New York, New York, it’s a helluva town. And when the rain pours down, the Gran Fondo New York is one helluva ride

Anyone who grew up watching films from the 1980s will be familiar with one classic scene: a tramp, upon witnessing some surreal incident, stares back at his bottle-in-a-paper-bag as if to say, ‘Jeez, this liquor must be strong as there is no way I have just seen Marty McFly disappear back to 1955 in a DeLorean.’ Until today I thought this cliché belonged firmly to the movies, but now, upon boarding the subway that will take me to the start of the Grand Fondo New York, I realise art really does imitate life.

It’s 5.30am on a Sunday and I’ve just managed to cram myself and my bike onto an A-train, much to the amusement of bedraggled Saturday night revellers and to the puzzlement of a hitherto comatose tramp. With me are dozens of other GFNY participants, all in matching lurid green kit, and as the train pulls away the vagabond’s gaze flits anxiously between us and the brown paper bag he’s clutching. The poor guy has probably been riding the subway all night to avoid the torrential rain outside, only to have his solace invaded by a fluoro army wielding their prized steeds in the tiny carriage. Little do any of us know that in around five hours’ time we’d be wishing we’d stayed on the train with him.

Dawn’s early light

As cycling events go, the GFNY is a mighty big one, and so appropriately operates a ‘kicks off at 7am, so be here by 6am’ policy to ensure the 5,000 entrants have ample chance to be in the right place at the right time. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, security is tight, so the puddled roads that lead up to the start are lined with rain-slicked policemen checking participants’ wristbands before waving them on to the start on the George Washington Bridge.

On another day, having New York City’s busiest bridge closed for a cycling event, with views from Manhattan across the Hudson River and on to the greenery upstate, would be a joy. But as I make my way to the first start group the wind is whipping through the split-level bridge, dropping the temperature to single digits. Any vistas have long since been swallowed up by fog. All I can do is hunker down, tuck my arms inside my gilet and pray that someone sounds a horn before I end up like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.

I’m just starting to lose faith in the pursuit of cycling when a rousing voice echoes across the PA, and everyone jumps to their cleats. The immortal words, ‘Oh say can you see…’, are being belted out by a pre-diet Oprah lookalike, and suddenly the mood lifts. Despite some 70 other nationalities being represented, the gusto from the singing American riders has swept allcomers up into their hand-on-heart embrace. Pride palpable, the horn finally blasts.

Mists of the deep

With the timing chip beeps ringing in my ears, the 100-strong group I’m in spins out into the murky distance, headed up by a cavalcade of support vehicles, officials and NYPD motorbike cops. When covering sportive events, I’ve always adopted Cyclist’s mantra: ‘It’s not about you, it’s about the event.’ This has in the past given me just cause to take it easy and finish in decent but unremarkable times. However, given my need to get warm, I pedal as hard as I can and position myself in the middle of the front group.

Within a few kilometres we’ve turned off the closed portion of highway and onto Henry Hudson Drive, named after the English explorer who sailed the eponymous river in the 17th century while scouting for a western passage to Asia. A crew mutiny would later see him cast out into the soon-to-be-named Hudson Bay to his death. As we tank our way over the leaf-ridden tarmac with just a fence separating us from the sheer drop down the Hudson Palisades into the river below, I make a mental note to be cautious. I doubt if I fell off the edge and drowned they’d rename it the Spender River.

Soon we join Route 9W for the day’s first proper climb. So far the terrain has been undulating yet easy going but, as riders begin to feel the humidity building in their various layers, the pace slows to the faint sound of rain capes being unzipped as our tyres splosh up this six per center. Nearing the crest I can see riders up front disappearing down the other side, so it’s with grateful legs that I join them in a 6km descent that sees me top out at 70km/h as we rip through Tallman Mountain State Park.

Slowly the New York trees give way to the sprawling suburbs of New Jersey, and it’s only now as the pace settles that I have time to take stock of my surroundings – and my position. From what I can tell I’m still in the lead group, which by my reckoning has thinned a little but still must number some 60 riders. Sitting up to take a drink, another rider on a Trek Domane appears next to me and turns to say hello.

‘Gee, nice bike,’ he says. ‘Say, what’s a Boardman? I haven’t seen one of those before.’ ‘Well, it’s an English brand owned by Chris Boardman,’ I reply. ‘He’s a pretty big deal. Bit of British cycling legend.’

‘Really? Boardman’s a dude? Hey, one of my best buddies is called Boardman!’ he grins. ‘Perhaps they’re related?’ I tender.

‘No, I don’t think so. He’s done his family tree, there’s no cyclists in it called Chris.’ With a smile he pedals off to begin a conversation with someone on a Colnago. I imagine it concludes with the news that another buddy has failed to trace links back to any Ernestos.

NYbike

The rider’s ride: Bringing some European class to the American race scene, I opted for the Boardman SLR/9.2 for the GFNY. Despite not being the top model in the lightweight SLR range, my 56cm 9.2 was still only a hair over the UCI weight limit of 6.8kg.

The build manages to be high quality without ramping up the price. SRAM Force has all the trickle-down attributes of the previous year’s Red groupset but without the cost, while the Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels are stiff enough to make the 9.2 feel superbly lithe. Often skimped on by manufacturers and overlooked by buyers is the finishing kit, so I was pleased to see Ritchey’s tried-and-tested WCS alloy cockpit and carbon seatpost, and even happier to find Boardman hadn’t been stingy with the tyres, choosing to shod the 9.2 in fast-rolling Vittoria Open Corsa CXs.

