Vassar Stories

20 Years Later: Still Riding High

By the time Jay Pearlman’98 and Greg Donofiro ’98 helped Vassar win the Eastern Collegiate Division II Cycling Championship in 1995, they had become quite familiar with the highways, back roads -- and even some dirt carriage paths  -- in the countryside surrounding Poughkeepsie. “All of us on the team were captivated by the scenery of the Hudson Valley,” Donofrio says. “I’ve ridden all over the United States and there’s no place else like it.”

Two decades later, Pearlman, Donofrio and about a dozen of their former teammates are still enjoying the scenery. They meet up every May in a converted barn about 10 miles east of Poughkeepsie and spend four or five days swapping stories about their post-Vassar lives and touring the roads they grew to love during those training sessions.

The team members got together for occasional rides for a few years after they graduated, then stopped meeting formally for about 10 years. But the reunions have become an annual event since 2010. The get-togethers usually begin with a 30- or 40-mile get-to-know-you ride the first day, followed by a 100-mile trek through eastern New York, western Connecticut and southern Massachusetts the second day. Two shorter rides round out the trip.

While no one is traveling at the speeds they reached during their college racing days, there are still some vestiges of the competitive spirit that propelled them to the championship, Donofrio says. “Nobody wants to be the one in the worst shape, so we all do some training before we get there,” he says.

The job of mapping out exactly where each ride will take them has fallen to Mike Attie ’99, who has a knack, his teammates say, for finding some of the most obscure dirt paths that wind through farms and forests north and east of Poughkeepsie. “There are places out there where you can ride for miles without seeing a car,” Attie says.

He says he tries to make sure the routes he chooses aren’t unreasonably harsh, but when a large hill looms in front of the group during a ride, he can sense the competitive juices begin to flow. “All of a sudden, there’s a battle to get to the top of the hill first,” Attie says. “And there’s a stretch of road where we used to race that’s slightly downhill, and everybody sprints that.”

Like Pearlman and Donofrio, Attie had raced competitively when he was in high school but didn’t plan to continue when he got to college. “I chose Vassar for the academics and didn’t even know if the college had a cycling team,” he says. “When I arrived, I learned about this collegiate cycling world I never knew existed. I loved the academics, but being a part of the team was a highlight of my Vassar career.”

A history major at Vassar, Attie is now a documentary filmmaker who formerly taught at Northwestern University outside Chicago and is starting a new job in the fall teaching film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He says the long, cold winters in Chicago hindered his cycling training a bit but plans to bike to work as often as he can in Philadelphia.

Pearlman, who was a state cycling champion during his senior year at Bronx High School of Science, says he too had planned to curtail his cycling career when he got to college. But shortly after he arrived at Vassar, he discovered the bike shop that the team maintained in the basement of Strong, and he was captivated by the camaraderie there.

 “Vassar had had a strong team in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but it had kind of died out until 1991, when three riders formed a new team,” he says. “By the time I got there in the fall of 1994 there were 12 or 15 guys with varying degrees of experience, and we all just got along. We were one of the smaller schools, but we were beating teams like Yale and Harvard and Penn State.”

Donofrio, who had trained with the U.S. junior cycling team when he was in high school, says he was “burned out” on competitive cycling when he enrolled at Vassar. But like Attie and Pearlman, he found collegiate racing to be a welcome combination of competition and collaboration. “You wanted to win, but among all the schools you competed against, there was also a sense of fun and friendship,” he says. “If one of your opponents broke down during a race, you’d give him your tools and help him out. That kind of thing never happened in my junior racing career.”

Pearlman, Donofio, and Attie all say the bonds they formed at Vassar 20 years ago remain just as strong today. “Vassar attracts an unusual type of student – we’re all a little eccentric,” Attie says. “We all have strong personalities that make for a dynamic group.”

Donofrio agrees. “I recently lost a close childhood friend, and it made me realize how important all these guys are to me,” he says. “Coming back to the Poughkeepsie area and seeing them every spring is something I plan on doing the rest of my life.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos courtesy of Jay Pearlman

Posted Wednesday, June 10, 2015