Gran Fondo New York Brings Italy to the Apple

The New York Gran Fondo took over highways and byways last weekend like a storm, proving that

Riders from the Medio Fondo traveling south on 9W

Italian style cycling can and will dominate the roadways even if for just one day.

It was the second year of the cycling event planned by enterprising couple Lidia and Uli Fluhme, whose ambitious  Fondo this year engaged more than 5,000 riders, many from outside the United States who came here just to ride the hilly course from New Jersey to New York and back again.

In a sign that cycling is becoming a U.S. obsession, Route 9W, a major route connecting the two states–was closed to motorist traffic for two hours in the morning.

And despite the rigourous course which took cyclists over challenging hills as they proceeded north, most were clearly enjoying themselves.

Many said they came here to enjoy the Italian Fondo tradition–traveliing either 110 or 65-plus miles tutti en gruppi with only timed climbs to mark a competition– on U.S. soil, or to finally start taking off the pounds from so many hours of sitting at their desks and eating too many fatty foods.

But the expansion of the ride by 150 percent from a little over 2,000 participants in 2011 may have been a challenge for the young couple to handle logistically.

Though well-planned with police officers stationed at major crossings, the lack of large signage and staff to direct riders at a handful of critical turns left some riders in the lurch as ended up on roads and in places they had never been before–and in some instances, could not find their way back from.

Riders pass a parked car on Sparkill, NY

And in the afternoon as riders clogged the sometimes narrow shoulders southbound on Route 9W, drivers not accustomed to so many cyclists on the road, and not instructed on how to behave, took risks driving within inches of the riders, or into oncoming traffic.

Still the impact of those logistical shortcomings and about 13 reported cyclist crashes along the 110.9 mile route was minimal, [Note from Editor: this number was updated to 17 known crashes by Friday, May 25] signaling the event was highly successful and marking a turn in public opionion to favor large events of this kind, especially among the towns that dot the landscape from New Jersey to Bear Mountain.

After riding along a portion of the event, CI joined riders at the intersection of Hudson River Drive with River Road in Edgewater, and spoke to satisfied riders who allowed us to snap their photo.

Among them, Davy Langlais and Nicolas Walon, both originally from France, and not looking a bit tired after riding about 60 miles stopped to wait for traffic to clear at the intersection.

Davy Langlais and Nicolas Walon rode together
Davy Langlais and Nicolas Walon rode together

“Why do the Fondo?” asked CI. “The fat,” said Langlais.  “The fat burning,” said Walon, almost in unison.  “Married seven years and coming to the U.S. gave me this,” said Langlais pointing to his stomach.

Both he and Walon plan to to do the Muscular Dystropy Ride as well, but a Gran Fondo in Italy might have to wait a year.

Two friends, Mike Valletta and Yared Yawand-Wossen praised the ride.” With the exception of the road [surface] coming down Hudson River Drive which was terrible, the ride was really awesome and well put together,” said Valletta. [That portion of roadway, will be repaved this summer just prior to the Iron Man being held on August 11.]

Mike Valletta and Yared Yawand-Wossen came from New Salem

“I liked the way it was marked and once you got through the hills, it was easy-going,” said Yawand-Wossen

Many of the riders traveled from other countries, most notably European, but we also ran into some riders from Mexico City.

Karolin Starke from Bremen, Germany said it was her first Medio Fondo, and she had plans to do another one, most likely in Italy.  So far she said he liked the ride, and would likely be back next year.

But complaints were voiced: One factor in logistics that the planners may have overlooked, in most large U.S. road races, race personnel are stationed at turns and motorist control is necessary in ensuring that riders are safe.

Most of the road races CI has done in the U.S. feature sentries at every turn who scream and point out directions, accompanied by bright fluorescent arrows painted on the cement.

Karolin Starke came from Bremen, Germany to do the Medio Fondo

Another factor may simply have been that Americans don’t have the same experience that Italians have with the concept, making the Gran Fondo part of an evolutionary step for U.S. drivers and riders.

Repeated emails to the organizers were not answered by press time, though one police officer noted that the Gran Fondo had difficulty attracting volunteers for the race.

However, the USA Pro Challenge who ran the portion of the Fondo that was competitive–the timed climbs, sent out an email requesting that riders give their feedback on their overall experience.

It would be interesting to see the overall trends, because it was hard to gauge how much impact the low visibility signage had on riders: CI rode with a pack of Medio Fondo riders completing the 60-mile plus course, and half of them missed the turn back onto the Hudson River Drive in Alpine, NJ.

