Traffic-free, smooth tarmac that artfully weaves its way through a picture-perfect Alpine landscape, a cool breeze greeting you as respite from the warm spring-like temperatures and not even a hint of cloud in the sky – come on, New York is as far removed from this image as Iron Maiden are from paradise. But despite that, it is still a winning location for the Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York.
It doesn’t look like the American dream has had much influence on the state of the road surfaces. The opposite of ‘pot washer to millionaire’, we’ve just left Stuttgart’s impeccable streets (the home of Porsche 911 and Mercedes 300SL) to be greeted with the pothole-littered roads of New York. This is where I am when my alarm rings at 3.30 am, and as I wearily get out of bed I wonder why I ever signed up for the GFNY. What sort of a Sunday morning involves riding 120 blocks uptown from Times Square in Manhattan before the sun has even risen while there’s a gale howling through the streets? And that’s only to reach the start of the 100-mile Gran Fondo. At 4.30 am, as I pick up a croissant and an espresso from a shop that looked enticingly like a bakery from a distance, I run into waifs and strays from the previous night’s festivities still roaming the streets, waiting drunkenly for taxis in short skirts and almost freezing temperatures. I wonder who’s crazier, them or me? I’m too tired to make the decision.
It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in my craziness as I head towards the George Washington Bridge via Hudson River Park, joining a few fellow cyclists en route to ride up to the start in a group. Then it happens: as the sun edges it way over the horizon, there’s a moment of sheer liberation and its warm rays, reflected in the Hudson River, send jolts of energy through me. Bro, we’re in fucking New York City. Shake off that negativity.
Pressure on myself?
God knows how I end up on the front line at the start. But here I am, ready to take on 100 miles. A full 160 km! I don’t think I’ve ever ridden this far before, but what’s that old saying, ‘you grow with your tasks.’ The motto then: survive. I haven’t brought my Garmin for the day and didn’t set a personal goal for a finishing time. I plan on riding at my own pace without any pressure. Ideally, I’ll get to enjoy the views and make some new friends; why else would I come to New York? After all, you wouldn’t travel halfway round the world just for a race.
And that’s what attracts people to the GFNY: it’s more than just a race. Founders Lidia and Uli Fluhme used the Gran Fondo New York as the basis to create the GFNY World Series, linking it with more international flair and setting some seriously high standards when it comes to event management. As a result, the GFNY series now includes races in Europe, America and Asia and is considered the world’s best Gran Fondo series.
Come for the race, stay for the rest: the GFNY New York is a gateway for meeting people from all over the world. You should see it as a sort of holiday with a dose of culture and freedom on two wheels. Who else can claim to have ridden 160 km around this iconic global city? And with 2,450 metres of climbing, the 100-mile loop is no less taxing than its European counterparts. It has a relentless undulating stretch along the Hudson River as you ride up towards Bear Mountain, the day’s biggest climb of 300 metres. Another climb to highlight is a 3 km long col named after the late Andrea Pinarello, who left us far too early.
GFNY is a family that looks out for each other and shares the excitement, whatever your ability level. They don’t just motivate you throughout the race in the typical American you-can-do-it style, but also throughout the whole year. The gruppo sportivo, made up of GFNY ambassadors, organise regular training rides over the course of the year, preparing riders for the Gran Fondo New York with help and tips. Much like their name, there’s a real sense of Italian famiglia, just a bit more international. This same family spirit is shared by GFNY with all its participants, and Lidia and Uli encourage riders to bring their families with them, spouting all the useful tips: where are the right bike shops for pre-ride essentials (Strictly Bicycles!) and checks; listing bike-friendly hotels; sights that are actually worth visiting; and making sure you’re able to keep the balance between quality family time and cycling.
In my case, I travelled to New York with friends rather than family. We ate well, shopped a little, had an ultra early 5.30 am morning ride in Central Park (it’d be rude not to), a ride out with the Rapha Cycle Club NYC, touring the major sights by bike. You’ve got to keep focused on the bike but it’s a chance to see far beyond what any regular tourist will visit.
Old school, same teachers
I deliberately start fairly slow, hoping to avoid the rookie error of over-eager riding that you’ll pay for later on. Dozens of riders pass me in the first few miles and I start to doubt my strategy. My buddy Joshua from Campagnolo gets himself in the lead group, but it’d be delusional for me to try and keep with them. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long until I find a group with a decent pace. There’s a distinct lack of hand signals so the group aspect strikes me as a little risky. Despite the organisation’s best efforts, the road conditions on the first miles of River Road are sketchy as you head from Manhattan towards New Jersey, so you’ve got to pay attention.
At the second food stop I let my group go and take a break. After I’ve had a snack and I’m ready to go again, I hear a distinct German accent: ‘We need to work better together, let’s close the gap to the next group.’ Small world. Not even just from the same country, I later discover that the rider went to my former school for a number of years. So there I am, riding through New York State reminiscing about old teachers. If only they knew…
Peanut-Butter Jelly Time!
The gradient changes once we hit the summit of Bear Mountain and the fresh headwind is welcome. But then my own performance takes a similar downturn. Food, I can think of nothing else but food. Too many energy bars perhaps and I reason that I’m not suffering from low blood sugar, but perhaps just the subjective feeling of wanting something more substantial in my stomach. Unlike the group I’m riding with, I decide to stop at the next food stop and eat a proper snack, not just for my body but for my mind as well.
The bagel with peanut butter and jam is the cure, almost immediately revitalizing me and willing me on to the finish. Ambition quashes my original plan of just finishing, and my competitive side rears itself once more. Three years ago, back when I retired from being a semi-professional mountain biker on one of the best German downhill and enduro teams, I’d firmly promised myself that I had nothing to prove in racing, leaving the Downhill World Cups and enduro races behind me. I may have lacked the build for winning, but I had the tactics and an iron will – I dig it back out of retirement, and get into a bubble that drives me onwards. My breath rings in my ears amidst muffled cries of ‘You’re doing great’ and I keep pedaling. There is just me, my bike and the final few miles of the GFNY. Climbs are my forte, and I use my reserves on the final one, Dyckman Hill with a maximum gradient of 10%. It works; I fly up and over it, regretfully leaving the cheerleaders in my wake (damn, I’d have loved to have stopped!) who provide enough motivation to get me through the last three miles.
After a quick high five with Uli, the race organiser, and a victory photo with my medal, I make my way to the festival site to gorge on delicious Italian pasta. La dolce vita meets the Big Apple. The results reveal I finish 271st out of 3,500 riders, leaving me as surprised as I am satisfied. But while I won’t remember the position in six months, I will have space in my mind for that unforgettable sunrise over the George Washington Bridge and the thought that New York’s tough streets are the perfect metaphor for cycling: hard, honest and flipping brilliant.
My thanks go to GFNY, Campagnolo and De Rosa.
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Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Noah Haxel, Robin Schmitt, Sportograf