I decided that if I was going to pay $250 for a race it would have to be somewhere I've never been and it had better offer things I can't get anywhere else. After some research I settled on the Gran Fondo New York. The race is part of the 2013 Prestigio Series by Cicloturismo/Bicisport in Italy. The PRESTIGIO is composed of the 10 largest and hardest Gran Fondo in Italy, such as Maratona dles Dolomites and Nove Colli. That set this race apart and I knew it would bring in some riders from Europe which would be fun to be a part of.
Additionally there was the NYC Bike Expo. This is where you must go to pick up your registration materials and goodies. They had many vendors and happy cycling people from all over the world. You sign in, get your numbers, a GFNY jersey, a bottle of wine, a cool GFNY head gear thingy (Lisa quickly commandeered it for herself), a GFNY water bottle and a really nice GFNY tool bag (tools not included). Plus all the vendor swag in the bag.
|Lisa models her stolen head band.|
In the past they allowed you to drop off a back pack at the start which they would then truck to the finish for you. Since the Boston bombing though they give you a clear plastic bag you must use, and no you can't just put your bag in the clear bag... some guy asked... what a dope.
Once David Shabat found out I was going he signed up and the plan took on new life. I decided to fly up with my wife and her mom (Ma) to make a little vacation out of it. Points for Chad! Oh yeah!
We flew into NYC on Friday morning and enjoyed our first New York City cab ride. An experience all its own. Then after checking our bags at the hotel we headed to meet David at the Expo.
Checking in at the Expo was very organized. First you walk in and find your number on a big board of papers. Then you sign in on the race board (like the pros do) and pick up your race packet. Then your jersey and the goodie bag.
|The guy before me signed his name Peter Sagan. Very funny.|
Our time in the expo was great! I was so excited for the race now that I'd seen first hand how organized and friendly everybody was. I recommend you check out the links on their site to all the vendors, many of whom you've never heard of. I think you'll be able to buy something unique that nobody else has in Georgia.
The next couple of days were filled with eating and walking and bus riding. Lots of fun seeing everything there was to see in New York City. David joined us for dinner on Friday night and on Saturday spent the day riding around NYC on his bike. Jealous is what I was. Pure jealousy.
A few observations about New York City:
It's always under construction.
Time Square is smaller than I thought it would be.
New Yorkers are not jerks they just don't sugar coat everything like we southerners do.
Walk/Don't Walk signals are a suggestion.
Everything is at retail so get that in your head before you go.
The subway is the way. Or a bike.
If you pay for a bus tour, stay on the bus for the whole tour. Hop on/Hop off is a massive waste of time because you have to wait (20+ mins for another bus). The tour is worth it because you get to see and hear about stuff you wouldn't have time to see and learn unless you are there for a week. For example; I wanted to see the Apollo Theater but didn't want to go inside. Walk or Subway to the sites you want to go inside.
As we prepared to shove off into the cold we made the most important decision we would make all day... we rode out with our rain jackets on. This one decision probably kept the Gran Fondo New York from being the number one worst experience I've ever had on a bike.
As we rode the seven miles to the bridge and that first blast of cold water and wind hit us I tried to muster some positive energy for the both of us by telling David more than once "this is the worst it will be all day". Well... I was wrong. But I really believed what I was saying. The weather man told me so before I went to bed. He said it would quit raining and warm up. Stinking weather man.
The weather never cleared. It rained all day and maybe we felt 55 degrees. If you look at the start you'll see how badly most people were dressed for the weather. Most had only a base layer, jersey and arm warmers. We all huddled on the bridge for over an hour waiting for the start. At least we were dry but the wind was howling through the bridge and everyone was wet from the ride over. After waiting 45 minutes I had to pee very badly. So did David. And there we were shivering uncontrollably with bladders on overload. I'll let you read Davids account of how the start went.
We had jackets. I was so glad we had jackets. Once the race began I started thinking of survival. My core was good but I had to remember to eat and drink. You forget to drink when it's raining. The one thing I did wrong was not switching lenses in my glasses. Actually I blame the weather man for that too. David had the same problem. But my love of the "fire" lenses ended up being more than vanity because they let the right kind of light through. David's dark lenses were not as helpful. He had to take them off a lot so the road grime was all in his eyes. Fortunately he has a doctor for a wife and she put him on some antibiotics when he got home.
