The alarm rings at the ungodly time of 4:30 a.m., less than five hours after I had put my head down on a pillow.
Half an hour later, the hotel staff smiles at us courteously as the sound of ticking freehubs fill the lobby. The sunrise still casts a warm glow past the tall buildings but the wind sweeping through the narrow streets is anything but. “Aaaakkk!” All three of us screech, shocked by the freezing temperature of the wind gusts that leave us shivering in our lycra.
5:30 a.m. on a Sunday offers a rare New York City sight: litter catching flight in the wind, empty sidewalks and open roads. Three cyclists taking the lane. Me, a journalist, flanked by two Olympic athletes –Stacey Cook , a three-time Olympic alpine skier, and Alex Deibold, a snowboardcross athlete and bronze Olympic medallist in Sochi.
We’re headed to the George Washington Bridge about to participate in our first oficial gran fondo, and a big one at that. The Gran Fondo New York is one of 10 championships in the Gran Fondo World Series, and on the docket for the day is a 100-mile road race with 8200 feet of elevation gain.
Dating back to 1970, an Italian gran fondo is a long distance cycling event in which riders are individually timed and get to race on a course that’s either closed to traffic or in which riders have the right of way at intersections. Over the years, gran fondos have grown and become more competitive. In Italy, one can participate in a gran fondo every weekend between February and October.
Having carbo-loaded on delicious ravioli and maybe a glass or two of wine the night before and wearing Italian-made lycra (identical to the other 4997 participants), we were feeling pretty Italian already. Now, all we had to do was complete the long-distance course.
Lesson #1. It’s a race, no doubt about it.
The George Washington Bridge swayed as cars passed overhead. Below, 5000 of us were huddled together, trying to stay warm. Around us, nervous small-talk was being made in dozens of foreign languages. I would later learn that no less than 93 countries were represented that day with riders from all over the world coming to New York City to challenge themselves.
We were assigned to the very front corral with past winners, invited guests and officials. When I turned around, 4800 people are staring back at me, all champing at the bit. As an avid bike racer, I have been at my fair share of start lines but this was probably one of the more intimidating sights I have seen.
Leading up to the event, I had told myself I was riding the Gran Fondo New York “for fun”. It was a late invitation, I hadn’t prepared, I wanted to enjoy riding in a new place and, more than anything, I wanted to find out what makes gran fondos so extremely popular the world over. But who was I kidding? With 4800 people behind me, all that went out of the window at the sound of the whistle.
I had read that gran fondos can get pretty competitive but I had severely underestimated just how seriously some people take them. I would quickly learn that it was a full blown race with teams, chase groups, race tactics and a lot of emotions.
We had been standing still in the cold for at least an hour and a half, and the speed at which we tackled the first few miles was a very rude warm-up. It was just 7:15 a.m. and I hadn’t even had a warm cup of coffee yet for Pete’s sake!
My heart rate went from 50 to 190 in mere minutes as we flew across the bridge and up the first climb.
A small breakaway formed early on, accompanied by the flashing lights of a police car. A follow motorbike slotted in between the lead and chase packs, in which I found myself.
It’ll slow down, right? I thought. We are not actually going to ride like this for 100 miles?
It did not slow down.
Up the first climbs, the speed was taking its first victims, and riders were getting gassed and dropped. By now there was a solo rider off the front, followed by smaller chase groups and the rest of the thousands of riders.
The fighting for position and wheels was cut-throat, and as heart rates started to spike, so did the emotions. Barely 10 miles in, a man ahead of me lost his cool on the climb. One F-bomb after another coming out of his mouth as he announced to the group that he had flatted. No one had said a single word before that and the silence only got slightly more nervous in response to the rider’s anger.
The rider was swallowed by the mass of people behind us and one hour into the event, the field was completely shattered but the intense racing continued. It was silent except for the occasional barking of “hold your line!” and “pull through!”
No one else seemed to be there to enjoy the scenery and my selfie-snapping was met with glares.
When I spotted a woman, the first one I had seen since the racing started, I got excited and tried to ride up to her. We were all wearing the same jersey so it was hard to identify teams but she seemed to have at least two men riding in support of her. How did she convince them to do that? Mind you, aside from a De Rosa bike, some swag and bragging rights, there was no significant prize purse or honour in winning this event. But when she saw me approaching, she shouted something in Italian at the men in front of her and off they went.
I just wanted to say hi ….
Obviously, I was a bit slow in catching on that this gran fondo was serious business and not a social ride. And as I was riding along in silence, diligently taking pulls, I wondered where Alex and Stacey were. I bet that they were having a much better time. That’s when I realized I was breaking the number one rule of cycling: Cycling must be fun.
Don’t get me wrong, I love racing my bike. But this wasn’t racing. I had put myself in a weird spot where I was neither racing nor enjoying the ride. So what was I doing?
Lesson #2: Know what you want out of the event
When we reached the top of Bear Mountain I decided to let the group of aggro riders go on while I reassessed how I was going to spend the next two to three hours in the saddle.
“Go out and enjoy yourself,” I told myself. And it was hard not to when descending Bear Mountain. Tucked in, I bombed down the mountain at 74 km/h, smiling.
In the second half of the gran fondo, I stopped to take cell phone photos whenever I wanted, got a rider to actually talk to me for a bit, rode with some nice dudes, and finally got my bike fixed. Before the start, the derailleur hanger had gotten bent when it was knocked over and I had been riding with a mere four gears – Thank you NYC Velo! Crossing the finish line, I felt content. I had gotten exactly what I had wanted out of the day: a good day in the saddle.
Lesson #3: The best thing about a long-distance event is the bonding
I love the finish line atmosphere at races and events like this. People are high on endorphins and there is a companionship and camaraderie you feel with all those around you that is hard to describe. You’ve suddenly become connected by this shared experience, and therefore you feel a kinship that is unique to endurance events.
Since we didn’t ride much together I loved hearing the tales of how Stacey’s and Alex’s rides went. We all had this shared experience yet it was unique for each and every rider as well. Everyone sees, feel and experiences different things, yet the end result is the same: you conquered something unusual. In that moment, you feel so connected with someone that it doesn’t even matter whether you’ll actually stay in touch as you promise you will do. Regardless, you will forever look fondly back on these memories and the people you shared them with.
Lesson #4: The second best thing about a long-distance event is the food
You know what they say: ride to eat, eat to ride. And the guilt-free consumption after a long time in the saddle may be incentive enough to keep doing these challenges.
In keeping with the Italian theme, the Gran Fondo New York partnered with Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina for the after-ride meal. Freezing after a breezy and rain sprinkled 100 miles in the saddle, that ravioli –washed down with a not-so-Italian beer—was the bomb.
Would I do it again?