Racing in Central Park: Mengoni Grand Prix 2018

With the first summer heat wave arriving this past weekend it is hard to believe that we're just now hitting the mid-point of the Central Park race calendar. Frigid early season races have given way to temperatures surpassing ninety degrees but going into this weekend there were still eight Central Park races left on the calendar. However Mengoni is the last 'big' Central Park race of 2018 before the remainder of the year shifts back to the CRCA Club Races we know and love. As one of the longest standing races in New York City - one previously attended by everyone from George Hincapie to Niki Terpstra - the Mengoni Grand Prix was a memorable day on the bike. Though before the first racer could roll off the start line there were a long list of challenges that had to be overcome. A look behind the scenes and then inside the race:

Behind the Scenes at the Mengoni Grand Prix By Matthew Vandivort

Orchestrating the CRCA open race calendar has always been a complex juggling act. And as we touched on in Grant's Tomb Criterium: How the Race Happened it is a responsibility that largely falls on the shoulders of a small circle of CRCA volunteers and staff. Thankfully after a hectic few months the Open Race calendar is winding down with only the Fort Lee Criterium remaining. But as is seemingly the case with every race CRCA hosts, getting through the Mengoni Grand Prix involved its own series of behind the scenes challenges and sacrifices: 

We need a new finish line - the details of our Central Park calendar - including finish lines - are dictated well in advance of the March season opener. However going into the week of the Mengoni Grand Prix we faced the surprise of missing road markings for the final mile of our designated finish after repaving activity in the park. With plenty of fast riders and large fields in store for the race we knew this was untenable. Julius, the Club's VP of Racing, had to reach out to NYC Parks to relocate to a more traditional Cat's Paw finish while Ted and I recalculated lap counts for every field to insure we finished (a) on time and (b) minimized the chance of overlapping field finishes. It was a last minute change but one that we feel good about given the need to emphasize safety for other park users while hosting races in Central Park.

How are we going to setup this course - fresh off that unexpected finish line change we also discovered that Sergio, the Club's designated course setup driver, would not be in attendance at the race. As one of the Club's vital staff members for each Central Park race, missing Sergio meant we had short notice to both find a backup driver and vehicle as well as to obtain the pre-requisite permits to drive a new vehicle in the Park. Thankfully Julius was once again a big problem solver - volunteering to skip racing and to fill in for Sergio as the Club's driver. Julius' car may have been comically overloaded with cones and warning signs on race morning but his willingness to sacrifice his opportunity to race in order to help the club made a big difference in insuring the Mengoni Grand Prix happened (our backup plan involved attempting to distribute a significant quantity of cones and signs via bike).

Let's add early number pickup to the mix - the CRCA Board is stretched almost comically thin at the moment, to the extent that structural changes to the Board/calendar/club may have to be considered in the coming months and years. That said, based on feedback from the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic we still decided to add a small incremental task to our planning by offering early number pickup the evening before the race. Thankfully this is one of those instances where we were able to pull in support from a combination of our CRCA sub-teams, a few CRCA marshals and the CRCA Board to bring this to fruition. And with over 70 racers showing up it was a big success - letting those racers sleep in a bit longer while also shortening lines on race morning. 

Hosting a race in the busiest park in the country is never easy - even after all of those hurdles the toughest part of promoting the Mengoni Grand Prix was yet to come: surviving race day. For Board members, staff, marshals and teams it was a brutally early morning as registration setup starts before 4:30AM. However thanks to early number pickup and despite a scare on our supply of safety pins the race started exactly on time at 5:30AM. There were hiccups that followed - recreational / vehicle traffic in the Park is always a bit frightening and Saturday was no different (see the video below). We accidentally had a lap cut from the Men's P/1/2 field. But all of our volunteers, staff and USAC officials were on top of these challenges and racing largely went off without a hitch - in some ways the biggest stain on an otherwise successful day was that racers were caught riding backwards on Park Drives and the riding their bikes on walking paths by NYC Parks, conduct that continues to put our race permits at risk. 