The plan in a Gran Fondo is to move ahead from group to group (OK that's my plan) using the draft of each group to save energy while keeping your average speed up. I immediately started racing in this manner and hopped on a few hammer trains. We started in the 1,500-2,000 coral so there were around 4,000 racers behind us.
My tactics at the start changed somewhat during the first 25 miles. The roads in New York can be terrible. Big cracks and potholes. In a pace line you have little to no warning and I hate that some cyclists obviously see not warning you of the danger as a competitive advantage. The wheel spray is very annoying as well. So David and I made the natural decision to ride independently most of the time. With the rain and fog you had to be on high alert so we weren't able to make new friends. I began to feel so blessed that David was with me.
|Climbing Bear Mountain|
The ride up the highest climb on Bear Mountain was foggy and lonely. No pristine views. No sprightly forest animals. Just the sound of my rain soaked socks squishing inside my shoes as I mashed up the climb. It was a long climb that took around 30 minutes to complete. In North Georgia I would compare it to Neels Gap or maybe Wolf Pen from the rock pile. I found a nice easy pace and worked my way up it. I passed a lot of people and we exchanged common cycling phrases of suffering. The strange twist to this ride was that the climbs were the best part. No wheel spray and you were warm.
Once at the top I waited for David and grabbed some drink and a Powerbar and ate a PB&J bagel. It was cold and getting colder the longer we stayed so we quickly got back on the bikes and began the most bone chilling decent in the history of mankind. Okay maybe not that bad.
Before we left the top of Bear Mountain I snapped the only photo I took all day because of the rain. David wants you to know he had a mouth full of bagel and that's why he's not smiling.
|Top of Bear Mountain|
So here's the ones of the decent off Bear Mountain...
|Bear Mountain decent. Thanks to Sportograf.com|
After we made it out of the clouds the day brightened up a little. Literally there was more light, not the ride became easier because it didn't. There were still bad roads, steep climbs and the rain still fell. But at least we could see the towns and the people and every now and then we saw some great scenery. Just before this next photo was taken there were real Cheerleaders standing about mid way up the climb cheering for us. Poms poms and everything. Standing in the rain. What about that?!
Not long after this particular climb David began to fall apart. I could tell the long drive and lack of sleep was about to take it's toll on my friend.
The timing of the race ends 7 miles before the actual finish line. I hammered my head off to the last SAG where timing stopped for the race. Then I waited (only 10+ minutes) on David so we could ride in together. He was grateful that I did what I did and you'll read that in his recap below.
The ride back to the finish line was easy as pie. Because timing was over, it seemed to take all the pressure off and we rode and talked. Yet another great thing about the Gran Fondo New York was the blocked off lane on River Road. I'm sure motorists didn't like it but once we reached where it started it sure kept us safe and gave us a positive attitude.
There under the finishing arch was the relief we'd been looking for. The fan fair of a real pro race finish and a medal to take home. I wasn't about to make a finish line photo without David. He really made this race special. He drove up with my race bike and bag. He picked me up at zero dark thirty. And now, thanks to him, we had a warm truck to climb in to at the finish. My eyes are tearing up just thinking about it.
|Gran Fondo New York... Done!|
Once back in a warm truck and in dry clothes we sat there for a moment trying to figure out if the juice was worth the squeeze. We were still cold. It was still raining. I had some tingling in my toes and for the first time realized my right knee was numb.
I think we both knew that this was going to be a great time in our lives... we just needed a few days to think about it.
David stared at the steering wheel like he couldn't believe it was real. Like maybe the truck was a mirage. We were both very tired and decided to forgo any finish line festivities and go get a warm shower. I must have thanked him a hundred times for coming up there.
After a shower at my hotel room I walked with David to a cafe and we parted ways. I took the subway to meet my wife and Ma in Time Square and David sat down to eat a well deserved meal.
I walked the streets of New York until midnight by drinking caffeinated beverages and eating chocolate. To say I slept good is the understatement of the century.
