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ON THE ROAD

THROUGH

PARADISE A first-time t ti ti G Gran F Fondo d iin C Cozumel, l M Mexico, i seeks k tto make k a difference

Photo: GFNY Cozumel

By Zap

The roads aren’t plentiful on the island, but they are well marked with miles of a dedicated bike path leading out of downtown to the scenic, windy side of the island. 64

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Former Olympian Nelson Vails remains one of the sport’s biggest ambassadors. He spent his entire time on the island on a mission to shoot more “selfies” than anyone thought possible.

I

’m sure by now most of you are familiar with the movie Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. In it, Costner plays a baseball-obsessed fan who decides to bet the bank on his passion for the game by building a baseball diamond in his backyard under the belief that similarly impassioned fans will make the trek to his middleof-nowhere-located Iowa farm to watch some ball being played. The memory of that movie struck me as I sat among 1000 or so other riders on the starting line of the first-ever GFNY Cozumel Gran Fondo under a PA speaker that repeated the idea that we were all playing a part in history by participating in this inaugural event. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t any sort of “big” history we were making, but it was a firsttime event that seemed to make everyone feel that much more special about participating in it. And yes, subjective as it is, there might be plenty of people who would question Cozumel as a destination worthy of the title “paradise,” but as I sat in the staging area at 6:30 in the morning looking over the riders in front of me, the air was already warm, and the only thing I could see with a bluer hue than the sky overhead was the crystal blue water lapping on the nearby beach. 66

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THE ISLAND CALLS When race promoter Shaun Gad first called with the offer to come and ride in his event, I was a bit perplexed. The ride was called the Gran Fondo New York in Cozumel (GFNYC). Huh? Shaun is a long-time (and former New Yorkbased) cyclist who was lured to the island years ago for another business. Once there, he befriended fellow cyclist Miguel Gonzalez, whose family had local roots for over five decades. Between the two of them they hatched the idea of promoting a gran fondo on the island. That Cozumel had already served as an eight-time site of the Ironman triathlon series was all the proof they needed that the island’s infrastructure could support a big bike event. Cozumel is one of four islands found in the state of Quintana Roo that makes up the destination known as the Mexican Caribbean. Although far quieter than the famous spring-break domain of Cancun across the bay on the mainland, Cozumel is still a tourist destination and cruise-ship port, but it is far quieter and is home to the world’s second-largest coral-reef barrier. Also found on the island are various Mayan ruins, which provide some appreciable context to the locale’s history.

Aware of the growing popularity of gran fondos in America, Shaun and Miguel called a few stateside promoters looking for a partnership opportunity, and it was Uli Fluhme, the promoter of the GFNY, who returned their call. Within a matter of weeks, Uli had made the trip to Cozumel and the deal was done. Shaun and Miguel immediately got to work chasing sponsors and government buy-ins.

ISLAND LIVING At just 30 miles in length and nine miles wide, Cozumel is not a large tract of land. For the sake of maximizing a road course for a bike race, it doesn’t help that only half the island is used for commercial purposes, with the other half being a dedicated nature reserve. However, it wasn’t until my second conversation with Shaun (after I had accepted his invitation to participate) that I started to learn more about the island. “You do know that there are no hills in Cozumel, right?” he asked. Actually, I didn’t know that. Shaun continued, “But what we do have is a lot of wind, so instead of a KOM jersey, we have a KOW jersey—King of the Wind!” Knowing that headwinds are about as far out of place in my version of “paradise” as are broken chains, I have to


On the first lap there was enough people riding together to easily find a wheel to sit on for protection from the wind...

...unfortunately, on the second lap around the island it was not as easy to find a group to sit in on.

admit to losing a skosh of enthusiasm. Having been to more than my fair share of events over the years, I was amazed at the level of professionalism found at the GFNYC. In fact, even before I landed, I was already impressed with the level of professionalism shown by the GYNYC crew. Weekly Internet updates ensured that every question I could have about the event was answered beforehand. Upon landing it just got better, as I found out that there were six host hotels, each with on-site bike mechanics, a built-up expo, hundreds of school volunteers, and quality finishers’ medals. Speaking to Shaun and Miguel, I was impressed with their goal of not just using the gran fondo to further promote the island as a recreational sport destination, but more important, to try and encourage more locals, both on and off the island, to take up cycling. Just as it is in America, obesity is a widespread problem south of the border, and they both see the social side of cycling as something that can grow the sport with the help of mass-participation events.

