This is a co-written piece with fellow Ambador Melissa Grieco about our ride of the Gran Fondo New York.
The saddle time required for successful endurance training can become hard to fulfill after several back-to-back seasons of racing long. Finding safe routes to ride and keeping it fresh and mentally engaging has become a challenge for me after eight consecutive seasons of racing Ironman. For that reason, my husband John—who is my fellow IM co-conspirator—and I look for different options and creative venues to get in some long rides before a 140.6 arrives on the calendar. This year we both signed up for the Gran Fondo New York as a fun and sag-supported venue in which to complete our first long training ride of the season. We rode in this particular event in 2015 and it was one of the most challenging rides I’ve undertaken thus far in my cycling career!
Gran Fondo means “big ride” in Italian and entails a long-distance road cycling event during which a mass of cyclists complete a demarcated route. Fondos have been popular in Europe for decades and are fast gaining traction in North America and beyond. In international cycling circles, the Gran Fondo is considered the marathon of rides. Now in its eighth year, Gran Fondo New York is a globally renowned cycling extravaganza that draws over 7,000 riders from across the world. One of the main attractions of the event is that the entire lower level of the George Washington Bridge is shut down to traffic and becomes the staging area for the starting point of the ride. It’s a totally unique experience to be straddling one’s bike bright and early on a Sunday morning in mid-May surrounded by a sea of neon green jerseys while overlooking the sides of the GW bridge out across the Hudson River and Palisades.
The idea of not having a looming endurance challenge ahead has become a basic unacceptability on my schedule. With Ironman #2 in the too-near forecast, I started seeking out the next challenges. I was inspired to sign up for the Gran Fondo NY ride after seeing a friend’s post about how awful (as in, difficult) it was. I have a weakness for personal challenges, and 8000 feet of elevation gain over a 100-mile ride is something I can’t get at home in flat Chicago. I wasn’t sure how you could get that in New York City, either; intrigued, I recruited a few friends for the mission.
Planning the Fondo-cation
Coming off a late-season Ironman, my friend and cycling/triathlon teammate Sam and I didn’t put a ton of thought into our preparation. In the months leading up, we did our first criteriums and I was fresh off a marathon. For something we decided to do a year in advance, the week really snuck up on us. A last-minute car rental and secondhand hotel reservation later, we found ourselves at a random, cool restaurant in Du Bois, Pennsylvania. As a vegetarian, I’ve grown accustomed to eating veggie burgers anytime I’m traveling, and a Yelp search for such brought us to a surprisingly great find. Eight hours into our adventure, I told the bartender we only had a couple hours left. She and Sam both laughed…NYC is still four hours away, they told me. I could have cried at the thought of spending any more time in the car but was assured Pennsylvania was much prettier than what we’d just driven through. But when we rolled up to what seemed like maybe a hotel, thoroughly disguised as a late night karaoke lounge at midnight in New Jersey, I did sort of question how two Ironman triathletes had been so “Type B” about planning a pretty epic road trip.
This year John and I decided to extend the event into a mini-weekend staycation. I booked us into The Quin – one of the GFNY host hotels that happened to be located only a couple of blocks away from my old Manhattan studio apartment on West 57th Street. Staying in the same neighborhood brought back some fun memories from my early thirties when I was still living and working in the city. John currently works in mid-town so it was a short Friday night commute from his office to the hotel. We made it to registration that evening to pick up our race packets which famously include a bottle of Italian Gran Fondo branded red wine and then enjoyed a delicious meal at a farm-to-table restaurant located on the west side.
So while we didn’t do a ton of research about the process of getting to NY, we did watch a cool course video by GFNY and knew we were in for a very cool treat. The views as vibrant as the electric-green race uniform (GFNY kit), the climbs long and…longer. For as little we knew about our real-world destination, we knew exactly what miles we’d find cake on the ride. But we also knew we had to venture into Manhattan for check-in and packet pickup.
I had a minimal list of NYC must-do’s: find the $1 pizza slices, and go on a bucket-list Central Park run with fellow Ambador teammate Melissa. One of my favorite things about our sports (cycling, running, triathlon) is that they bring friends together.
We got to the island (it’s an island, right?) where we stayed in mainland New Jersey and it was raining pretty heavily. We met Melissa at her hotel pretty quickly and set out for a thorough soaking. We were lucky to have Melissa as our tour guide as we chatted, laughed, and splashed through the park for a few miles. After thawing out back at the hotel, we got moving to the expo.
The expo was almost hidden, behind an unmarked door next to a hotel. Inside, a maze that brought the experience to life. A giant course map cutout also brought fear to life. Suddenly weird East-Coasty words like Cheesecote conjured certain anxiety. After a glass of wine, we left with our bag of goodies and made our way through and out of the city to meet a fellow Chicago teammate Jerel and his wife for dinner back in Fort Lee.
After venturing out for coffee and croissants, John and I spent most of Saturday morning lounging around and watching the Royal Wedding of Meghan and Harry in our hotel room. Later on, we met up with my fellow PI Ambador Lisa Luttenegger and her friend Sam Starsick (with a cool name like that I’m convinced she moonlights as a rock star!) who had driven all the way from Chicago for the event. Despite a heavy downpour, the four of us decided it would be remiss to not do a run inside Central Park seeing as it was right there on our doorstep. We managed to bang out six miles along the loop in the rain while chatting away and felt satisfied after that we’d completed the de rigueur iconic CP run
Gran Fondo Day and the George Washington Bridge
The early morning alarm at 4am on Sunday was a rude awakening! After gulping down breakfast, John and I drove north from the hotel and parked as close to the bridge as possible. From there we hopped on our bikes and navigated to the start by following the neon green jerseys all coasting through the empty low-lit streets. It’s was an adrenalin rush to be biking down the middle of normally congested Manhattan streets before anyone was around. This year, unlike in 2015, the morning dawned damp and overcast. Once we had inched our way onto the bridge, it was shrouded in thick fog. No view whatsoever which was a bit of a disappointment, especially for those riders who had come a long way for it. One thing that struck me, in particular, this year was the lack of basic riding and handling skills that I was surrounded with right off the bat. Once the starting gun went off, there was a long delay and then slow-motion surge forward just like in any huge race.