The next morning before we left for home we visited the 9/11 Memorial. I don't know if the previous days effort made me overly emotional but it was an incredibly moving experience. We were all drawn a powerful picture of why this town functions like a giant family. The adversity that David and I overcame the day before was suddenly put in its place. But it was accomplished in this place. Where the ultimate example of sacrifice and teamwork was demonstrated even to people like us... in Georgia. So I think our effort fit right in in New York City. It was a great way to end our trip.
|Lisa and I at the 9/11 Memorial|
David Shabat's story of the race is an epic tale of woe. Here it is... uncut and unscensored...
Legend is what happens when you know it's going to be tough, it gets much worse than you imagined, and you survive.
Gran Legend is what happens when you not only survive a legendary day, but when 50% of the people who started, don't make it, and you finish in the top 1/4 of the toughest, most badass hardmen and hardwomen of the day.
There are several stories going on for this event. I will try to tell them all. Makes for a long, but hopefully good read.
The overarching story is about friendship.
Chapter 1 - The plan
Chad started talking about Gran Fondo New York in the early spring this year. In March, he signed up. Soon after, I realized Chad and I had raced in Georgia something like a million times, as well as once in Alabama and a few times in South Carolina. If he's going to race in New York, my home state, by golly, I am going with him. Near the end of March, I got some serious news about Chad's lovely wife, Lisa. I know there is nothing more important to Chad than family. I kept quiet, but waited for him to let me know if he would prefer to remain in Georgia, should Lisa not be cleared for travel. Lisa pulled through great and was cleared to fly, so we started making the plan.I have already replaced one bicycle from in-flight damage. Even though my Ti bike is supposedly indestructible, and has proven that it can handle my Ripley's Believe It Or Not crash last year, I didn't want to put her in a box and pray for the best. So, plan #1 is "Chad, Lisa, and Lisa's mom will fly, but I'm driving". How can I execute such a plan, while not taking off a week, or destroying myself trying to get up and down the east coast AND ride as hard as my body can push?
Chapter 2 – The Drive Up
First mistake: I left for New York on my 15th wedding anniversary. OK, Lenka and I had both discussed when I’d be going. But, sometimes we make plans, discuss the plans, and when it comes time to execute the plans, we realize we’re more human than the Vulcans we think we are. Lesson learned: no matter how rational you think you are, if you are not leaving for active duty military service and have no choice – you better be taking your wife with you, if you are going somewhere on your anniversary. The ride up was otherwise uneventful, except for the 5 seconds of terror in NJ, when I saw a semi truck rip the driver door off a road crew vehicle, when the road crew van abruptly pulled to the side of the road and swung the door open with reckless abandon.
Chapter 3 – New Jersey
After living and working in Metro Atlanta, the cities of the New Jersey shoreline across from Manhattan now feel more homey than the make believe subdivision “cities” surrounding Atlanta. The Weehawken Library is a building straight out of Harry Potter. You don’t get that kind of originality in Johns (artificial) Creek, Georgia. I had a new appreciation for the neighborhoods and downtowns in Rutherford, Lyndhurst, Weehawken, and Secaucus. I am truly sorry we desired the kind of homes we ended up with; millions of 24”-on-center cracker boxes on cul-de-sacs. The homes and businesses in these New Jersey towns have character. The people don’t seem to fear each other even if they don’t know each other. The men don’t grimace while trying to figure out if you’re looking at them… looking to start a fight or something. The women don’t demure or act incredulous if a bag brushes across their shoulder when people are entering or exiting a city bus. I felt like I could breathe, without having to buy, pay for, wire up, lock and load, and defend the property on which I could finally sit back and feel safe on. I felt like just another person. Just living. I was doing my own thing, which was getting ready for a big bike race in a few days.
Chapter 4 – Riding NYC
Since the race was not taking place in New York City, I HAD TO ride there on Saturday, to enjoy the danger, the scenery, and stretch my legs from all that sitting in the truck on the way up. I parked the truck at the Gran Fondo finish line and biked up to the GWB, across it, and BINGO, into The City. I flew down Riverside Drive with many other cyclists. I thought they were doing Gran Fondo. Nope. New York simply has TONS of cyclists. Mind. Blown. After 16 years in Georgia, I fell into the trap that New Yorkers are a bunch of non-athletes who stay inside buildings with the windows closed and the blinds drawn. No way. I met people from all 5 boroughs who were enjoying the waterfront ride on the last good day of the week.