At just under $3.5k, the 9.2 jostles in a highly contested price bracket, but having ridden a plethora of comparable bikes I’d put money
on the SLR chassis being one of the most endearing rides you’ll find,
and the 9.2 being one of the best thought-out packages. A no-nonsense thoroughbred.

As we reach the boundary of the Bear Mountain National Park, all thoughts of conviviality wash away as the dark face of Bear Mountain looms. Those who ride this area regularly clearly know what’s in store, so it’s with a pack mentality that the rest of us follow suit and break from conversation to concentrate on the task at hand: a 7.2km stretch that averages 5% but bucks savagely in places towards 10%. On an ordinary day this wouldn’t seem so bad, but by now the
all-pervading rain of the last 60km has turned to a virtual monsoon.

Clothes completely soaked, I begin the climb with eight other riders, but by the time we reach the false flat that number has thinned to just three. They say at speeds under 25km/h any benefits of drafting are negligible, so it is that we take turns on the front not so much as wind shields but windscreens. The rain is horizontal now – on occasions even slightly upwards – as we crank towards the summit.

A kilometre from the top I’m feeling pretty good and wondering if I could be near the front of the race, but as I round a corner to see a well-stationed photographer crouching in the bushes to capture our grimaces, two riders come whizzing down the other side of the road.

‘I can’t believe they’ve got up there already,’ says one of my companions. ‘And they’re not the only ones, look. When did all those guys break?’ A stream of riders are zipping through the turns after the first two, rain capes flapping in the wind like sails. We estimate there to be around 20 in all, and so with a mixture of annoyance and good ole’ American can-do, we ignore the food station at the top, hit a tight 180° turn at the course marker and drop down into the descent, hoping to re-establish contact before our energy saps and we’re swept up by those behind.

Conquer we must

Skirting around the bottom of the park we head west, towards what I can only describe as Tony Soprano country. Just like the neighbourhood where Tony lived (which, incidentally, is only about 50 clicks south of where we are now), houses bordering on mansions peek through gaps in tall leylandii and wrought iron gates.

It’s funny how when riding alone you can only push yourself so hard, but given an incentive, be it a group of similarly minded associates or a visible target in the distance, you can somehow squeeze out what hyperbolic coaches call 110%. For our gassing, motley crew, that means a gruelling spell where we try to reel in the yellow speck in the distance, which turns out to be a cohort of 15 guys led
by a grizzly giant of a man wearing a yellow jacket that, given his size, would presumably double as tent. As our paceline latches on, it soon becomes apparent that Mr Yellow is the group’s driving force, taking huge turns on the front with a jutting Captain America jaw.

NY4

After about 20 minutes I decide it’s time I did my bit. I push up next to Mr Yellow, who nods in approval and moves over. I try to ramp up the pace, but soon realise that if I’m to have any staying power I need to eke out what little juice my legs have left. I count several kilometres go by with no signs of anyone wanting to take over, so as we cross the state line back into New York I drop back.

‘Nice work, man,’ says a gruff voice over my left shoulder. Mr Yellow has cruised past to take back the reins, and as I glance back I’m pleasantly surprised to find that our bunch has dwindled significantly. Six of us remain with just a few kilometres to go back through the Palisades Interstate Park, so with thoughts of a good finishing result in my mind, I commit fully to racing and bury myself. It’s agonising.

I try my best to stick with Mr Yellow as we duke it out with Mr BMC and Mr Canyon (I’m in no state to ask people their names). We dispatch Mr BMC with me leading, but as Mr Yellow takes to the front to nail the Canyon, I can’t hold on. I watch the two duelling riders pull away, and it’s all I can do to keep my current tempo.

I’m sure there must have been kilometre markers leading up to the finish, but what with the rain, steamed up glasses and head buried, I’ve clearly missed them all, so it’s with a huge rush of relief that the course rounds a bend and I clap eyes on a large red digital timer sitting defiantly at odds with the green surroundings.

Crossing the line, I sit up and raise a tired hand to acknowledge the soggy applause coming from the small, disheveled crowd at the finish. It’s far from the most explosive of finishes, but right now I couldn’t care less. There’s a table full of pretzels and Coke (we’re in America, so what else?), a bunch of smiling stewards and a stoic Mr Yellow. For the second time today, life seems to emulate the movies.

‘You did good, kid,’ he says laconically. ‘I think we might have got top 15.’

How we got there

Travel

We flew withVirgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) from Sydney to JFK, with prices starting from around $1,059 during May. Don’t forget to arrange an ESTA visa waiver (esta.cbp.dhs.gov) before travel, which will cost around $15. New York’s subways run 24 hours a day, meaning you and your bike can get to the start for as little as a few dollars. Taxis are always in full swing too, and on the day of the race the Weehawken ferry is on hand to shuttle riders back to Manhattan for free.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel near Times Square, with rooms from around $390ppn (starwoodhotels.com). Superbly well appointed, it sits minutes away by foot from New York’s famous theatre district and Central Park.

Thanks

Huge thanks to organisers Lidia and Uli Fluhme for granting us our place and sorting out accommodation. Dedicated cyclists both, their enthusiasm for riding and understanding of riders’ needs is the bedrock of the event. And a special thanks to Andy Oh, who stepped in at the last minute to drive our photographer around the course on his moto.

How to get involved

What: Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York

Where: New York, USA

Next one: Sunday May 18, 2014

Distance: There is a choice of two routes, a shorter 80km loop or the full 160km ride

Price: US$229 (approx $246) for either route, including food, jersey, snood and a bottle of wine. A $20 discount and front group start is available for those raising money for charity

Sign-up details: granfondony.com

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