Climbing that hill: Garden State Fondo aims to make Marty proud, Sept. 7-8 in Morristown

Fort Nonsense. Photo: Jared Kofsky/PlaceNJ.com
Fort Nonsense in Morristown, finish line for a timed hill climb added to the 2019 Garden State Fondo weekend. Photo: Jared Kofsky/PlaceNJ.com
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A new hill climb is meant to test cyclists at this weekend’s Garden State Fondo in Morristown.

But it’s also symbolic of the epic challenge facing organizers of this biking extravaganza, who are determined to make it the biggest and best one in the Fondo’s nine-year-history…without Marty Epstein.

Epstein, founder and public face of the event, died in May after a valiant battle against prostate cancer. He was 69.

Tale of the tape, at the Gran Fondo NJ 2018. Photo by Katharine Boyle
TALE OF THE TAPE, at the Gran Fondo NJ 2018. Founder Marty Epstein, without helmet, is on the right. Photo by Katharine Boyle

Picturing the Fondo without Marty–known for his wild white mane, ebullient personality, and his vow to “save the world with bikes”–is like trying to imagine the Yankees without Aaron Judge. Or Saturday Night Live without Kenan Thompson. Or the Reputation Tour without Taylor Swift.

“It got a whole lot harder with Marty’s passing. But we’re going to try to make him proud,” said Bill Ruddick, Epstein’s longtime co-director of the Fondo.

“He’s looking down, smiling, because we have a lot of cool stuff going on, and basically, it’s his ideas,” said Jesse Epstein, Marty’s son, who now runs Marty’s Reliable Cycle shops in Morristown, Randolph and Hackettstown.

A Gran Fondo is not a race; the Italian term loosely translates to “Big Ride.”  Marty Epstein modeled the Gran Fondo NJ, as the Morristown event previously was known, after popular Fondos in Europe. Now, it’s ranked as the nation’s best by Gran Fondo Guide.

Ruddick expects a record 2,300 riders this weekend. They will find some new bells and whistles, which Marty enthusiastically planned through his final days.

More than ever, Ruddick promised, this will be a community celebration of bicycling spanning the full weekend of Sept. 7-8, 2019.

As always, Saturday morning will feature the Kids Fondo, a family friendly assortment of free activities at the Vail Mansion.

For the first time, Seeing Eye puppies will be on hand for the kiddies to admire, as the Seeing Eye’s Doggy Dash unfolds at the same location.

Sea of cyclists at the Gran Fondo NJ 2018. Photo by Katharine Boyle
Sea of cyclists at the Gran Fondo NJ 2018. Photo by Katharine Boyle

More new events follow on Saturday: The Fort Nonsense Uphill Time Trial and a Bike Film Festival.

For the time trial, some 240 riders will charge up Ann Street, make a hard left onto Chestnut Street, and then fight their way to the top of Fort Nonsense, a Morristown lookout post built by George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War.

The top three male and female climbers will roll back down with prizes ranging from $300 to 1000.

Co-Director Bill Ruddick says hello at Gran Fondo NJ 2018. From left, Mayor Tim Dougherty, Fondo Co-Director Marty Epstein. Photo by Katharine Boyle
Co-Director Bill Ruddick says hello at Gran Fondo NJ 2018. From left, Mayor Tim Dougherty, Fondo Co-Director Marty Epstein. Photo by Katharine Boyle

Winning won’t be easy. Sprinting from the start line at 30-second intervals, competitors will cover one-kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) and a 200-foot vertical climb, with grades that average seven percent and hit 11 percent at their steepest.

In test runs, the fastest male time has been 2:49. The top woman rider clocked in at 3:33. Categories span from under age 18 to 55 and over.

The hill climb is scheduled from 1 pm to 3 pm, rain or shine. Space up and down the route will be reserved, for free, for fans to cheer the climbers.

“I love the craziness of it. It’s a really tough event. But people are looking for stuff that’s crazy, crazy, crazy,” Ruddick said.

The two-hour film fest starts at 8 pm at the Morris Museum’s 310-seat Bickford Theatre in Morris Township. Ten short films curated by the Bicycle Film Festival will be screened. Admission is $13.

