Friday, June 8, 2012

Gran Fondo New York: BIG Ride.

Sunrise from the George Washington Bridge, about 5:30 AM.  Surprisingly, it got colder on the bridge as we approached the 7 AM start.
Warning: this post might be considered EPIC.

Gran Fondos are gaining steam fast in North America. The format seems to strike the perfect balance for a heck of a lot of riders, both competitive and recreational. The foundation, as I understand it, being a Gran Fondo neophyte, is the route. Having traditionally functioned as big rides designed to showcase a given region, revolving around a bicycle themed festival in a central town or village, Gran Fondos are by definition 'place based.' Actually, from my perspective, virtually all cycling disciplines are very much place-based. I think this is the single most important aspect of the sport/practice for myself and many others alike.
A jump-shot of the organizers and the front corral of 5000 riders. 
But what am I talking about? I mean the location of cycling is not incidental, but essential. That is, the experience of cycling hinges on where it happens. A computrainer ride might be good training, but it is not a substitute for authentic cycling experience. In contrast, squash, for example, is not place-based. It just doesn't matter where a squash match occurs; courts are standardized. One could have a memorable match at the YMCA, just as well as one might have such a match on an Olympic court. The experience is contingent on one's opponent's play in relation to one's own.
The flip-side reads "Welcome to New Jersey," where we'd both start and finish.
In contrast, a memorable experience on the bike does not require opponents; one can have the finest of rides independent of others. Cycling is a rich experience, one that can open the mind to creative thought, and at times, even epiphanies. For this reason, from a intellectual or spiritual perspective, one can have special, even life altering experience while out for a ride just about anywhere. But when we focus on experiences that constitute 'great days on bikes,' we are usually talking about things that happened in great places. Unique settings serve as the rider's playground...or perhaps just as often, torture chambers.
Front row, a nice place to be.
What makes cycling so compelling is the fact that one can feel the terrain one travels in a very personal way, filling in an embodied understanding of a route that might enrich one's perspective on the battles that unfold under the PRO's wheels. But routes don't have to be raced to be meaningful, far from it. Roads and trails take us 'out there,' into areas and climes foreign to us, enhancing our comprehension of the space and places we might otherwise only ever pass our eyes across on a map...if that. Even track and criterium racing is place-based: tracks have there unique geometries, character, and histories. Some criterium courses have been raced year after year, and are imbued with corporeal and psychic traces. No two courses are alike. So even the least grand of cycling's settings are about place, locality, specificity.
The boys in blue. 
Gran Fondos are by design intended to focus on the place-based aspect of the cycling experience by presenting scenic and challenging routes to their riders. If riders come away wanting for more, the route is not right. ATMO.

The thing is, it can be daunting for the average weekend warrior to strike out alone on a Sunday morning and tackle an untried 175km route. What if I flat...thrice? Will I be able to fill up on water? Is this enough food? Will I get lost? It seems a lot of riders are up for big challenges, but find the warm embrace of the Gran Fondo the secret ingredient that gets them out there. What else could explain the 5000-plus riders out for the 2012 Gran Fondo New York?

By virtue of this event being billed a GF, not to mention the positive review of the inaugural GFNY by Ottawa legend, John Large, I was confident the route would impress. Lots of climbing, including a big one: Bear Mountain. But where would we find all this stuff? North, New Jersey and beyond, in fact. We'd start on the George Washington Bridge, just shy of the New Jersey border, roll across and right down onto what could only be described as a fast, narrow, hole-riddled, and boulder-lined road along the Hudson River. Since I'd arrived onto the bridge to line up on my assigned corral - the front one, reserved for Cat1/2 and celebrity riders - bright and early (5:15am!), I got a taste of the PRO experience, photographers a flutter, rubbing shoulders with honch Italians, former PROs, and Tim Johnson, cyclocross demi-god. Plenty of time to chat. My neighbor on the line since 5:15 rides for an Italian team out of Modena that only races Gran Fondos and chronos. 30 guys., including ex-pros. Whoa. And by 'Race,' he meant race. So did he expect this one to be less of a race? "No, its a gonna be a race." "Ok, cool."
About 2/3 of the way through the gauntlet, the first road we hit after the bridge, narrow, hole-riddled, and lined with boulders.
So these guys and I are screaming through this narrow road lined with boulders. If a rider freaks out and dodges a hole, another could take a header into a 2-tonne hunk of metamorphic rock. I'm not the nervous type, but I was apprehensive. I actually slow down. Really. Once through, things opened up, and the route continued to undulate, up, down, and side to side, as it would for almost every kilometer of the ride. That's the stuff that makes for a memorable ride.
One of the many sights along the way.
About 30k in, the lead pack was soft pedaling. This was a race, right? Well, there's a caveat. The official competition was the King and Queen of the mountain. We'd hit 4 timed climbs, and cumulative times would determine the champs. Many reading will know I am not feared as a 'climber.' Sure, when I'm fit I can get up stuff ok, but I'm not good at it. Still, that was the game, and I would play.
The question was: could some of us rouleurs get the climbers to suck some wind before the climbs and slow them down a bit? This question came to mind as I pulled the pack along the river, doing my best to first bring up the pace, then trying to get others to take up the task. Nada. Eventually a couple guys went up the road, followed minutes later by two others. After no response from the pack, I opted to bridge, none followed. Ok, we'll see whether anyone cared about 5 guys riding off. Into rollers now, we became 5, working together. But the others started to fade, and after a descent I found myself solo off the front. Far from being an OHB (original head banger) like Jackie Durand (Rodd will elaborate if you ask), I knew I hadn't a chance of riding solo for another 130k, not did I want to. But this was an opportunity to feel out a solo break and work on smooth power in the phantom aerobars. After a while the organizer, on a Moto, remarked: 'I don't know what you're doing, but you're strong.' It must have appeared as though I was trying to escape from a group that was not really chasing. "Nah, just having some fun." The plan was still to push on the climbs and try to hang with the lead group to the end. Once enveloped by the pack, it was time to relax and recover for the first KOM climb.
What beats Mavic Neutral Support? The moto crew saved my skin.
But plans are just that. The game changed at km 55, when my wheel choice gamble backfired just as I exited one of the most fun turns I've ridden on a road bike: a massive off ramp, closed to traffic, taken at speed. Talk about exciting! Rolling into a small town, my front tubular was deflating. Off to the side, arm up, the Mavic neutral wheel support Moto was only 50 meters back, following our lead pack. Ok, good, this couldn't really be a better scenario. Wheel swapped, I was in chase mode. Alone, I would not have much chance of taking the climbs fast enough. With the pack I could conserve; but I'd have I draw down my reserves to get there. It took about 5k to close the minute or so gap to the pack, taken at 40k tt pace. Settle back in, recover. KOM coming up in 5k...shit.

