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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  • admin

    “Did last years as well and I think it was a little over 2000 riders, but other than lines for the port-a-potties that first year food and water were not a problem, nor were there long lines for them. This year I think the lines for food and water were too long with food running out at some stops. I have done other large organized rides with as many riders. They also have long bathroom lines, even with probably 20-30 port-a-potties at each stop, but food and water lines are almost non-existent. And while I missed the finish at Roseland last year, the one in Weehawken was a bit of a disappointment.”
    Dennis Weiner (by permission)

  • admin

    Note from the Editors: After many attempts to contact the organizers to get their side of the story, the editors received an email from the organizers on Wednesday after we had published condemning our article for being “negative,” “sensationalist,” and for doing a disservice to “Gran Fondo.” In addition, they stated that they spent over $500,000 on police officers.

    We conducted our own independent survey of police officers and did not come up with the same number.

    Regardless, the point of our coverage was not to say that there was no police coverage, but to point out some of the other issues that arose during the event that could and should be worked on for the 2013 Gran Fondo.

    Those same issues–waiting in line for Porto Potties, and inadequate signage were also evident in 2011, but we did not make a big deal out of it because the route was different, and there were fewer riders.

    This year, we believe the issues we raised were significant, especially with respect for safety of foreign and out-of-town riders who may not know they way around or how to behave around motor vehicles on the climbs.

    During our observation of the event, we did not witness any Gran Fondo officials in the locations that caused problems for the riders. For example:

    (1) The hill traveling south to State Line on Rte. 9W, where riders were four abreast in front of motorists, and should have been waved over for their safety and the safety of oncoming vehicles (this is a very dangerous hill where a number of people have been injured or killed in the past;)

    (2) The turn off that separates Medio Fondo riders from Gran Fondo riders, where both classifications took wrong turns as reported by two sources, one of them the police

    (3) The turn off Rte 9W going south back to Hudson River Drive (many went straight)

    (4) The passageway through Piermont where there were 6 crashes, one of the sending the rider to the hospital. Here organizers could have asked riders to slow down. Ditto for the hill at Hook Mountain where the roadway was damaged.

    (5) The first rest stop where people had to wait on long lines for water and port-o-potties, apparently for many riders (not by our standards) this was not acceptable.

    We would also like to note, providing one person at critical junctions might be money well spent, and would hardly break the bank.

    Suffice it to say, we have supplied our number and email to the organizers on more than six occasions, and they still have not bothered to call CI, or to answer the questions we posed to them on Sunday to show how hard they worked on this monumental ride and to share with us the difficulties of organizing such a wonderful event.

  • admin

    I thought your article was balanced. The event is a really unique one and the ride is usually my most challenging ride of the year. I also did the GFNY last year and there were definitely more growing pains this year. The main issues were:

    1. Long lines at rest stops. As mentioned above, the stops were not adequately staffed/organized for the amount of participants. The ride is long enough as it is, and having to wait in line only made it an even longer ride. I did not experience them running out of food, but I may have arrived earlier than others.

    2. Poor Location for Closing Ceremonies. Having to ride 7 miles through bumper to bumper traffic from the southern tip of Palisades Park to Weekhawken was a nightmare – again, after having ridden 100 miles. By the time we got there, and saw the long lines (again) for food, we decided to just get in line (again) for the ferry. Instead of waiting for the free ferry, we bought our own tickets to the 2nd ferry and got on an almost empty ferry. I would much rather have ridden back over the GWB to a place in NY for the closing ceremonies. Last year, we all rode home, showered, changed and then went. It was much better that way.

    3. Rider control. Of course it’s difficult with this many participants, but there was a lot of crowding at certain unfortunate places, for instance, the entrance to the rest stop before the Bear Mtn climb. There were people riding up to the climb and people descending the climb at speed through that area that was also packed with people going in and out of the rest stop and waiting for friends. Another area where people loved to crowd around was right after each of the timed climbs. They were there to rest and wait for their friends, but this made for a very dangerous situation, especially at the top of Perkins where you really could carry quite a bit of speed as you were on a flat portion of road at the end. They should have had race workers direct people to stand further away from the finish.

    4. Lack of variety of foods at rest stops. Someone mentioned that the Fondo style is to just have a few things to eat and not a huge smorgasbord. I get that, but I think some oranges would have been good. Also, those powerade gels and bars are just horrendous. I knew from the previous year to bring my own gels.

    5. Route Markings/Traffic Control. For the most part, I think the routes were well marked and one of the reasons I love this ride is the officers stopping traffic for riders. However, there were a few places this year that were not well marked. 1. the turn off for the Medio Fondo to the Gran Fondo. There should have been more signage, perhaps leading up to the intersection/turn-off to adequately warn people where the turn was and which way you needed to go depending on route. Instead you didn’t realize where to turn until you were right on top of the intersection and there was almost a pileup due to people stopping abruptly not knowing which direction to go. 2. There were no signs or police on 9W turning back into Palisades Park on the way back (as mentioned before). Those of us who ride 9W all the time knew we had to turn there, but otherwise I could definitley see people missing it. 3. I wonder if residents of the towns we rode through knew of the event, because there was a line of cars backed up at least a mile in Nyack due to police stopping traffic at an intersection for riders. I felt really bad for those drivers.

    6. Cost. The cost of this ride is prohibitive for a lot of local people who would otherwise do it. Obviously it was fine for the 5000 people who signed up, but I think the money should be spent a little better. I would gladly forgo the schwag (duffel bag wine, water bottle, medal in order to have better rest stops).

    Otherwise, the event is a really great one and a lot of fun. It’s great to be on a ride with so many people from all over the world and right in your own backyard. It’s what keeps me coming back more than anything else. I especially appreciate the professional photos that they take.

    Hope they continue this event and continue to improve on the organization.

    Lucia (New York Cycle Club,) reprinted with permission.