Tackling the New Jersey Highlands Gran Fondo, Part I

Breathing heavy at the end of timed section #1. Photo Credit: Esme Kline

On any other day, the scene would have been something off the back of a postcard. A quiet, winding back road in the countryside around Warwick, NY (just north of the NJ border), flanked on both sides by emerald meadows blending into beautiful mountain vistas and clear blue skies, all basking in the warm afternoon sunshine.

Except that winding back road was winding in a steeply upward direction, and I was on a bike. I had been for the past 5+hours. The gorgeous geological features around me (and my feet around my cranks, coincidentally) were going by slowly. Very slowly. Too slowly. I was near my limit and far from home.

So how did I find myself here? Let’s rewind a few hours…

The New Jersey Highlands Gran Fondo

I had begun the morning of June 8th, 2014 bright and early, ready to tackle the NJ Highlands Gran Fondo. Around 6:30am, I rolled into the parking lot of Craigmeur Recreation Area in Newfoundland, NJ. One of the seven events on the Gran Fondo National Championship Series, the NJ Highlands Gran Fondo offered the choice of three distances that read like the menu at Starbucks. Riders could choose from the “Piccolo” 25 mile route, the “Medio” 60 mile route, or the “Gran” 100 mile route. Months before, I had committed myself to completing the “Gran” distance. Sometimes I wish would I plan my coffee choices that far ahead, too.

With 8000+ feet of climbing on tap for the day, I knew my work was cut out for me. With the expert help of my coach Brian of BJL Coaching, I took a few weeks out of my time trial training to prepare for this journey. It was to be one of the longest and definitely the hilliest ride I’d done in my short cycling life. I had no intentions of going into it blind. After many long training hours in the saddle, I was as ready as I was going to get.

I chose my my trusty steed Clara (whom you may seen here before) as my mount for the day. Just days before the event, I had secured a new fork to accommodate my recently GURU-optimized riding position. I rush-shipped it across the country and installed it with less than 12 hours to spare. With a new fork and a fresh set of tires, Clara was as ready as she was going to be as well.

Accompanying me on my journey was friend and co-worker Nick, who had completed this event the previous year. He’s also an endurance MTB racer and a two-time finisher of The Longest Day, a 208 mile North-South odyssey from one end of New Jersey to the other. Good company for an endurance event, I’d say.

And So It Began…

Nick and I rolling down Fayson Lakes Rd.

Nick and I rolling down Fayson Lakes Rd. Photo credit: gtluke

After a brief check-in and timing chip assignment, your humble blogger and 143 other riders made the right turn onto Green Pond Road to begin our quest. The next 100 miles would include four timed sections. The best combined time through those sections would be declared the winner. I had no ambitions of being said winner, but racing against the clock had become my primary hobby and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to resist the temptation to push it at least a little.

Nick and I agreed to take it relatively easy. I wanted to be conservative and he was still recovering from a grueling 50 mile endurance MTB race the previous week. We both just wanted to reach the end in one piece. A rainbow of jerseys streaked by us during the mostly downhill opening miles, and we made no effort to keep up. Then we reached the first time section…

The first timed segment was Brook Valley Road, a familiar climb for both of us. The timing chip sensor called out in a high-pitched tone to us as we passed, as if to say, “Come on. You know you wanna…” Like moths to the fire, we were powerless to resist the temptation. The rainbow of jerseys that streaked by earlier was now streaking the other way as we ascended the climb.

Breathing heavy at the end of timed section #1. Photo Credit: Esme Kline

Breathing heavy at the end of timed section #1.
Photo Credit: Esme Kline

When I reached the end, the timing chip sensor chimed again as I passed, my mouth agape and my chest heaving. “See! I told you it’d be fun!”, it toned mockingly. Fun. Right.

Nick was about a minute ahead of me. He had rode away from me about halfway up the climb, and I couldn’t follow his pace. Perhaps my instinct for self-preservation was stronger than I thought (stronger than Nick’s, at least). We regrouped near the summit and and continued, albeit with one or two less matches to burn in our proverbial matchbooks.

The next 50-ish miles went by with little fuss. The sun was shining, the scenery was stunning, and the rest stops were stocked with scrumptious snacks. But most importantly, all my stresses were silenced. Days like this one remind me why I love cycling so much. When you’re enveloped by a cool breeze and you have nothing else to think about besides turning the pedals, an all-encompassing calm takes over your mind. You start to feel light and all of sudden you’re flying just above the ground. It’s a feeling unlike any other, and its truly something to savor and treasure. The promise of that feeling is what gets me back in the saddle, even after a long week of hard training. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this feeling has changed my life. So much so that I’ve dedicated the last few years of my young life to helping others discover this same feeling for themselves. Hearing people tell their story of finding their joy on a bike makes all the long hours on my feet running around the sales floor worth it.

As I rolled along in my blissful euphoria, I knew in the back of my mind the day would not be getting easier. The hills were getting steeper and longer, and my energy reserves were only getting emptier. The most difficult part of the course was looming on the horizon.

Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon.

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