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

Sunday’s Fondo starts at 7 am and will include routes of 105-, 73-, 61-, 42- and 18 miles, winding through the hilly countryside of northern New Jersey. Rides begin and end near the historic Morristown Green.

What’s new is a 126-mile route, dubbed the “Estremo,” for hard-core cyclists. This extra-long trek was created by adding an 18-mile loop in Holland Township, near the Delaware River in Hunterdon County.

Also new is an expanded vendor expo, all day Friday, Sept. 6, and Saturday, Sept. 7, in the Hyatt Regency Morristown’s Grand Ballroom. “That was my dad’s idea,” said Jesse Epstein.

Fondo entrance fees range from $75 to $240. A portion of proceeds will be donated to the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition, the New Jersey Interscholastic Cycling League, Homeless Solutions Inc., the Raritan Headwaters and the Seeing Eye.

To date, more than $1.25 million has been raised for charity by the Gran Fondo NJ and its participants.

Video: Marty goes public in 2018:

Continuing the Fondo is “an incredibly fitting way to honor Marty’s legacy,” said the Seeing Eye’s outgoing president, Jim Kutsch, a tandem rider in the event for several years.

“Marty was really an icon. It was his dream, and he brought it to reality in a very big way,” said Kutsch. He agreed to move the Seeing Eye’s annual Doggy Dash and 5K to Saturday, a few weeks earlier than usual, to add to the Fondo’s weekend excitement.

Morristown cyclist Dave Stowers has logged many miles at the Gran Fondo NJ, and anticipates strong emotions on Sunday when he crosses the finish line, a place where Marty always greeted riders.

“He was always there at the end, cheering me on and putting a medal around my neck. I’ll miss him at that point,” Stowers said.

John Hankin, a cyclist from Morris Township, has pedaled in every Fondo and is signed up for Sunday’s 73-mile “Migrane.”

“It’s a little like a memorial. I think it’s going to be good. I’m looking forward to it,” Hankin said.

IN TANDEM: Biking teams of Ginger Kutsch and Kirsten Hotchkiss and Jim Kutsch and Rob Steidlitz. Ginger and Jim are blind; Jim is president of The Seeing Eye. Kirsten and Rob, who are married, are the 'captains' of their respective tandems. They will ride for The Seeing Eye in the Gran Fondo NJ on Aug. 28. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
IN TANDEM: Biking teams of Ginger Kutsch and Kirsten Hotchkiss and Jim Kutsch and Rob Steidlitz, preparing for the 2011 Gran Fondo NJ, now called the Garden State Fondo.  Photo by Kevin Coughlin

His wife, Samantha Rothman, co-founded the nonprofit Grow It Green Morristown, a beneficiary of the Gran Fondo over the years. She considered Marty Epstein a close friend and mentor, and misses him. Yet he would want this weekend “to be super festive,” she said.

“Even though Marty’s face is on everything, it was bigger than him. He was not an ego person,” Rothman said.

Since the Fondo’s inception, riders have raved about food from local restaurants and bakeries, served at rest stops along the routes and at a post-ride barbecue.

That tradition will continue, Ruddick said, with wood-fired pizzas, cheesecakes, affogatos, cannolis, pignolis, ice cream sandwiches and espresso.

Just as Marty would have insisted.

Dave Stowers and former Morristown Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman logged more than 170 miles between them, at the Gran Fondo NJ, Sept. 10, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Dave Stowers and former Morristown Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman logged more than 170 miles between them, at the Gran Fondo NJ, Sept. 10, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I don’t think he’d want us to dwell on his passing,” said Ruddick, who also lost his mother last month.

“We’re just delivering the event the way he would want us to, knowing he’s up there looking down on us, wanting everything to go well.”
Ruddick and Jesse Epstein readily acknowledge that nobody can replace Marty. But they believe the joy of cycling–the essence of Marty–is eternal.
“As far as people who know and love the Fondo, nothing will change, except Dad won’t be at the end handing out medals,” Jesse Epstein said.
“Marty’s spirit will live on through the event,” he said. “We want to keep everything exactly as he would want it to be. People will miss him, but they’ll still have a fun time.”
MORE ABOUT THE 2019 GRAN FONDO

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