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