I pulled over and texted Chad. He let me know where he and his family were going to be for a while – 8th and 47th. So, I jumped left a few avenues and headed down. WOW it was so exciting to be in a sea of taxicabs and trucks. I expected to be run over. Nope again. Mind blown. Twice. In one day. The cabs and trucks seemed to treat me like just another species of roadus travelus. We all kept decent pace and the traffic ebbed and flowed. It was amazing to be part of the road travel ecosystem of New York.
I met up with Chad, Lisa, and her mom at the specified location. It was very, very cool to be able to give an address and triangulate without GPS, car, or a helicopter mom watching over our every move. I felt young, free, and good in The City. I am no master bike handler, but I do NOT recommend riding in Manhattan streets to anyone who has any questions about their ability to handle a bike in a hot second.
Chapter 5 – The Immediate Plan
Section 1: Ride it, don’t race it. We’re only doing this once, so look around and see the place
Section 2: Where to Park
This is a funny one that we resolved easily, but with outstanding results. We were offered 4 different places to park, via the race magazine that was emailed to us from the Gran Fondo staff. We could:
a) Park in Manhattan near the starting line
b) Park in Fort Lee, NJ across the bridge from the starting line
c) Park in Lower Manhattan (near Chad’s hotel) and ride up to the starting line
d) Park in Weehawken NJ at the Ferry Terminal – at the finish line and ride up 10Km and across the GWB to the starting line
We chose d.
Why? At first it made no sense to burn over 100 calories and spend legs on a hill climb, just to get to the starting line.
When we reached the finish line and immediately had somewhere to go for shelter, changing, and securely putting up our bikes, it made all the sense in the world.
Section 3: Jacket or no jacket?
Weather was in the 50s and drizzling when we parked. The weather was supposed to move out to sea and clear up.
Answer: Packable Jacket
This was my best contribution to the day, hands down. You’ll find out why.
Chapter 6 – The night before race day
There was a wedding at my hotel on Saturday. One of the celebratory activities was to activate car alarms and car panic buttons. The noise stopped around 1 am. I had to be up at 3 am to pick up Chad from his hotel in Manhattan and be back in Weehawken to park by 0415. I got about 30 minutes of sleep; not exaggerating. Chad didn’t do much better, with about 3 hours of sleep. So much for a well-rested night before a big race.
Chapter 7 – Race Day
Part 1 - Getting There
We executed the plans. I picked Chad up right at 0345. We were in Weehawken just after 0400. GPS gave us junk, so I am glad that I had gone riding the day before and knew where the ferry terminal parking was, without GPS. We parked the truck and got our bikes, gear, and clothes together.
Back to "jacket/no jacket".
It is rare that I can offer advice to Chad. It is always the other way around, when it comes to everything from cycling techniques, to how to look like a little less of a dork while on a bike (and while off the bike, but wearing cycling stuff).
This time, "jacket" was the word of the day. And the jackets never came off.
We rode to the George Washington Bridge, nearly 10 Km away from where we parked.
Chad led the way. I got my first taste of what was to be another 80 miles of having road spray from his back tire - called "rooster tail" because of how it flies into the air - in my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, bike... you get the picture. Remember, that water is from the pavement. Yes, pee and poo and road grime and roadkill, bits of tire, metal, oil and gas, spit, spit from chaw... everywhere all over me. You now know that these "great thoughts" went through my head, before we even got to the starting line. And it's raining the whole time.
We made it up to the bridge and followed people down the spiral sidewalk and onto street level. Then we followed the mass of cyclists out the streets and in a large circle, until we got onto the on ramp to the lower level of the bridge.
Part 2 - FOFAO - Freezing Our Freaking A**es Off
Have you ever been on a huge bridge? Have you ever been on a huge bridge outside of the climate controlled protection of an automobile? After riding 10K in the rain, in 50 degree weather, with the wind howling down the lane, followed by crosswinds, and then down the lane again? OK, but have you done it while having to pee REALLY BAD?
