They went forth in waves on Sunday morning, hundreds of cyclists at a time, pouring through the starting gate of the Garden State Fondo as if it were the sluice for a great and mighty reservoir.
The very last rider to approach that gate, Karen Clark of Morris Plains, stopped abruptly…and wept.
Her husband Kenneth, a Fondo volunteer, rushed to embrace her. He choked up, too. Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty consoled her as well. His eyes moistened.
“Marty was a very dear friend of ours, a close family member, extended family,” explained Kenneth Clark.
Many of the more than 2,200 cyclists in attendance felt the same way.
The Fondo promised scenic, gourmet-catered rides of varying lengths through the northern New Jersey countryside, on a breezy weekend that included a timed hill climb up Fort Nonsense, a bike film festival, and a “Kids Fondo” for tykes on trikes and training wheels.
But riders also came to remember the man who first got the crazy idea of importing a European curiosity (Gran Fondo is Italian for “big ride”) to the Garden State.
“I do this ride for Marty,” said David Steel of Bronxville, NY. “Marty introduced me to competitive cycling many years ago, and I love him like another father.”
Grand Marshal Tara Parsons, a former bicycle racer, called Sunday a rolling memorial. Overall, the mood was celebratory.
Devoted to “Saving the World with Bikes” through his Marty’s Reliable Cycle stores, Marty was an evangelist for cycling camaraderie.
Parsons encouraged riders to pay it forward by bringing “one more person to the start line next year.”
“This is Marty’s legacy,” Dougherty said, gazing upon the sea of cyclists.
He missed seeing Marty in his Fondo frenzy, “running around, getting things done…with that white, wiry hair bopping through the crowd.”
Continuing a tradition that always made Marty beam, the mayor led bikers at the starting line in a lusty cheer of “MARTY!” It reverberated down Speedwell Avenue towards Morris Plains…and maybe beyond.
“I think he heard us,” said Marty’s longtime business partner, Fondo Executive Director Bill Ruddick.
Usually a behind-the-scenes guy, Ruddick opted to ride in the event for the first time. During brief remarks welcoming the cyclists and thanking sponsors and an army of volunteers, he cradled a squirmy young black Labradour retriever from The Seeing Eye Inc., one of five nonprofits chosen to receive a share of Fondo proceeds.
“Do I get to keep the puppy?” he asked, getting some laughs.
Also taking a rare turn in the saddle was Jesse Epstein, Marty’s son, who now runs Marty’s bicycle shops in Morristown, Randolph and Hackettstown.
“Obviously, it’s bittersweet for me,” he said. Thanking the cycling community for its love and support, Jesse said the Fondo has helped lift his spirits.
“After losing my dad in May, something clicked. I hadn’t been riding as much as I used to. And I said to myself, it’s time for you to get back on the bike. And this event has inspired me to do that.
“And I feel better than I’ve felt in the last three years, getting back on that bike and doing these training rides. I’m so happy to be a part of this community… and I can’t wait to get out there and ride with you,” Jesse said.
MENTOR, FRIEND, INSPIRATION
Diagnosed in 2014, Marty went public about his metastatic prostate cancer at last year’s Fondo. Urging everyone to get frequent health screenings, he raised money for research and tried an experimental treatment.
Insisting he would beat his illness, Marty cranked out ideas for the Fondo, and planned rides with friends like the Clarks, into his final days.
“He was always very positive. That inspires you,” said Bedminster resident Monika Stickel, a rider for Team Marty.
Cyclists from the Memorial Soan Kettering Cancer Center rode on Sunday to honor him, and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.) offered words of praise for Marty, Jesse and Bill Ruddick.
Members of the New Jersey Interscholastic Cycling League–another beneficiary of the Fondo–also participated.
“We are here because of him, to remember him,” league Director Ken Seebeck of Mays Landing said of Marty, a member of his board.
“I considered him a mentor and a friend. He was the inspiration for our league…If you ride a bike in New Jersey, you knew Marty.”
Feeling lonely without Marty at Saturday’s Kids Fondo, volunteer Jody Marcus brightened the morning by creating “Marty-on-a-Stick” coloring-book cutouts of Marty’s cartoon logo.
Marty’s 2 1/2-year-old grandson Jasper raced around with one attached to his balance bike.
Jonathon Epstein, Marty’s son, said the Fondo is where his dad would want him to be, promoting cycling and surrounding himself with healthy, upbeat people.
“This was his greatest passion and greatest success,” Jonathon said. “The happiest I’ve ever seen him was when he was handing out medals at this event. He was totally into his element when he was here.”
Tara Parsons, the Fondo Grand Marshal, said she invariably gets the same response when she tells New York cyclists that she spends weekends in Morristown.
“People are like, ‘Oh my God, the riding there is incredible.’ And I’m like, ‘I know.’ A lot of that is thanks to Marty Epstein.”
Bringing thousands of cyclists to Morristown is what Marty lived for, said his friend, Kenneth Clark. As long as they keep coming, he figures, Marty is immortal.
“Absolutely,” Clark said. “He’s here.”