THE RIDE Due to the limited road network on the island, the course was made up of two 50-mile loops that ran south from the start in downtown to the Punta Sur lighthouse before heading up the eastern coastline where the strongest headwinds were found. After about 10 miles of exposed, but breathtakingly beautiful, coastal scenery, the route swung left and headed back to the western side of the island. Unlike some gran fondos, the Cozumel event never shied away from calling it a race. And sure, at first glance it looked like the last thing many of the participants had in mind was making a race out of the ride. There were a handful of bikes with radios blaring music, plenty of tri bikes wobbling along in the crowd as the riders tried to maintain control in their stretched-out position. In short, it was a bit sketchy mid-pack for the first mile or so. But, after the riders got sorted, the race was on in the futile attempt to catch the front runners (see “Wind Tips”). Beyond the riders who were there just to have fun, there was an impressive number of riders with some serious, high-dollar rigs looking for a good result. Out on the road it was a memorable treat to hear live mariachi music being played at various sections of the route. It was also equal parts pain and pleasure to ride through downtown Cozumel after the first lap and smell so much fresh Mexican food being cooked.

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pleasant scent of freshly made Mexican food, there was no one part of the course that had the visual and physical impact of something like the King Ridge climb in Levi’s GranFondo. However, when I was floating in the crystal blue ocean after the ride, I began to think about the day in a different perspective. As bike geeks, we often put the entire focus of an organized ride

on the ride side of the experience. That makes sense. But, after three days on a tropical island, the gran fondo became just one part of the overall attraction. The Cozumel Gran Fondo was unlike any other organized ride I had participated in—it had me dwelling on everything except the ride. I say, come for the gran fondo and stay for the snorkeling and chicken mole enchiladas!

Photo: GFNY Cozumel

No doubt being able to rely on a small community of friends, family and enthusiastic government officials helped Shaun and Miguel execute a first-rate event. And while there were no pinetree forests to ride through, no steep ascents or blazing descents, the island experience was definitely unique. While the course had its scenic spots, the challenge of gusting winds, and the

Thankfully, it takes all kinds.

ZAP’S WIND TIPS Despite my intention of employing every wheel-sucking strategy known to man on the windy side of the island, as luck would have it, I couldn’t have ended up more isolated on the two sections with the worst headwinds. Drats. Unlike our own (former pro) Neil Shirley who is fully adept in the ways of a rolling peloton, I am not. However, I can attest to having endured enough RBA lunch rides to learn something about proper tactics and pack etiquette. Since everyone will eventually face a stiff headwind at some point in their riding career, I thought this would be the optimum time to pass a few tips on. If there was one word that everyone assuredly knows about surviving in the


2.

1.

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4. 1. The lagoon at the InterContinental Hotel Presidente was the perfect post-ride therapy. 2. The promoters had hundreds of fresh rice cakes made for the event. 3. Cozumel had its own style of a post-ride party. 4. A popular destination for cruise ships, the island offers plenty of views of the various boats and their passengers.

wind, it’s “drafting.” You’ve no doubt seen the wheel-to-wheel and bumper-tobumper tactics used in everything from the Tour de France to NASCAR racing. Why? Because it works! Even with two riders, forming a paceline is the most efficient way to progress against a headwind. Remember that proper paceline etiquette calls for each rider to stay within a half-wheel distance of the rider directly in front of you, and once you start drafting, you can ease up on your pedaling effort to best avoid overlapping wheels—a major faux pas. Rotate. Riding in a paceline is good, 72

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but as happened to me on the first lap in Cozumel, it falls apart quickly if riders don’t rotate through. I didn’t know how to say the word in Spanish, and not even rotating my hands in a circular motion worked when I tried to choreograph an echelon (a diagonally positioned paceline used in a sidewind). Then again, maybe the other riders just didn’t care. And then, as occurred on the second lap, when I was pulling a small paceline along trying to bridge up to a larger group, I would pull off and the guy who was sitting second wheel would take the lead for maybe five seconds before pulling off to the back and letting someone else take the lead. I hate that! People, it’s all about working together, taking a good pull and working hard. Of course, there was also the guy who took the lead and refused to pull off when his speed dropped dramatically, which slowed us all down. From my position back in the pack I would crane my neck to look to the front and could see the guy barely turning circles. Finally, as

the pack we were trying desperately to catch started pulling away, I pulled out, rode to the front and took over the lead. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Of course, desperate times require desperate measures, like when you have to make the decision of whether to stay with a group or break out and pedal on by yourself. That happened when I was desperate to make up the time I’d lost downing two rice cakes at a feed station and got stuck in a group of riders who didn’t want to work. Watching a group ahead slowly pedal away, I was forced to go solo in the wind. Unprotected as I was, I chose an easier gear and just kept my head down. Unfortunately, once you go, it’s hard to accept defeat and roll back to a group that you previously abandoned. Luckily, I caught (and passed) the group of riders ahead, so my solo gamble worked. Well, until it didn’t when about a half-hour later I was passed back by the first group that I had left behind. ■

GFNY Cozumel featured in Road Bike Action Magazine  

Read about GFNY Cozumel from the editor and chief Zap of Road Bike Action Magazine. From the words of Zap "There's no other Gran Fondo like...

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