We were cold. It was a stupid kind of cold because normal people would've had different clothes, not be on bikes, or not be there at all, since it was around 5:45 am when we got on the bridge. Chad and I found our corral - riders 1500-2000. We entered and went to the front. We were freezing as soon as we stopped moving. It got colder as we awaited a dawn that really never arrived, due to the cloud cover, rain, and wind. Sure, it got lighter outside, but under the bridge, we were freezing and the wind held us as captives on the bridge until the starting gun.
We became penguins. Yes, we huddled down on the ground, right there on the filthy, 10 zillion cars and trucks per year bridge floor. Cycling can be gritty. I never thought it would get gritty until today. For me, it was always fair weather, fancy bikes, fancy kits, and fancy fragile boys who barely outweigh small children and make bulemics sigh with envy. Today was going to be for the hardmen and hardwomen. Today was Rule #5 and Rule #9, and a bunch of other rules I can't remember. But, it was also a day to break a few rules because there were many miles when composure and looking good, or even looking halfway right, was not part of the priority list.
Part 3 - The Start
Nothing remarkable, except the sheer number of cyclists - over 5,000 cyclists on the starting line, in the rain and wind. It was like 2 Six-Gaps starting at the same time on a bridge that's a few hundred feet in the air over a huge body of swiftly moving water. So, actually, it was pretty remarkable. Chad led the way, while I silently had my first glitch... my right shoe cover was partially lodged into my cleat, making a right foot clip in nearly impossible.By the way, we had to pee since about 5:30. The race started at 7:00. We still hadn't peed.
Part 4 - Relief
We made it into Palisades Park and started riding the rollers, when, BAMMO, there were two GLORIOUS porta potties well off the beaten path. I apologized as I broke across all the lines of cyclists to get to the path up to those golden johns. Chad followed. We must've lost 7 minutes just peeing. You know, this kind of thing is stupid to put into the story, if you don't know one key piece of information: we were warned that under NO circumstances, were we allowed to go potty ANYWHERE except a porta potty (or indoor toilet). In other words, no pulling over and running into the woods.
Why is this even getting mentioned?
I am a trail racer. If I have to go, I go. I don't even look around.So, this was a big deal because I spent 15 minutes barely able to turn the cranks, for fear of my water breaking in a most unpleasant way.OK, finally, we're back on bikes and feeling like new people. It's the last time we'll stop to pee. However, I quickly fixed my shoe cover, so now I can also pedal with both feet. JOY!
Part 5 - The Real Glitch
Riding down one of the many "smooth roads" near the Jersey/Rockland County NY border, I bounced so hard out of a pothole that one of my water bottles blew out of its cage. Chad and I went another 200m before I asked, "Should I go get it?". Chad said to go get it. So I turned around and got the water bottle. On the way back, I was going at a great clip, not wanting to make Chad wait anymore. As I approach the corner where he is waiting, I start yelling "Go! Go! Go, Chad!" hoping he'll take off and my speed will carry me up to him while he's accelerating when BAM! I didn't realize there was a portable sign in the middle of the road and I smack into it head-on, knocking it back... I stayed rubber side down... until I went to negotiate the turn, while still in shock from hitting the sign and WHOOOOSH! out my rear wheel went from under me, almost like a skater pushing into a curve. Down I went. Chain dropped. Up I went within 3 seconds. Backed the front derailleur to small ring, chain back on immediately - no touching the chain. Heck YES! let that be the worst thing to happen today! And as it turns out, it WAS the worst thing to happen, thank goodness.Part 6 - Following Chad
This is where I offer a ton of gratitude to Chad for pulling me for a million miles. I went faster than I ever could've under my own power with my nose to the wind. I went even faster than I should have, period. I paid later for the speed early on. But, I am super thankful for Chad demonstrating that for 70 plus miles, I had enough to stay on his wheel, slightly out of his slipstream much of the time, trying to avoid the full force of the filthy rooster tail. Thank you, Chad! You could've raced far faster than you did, but you stuck with me when I needed to ease up, over and over. You were a very gracious advanced cyclist pulling this little engine that could. I am very grateful.
