Our Man Dave writes (and eloquently so) about his trip to the Garden State and participation in the New Jersey Gran Fondo.
Sometimes we go to great distances just to take a little step. In the grand scheme of things, even within the short weeks of a summer season, one day on a bicycle has little impact on our personal sense of who we are on two wheels. However, some days, though they contain the same number of hours and, possibly, the same two wheels, are more transcendent than others.
In early September, Ryan and I travelled to the Garden State to participate in the Gran Fondo New Jersey, sponsored in part by Jamis Bicycles. What was set to be a weekend of epic bike riding was beset almost from the beginning with red flags that came one after another, promising to tarnish the sparkly ideal of a perfect trip. Travel was delayed by hours due to tornadoes in the vicinity of our destination, causing our bike drop rendezvous with the Jamis rep (one lovely Katie Mulvey) to be pushed back, which led to us getting food at a wholly indecent hour, and trying to get some amount of rest before being at registration for packet pick-up at 5:45am. And that thing about not riding a well-fitting new bike for more than thirty miles? We forgot to bring a tape measure to adjust our borrowed Jamis Xenith Team and Xenith Pro (both with Dura Ace Di2!!!!!), so we resorted to eyeballing each other’s pedal stroke as we held onto the dresser in the hotel room. Both of us required longer seatposts, but hadn’t thought to bring any: I learned that minimum insertion marks are reference points, not a rule. Pro fit, indeed.
As I laid my head to the pillow – my last-ditch, diner-supplied, freezer-burnt veggie burger and fries roiling in my stomach – I realized how ill-fated our trip had been up to this point, and wondered if all 107 miles of the Gran Fondo would be equally beset with hardship. The alarm went off the moment I closed my eyes, and I kitted up. My tube of DZ Nutz didn’t make it past security, and we were up too early for the hotel’s free breakfast, so we resigned ourselves to pedaling the short distance in the numbing predawn mist to packet pick-up, hoping to score some Power Bars. As the sun rose, tents began rising in the plaza where vendors set up displays, sponsors handed out swag, and I found some hot coffee. Across the way I spied five or six members of the Jamis – Sutter Home racing team who would be leading us out. The day was looking up already.
As the sun rose over the tall buildings of downtown Morristown, I began to realize how big this thing was. Thousands of riders liveried in fantastic colors from all over the eastern seaboard were massing behind the start line, eager to get on with it. Though we were in no hurry to get pressed into the thick of it (we were on the curb, couldn’t even get into the road) the mass of excited riders began moving ever so slowly through town. I finally clipped in around the first corner, and slow-pedaled in the enormous group of cyclists, trying to prepare myself for what I had heard were some big hills.
Morristown was the headquarters of then-General George Washington’s Revolutionary Army during the dawn of our country’s existence. Strategically located north of the Delaware River and on a large plateau, it afforded Washington safety and a commanding view of the valleys and gorges surrounding it. Getting out of town, we descended first. It was terrifying. Nothing I have ridden in Michigan could have prepared me for this: white-knuckled, thirty-five to forty-miles-per-hour descents in a close peloton on a very narrow two-lane mountain drive, strewn with pine cones, branches, and fallen debris from the previous night’s freak windstorm. At the bottom of this death-road was a ninety degree left turn, a barrier with no run-off area, and a downed rider with what looked like a collarbone injury. Ryan and I were still riding together at this point and realized the gravity of this ride: it was going to be a blast, but it was also very dangerous.
Luckily, the rest of the ride stretched out the riders, and I began to experience physical demands that had never been previously asked of my body. At mile twenty-one, the first timed hill climb began, and seemed to rear straight up into the tree-laden sky. Even though I was in the granniest-gear that I could find, my legs burned ferociously. Later I learned that the grade of that hill topped out at fifteen percent. Ouch. We were graciously rewarded with a long decent, though, that swooped us through ancient landscapes inhabited by the first Americans and those that came before. The road bottomed out onto the Delaware river, and I let out an audible gasp at the beauty of our surroundings. It was insanely gorgeous. The valley walls sloped up parabolically from the wide river and seemed untouched, just as it must have looked when Washington crossed it centuries ago to give battle at Valley Forge, supposedly just miles away from where we were. I got a little sad as we veered off and climbed up the valley wall, but I would not be wont for more heart-wrenching scenery.
Every little house that we passed was tucked perfectly into its place, nestled comfortably against a streambed or hill, seemingly having been there since forever. People still lived here, and they lived well. There were no treeless subdivisions, or gated communities, but each place that we zoomed past commanded that we look and marvel at the grandeur of their sculpted lawns, cobbled drives, and magnificent architecture. As we rose farther away from the Delaware River, towards the middle of the ride, we found plateaus covered in bucolic farms that afforded views I had not dreamed could exist in New Jersey. The vaulted blue sky above us gave us sight for miles in every direction, over the gorges and valleys that translated the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean: a topographer’s dream. At mile sixty-five I surpassed my previous longest ride. It wasn’t a huge moment because I had no computer to tell me exactly where it was, but it was a silent reaffirmation that although I really didn’t train for this, I knew I could do it if I just kept pedalling.
Around mile seventy-five, some harcore exhaustion made me wonder if the positivity I was feeling just ten miles ago was just a pipe-dream. I still had one more timed hill climb to go, and although it wasn’t going to be as bad as the third of four, it was still going to hurt. I tucked myself into the pain cave and gasped for air, my legs and lungs ready to explode. Cresting that hill felt so good that I think I yelled something. Can’t remember what. The rest of the way I was pretty tired, meeting up with Ryan only once more before the end. We chose different paces, and so spent most of the ride apart, but I caught up with him at the party-like SAG stops, where we both consumed impressive amounts of calories. There weren’t many more big hills, but some false flats and rollers as we worked our way back toward Morristown. At the twenty mile mark they gave us little signs counting down the distance toward the finish. Fifteen, ten, five, and four passed, then the signs stopped, but I knew we were close. The last signs before the finish said: “Use Caution: Very Steep Descent 1+ Miles”
I grinned and dove in. There were no other riders around me at this point, and perhaps some amount a fatigue addled my brain encouraging me to go faster, to stop riding the brakes, allowing the Jamis Xenith Pro I commanded to carve confident lines through the pavement. I have no idea exactly how fast I would down that narrow street, but it was really, really fast. A short climb later and I was surprised to be in town, one lane of traffic coned off for me as I hustled toward the finish. There were people yelling, cowbells ringing, and I swear Phil Liggett was there as I sprinted the last mile, passing under the banner with a fist punching the air. It had been the most physically and mentally draining day of my life, and I loved it.
The Gran Fondo New Jersey was the first time I rode a century, or even over sixty-five miles. It was more than a training ride, it was more than an event, it was a rite of passage, an affirmation of my status as a cyclist, and a refreshment of my passion for the sport. It was transcendence on two wheels.