Among those going straight down 9W, at least one New Yorker, Chris Parris, knew the way, but it was unclear if the others did.

But most of the riders we interviewed were just tired from the long ride.

Among the cyclists coming out of the junction between Hudson River Drive and Edgewater Road just south of Fort Lee, NJ, an intersection well staffed and regulated by Captain Skidmore and three officers from the Edgewater Police–most were enraptured with the ride and had clearly not missed the Alpine turn some 7 miles back.

This year’s course was as demanding if not more so than last year’s (which CI rode just to see how challenging it was).

Those completing the Medio Fondo traveled up 9W then took a left turn, the same location where 110-milers went straight. Many Medio Fondo riders missed this turn according to police, and individual reports by riders to CI.

Climbs for the Gran Fondo riders included Perkins Drive at Bear Mountain–a 2-mile, 650 vertical foot climb at about a 6 percent grade, more symbolic than difficult for most riders as it reaches the apogee of Bear Mountain at 1300 feet.

But riders in the longer fondo had four timed climbs in all, and together they represented some of the toughest riding in the area north of New York.

In addition to Perkins Memorial Drive, cyclists ascended Buckberg Road, a very steep, narrow quick climb, Cedar Flats Road, a steep, long undulating clumb and Overlook Road–another frustratingly steep road that seems to go on forever.  Then they had to ride some 40 miles back south.

Competitors in the Fondo were awarded for best times overall, with Wladimiro D’Ascenzo in first place, followed by Anthony Fatuzzo and Igor Volshteyn. In the women’s category, the first place finishers were Susan Jones, Ana Maria Bonilla Paez, and Tara Coopersmith.

Among the finishers of the long course, there were three men 70 years or older, one of them Jay Jacobson from Piermont, NY who finished second in his category.

Clearly the Gran Fondo was not the sole domain of the young: 647 riders out of all the male riders were over the age of 50, the majority of them from the United States.

Among the women entering the event, the eldest was 62 years old,  but only 36 women in total over the age of 50 completed the 110.9 mile course.

The difficulty of the course and some logistical issues may have slowed some riders. Stragglers were spied well into the afternoon, some 10 hours after the start.

At 5:30 pm, one couple wearing the Gran Fondo’s distinctive black and green jerseys were seen headiing northbound on the Palisades Interstate Parkway, a dangerous highway not intended for bike use, and way off the GF course.

Gran Fondo riders coming through Sparkill, NY

Seventy-one-year-old Gran Fondo finisher Jay Jacobson told CI reporter Dick Benfield that there were “a lot of problems with the race organization.” The worst, he said was having to wait half an hour for water at the first rest stop, an indignity he did not expect after paying over $250 for his entry fee.

Even among the assigned officers, some seemed inexperienced in handling a large biking event reported Benfield: “The cops at Rockland Lake seemed very tentative about stopping traffic and signaling bikers to either go through the traffic light or stop, causing confusion.”

Captain Skidmore of the Edgewater, NJ police directing traffic

But police officers in the many towns that the ride snaked through universally praised the planning and execution of the ride.

With only 13 crashes reported as of Tuesday, that number was considered very small for such a large event, said Captain LaViola, of the Alpine Police. His district had no crashes.

One critical crash on Piermont Road in the morning sent the rider to Nyack Hospital with a suspected broken collarbone.

Five or six of the crashes occurred in the area of Piermont where the first rest station was set up, most of them “scrapes and bruises,” said Chief Michael O’Shea of the Piermont Police Department. Regardless, it was a well organized, well run ride,”  he added.

Captain Bob Mahon (pronounced “Man”) who is also a cyclist, and who organized the police support in Clarkstown said only three riders went down in his area at about 9:30 A.M., with one serious crash on Barmore Hill, the descent traveling north over Hook Mountain just before Rockland Lake.

Larissa Sadowsky after 60 miles
Larissa Sadowsky after 60 miles

The unidentified man suffered broken bones and tears and abrasions to his face after losing control on a portion of the roadway.

“They work nicely with other people and they are courteous and polite, I am impressed with them,” said O’Shea of the organizers.

Other police captains and sargeants said they would gladly work with the organizers again. Officers from the Fort Lee Police Department participated as riders in the event, as did an officer and a sargeant from the Alpine, NJ police.

We received an email from Jeffrey Donenfeld who also covered the Gran Fondo on his blog. Check it out. Nice pics of him and his fellow riders traveling the subway in their black and green Gran Fondo jerseys in the wee hours of the morning to get to the start line on the George Washington Bridge.

Also, check out this much more upbeat, personal, (and subjective) take on the Gran Fondo by Andy Chen.


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