New York City never struck me as being a particularly bicycle-friendly place. Horrific traffic, lawless cabbies, aggressive drivers: Forget it. But a few years ago some bicycle courier friends turned me on to an annual event known as "Bike New York: The Great Five Boro Bike Tour," and it's become a tradition in my life as an amateur cyclist ever since. This year's event will be held Sunday, May 3, and anyone who can bring or rent or borrow a bike in New York is welcome to ride. It's a great, safe way to see the New York area in a way non-natives rarely can.
Begun 20 years ago by a band of native New Yorkers, Bike New York has grown to become one of the largest cycling events in the country. Not a fund-raiser or a race, the event is designed solely to let riders experience the wonders of New York City's boroughs -- Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island -- by scouring a 42-mile route of the city. Streets are blocked off and traffic is shut down along the route. Rest stops offering bananas, Power Bars and Gatorade are strategically set up along the course. Some riders pedal straight through and complete the circuit in two hours; others, like us, take six hours and stop at delis and bars along the way. Last year the event attracted 28,000 participants.
First, I rounded up three willing friends. Although we all have bikes, none of us is a Serious Cyclist. Leisurely weekend rides through Rock Creek Park were about as serious as most of us got. We paid the $22 registration fee ahead of time. But getting ourselves and our bikes
to New York proved more of a challenge. After contemplating taking the bus (Greyhound will let you board bikes, but only in a bike box, requiring you to remove handlebars and pedals), we decided to rent a minivan. Two days with unlimited mileage cost $169. We drove to New York and stayed with friends, parking the van on the street, our bikes safely inside our friends' apartments.
The day of the ride, we got up at 6 a.m. and headed to a diner in Chelsea for a greasy fried-egg-sandwich breakfast. Registration was downtown at Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. Hundreds of people were standing in line for the ride's blue plastic riding jerseys or attempting to rendezvous with friends. We got our tires checked for air and fastened our helmets. Thousands of cyclists from all over the country were waiting throughout the Wall Street area, prepared for the ride to begin.
One memorable tour feature is the "helmet adornment" -- cycling clubs and groups of friends fasten kitschy knickknacks to their headgear to help them find each other. A bunch of "Team Guinness" folks from Stamford, Conn., who had each glued a few beer cans to their heads, were outdone by the Budweiser folks, who had six-packs glued to theirs. Another group flaunted pinwheels, and one bunch of guys had chosen plastic iguanas as helmet mascots.
With so many riders packed together, it was nearly impossible to move when the ride finally started. We witnessed a few immediate accidents as bikers smashed into each other, pedals clashing with tires and three and four people going down. New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani waved from a podium as we sped through Greenwich Village's winding streets. As club hoppers stumbled home, early risers were buying bagels and picking up the New York Times. We took Sixth Avenue north to Columbus Circle, then headed through Central Park.
I've been to Central Park. But riding it on a protected route is another thing altogether: You can blow past the joggers, in-line skaters, power walkers, dog walkers, everybody, and zip the length of the park in no time. The speed blends the green of the park with the silver skyline of the Upper East and West sides.
Leaving the park, we rode north on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard through Harlem. Kids put out their hands for us to slap as we rode by. Old ladies in fancy hats walking home from church waved. Town houses, mom-and-pop restaurants and storefront churches crowded the sidewalk. We passed 125th Street and spied the famed Apollo Theatre, crumbling but still majestic, to our left. We cruised passed the Schomburg Center, which holds a wealth of historical documents about African American history.
At 135th Street we veered right onto the Madison Avenue Bridge and headed into the Bronx, past tall public housing projects, industrial buildings, auto parts stores and asphalt playgrounds strewn with glass. A few moments later we crossed back across the East River on the Third Avenue Bridge and reentered Manhattan.
By now my legs felt limber, and I had a rhythm. My friends and I more or less stuck together, waiting for each other at rest stops and gulping water. Every once in a while I'd be in sync with another cyclist, and our conversations made the few hills along the route less challenging.
We raced down FDR Drive, which lines the East River. The traffic on FDR has always terrified me, but by bike it was a blast, a smooth sliver of road. We screamed in unison as we cycled through underpasses. One of the riders said we were going into Queens, and at 58th Street marshals guided us onto the Queensboro Bridge. The old iron structure links the skyscrapers of Manhattan with the residential neighborhoods of Queens. We rode north on Hoyt Avenue and through Astoria, home of the five-acre Socrates sculpture garden, where huge geometric installations blew in the wind and a woman blasting Led Zeppelin was welding chunks of metal together.
After passing Astoria Park we headed south, stopping to eat delicious sub sandwiches at a corner deli. From Queens we crossed the Pulaski Bridge into Brooklyn. Hasidic Jews, cloaked in their traditional black garb, stood patiently on the corners, waiting for a break in the bike traffic to cross the street. I chatted with one gentleman about the history of the neighborhood, Williamsburg, long the home of the Hasidic community. He said that lately a lot of artists fleeing the high rents of Manhattan had begun to move in as well.
It was a shame we didn't have time to stop and poke into all of Brooklyn's delis and corner bars. We passed through a crumbling warehouse district and the remnants of the old Navy Yard, then cruised past the Redhook area, infamous for gang violence. Laundry flapped from the windows of housing projects and graffiti was scrawled on many walls.
Staten Island, New York's forgotten borough, was the final target. The green Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was windy, but it offered a perfect view of Staten Island spread out below. It struck me as quiet and suburban, with numerous single-family homes and well-manicured lawns. We witnessed not one but three wedding parties.
After lounging at Fort Wadsworth at the ride's end, we slowly pedaled to the Staten Island Ferry for our free lift back to Battery Park. We'd been on the road for about six hours. The ferry, packed with weary cyclists, was a perfect way to end the day: crossing the water as the skyline we'd just traversed loomed ahead, catching wind on our sunburned faces, drinking beer instead of Gatorade, eyeing the Statue of Liberty.
This year's "Bike New York: The Great Five Boro Bike Tour" will be held May 3. Registration is $20 through April 3 no matter how you register; $24 by mail April 4-15; $24 by fax or hand-delivery April 4-24; $30 on the day of the tour. For more information, call 212-932-2453 or check out the tour's Web site at http://www.bikenewyork.org. For information on staying at Hostelling International-New York, call 212-932-2300, Ext. 117. The World Trade Center Marriott is offering a special deal for tour participants; call 1-800-228-9290 and mention Bike New York.
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