Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The NY 5 Boro Tour!

I've long wanted to do this ride... the NY 5 Boro Tour ( In short, it's a 42 mile car-free ride around New York City, during which you visit all five of the Boroughs that make up the city - Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The route goes through a wide range of neighborhoods, and in several places puts you where you certainly can't normally ride a bike... such as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge! Well, this year, I got my chance. John, the owner of bikes@vienna and all around great guy, decided back in March that he was going to close the shop on May 3rd so the staff could all join him and his wife on the 5 Boro. Within an hour, we heard through a customer the bad news... registration had already closed, and neither I nor another staff member had registered yet. But John didn't give up, and just over a week ago, we managed to get two tickets for me and Robert (one of our younger staff members), from a guy who also takes classes at Dream Yoga, who wasn't going to be able to use them.

Saturday we closed the shop two hours early and drove up to Staten Island, where we stayed in a hotel, waking early to catch the ferry over to the start point on Manhattan. For the event, the city provides several ferries devoid of cars, so they can be stuffed full with cyclists and their bikes. It's quite a sight to see. We ended up on the lower deck, where cars park normally, but some folks were up above and had a better view. Still, it's pretty cool to peer down that tunnel and suddenly see lower Manhattan loom into sight.

The day started out grey, cloudy, and a little drizzly... and pretty much stayed that way, except when it turned into an outright downpour. Still, most folks kept good spirits, despite the weather. I think some of it is the simple joy of cycling... and some of it is the novelty of literally taking over the streets of a major US city with bikes!

The start point was near Battery Park, and took us by the former site of the World Trade Center. This was the first time I'd seen it since 2001, and while it's now a construction site more than anything else, it was still sobering to see. As a kid I would travel from DC to NY to see family, and watched the buildings go up. I still thought of them as a "new" part of the skyline when they fell, and it's still a little shocking to see them missing.

Anyway, we were at the start point, with about 30,000 other cyclists, in plenty of time, well before the 8 am start time. I have no idea why (and if anyone reading this knows, please speak up), but we actually didn't start rolling until about 9:20! Folks were getting pretty antsy by that time, but nobody was getting ugly.

The ride goes up Manhattan on Church St. and the Avenue of the Americas, and into Central Park, which was beautiful, as always. It was fun to roll up such major thoroughfares with no cars to contend with. We did have to dodge some pedestrians along the way (I heard one say "This is the scariest thing I've ever seen!"... not sure why it was scary, but I can understand being a little surprised.) but even they seemed very good natured about the whole thing. I suspect a lot of it must be that the city probably does a pretty good job of letting people know that the event is coming, so they can prepare for it. And the event's been going on for a number of years, so it shouldn't be too much of a shock to residents.

After cruising through Harlem, we hopped over the Manhattan bridge into the Bronx for a very short loop, returning via the 3rd Avenue Bridge. I was a little disappointed to spend such a short time in the Bronx, as my dad grew up there. Even if we had spent more time there though, I doubt we would have visited his neighborhood.

After about 10 minutes there, we were back in Manhattan headed down the East River, on our way to the Queensborough Bridge (aka 59th St. Bridge, as in "Feelin' Groovy"). Here we were on FDR Drive, a very heavily travelled, high speed road, that for this day was closed in one direction for all the cyclists. The bridge itself was quite a challenge... the ride has no real hills to speak of, but some of the bridges are in effect hills, and the Queensborough was the first real challenge on the ride. I had no trouble with it, but being surrounded by a huge number of riders of varying degrees of fitness and experience made the closer quarters of the bridge deck, shall we say, interesting. A few close calls, collision-wise, and a short stretch where I had to "scooter" along with one foot off the pedal... then it was a nice zoom down the bridge into Queens.

At this point in the ride, they must have decided we were running out of time for keeping the roads closed, and the organizers eliminated one loop in Queens, cutting the ride by about 4 miles. We missed out on Astoria Park, and our ride through Queens was abbreviated, putting us in Brooklyn for the next stretch, including a long haul on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (aka BQE).

It was as we were getting onto the BQE that we hit another snag... I'm not entirely certain, but I think the organizers were trying to spread the field out before we got to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It seemed like they were holding us all in place, letting us go a group at a time. A wise move probably, but not so fun for us as it coincided with some of the heaviest rain of the day. There's nothing quite like standing in the pouring rain on a highway ramp with a bunch of other wet cyclists! People kept their senses of humor however, and we were rolling along the highway fairly soon.

Riding across the Verrazano was definitely a high point of the trip, literally and figuratively. The air was cold and damp, and we could all see our breath at that point. The view was limited by the cloudy weather, but it was still pretty cool being up on such a high span. And it was a good feeling to crest the high point and know that the worst of the climbing was past, and it was mostly downhill from here.

The last big official aspect of the ride was the "festival" in a park near the Staten Island end of the bridge. It honestly wasn't that festive... it was really about a bunch of cold, wet cyclists lining up for hot coffee (BIG line!) and porta-johns, before getting back on their bikes for the last three miles back to the ferry. It's really hard to have a party for wet people in a soggy, muddy, waterlogged field! But again, most folks I saw seemed to be in good spirits... there were some who looked a bit shell shocked and chilled, but all in all the tone was upbeat, all things considered.

The last three miles were pretty uneventful, taking us through a largely industrial neighborhood of Staten Island, back to the ferry landing and our shop van. We all arrived safe and sound, if soggy and cold. Luckily for us, John had in mind an Italian restaurant he and his wife Ces had stopped at a few years ago, and they were very gracious in letting this group of damp folk change in their restrooms. After a hot cup of coffee and some really good food there, we all piled into the van for the drive home. Most of the gang was fast asleep, but I was pretty awake, as was John (good thing, since he was driving). I got home around midnight, tired, but happy, and glad that I had done the ride. Maybe again next year! And maybe we'll have better weather!

Here's the rest of the gang early in the ride, I think in Harlem, during a brief pause. That's Luann (of Dream Yoga Studio) barely in the frame on the left, Ces and John on the orange Barcroft recumbent tandem, Robert in back with red helmet and brown (soon to be sodden) sweatshirt, and Lauren (Luann's daughter) in the white jacket.

More photos can be seen at:


Anonymous said...

Wow. It sounds sort of like Portland's Bridge Pedal, only a *whole lot* bigger and more crowded. The fact that you had to pre-register and that registration closed two months before the event says something right there. I'm glad you got to do it.

Interestingly, after being a volunteer ride-along mechanic for the first six Bridge Pedals here in Portland, organizers decided that there would no longer be ride-along mechanics, instead signing exclusive contracts with a couple of big shops to set up repair stations along the route. Since I couldn't ride for free, and since the crowds of less-experienced riders had grown so much as well, I stopped riding the event.

This year, Portland is bringing back Sunday Parkways, our version of Bogota's Ciclovia -- and I'll be a ride-along volunteer mechanic.

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Ajlouny said...

The congestion of bikers is just incredible. It was probably exhilarating to be a part of it.