City Cyclers

With cars banned middays and all weekend, Central Park is popular with cyclists.
With cars banned middays and all weekend, Central Park is popular with cyclists. (By Rebecca Berne)
By Grace Lichtenstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 1, 2006

New York has the potential to be the best cycling metropolis in the United States.

Wait! Don't turn the page just yet. Think about basic facts. New York is compact and mostly flat. Manhattan is only 13 miles long from Battery Park to the northern tip. From Central Park to Prospect Park in Brooklyn is only about 10 miles. And you can pedal on a network of car-free paths and bike lanes, although clueless pedestrians, crazed bike racers, joggers, skaters and even baby carriages do pose serious challenges.

I feel more comfortable biking the city now than I did 30 years ago. Mean streets have given way to greenways, allowing two-wheeled travelers a new perspective on this urban cavalcade. That doesn't mean New York bicycling is safe, exactly. "Safer" would be a reasonable assessment. Negotiating traffic-choked streets can be hair-raising. But if you cruise the bike lanes on a sun-dappled day and don't mind mixing an adrenaline rush with a dollop of fear, you can discover a Gotham that not even most residents know.

To avoid the immediate stress of potholes and demonic cab drivers, start within the friendly confines of Central Park on weekends and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, when autos are banned from most roads. You can easily spend a day exploring the artistic, arboreal and aerobic highlights of this man-made playground. Signposts abound, but a map, available at park visitor centers, comes in handy.

From entrances on Central Park South, follow other cyclists northward, counterclockwise. You can look for such sights as Belvedere Castle (at roughly 79th Street), Olmsted and Vaux's 1872 turreted fortress; Cleopatra's Needle (opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art at about 81st Street), an obelisk erected in Egypt about 1500 B.C. and covered with hieroglyphics; and Harlem Meer (northeast quadrant near 110th Street), a lake where you can fish (yes, really! catch and release) and even watch a flotilla of pumpkins late in October during Halloween festivities.

I've concentrated on the northern half of the park because it is far less crowded on weekends. But there are fun stops throughout. Alternatively, go for a recreational sextathlon: Cycle the loop to get your heart pumping, then row a boat on the lake near the Bethesda Fountain, jog around the reservoir, play a few sets of tennis on the Har-Tru courts just north of the reservoir, ice skate at either the Lasker pool or the Wollman rink, and wind up with a ride on the carousel.

The more intrepid can spend a day circumnavigating almost all of the Manhattan shoreline, although the capital-I Intrepid, the former aircraft carrier and museum berthed on the Hudson, will be closed for renovations beginning tomorrow. (That's actually good news for cyclists, since tourists on foot create congestion on the bike path.)

The cycling and walking paths on the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, still a work in progress, are the city's greatest contribution to the human-powered community since the 1960s, when Central Park was first closed to auto traffic for weekends plus a few weekday hours. The system, which comprises the Hudson River Greenway and other paths, is far from perfect; riders must be on high alert for hazards, including fellow cyclists whizzing at high speeds. Nevertheless, it permits you to roll through a kaleidoscope of scenes, all while getting your exercise.

Battery Park, at the southern tip of the island, is a good place to start your ride. There you span hundreds of years of New York history in a few minutes. After the Dutch landed in 1623, they stationed cannons here to protect the harbor. The circular brick structure is Castle Clinton, built by the new republic for fortification before the War of 1812. It later became the first processing station for immigrants arriving on American soil in the 19th century. Now run by the National Park Service, Castle Clinton houses an exhibit about the pre-Revolutionary walls discovered while the city was digging a subway tunnel. In the park's northeast corner is "The Sphere," the metal Fritz Koenig sculpture that used to reside in the plaza between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The 15-foot structure, which was damaged during the attacks but is structurally sound, was moved to the park as a memorial in 2002.

Battery Park is also the embarkation point for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island ferry (no bikes allowed), and for the Staten Island ferry. Two museums -- the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- flank the park, which also contains more than a dozen monuments and memorials. But what I find so remarkable is what a leafy contrast the park provides compared with the urban canyons of finance and commerce just beyond its boundaries.

The Hudson River bike path begins on the far western edge of the park, across from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the foot of West Street. As you ride north, the huge scar of Ground Zero looms on your right. The pedestrian overpass at Vesey Street is one place to contemplate it. On the left, the apartment houses and shops of Battery Park City invite a detour. Until the late 20th century, this expanse was underwater; landfill from the excavation for the twin towers created the space for what is now a lively city-within-a-city, with water taxis, restaurants and an esplanade that offers stunning vistas of the harbor at the water's edge.

The evolution of the shoreline from brawny industrial port to active leisure space plays itself out like a living timeline as you continue uptown. When I was a kid, the West Side from the Battery to 59th Street consisted of wharves and piers teeming with trucks and longshoremen. My dad would take us for drives on the elevated West Side Highway to gawk at the luxury liners and commercial ships.

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