Marty Epstein, who vowed to save the world with bicycles, has died

ALL SMILES: Marty Epstein of Marty's Reliable Cycle at the start of the Gran Fondo NJ, which he organized. Photo by Berit Ollestad
ALL SMILES: Marty Epstein of Marty's Reliable Cycle at the start of the 2011 Gran Fondo NJ, which he organized. Photo by Berit Ollestad
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Marty Epstein, one of Morristown’s most iconic and beloved figures, who put generations of North Jersey families on two wheels, made the town a cycling mecca with his annual Gran Fondo NJ, and vowed to “save the world with bikes,” has died.

The owner of Marty’s Reliable Cycle lost his five-year battle with metastatic prostate cancer on Thursday morning. He was 69.

'SIT, MARTY!' Marty Epstein, left, with Seeing Eye puppy Marty, and cyclist Rob Lax, at the 2018 Gran Fondo NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘SIT, MARTY!’ Marty Epstein, left, with Seeing Eye puppy Marty, and cyclist Rob Lax, at the 2018 Gran Fondo NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s a devastating loss to the community,” Mayor Tim Dougherty said on Thursday. “No words can describe how much he meant to Morristown, and beyond. Cyclists have lost their champion.”

A handful of celebrities need only one name. Prince. Aretha. Ringo. In Morristown, there was only one Marty, an irrepressible character with an untamed white Afro, boundless enthusiasm and a herculean will to live.

“I’ve willed myself to live. This is going to happen!” Marty said in late March, while recuperating from pneumonia in a Livingston rehab center.

Gran Fondo Executive Director Bill Ruddick was with Marty when he passed at the Holly Manor hospice in Mendham, near the Patriot’s Path trail where the bike store’s youth team often rides.

Family members had been with Marty into the wee hours, reading him messages of love that were posted online.

HOGWARTS ALUMNUS? Marty Epstein models the latest in bathrobe couture, January 2019.
HOGWARTS ALUMNUS? Marty Epstein models the latest in bathrobe couture, January 2019.

Almost to his last breath, Marty was hatching plans to make September’s Gran Fondo–a series of bucolic rides that have raised $1.5 million for charity since he started the event in 2011–bigger and better.

He was determined to see those plans through. Any talk of his grim prognosis was banished. Hope became his watchword, and an experimental drug, Keytruda, his magic bullet.

Through grueling chemo- and radiation treatments, Marty never missed an opportunity to praise the doctors and hospitals who kept him alive, or to express thanks for the legions of fans who showered him with love as he shared his medical journey on social media.

To keep things light, he modeled bathrobes on Facebook.

“It was an act of bravery, going through something horrific with grace. He was just an inspiration,” said Tom Werder, executive director of Morris Arts.

bike procession planned for Marty’s funeral, Monday, May 6, 2019. Details below.

Marty kept bouncing back, pushing the boundaries of the life expectancy for his illness, because of his attitude, his son Jesse believes.

“He’s a very positive person, a happy man. He’s always been that way. He likes to make other people smile and feel good,” Jesse said last month.

‘THE PEOPLE WHO DO S—‘

Marty generated smiles in all sorts of innovative–even wacky–ways since opening Marty’s Reliable Cycle on Speedwell Avenue in 1978.

He staged “commuter challenges,” Madison-to-Morristown “races” involving electric bicycles, electric cars and trains, as part of his grand strategy to save the world with bicycles.

He organized bike festivals at a proposed Morristown “Eco Center,” and pedaled in a Friday evening “Critical Mass” ride in which everyone sported Marty wigs.

He even kept grinning when an errant cyclist nearly flattened him at the finish line of the 2014 Gran Fondo:

“He exuded love — for his family, his friends, our community at large and the planet,” said Paul Miller, who helped Marty start the nonprofit Sustainable Morristown in 2009, when they served on the Morristown Partnership.

Marty became the first chairman of Sustainable Morristown, which advocates for environmental causes and social equity.

Marty Epstein, Stacey Schlosser and Erin Guthrie of Sustainable Morristown and Bill Ruddick. Sustainable Morristown received $5,000 from the Gran Fondo New Jersey, Nov. 7, 2013. Photo by Kevin Coughlin,
Marty Epstein, Stacey Schlosser and Erin Guthrie of Sustainable Morristown and Bill Ruddick. Sustainable Morristown received $5,000 from the Gran Fondo New Jersey, Nov. 7, 2013. Photo by Kevin Coughlin,

“As a board member, he pushed us… we were the lead organization for sustainability because of Marty. He’s been a true partner in a lot of stuff,” said Morristown Partnership Executive Director Jennifer Wehring, choking back tears.

She has known Marty, and Marty’ Reliable Cycle, since childhood.

