It would take more than a little rain to make Marty Epstein frown.
“I’m really tired, but very elated,” Epstein said on Sunday morning, after hundreds of cyclists rolled from drizzly Morristown for the eighth annual Gran Fondo NJ.
Gran Fondo is Italian for “big ride,” and some 2,200 bikers signed up to pedal routes of 18- to 107 miles through the northern New Jersey countryside. Epstein, who has sold bikes to generations at Marty’s Reliable Cycle in town, said his vision for the event always was to “build community.”
Now that community was returning the favor, as Epstein fights metastatic prostate cancer.
“Marty’s out here doing his bit, he’s got his own challenges right now, so I’m here to help him out and support him,” said Mark Morales, who traveled from suburban Philadelphia to do the 107 mile ride. Morales wore pink booties to honor his mother, also battling cancer.
Epstein, 69, was diagnosed four summers ago, just before the 2014 Gran Fondo NJ. This year, he felt compelled to go public, to urge men to get screened regularly for prostate- and colo-rectal cancer.
“All you guys need to do that,” Epstein said, during a lull in Saturday’s Kid Fondo. “Nobody wants to talk about it, but this is what we need to talk about. I’m very willing to do that and very happy to do that.”
Slideshow photos by Katharine Boyle. Hover/ click on images for captions:
In the past, Epstein occasionally would bike 200 miles in a single day. He is grateful now to cover 20 miles with a pedal-assisted electric bicycle.
“You just change your expectations and do what you can do, and try to stay healthy through cycling,” he said. Chemotherapy has been tough, he acknowledges, and he’s been “a little introspective about it all.”
Yet the mood was upbeat at Sunday’s starting line.
Grabbing a microphone, Epstein wished everyone the “best day of cycling ever.” Congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill said a few words, and Fondo Co-Director Bill Ruddick thanked elected officials for getting Speedwell Avenue repaved at last.
Mayor Tim Dougherty coaxed a roar of “Marty!” from the throng of cyclists, and The Seeing Eye Inc. introduced Epstein to a puppy named for him.
(Obliging photographers, the man and his namesake both responded smartly to commands of “Sit, Marty!”)
Italian cycling star Ivan Basso, diagnosed in 2015 with testicular cancer and now cancer-free, exhorted everyone to keep smiling and enjoy the ride. Bicycling restored his confidence during recovery, said “Ivan the Terrible,” as he was dubbed in racing circles.
“To fight cancer, the first therapy is believe in yourself. So try to be happy, and have a good day on the bike,” said Basso, 40, a two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia.
The Gran Fondo NJ has helped raise more than $1 million for charities over the years. A new sponsor, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, sent a cycling team to raise money for prostate cancer research. Epstein credits the center with saving his life.
“The importance of community cannot be emphasized enough in the fight against cancer,” said Dr. Julio Garcia Aquilar, a Sloan Kettering surgeon who biked with his team on Sunday.
Encouragement also came from Trek Bicycles CEO John Burke, who praised Epstein’s “amazing attitude.”
“When anybody sees Marty today, they ought to just say thank you, because Marty has done more for cycling in New Jersey than anyone,” Burke said.
“There’s a lot of people at Trek who love Marty and I just want to come out here and tell Marty how much I love him. And I want to make sure Marty has an awesome time today.”
Video: Going Public at the Gran Fondo NJ:
PASSING THE BIKE PUMP
The person most inspired by Epstein’s battle may be his son Jesse, who quietly has assumed management of a family business that expanded to shops in Randolph and Hackettstown under the slogan Saving the World with Bikes Since 1978.
“My dad’s super-positive attitude makes all the difference,” said Jesse Epstein, 41.
“I think that he’s doing better than you would expect because he’s such a happy guy. He smiles every day. It’s unbelievable to me. I’m not sure I could be so positive and happy with such a diagnosis, so I give him a lot of credit.”
The only time Marty Epstein nearly choked up on Sunday morning was when a reporter asked him about handing off the bike shops to his son.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Hover / click on images for captions:
“You know, I remember him when he couldn’t even talk yet, he used to point at bicycles and called them ‘Dada’s,'” recounted Marty, now a grandfather of six.
“He seems to have an inherent love for bicycles, and he is such a wonderful guy,” he said of Jesse. “People love him. He’s such a gentle guy and salesman. He’s just the best. Don’t make me cry!”
Following a local legend is tough. Jesse said dining out with his gregarious father can be challenging because so many acquaintances want to say hello to him.
“He is not a fantastic businessman,” Jesse said. “The truth of the matter is, he is awesome with people, and he loves people, and he loves community and building community, and that’s why he’s been so successful.”
The son doubts he ever will measure up in one vital area: His dad’s iconic, finger-in-the-socket, frizzy mane that is the company’s logo.
“I’m working on it, but it’s not going that well,” Jesse said with a grin, removing his cap to reveal a pate as smooth as a bicycle seat.