Bike NY (Five Boro Bike Tour)
Madness. Utter madness. It was my idea of fun to register for the 24th Annual Bike New York, a fun ride spanning the five boroughs of New York City with an estimated, record participation of over 30,000 other cyclists. When I left my brother's apartment at 7:00 AM, I was so sure I'd be able to finish the 42-mile ride quickly and be back at the apartment by Noon. What was I thinking??
Reality quickly set in once I assembled with thousands of other bikers on Church Street, just North of Battery Park at the Southern tip of Manhattan. The streets were packed with cyclists going nowhere. This was going to last an eternity. Sure enough, by the time today's ride was over, I had been on my bike for about seven hours. Okay -- realistically, only an hour's worth of it saw normal pace riding; another hour was spent crawling, two hours walking, and an astounding three hours at a standstill, waiting for gridlock to break apart at different points of the course.
Amazingly, I look back at this event and insist that I had fun, despite all its miserable moments. Then again, it's hardly a suprising sentiment given New York's propensity to breed civic pride founded upon the city's very inconveniences. I doubt I'd ever do this tour again, but I certainly am glad I did it this year. It was the sort of thing every recreational cyclist ought to do at least once in a lifetime.
Unlike most mornings earlier in the week, it was cold. Canyon effect winds between buildings downtown blew frosty air. All of us hopelessly immobile and packed on the streets and sidewalks with bicycles awaiting the official opening of the course while Rudy Giuliani and a bunch of other folks putting on the opening ceremony on some stage at the starting line. Occasionally, a wave of crowd noise swept from the starting line backwards to the thousands of other riders behind. It was a mix of Yankees no-hitter win cheer and the impatient jeer of crowd eagerly awaiting a late-starting rock concert at Madison Square Garden.
The course officially opened at 8:00 AM. Gridlock ensued along 6th avenue immediately. For at least half of the 6 miles leading up to the Park entrance, this event was turning out to be more like WALK YOUR BIKE NEW YORK. Either dabbing with one foot on the floor to move like one would a skateboard, or downright walking with bike by the side. It took almost two hours to get from the starting line to the entrance of the park. I wasn't exactly at the head of the field, but I think I got a good starting position, considering the time I showed up at Battery Park.
If you've ever driven in New York City and understand the road perils and behavioral patterns associated with hundreds of other NYC drivers, you'd understand what I -- and all other cyclists today -- had to endure in the congested roadways. There's always gridlock and bottlenecks, chaotic lane changing and erratic speeding-up and slowing-down of vehicles. My favorite of all, however, was seeing the opportunistic riders drafting behind emergency vehicles in the same manner cars would speed in the wake of an ambulance that cleared all traffic ahead.
If anything about the ride today had any bike training value, I'd say it was a good exercise in acceleration and stopping techniques as well as picking safe lines through the pack of riders ahead, while remaining alert at all times of riders behind, to the left and right. The other half of the alertness challenge was reacting to sudden movements from the bikers around who were probably convinced they were safe for 20 feet around them... yeah right.
The FDR (East Side Highway, Manhattan), the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) and the Gowanus (Brooklyn) were where I got my longest breaks, five minutes of brisk cruising speed at most, before hitting the next slowdown. Kind of like driving on the Grand Central Parkway.
Running late this morning, I foolishly skipped breakfast, thinking I'd be able to snack at rest stops. Despite the fact that the one Clif bar I had before the ride started lost its effect less than an hour later, I traded a grumbling stomach for a non-stop ride. If you saw the traffic coming in and out of the five rest stops along the route, you'd understand completely this wasn't too foolish a strategy.
With thousands of amateur cyclists on the streets, accidents are inevitable, but -- remarkably -- I witnessed very few fallen riders along the way. The worst accident I personally witnessed came at the tail end of the ride on the way to the Staten Island Ferry. A boy -- I'd say about eleven years old -- was clipped by a wreckless rider's handlebar ends and taken down right in front of me. It looked like a really bad spill and I nearly ran over the kid's hand. Luckily, the kid's helmet did its job, but the boy suffered some bad scrapes on the arm and leg. The drama that resulted between father, son, and now-apologetic dumbass was unbearable.
There was some festival in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island at the end of the route. I didn't consider for even a moment to stick around to see the festivities and grub -- by this time, I simply wanted to beat the rush to the Ferry and head back into town. I'd had enough for the day.
The ride back on the ferry's car bay was a nice finish -- a reminder of why I chose to join this event in the first place, just as I used to randomly hop on the ferry to remind myself why I lived in that part of the country not long ago.