“It’s where you got your first bike,” Wehring said.

Kadie Dempsey, who works in community outreach for the Mayo Performing Arts Center, said she will cherish memories of early mornings volunteering with Marty at events all over town.

“He called us ‘the people who do s—,'” Dempsey said, her eyes brightening.

Even as the end drew near, Marty was prodding Kadie and her artist husband, Dan Fenelon, to paint a mural on the wall of his Morristown bike shop for this fall’s Gran Fondo.

“We’re going to get it done for Marty,” Dempsey vowed.

PASS THE CHEESE?

Fate almost gave the world Marty’s Reliable Cheese Shop.

Marty with his son, Jonathan, early 1980s. Photo courtesy of the family.
Marty with his son, Jonathon, early 1980s. Photo courtesy of the family.

Marty hailed from a family of entrepreneurs. After graduating from Rider College with a business degree in 1972, he wanted to start his own venture.

He explored buying a cheese shop in Vermont, said his son Jesse.

Marty had been working in the small engine department of the family’s auto parts shop, in the Mount Kemble Avenue building now occupied by J&S Designer Flooring.

But his Uncle Chick, a World War II veteran, did not appreciate his shaggy nephew, a veteran of Woodstock.

'WHERE DOES DADDY LIVE?' Jesse Epstein on his first set of wheels, as a toddler in Marty's Reliable Cycle. Photo courtesy of the family.
‘WHERE DOES DADDY LIVE?’ Jesse Epstein on his first set of wheels, as a toddler in Marty’s Reliable Cycle. Photo courtesy of the family.

A year after having his first child, Marty learned that the local bike shop was for sale. It had had three owners since moving in the 1940s from Newark to 116 Speedwell Ave., about a block from the present store. Today it’s home to a Colombian restaurant.

With help from his wife’s family, Marty bought the business.

“He didn’t enjoy biking. He didn’t know anything about it at all,” said Jesse, now 41.

Marty worked so hard at the store in those early days that his son Jonathon, then 4, asked, “Where does Daddy live?”

While he would get a master’s degree in recreation from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Marty would not get comfortable in a saddle until his 40s– and that was on a low-slung recumbent bike.

Marty Epstein, right, and son Jesse sport Team Marty wigs that approximate how Marty looked prior to cancer treatments. Photo courtesy of Marty Epstein
KEEPING IT LIGHT: Marty Epstein, right, and son Jesse sport Team Marty wigs that approximate how Marty looked prior to cancer treatments. Photo courtesy of Marty Epstein, February 2019.

Jesse, an avid mountain biker, nudged his dad onto two wheels and taught him how to use clip-on pedals.

In 1994, Marty’s Reliable Cycle expanded to Succasunna (now Randolph). A Hackettstown shop followed in 2006.

Business acumen was not the secret to the franchise’s longevity, according to Jesse, who started running the shops when his father’s health declined.

“Marty’s was successful in spite of itself,” Jesse said. “It’s my father’s personality and connections to the community that have brought such awesome business to the store.”

And that’s what Jesse plans to carry forward.

TANDEM BIKERS: Jesse Epstein with his dad, Marty Epstein, at the 2018 Gran Fondo NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
TANDEM BIKERS: Jesse Epstein with his dad, Marty Epstein, at the 2018 Gran Fondo NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“One of the things he always impressed on me was, it’s important just to be nice, and to do the right thing. Just to be a friendly person and nice to other people,” Jesse said.

“It’s very simple, but they are words to try to live by. Especially as a retailer. If you can’t be a nice retailer, you’re in a lot of trouble.”

SAVING THE WORLD WITH BIKES:

SAVING THE WORLD FROM CANCER

Marty went public with his condition at last year’s Gran Fondo, stressing the importance of early detection and urging everyone to get regular checkups.

His diagnosis, in the summer before the 2014 Fondo, was shocking.

“He was in the best shape of his life,” said Jesse.

At age 65, Marty had just completed his first “century,” biking 100 miles in a day. Two weeks later, he pedaled the length of New Jersey—216 miles from High Point to Cape May—also in a single day.

During a rare checkup, Marty heard his doctor joke: “You’re so fit, I’m going to find something wrong with you!”

Then the blood work came back.

“When anybody sees Marty today, they ought to just say thank you, because Marty has done more for cycling in New Jersey than anyone,” Trek Bicycles CEO John Burke said at the 2018 Gran Fondo, praising Marty’s “amazing attitude.”

Listen closely, and you will hear a biker’s thank you at the end of this video:

In November, Marty’s illness took a grave turn. He entered the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York for what family members thought would be the last time. Somehow, he rallied.