Steep, not too long, but long enough to scatter the pack. TIm Johnson and a bunch of little Italians attacked with fury. Off the back by the top, I knew my chase had cost me and there was no hope of contesting the KOM. Plan B: hold onto the guys who were dishing out the pain! Chase.
Ascending Bear Mountain after chasing back on post-puncture. The fast guys are up the road.
Climb l was followed by a technical descent that claimed at least one rider with a hairpin runout. Squeaking through, and working hard to get back, a smaller peloton coalesced on the approach to Bear Mountain. Over 2 hours into the ride, water was already being tapped. The food and water stop at the virtual base of the climb was clearly out of question for the guys barging up the hill; we'd have to wait until the next one. Away they went, lashing out against L'Ourson, whose 7.5k ascent averaged 7.5% in grade, with ramps above 12%. I kept it cool, still recovering, happy to get up at a decent pace and keep riding strong. Once I saw riders descending on the opposite lane I realized we'd swing around up top; would riders pause at the rest stop? Nope. The descent was long enough for me to regain contact with Tim Johnson and company by the bottom, and only one or two pulled over. The next stop had better not be tooooo far...
....and back down after a 180 up top. The descent allowed me to regain contact.
The pack was much smaller now, perhaps 30. Only a small group of us were pulling through, indicating riders were ailing. On the third climb a couple Italian comrades were out of water and suffering. Down to a couple sips left, things were approaching desperate for me too. Johnson, who I'd only dreamed of hanging onto, was off. Only a few guys remained ahead of us since our descent off the Bear's back, or so it seemed. We pulled into a feed stop, regrouped with the guys who seemed to be leading the KOM, and rolled out as Johnson rolled in, offering a word of encouragement. Nice.
Steep ascent up the final times climb through a neighborhood of new mansions....
...complete with cheerleaders.
Working together, a small handful of us reeled in a group of riders who'd skipped the stop. Further up the road, riders fell off as others were caught. the fourth KOM was a steep neighborhood that went on for considerably longer than any of us thought it would, so it seemed. Again, I was dropped, but my tempered pace allowed my to catch back on with the guys who were not gassed to continue on through the final 60k. Just before the final food stop we regained contact with my Italian friend, and rolled out together to ride the final leg. Four would persevere, catching a solo rider working with a renegade on a CX bike and fat tires. It was unclear whether they were buddies, or strangers. Our fellow, an Irishman in green, had tonnes of pep left, charging the hills while the rest of us kept the pace up but steady. The relentless climbing eventual dispatched our interloper, and we were down to 5. At this point, it was clear that everyone wanted to finish strong, but nobody was shirking work. But with about 30k to go, we retraced our tracks onto the boulder lined road we'd headed out on. Beginning with a descent, riders were everywhere: medio fondo riders, recreational riders, and cars too. I let the wheels run and made it through the gauntlet virtually unscathed, but it was gnarly. Looking back, my companions were gone, so I opted to once again pretend I was racing for real, and kept the pressure on with about 28k to go. Long, but worth putting in a good effort. To my surprise, a rider appeared on my wheel with about 25k to go, one whom I had not seen since the first KOM climb. Having though I was alone, I could only surmise that he had to be a helluva climber for a big guy. I figured we might wind up together until the end. However, the final stretch of the route traveled a busy urban road through New Jersey, where the big guy dropped back. So it was, I rolled into the finish area along the river, perhaps the first 177k finisher, perhaps not. Regardless, I loved the route and was totally content with my ride, the first day all season that I actually felt good and able to work hard all day. Such days are truly beautiful, and it's these that motivate us to struggle through the winter and spring, of only to experience a ride where everything comes together. That satisfaction does not require everything transpire perfectly; rather, it is a feeling that comes from a sense of rightness about how we handle challenges along the way. Some might call such a ride 'epic'....
Always a welcome sight. Late in the ride the terrain was twisty and rolly, a real pleasure to ride...
...with these guys. The gent in white shorts was a great climber, probably still is.
The big apple backdrops the finish.
From both angles!
Beyond the astounding organization of the GF, the great route, and the scores of police officers and volunteers that made the event possible, the other thing that really stood out was the glut of friendly, interesting people in attendance. 60 nations were represented. 60! Over 5000 people rode! Of these, I met and spoke with a fraction, but all were a treat to chat with. Italians seemed to abound at the head of the race. Germans were everywhere at the finish. Medio Fondo riders were the most inspiring, though. Over then final stretches of climbs these riders took on, I saw numerous riders walking their bikes. Perhaps many were in over their heads, but they were plodding on. They didn't stay home because they weren't sure they could do it. They came out, tried, and persevered. Talk about spirit.

The gorgeous weather and good (enough) sensations I experienced translated into a great day on the bike. Epic? No, not for me. But surely it was an epic day for many out on the roads; the necessary conditions were all in place. Next time I ride the event I'd love to share the experience with my friends and team-mates. I'm sure nobody will be left wanting for more. 


Chris said...

I do like larger group rides but gran fondos can be a bit much for me, especially around NYC. So many people riding so close together, kind of makes it hard to even ride sometimes.

Pascii said...

Great post Matt. Inspiring to say the least. Good luck at the Rapha Gentle-person's race!!

Eric said...

Nice post - this really captured the spirit of GFNY. I rode the 'race' as well - though ended up much further back in the pack!

But the route was beautiful and challenging and the ride organizers did an amazing job with 5000 riders.

Anonymous said...

Great story that captures much of the essence of Gran Fondo NY - thanks for writing.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your experience riding the GF. This is the 1st year my children and I volunteered to help distribute registration material and and the bags. We loved meeting people from all over the world. We will be back next year to help out.

Heidi Broecking said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heidi Broecking said...

Many thanks for sharing your experience. It was an epic day for all in one way or another.