Cyclists fight uphill battle at Fort Nonsense in Morristown

Cyclist works hard at 2019 Fort Nonsense hill climb. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Morristown’s Fort Nonsense never saw any action during the Revolutionary War. But it was the site of a pitched battle for more than 100 cyclists on Saturday.

“It was a lung-grabber, for sure!” said Mary Zider, a former pro rider who won the $1,000 prize as top female finisher with a 2:52 time in the first Fort Nonsense Uphill Time Trial.

The one-kilometer dash up Ann and Chestnut streets was a new addition to the Garden State Fondo, an annual weekend of biking events now in its ninth year.

Cyclist hugs corner at 2019 Fort Nonsense hill climb. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Things kicked off Friday with an expo for bike vendors, and continued Saturday morning with the annual Kids Fondo–children’s activities including a short bike ride and pizza. An evening Bike Film Festival, another first, was scheduled for the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township.

The weekend concludes Sunday with the actual Fondo. It consists of friendly treks of 18- to 126 miles (Gran Fondo is Italian for “big ride”) into the northern New Jersey countryside. Rides start and end in Morristown, where a barbecue will greet the finishers.

Cyclist zips up Chestnut Street. Video by Olivia Yepez for

After a hectic, virtually sleepless final week of preparations, Fondo Executive Director Bill Ruddick said he was pleased with the hill climb, which debuted under sunny skies, with a gentle breeze and temperatures in the 70s.

Volunteer Jody Marcus created cartoon stick to remember Marty Epstein, at the 2019 Kids Fondo. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He thinks Marty Epstein might have had something to do with the forecast. The iconic founder of the Garden State Fondo and the Marty’s Reliable Cycle chain (“Saving the World with Bikes!”) died in May of prostate cancer.

For the first time, Ruddick had to sprint solo to bring the Fondo toward the finish line.

“We just know that we want to deliver the best event around, to keep the tradition going that Marty started,” Ruddick said.

Ruddick is hopeful Fort Nonsense becomes a permanent part of that tradition.

Cyclist charges from starting gate at first Fort Nonsense hill climb, Sept. 7, 2019. Photo by Olivia Yepez

“We have a great gem of a national park here. As you can see from the scenery, it’s one of the nicest finishes in cycling,” he said, framed by majestic trees on a hilltop overlooking Morristown. Manhattan skyscrapers glinted on the horizon.

Built by George Washington’s troops, Fort Nonsense is a little-known piece of the Morristown National Historical Park. The National Park Service was “spectacularly helpful” with the hill climb, Ruddick said.

Tom Ross, superintendent of the park, appeared delighted to showcase Fort Nonsense.

“I think Marty would be pleased,” Ross said. “This spotlights the town and its cultural attractions. It’s a great testament to him that the organizers have expanded the Fondo, and hopefully it continues to grow.”

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:

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Competitors did not have much time to appreciate the view, however, as they fought the clock, and uphill grades of seven- to 11 percent, during their 200-foot vertical ascent. They went one by one, every 30 seconds or so, to cheers from spectators sprinkled along the route.

Garden State Fondo Grand Marshal Tara Parsons, a former elite-level racer, said she cried “tears of joy” after her three minutes and 28 seconds of “pleasure and pain.”

“I’ll admit that when I was doing it, I thought, what exactly did I sign up for here?” Parsons said with a laugh.

Fort Nonsense hill climb, Sept. 7, 2019. Photo by Kristen Hellstrom

“It was good to be over!” added the top male finisher, 28-year-old Nick Wheatley Schaller of Brooklyn, who looked forward to a more leisurely 126-mile ride during Sunday’s Fondo.

Beth Forrest, 24, a Queens resident who rides with a women’s team, said challenges like this are fun, “even if you can’t breathe.”

Likewise, Randolph cyclist Paul Macchia waxed philosophical about Fort Nonsense.

“I didn’t do as well as I wanted,” said the Verizon executive. “But I could’ve been home on the couch eating a sandwich, and this is much better!”

The first Fort Nonsense hill climb. Video by Olivia Yepez for

Zider, the Norwich, VT, woman with the fastest climb, described the burning sensation of oxygen-starved leg muscles, and a love-hate relationship with a sport she deems a “suffer-fest.”

Fort Nonsense hill climb, Sept. 7, 2019. Photo by Kristen Hellstrom

“It’s pretty much, who can suffer the most, wins,” said Zider, a sales rep for an olive oil company.

Some riders covered great distances for the chance to suffer for less than a mile. Tyler Pearce, 33, ventured from Bass Lake, CA, to test himself here.

Brendan Schoff, 20, of Norwalk, CT, was enticed by three prior rides through Morristown with Team 26, a gun reform advocacy group named in honor of 26 children and staff members slain in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Maeve Grennan, 15, winner of the youth division, 2019 Fort Nonsense hill climb. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Before taking on Fort Nonsense, former Morristown Council President Rebecca Feldman had to fight local traffic, pedaling from her home across town. She earned a third-place medal in her age bracket.

The first climb, up Ann Street, wasn’t so bad. But then came Chestnut.

“I turned the corner into the park, and my brain was so addled I didn’t know if I was on the proper side of the barrier!” Feldman recounted. “Someone with a cowbell egged me on.”

Competitor Rebecca Feldman and Garden State Fondo Executive Director Bill Ruddick at 2019 Fort Nonsense hill climb. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Maeve Grennan, on the other hand, had no quarrel with Fort Nonsense. The Morristown High School sophomore breezed to victory in the under-18 category — atop a mountain bike with big fat tires.

Accustomed to charging up hilly trails in races with the Morristown Revolutions, she registered a 4:04 time on Saturday that easily led a field of one: Herself.

“Fort Nonsense is really tall, but it’s not all that steep,” insisted Grennan, 15. “Parts are flat, so you can catch your breath. It’s a lot of fun.”

Morristown Green correspondent Olivia Yepez contributed to this report. She is a student at Drew University.


Kids Fondo 2019 slideshow photos by Mary Dougherty, Mark Davis and Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:

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Jess Epstein of Marty’s Reliable Cycle starts the 2019 Kids Fondo. Photo by Mark Davis
Fort Nonsense hill climb, Sept. 7, 2019. Photo by Kristen Hellstrom
Fort Nonsense hill climb, Sept. 7, 2019. Photo by Kristen Hellstrom
Morristown First Lady Mary Dougherty is flanked by brothers Jesse and Jonathon Epstein at 2019 Kids Fondo, where Dougherty volunteered with students from the Assumption Church religious education program. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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  1. I ran track and Cross-country for Morristown High School from 1992-94…we ran repeats up Fort Nonsense from the main gate to the grassy knoll then take a sharp right and run up the face of the Fort to the cannon!!!…it got us ready for the State Sectionals which were held in Homdel with a similar path called “The Bowl”…can’t believe these cyclists started at the bottom of Ann street…much credit to them as we ran that hill once or twice too!!…lol