In late January, he slowly climbed into the saddle to make a fund-raising pitch with fellow cancer survivor John Hyland. Team Marty’s campaign netted more than $50,000 for research–to help others:

Marty was proud of that effort when we spoke at the end of March in a Livingston rehab center. He was recuperating from pneumonia, which family members suspect was a reaction to the experimental treatment that was his last hope.

He was brimming with excitement.

Earlier that day, he had ventured outside for the first time in weeks. He boasted of walking 180 feet, now a major achievement. Tumors and treatments had weakened his left side, and a diet pumped through a feeding tube had stripped many pounds from him.

CYCLING GENES: Marty Epstein with grandkids Jonah, 6; Jodie, 8; and Julianna, 3, at the Kids Fondo 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 10, 2016.
CYCLING GENES: Marty Epstein with grandkids Jonah, 6; Jodie, 8; and Julianna, 3, at the Kids Fondo 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 10, 2016.

Yet Marty had just bought a Trek electric bicycle. He planned to start a club and lead rides for people like him—people recovering from illnesses, or just plain out of shape.

“We want to make Morristown a more livable, fun place to live,” he said.

When his companion Diane Doherty, a pillar of support, gently tried to brace him for the possibility he might wash out of the clinical trial, Marty would not hear of it.

“I have too much to live for,” Marty reminded her, and himself. “I have you and my family and my friends… My end game is not to die.”

He had plans, big plans, for his rechristened Garden State Fondo. Long popular in Europe, these daylong rambles virtually were unknown in the U.S. when Marty launched his in 2011.

Marty Epstein cuts the ribbon for the first Gran Fondo NJ. Photo by Berit Ollestad
Marty Epstein cuts the ribbon for the first Gran Fondo NJ, in 2011. Photo by Berit Ollestad

“Now, there are hundreds of wannabes,” he said.

With help from his executive director, Bill Ruddick, Marty’s creation has become a happening that draws 2,000 cyclists from near and far to Morristown every year.

For this fall, Marty was shooting higher. He envisioned 4,000 people packing a weekend extravaganza to include two stages of music; food, beer- and wine-tastings; discounted meals, a Fort Nonsense hill climb, and a bicycle film festival.

“It’s gonna be remarkable. We’re selling not just the event, but the uniqueness of New Jersey. New Jersey has a lot to offer that people don’t know,” said one of the greatest boosters the Garden State has ever seen.

“It’s gonna be really fun,” Marty promised.

Martin Dale Epstein is survived by three children: Jesse and his wife Johanna of Chester; Molly Lyristis of Seattle, WA; and Jonathon of Queens, NY; grandchildren Jodie, Jonah, Julianna, Jasper, Renée and Leah; his companion, Diane Doherty of Bloomfield; his former wife, Francine Epstein of Chester; and a sister, Susan Salsberg of Boonton Township.

A funeral service is planned for 10 am on Monday, May 6, 2019, at Temple B’Nai Or, at 60 Overlook Road in Morristown. Afterward, cyclists are invited to join a bike procession to escort Marty to his final resting place, Beth Israel Cemetery in Cedar Knolls. The service also will be streamed online.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations in honor of Marty be made to Cycle for Survival.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Im going back to the mid 80s when I can remember Marty giving me a free bike tube or two when I was a 10-13 year old. I was often a repeat customer within a few days and he saved me from a parental reprimand. My thoughts and prayers are with Epstein family…Morristown and the world lost a good one!

  2. You’re welcome, Molly. Wish this story could have had the happy ending everyone was praying for. Your dad brightened our lives. We were lucky to have him. It’s hard to think of Marty without smiling. It’s even harder to think of Morristown without Marty. Thank you for your kind words. Deepest condolences to you and your family.

  3. Dear Kevin, This is Molly, Marty’s daughter. I just wanted to thank you for the thoughtful and well crafted article you put together about my dad. I feel like it captured Marty’s life and legacy so well. It made me laugh and it made me cry. As you said, my dad got s**t done, and you got this done right. Thank you so much.

  4. Marty was one of a kind. We all were so lucky to have him. Thanks for your kind words, Faith.

  5. Kevin, such a wonderful article and tribute to Marty, !!!…thanks so much….Morrristown needs more heroes who do good things for our town, just like Marty did !!!…thank you, Kevin…

  6. I’ve known Marty since I was a kid coming up to Hopatcong & Marty’s in Morristown was the place we went to have our bikes fixed. I also remember going to his other place in Roxbury but it read now Randolph! If I remember correctly he remembered Me. WHERE HIS FUNERAL IS IS NOT FAR FROM ME BUT I HAVEN’T DRIVEN SINCE B4 NYE/NYD WHEN I WAS IN THE HOSPITAL. Maybe it just needs a Jump.

  7. In his honor, I bet the Grand Fondo will be of epic proportions this year! God speed Marty!

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