between a cliff wall and a stone wall, with a pack of people who didn’t know where they were going reminded me to back off. If I had some external confidence, like licensing requirements, I think I would have been more comfortable riding along. I saw someone execute a cyclocross dismount while his rear rim was riding on a completely flat tire. Hearing people go into the red on the first five-minute hill told me to back off, climb comfortably and create my own group rather than fighting for wheels on a pockmarked road when overall time didn’t count. I let what seemed to be a big group go over the hill and hoped to form another.
Got a small group, of sufficiently friendly folk, and continued at a good, but conversational pace. Met some folks but still able to roll nicely and enjoy the views. Passed through the towns of Hudson towns Piermont and Nyack with police letting cyclists pass through the intersections without stopping. Completed the first hour at around 21mph. The group grew from behind to be huge. Eventually, we came to the first timed climb, 35 miles in, right after a rest stop, where many pulled off. The Passo Del Daino as it was dubbed by the organizers, Buckberg Mountain to the locals. It was steep enough that drafting wasn’t an issue. I figured it was roughly a five-minute hill and I gave my best five-minute effort, yo-yoing with another rider much of the way up. I took him in the final 30 seconds.
The effort led me away from the group I had been in. Then the route quickly turned onto a narrow, somewhat technical descent I knew well. Loving the curves, I bridged up to another group, something I wanted for the Montagna dell’Orso (Bear Mountain) climb; it’s shallow enough for most of the length that drafting can help. But my new companions, too, thought drilling it over a non-timed climb was the smart play. I let them go and did Bear on my own. Strikingly, the timed climb began right after another rest stop. At least this one I’d be able to visit on the way back.
For Bear, the drill was ride the four miles at my limit and then ease all the way back down, and noodle to the next appointment. I passed a few of my former companions on the way up, and only a minute or so over my goal time for the hill. It’s a climb where the end takes forever to get to, but you’re at the top before you know it. Easing down the first few miles of Bear was a bummer; the dead-end road can be good for at least the mid-40s mph and was paved relatively recently, but the fear of hitting an ascending cyclist was too great. After leaving the access road and railing the open road descent past the second rest stop, another group came from behind to join me on the next ascent. This gang was none too friendly. Arguments ensued over small things like gear selection; some definitely saw this as a 110-mile race. Why they needed to argue about what kind of cadence was appropriate was beyond me. These guys were too angry to be around. Fun, this group wasn’t, so when they attacked the next untimed climb, I let them go.
Cimb three, the Colle Andrea Pinarello, was shallow enough and long enough that drafting mattered. I started it alone, and couldn’t find a rhythm. Three guys passed me on the way up. It felt like a climb too far.
There was a promise of well-stocked rest areas throughout the ride. I finally stopped at one two miles before the final timed climb. It was devoid of riders and well-stocked. A cup of Coke, a gel, some Gator and I was off again. Didn’t want to be weighed down for the climb.
On the last timed climb, Colle Formaggio, on the only roads of the day I didn’t already know—a neighborhood of McMansions built during the housing boom, an odd sight in the New York region, and weird to ride through a treeless landscape after being in the woods all day–I caught a rider at the summit and we started chatting. First person I chatted up in 68 miles. 42 miles to go and nothing left to do other than roll in.
His story was rather different. My partner of the moment had been recruited to help someone do well at the event. He and, I believe, two other guys were supposed to pace their leader through the fondo, but the leader was too antsy and had them drilling the pace so hard that one rider dropped the others and didn’t realize it. The others stayed back, but without their third rider, the other two blew up, and their leader forged ahead. As we were chatting about eats, that temporary teammate who had ridden ahead caught us from behind: he had waited at a rest stop and the group passed him without him awares. He was feeling good and had an itch to chase down the leader to help him through the rest of the ride.
My partner told him that the leader was at least five minutes ahead. The guy ramped up the pace and I decided to go with, and within five or six miles, we saw his leader. He asked that I ride to the front, keep the pace high and stay away from the back, “because it’s going to be ugly.” I recognized the leader. He was a foul-tempered guy I had been with on the road from Bear Mountain and let him go rather than dealing with his anger.
I respected my new partner’s wishes, dutifully rolled to the front of the new group, just as his leader accelerated. He eventually fell back, and I kept the pace high. After a minute or two, the berating began, “Oh, the Judas!” and it went on for some time. Thankfully, it was right before the last rest area. I peeled off as they went ahead.
At the stop, I saw a riding acquaintance, asked him to wait for me to fill up my bottles. He declined; something was moving him to get going rather than waiting a minute. But as I was filling my bottles, another riding acquaintance asked the same of me. I complied. We finished up together.
We rolled south on roads we had raced north earlier in the day. At the end of these quiet roads, we were led onto a busy street, the only road that leads to the finish, and we sped up as we battled cars for position over the final miles, an anti-climatic way to end the Fondo.
At the finish in Weehawken, there was a chicane to slow everyone down, and the circuitous finish also made it possible for riders to get a finish-line pic with the New York City skyline in the background. Folks were also waiting at the finish to bestow medals upon the finishers, and give them a traditional Italian finish line kiss. The last one turned out not to be part of the official package; an old acquaintance, an Italian journalist who was covering the event for an Italian paper, was there.
The finish area was a repurposed parking lot. Windy and somewhat desolate, with a big tent and a stage set up for a party, but as an early finisher, few were there. I only wanted to eat and go, but with the promise of prizes, and the time needed to find and scarf a meal, it made sense to stick around to see how the scene built up as the afternoon went on.
It was a ride. It was a day. It would not have been the same as riding alone, or with a gaggle of friends. I don’t know if I should have done it, but I was glad to have. This year? The entry fee makes me feel as if I should try other such events, on roads I know less well. I can still ride these roads with friends and Strava the climbs.
In retrospect, I had done myself wrong. The “competition” aspect of it led me to not follow my bliss of just hammering the Fondo until I could hammer no more. Crazy as I didn’t win anything and many of the fastest finishers where from out of the country. Dumb.
This GFNY gained some accidental notoriety in the month following the event. Two riders from the day were busted for doping. Two positives out of ten tests. One was a New York City rider who seemed to be an up and comer, and the other was an Italian in town for the Fondo. That the organizers decided to have drug testing will forever keep GFNY in my good graces. Some scoffed at the thought that people would dope for a gran fondo, but it demonstrates that the event is real racing. In contrast, the real racing at Battenkill was not subject to any drug testing.
As regulated group rides go, it was a decent time. If I had treated it the way I imagined a Gran Fondo should be run, I would have had a great time.