Part 7 - Falling Apart
So, we made it through Bear Mountain, and even some cuckoo straight up vertical into a ritzy subdivision right after descending Bear Mountain. But, eventually, the great pace Chad held for me all day, took me all the way to Bonksville. I am not sure if I failed to eat enough, drink enough, or it was what I thought... I simply ran out of gas in my muscles and needed to get my head back together. I never cramped. I just ran out of whatever makes my brain tell my legs to turn the cranks, and the legs respond by actually turning.
By mile 80, Chad had pulled away and was out of sight. I was relieved because finally he could go at his own pace, even if for just the last 20 miles. I was feeling like a burden and now I was not part of the equation. So, I pulled over on one of the climbs on Route 9w and ate a bag of caffeinated Jelly Belly Sport Beans, and drank 1 whole bottle of drink mix. I used my jersey to wipe some of the crap out of my eyes. I had garbage in both eyes so bad, I feared wiping them, that it would drive the junk into my corneas and scratch up my vision forever. Within another 2 minutes, I was back on bike.
Part 8 - To the Finish Line!
I got my head together and started slowly pedaling. 10.5 mph, 13.5 mph, 17.5 mph... ok, now, we're finally moving. Another series of rollers... back down to the 36x28. Then back into the big gears to get my butt to the finish line - at least to the end of the timed section (first 100 miles). I wore a cycling cap under my helmet. The cap had come down over my eyes. My helmet had moved back on my head and tilted to the side. I knew I looked like crap, but I felt like it, too, so I didn't try too hard to get things back in order. Sure, cycling is a visual sport. Today, with 90+ miles done, I was not about to care if another cyclist felt like making fun of me. In fact, I would've welcomed an excuse to get off my bike and put a beating on someone who had unkind words for me after a day like this. But, it was a mostly silent slog to the end of the timing section. Oddly, the caffeine and sugar was what I needed. I stayed in my 50 ring for the rest of the ride after 9w. I crossed the timing line in a gun time of 6:32:xx. I went straight to the final SAG to eat some more and get some flat Coca Cola.
Part 9 - The Return to the Truck
Every ride in lousy conditions will now be compared to this ride.
We made it back to the truck after crossing the official finish line, getting our medallions, and the photographs. We were freezing... I mean no feeling in hands or feet for 2 hours freezing. We peeled off what we could, put our bikes in the truck, and drove to the oasis of Chad's hotel room, where there were showers, climate control, and food.
Chad headed off to meet with Lisa and her mom. I grabbed a quick bite at a nearby restaurant and started on my journey to Albany, NY, where my buddy Matthew was waiting to drive me through the night to North Carolina, so I could sleep off this heavy day of hardmen and hardwomen. I recall nothing after the one stop we made to use restrooms, just south of Albany. THAT is the sign of an awesome buddy who says "I'd be happy to drive" and makes YOU happy he drove, too. It was a sleep like the sleep after an adventure race. After all, I had been up since Saturday morning, and it was now Sunday night...
We made it to Charlotte, I got Matthew to the airport, and drove back to Toccoa. Matthew, I can't thank you enough and I hope I get a chance to repay your good deed.
Gran Fondo New York changed me. It wasn't supposed to. It was supposed to be a fun ride with a buddy through somewhat familiar territory. Instead it was 6 hours of a crash course in HTFU and being a badass. It didn't turn me into a great racer or even a great cyclist. Gran Fondo New York taught me that here is a gritty side to cycling. You make your own magic on the bike. I don't need to lament my non-running days. There are plenty of ways to torture myself on a bicycle that have nothing to do with trying to hang on with cyclists who are out of my league - mother nature, a sadistic race director, and amazingly lousy roads for such a wealthy part of our nation can all join forces to try to break you, and you can still break into the top 25%... no small thanks to Chad, but it can be done, even by a "former" runner who owns a bicycle. Of the 7,000 plus cyclists who started this race, only 2,230 finished. Gritty.
My great grandmother used to say "one hot day doesn't make a summer" but one cold, rainy, filthy, exhausting, masochistic ride for 6 and a half hours can change you for the long term.
And there you have it.