Overeager riders started clipping in already despite the lack of momentum and slick surface and were falling over and hitting the bridge deck hard. John and I made sure to keep our distance from anyone who was clipping in until there was clearance and sufficient forward movement to do so safely.
The start line of the event was talked about quite a bit. Sam, Jerel and I thought that by staying in Fort Lee, we’d given ourselves an advantage of convenience for the event morning, but a 45-minute long police escort four miles in length hardly felt like anything such at 5am. Suddenly we were on the famed bridge, surrounded by a sea of green kits and an ocean of…languages. One of the announcements detailed how many countries were represented by event participants. The tagline “be a pro for a day” made more sense thinking how many languages can be found in a grand tour peloton.
For the first few miles, I tried to stay with my teammates. While it’s nothing new to follow a teammate sporting a like kit, it was new that the thousands of people around us were also dressed the same. I promptly found myself without teammates, but surrounded by strangers eager to work together and form little pelotons; the event was draft legal and in no time I was working with a crazy rotation of gentlemen (and once or twice, another lady) from other countries. Figuring out how to communicate without common language at 20+mph is a fantastic challenge! Most times it was pretty easy, although guys were quick to fall off the back so these pelotons were really short-lived. At one point, I thought a guy was trying to cut me off. Turns out he’d been drafting and was offering to take a pull, but didn’t speak a word of English.
I had planned to meet Melissa, Sam, Jerel, and John at the first aid station until I realized I was about three miles past it. At that point, I knew it was hard to stick together anyway, so I went on making new friends for a few minutes at a time.
Then it got hilly.
The long climbs were exciting. We don’t have that in Chicago and I loved every minute. Bear Mountain was about halfway through the ride; a climb that went on for four miles. The reward at the top was the long-awaited sheet cake, and a fun, fast descent back down!
The ride finished how it started, but the pacelines stuck a little longer and felt stronger. It was a blast and I’d encourage anyone to do it, and not to be afraid to go it alone!
Over the bridge and into the Palisades Interstate Park, I was somehow still surrounded by cycling novices. The hills started at this point and I witnessed several people failing to gear down correctly and just tipping over! And I’ve heard it said before that triathletes are not good riders?! After this experience, I would say the opposite is true as I’ve never before seen such a widespread display of subpar cycling skills.
From here on out, I was on my own as John had surged ahead and Lisa and Samantha were positioned towards the front of the start line having spent the night on the Fort Lee, New Jersey side of the bridge. It was my first time riding outside all season due to an unusually cold and wet spring, so I decided to just relax and take my own sweet time for the rest of the day. It started to rain steadily as I pulled into the first aid station in Piermont so I took cover for a bit. Gran Fondo aid stations are like a smorgasbord of delicious snacks so I loaded up on Goldfish crackers, PB&J, grapes and chocolate sheet cake before heading back out.
By the time I made it to the foot of Bear Mountain the rain had stopped and I was feeling well-fueled, thawed out and ready to attack the four-mile climb. I witnessed a nasty crash on the other side of Perkins Memorial Drive as I was grinding along so I made a mental note to take it easy on the way back down and use my brakes! The top of Bear Mountain is the 50-mile mark and there is an option to switch to the Medio Fondo and call it a day. But I wasn’t tempted as I was feeling good and the sun had finally come out. I racked my bike to walk around and take in the glorious views of the Hudson River and valleys below.
I bumped into two other triathlon friends before descending the mountain and rode with them on and off for the rest of the day. This year I was ready and bracing myself for the dreaded Cheesecote climb which looms up suddenly and without warning at Mile 64. I vividly recall almost tipping over on its 18% gradient back in 2015 while watching others go down around me. Given the quivery state of my thighs which had become an issue at this juncture, I made the wise decision to dismount and tiptoe up this beast of a hill in my bike shoes. Post-Cheesecote, I indulged in the consumption of multiple pizza slices at the last remaining aid stations which appeared like oases rising up from the hilly horizon.
The last few climbs were seemingly never-ending. By the time I made it through all 100 miles and 8,500 feet of climb, I was complete toast and beyond ready to dismount my Argon 18 (aka The Argonaut). I didn’t even flinch as I passed under the finish line arch with the announcer remarking in surprise over his mic that I was on a tri bike –“And here comes Melissa Grieco finishing strong on a Tri bike!”. Technically, Triathlon bikes are prohibited during Gran Fondos and riders are required to use a road bike without aero bars. Although I do have an older model Guru road bike at home, it has become permanently affixed to my Tacx indoor bike trainer and is certainly not in roadworthy condition. I figured correctly that it wouldn’t be a deal breaker to use my tri bike for the ride as I was doing the event in a strict training capacity and not in any competitive fashion.
John had finished a couple of hours before me and had already polished off his pasta recovery meal and was chillaxing while waiting to give me my finisher’s medal. I was very happy to see him for the first time since early that morning. I recuperated on the lawn inside the finish area for a bit before we began the trek back across the George Washington Bridge to our car. This time we were funneled up onto the Upper-Level footpath. The morning fog had burned off and the views of the river below and Manhattan skyline were spectacular. It made up for the rather dreary start to the long day and it was a fitting way to close out an epic and iconic ride.