Whether it is the errant truck or the misdeeds of a few racers there were imperfections to the Mengoni Grand Prix. But we were able to host 344 riders for a race that started on time, avoided any serious crashes and gave the entire cycling community a few hours of pedaling very fast in the middle of New York City. The current volunteer-led structure underlying the race was certainly under pressure in the lead-up to the event - as always a thank you to Ted and Julius for their efforts - but I think we can focus on fixing those challenges on another day and declare the Mengoni Grand Prix a successful finale to 2018 Open Racing in Central Park. 

Mengoni Grand Prix 2018: the Race by Erwin Kersten

Racing our bikes in Central Park usually means a CRCA Club Race, apart from those two special open races a year. They may be the same course and predominately the same NYC teams, and still, it adds something distinctive. This Saturday, it was The Mengoni Grand Prix’s turn as the last open race of the 2018 season, and excitement levels were high. 

As a foreigner, I love how some of these races give insight into the history of cycling in the US. Via CRCA’s introductory email, I learned how Fred Mengoni emigrated to the United States from Italy (where he used to race bikes) back in 1956 and picked-up cycling again next to his day job in real estate. You can read more on his story and how he made it into the Cycling Hall of Fame here: CRCA.net

With a 4:30am start from Brooklyn, pinning your number the night before is a godsend. Big shout-out to CRCA and ‘Finish Line Physical Therapy’ for organizing a pre-event number pickup on the Friday before.

As far as race tactics were concerned, there was a focus on the M3 given the strength in numbers and squad. We had Matt racing in the M12’s, and Burati, Clay, Colin, Corey M, Corey W, Johnny, Ted and myself in the 3’s. Consensus in the team was the race would and could be controlled by the two biggest teams - ourselves and RBNY, the other team starting with similar numbers – and us, so we agreed on a plan that involved a breakaway scenario and a sprint.

Our M3 race started as expected, with RBNY showing their intentions on the front. Ted, Corey Williams and myself stayed top 15 wheels as much as possible from the get-go to join any early breaks. At the second repeat of Harlem Hill, RBNY put in their first real dig. I believe it was Joe Emmerling, who set it up for one his team mates to go over the top of the Hill first. Together with a handful of others, I stuck to their wheel, but the effort was short-lived and on the descent the bunch was back together.

A very similar scene on lap 3, with this time Joe trying to force a gap himself instead of setting it up for a teammate. Ted, who was a few wheels in front of me, had just closed a gap on the hill and I could him catching his breath. I shouted “I’ve got this”, closed the short gap to Joe’s wheel and moments later, we had a couple seconds to the bunch.

“I’ll work if you do”, sounded optimistic with 4.5 laps of Central Park to go, but “let’s do this” came out of my mouth, and off we went. How “boring” the remainder of those 40-something kilometers panned out for us is testament to how well I felt we worked together: equal pulls and (what felt like) equal power outputs, and occasional checking how the other person was doing.  It goes without saying that most credit goes out to the TBD and RBNY squads at the front of the bunch marking any bridging attempts.

  A long and hot day to be in a two-man move. Photo by the talented  Phil Penman  who we definitely recommend following on Instagram for his NYC cityscapes.

A long and hot day to be in a two-man move. Photo by the talented Phil Penman who we definitely recommend following on Instagram for his NYC cityscapes.

With the last mile or so to go (at the tavern), we saw a group in the distance and knew there was no time for games. We kept the teamwork going all the way till the bottom of Cat’s Paw. I looked back, saw how close they were and decided that if I’d attempt to not take my pull, they’d definitely catch us, so I did. Joe sharply took the benefit, and half-way up Cat’s Paw sprinted away from the back of my wheel and held it to the line.

Congrats to Joe & RBNY; the way they raced, they deserved this win. In hindsight, I would’ve been content with 2nd, but my last unfortunately-timed pull meant that bridging group passed me on the top of Cat’s Paw just before the line, resulting in 6th place. The disappointment took a while to wear off…

Our alternative scenario did get the execution it deserved, with Colin winning the bunch sprint after an amazing lead-out by Corey! 

Erwin and Joe during their long two man move as captured by one of NYC's leading race photographers: Bicycle Racing Pictures

Erwin's Strava file after a long day in the break:

Men's P/1/2 finish from Matthew Vandivort's handlebars: