Gran Fondo New York Gr8 event finished 13th
Getting to KM 0
I flew down from Toronto to Newark on Saturday May 14th in time to complete registration and replace a front tyre, with help from the crew at Hudson Bikes, that somehow had a bulge after inflating it following the flight.
On race morning, I rode the 7kms to the start on the George Washington bridge from my hotel in Edgewater New Jersey to make the 6:15am cut-off time to get into the start corrals. Entering the lower level of the bridge from the NJ side means riding all the way to the back of the corrals and then crossing over into the NJ bound lanes and then making my way up to my corral.
I thought I was in decent shape with a start my number of 488 and over 6000 riders signed up to take part figuring that I would be in the second corral of 250-499. There have been a few changes since the 2013 edition (when I lost took part) including the start corrals, my corral was 400-599 and I was right at the back.
It was foggy and felt cooler than 15 Celsius which must be attributed to being on the bridge. I now had to wait 45 minutes for the start. It took me about 20 minutes before I started shivering as I had taken off my jacket at the bag drop before riding onto the bridge. Many clever participants had brought garbage bags or emergency blankets to wrap themselves in to help keep their core temperatures from dropping too low. The bonus part of being at the back of my corral was having some space in front of the corral behind me which I took advantage of by riding around in small circles very slowly working on balance which helped to warm me back up.
The race started on time at 7am. It took about a minute from the start for our groups wheels to start rolling which is an agonizing long time as the fastest riders sped off unimpeded in front of me. The road was nice and wide leaving the bridge with some gradual ascending which provided for ample opportunity to weave through riders who started in front of me but were unable to keep pace.
The Start to the Alpine Hill
Getting up to the lead group took one heck of a concerted effort which lasted 27 minutes and covered 17 kilometers from the GW bridge all the way until mid-way up the Alpine Hill climb. During that effort I registered in the top ten of four Strava KOM segments. I don’t think that anyone who started behind me was able to make it into the lead group but who knows.
During the 7-minute Alpine Hill climb I moved through some riders getting distance from the lead group and crested the top in a group of about 60 riders. I was thinking that I would chill at the back for a while to recover. I would then save my next effort for the Bear Mtn climb that started at around km 65 and was the decisive point of the race when I took part back in 2013.
Alpine Hill to Bear Mountain
Three riders rode off the front at this point just after the top of the Alpine Hill and I was in no position to respond so I waited in the pack and followed wheels. To my dismay and surprise nothing happened, no one chased, and our group swelled to 100 as riders caught back. With a slower pace conversation amongst the riders always starts up as no one is gasping for breath. It was cool to hear that the two languages being spoken in the peloton were Spanish and Italian. I tried to make conversation with a couple of Italian riders around me in English but only got confused look in response. I clearly need to learn some Italian and Spanish.
The three riders in the break built up a five minute lead by the time they reached Bear Mountain.
A few minutes later another three riders rolled off the front one by one. It was clear this main group was unwilling to chase or keep a decent tempo. This format of Fondo riding often favours the brave as team tactics are diminished. I was now rested enough to respond and decided to ditch my initial strategy of waiting (no surprise to most who know me). I moved up on the right-side shoulder of the road and jumped across to the next rider who attacked. I then kept up a high-pace and took over the lead which is a necessary move in making a break work.
The next 20 minutes were extremely active with riders lined out single file and pedaling with purpose. The three escapees in group two were caught by a few of us working hard together. A new group of eight chasers broke free which I was a part of. Despite our best efforts we were caught by a now motivated peloton. Riders continued to get dropped and rejoin as we rode in a herky-jerky manner all the way up to the base of the Bear Mountain climb.
My read of the situation from the top of the Alpine climb to the base of Bear Mountain was not great. I underestimated the quality of the riders in the lead peloton of 100. I paid for this misread by spending a lot of energy when I could have waited and then followed wheels, but really that is not how I like to ride. When a race is up the road and riders look at one another I would rather anti-up even if it means finishing further back in the end.
Bear Mountain and back to Fort Lee
I did what I could to hold onto the lead group as the pace bit into most of us. Three riders flexed their climbing legs and gapped the rest. The best of the rest of us pushed the pace in hopes of keeping pace. I did not have what it took to stay with them and fell out the back about half-way up. Right before I was dropped all I was hoping for was some other riders to crack as well so I could have group to work with. As it turned out I was probably the last rider who got dropped from the lead group.
I settled into a pace I could maintain for the second half of the climb losing a minute to the lead group of twenty riders and five minutes to the three riders from the original break. The riders descending come back down the same road, so it was a great opportunity to assess the gaps on the road. I was alone but not for long as three other riders crested just after me and we joined forces at the bottom of the decent.
Our group of four was made up of two Columbians and one guy wearing a GFNY Columbia jersey and myself. One guy in our group was steady and good especially on any climb (Julian Mejia Calderon), the second guy took good pulls especially when there was a carrot of another rider coming back to us from the group of 20. The third guy only went to the front on descents and seemed fearless with good knowledge of the roads.
In situations like this I try to model myself after how I witnessed former pro Canadian cyclist Svein Tuft ride at the Canadian Nationals; do what you can when you can, don’t ask for help, don’t game anything as you are chasing.
We reeled in and then dropped several riders over the next hour which was great for our morale.
We then spotted a small group of riders up in the distance which was really one group of two way up the road and another group of three 500 meters ahead. The two Columbians and I took some hard turns as we steadily reduced the gap to the three riders. Just before we caught them some words were spoken in Spanish and the Columbian climber from our group (Calderon) pushed the pace to make the catch and then pushed on past the group. I took over right where he left off and gapped the group.
I kept a high tempo which was needed to catch the two riders up ahead Daniel Hernandez and Nick Wheatley-Schaller. This effort took a lot out of me as these guys were moving at a decent clip. The three of us then pushed on together until the top of the Alpine hill where Hernandez proceeded to descend with skill and speed which distanced Wheatley-Schaller.
Over the next 12kms Hernandez and I pushed the pace. We were able to catch two more riders as we got off the parkway and then started the 1.5km climb to the finish. Daniel took the lead on the steepest first part and then Medici Mathias attacked with 500 meters to go and again with 150 meters remaining. I was able to sprint past Mathias but so was Daniel who around me and across the line just ahead of me to take 12th place overall.
Daniel and I become fast friends after the finish. When our names were mentioned by the announcer Daniel turned to me and told me that he knew me from Zwift where we had competed many times. He explained that many of the people he rides with thought I wasn’t real but here I was. He captured this moment on a camera that he had in his pocket. Daniel called over a bunch of his Columbian friends including Calderon once they had crossed the line to share the moment with. It was nice to be able to connect with cyclists from so far away after spending some much time riding virtually as avatars. Connect with the riders I had worked with during the race for those brief moments at the finish line was the highlight of my trip.
I rode back to hotel so as not to miss my late check out and grab a shower. I then rode back to the post-race celebrations in Fort Lee. By the time I got back their thousands of participants had finished. They were filling up the expo area enjoying the now sunny weather and recounting their experiences with friend about the amazing event. The line to get post-race food was an hour long but no-one seemed to mind too much as all were awaiting the awards ceremony and exhausted from the early rise and intense effort. I ran out of time and had to leave before getting to the front of the food line or awards to catch my flight. Before I left, I made sure to tracking down half of the mastermind team behind this event Uli Fluhme.
I found Uli amongst all the people but away from the crowds texting with his team. I wanted to make sure to thank him for helping to keep road cycling alive here in North America. What the GFNY has developed into in 2022 is remarkable especially when considering a two-tear hiatus due to COVID-19. The location of registration, the exposition, and the finish line are a big improvement from what was in place back in 2013. The signage on the course was clearly marked which was no small feat with so many twists and turns. I was able to focus on the race without ever having to worry about the traffic which is also an amazing feat so close to New York City with over 162 kilometers of roads and hundreds of intersections. The level of competition is so much higher this year which is demonstrated by how many Strava KOMs were registered. The everyday heroes of the cycling world came together at the GFNY on May 15th, and I got to be part of it. Thank you Uli.
I am already thinking about how to improve my 13th place next time and to be certain it starts with getting myself into the front start corral. This requires a commitment from me to take part and do well in one of the qualifier events which I plan to do in Rockford Illinois on August 6th.