An annual sportive in NYC? Yes – there are cyclists there! And as David Dunnico discovered a proper two-wheeled festival as 32,000 riders climb Manhattan island from the docks up through Harlem and on up into the Bronx.
Ernest Hemingway was an author, adventurer and bit of a one. He wore chunky jumpers, sported a beard and rode a bike. Before anyone gets the idea he was a proto-hipster, he also went about drinking, womanising and shooting endangered animals. But he did make the oft quoted remark, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them”. Well I know a way home that avoids hills so I’ll not get sweat on my Vulpine Squadron Blue, Men’s Long Sleeve Merino Alpine Jersey,™ Size Large (early mention of the sponsor’s product there) but I do know what Old Ernie was getting at.
If you want to see what a city is really like, get on your bike. You’ll see, hear and smell more than in a car, you’ll be able to take detours and get down roads you couldn’t on a bus. David Byrne, the singer from Talking Heads and author of ‘The Bicycle Diaries’, described the perspective you gain from the saddle as, “Faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person”. Byrne takes a bike with him on tour and explores the cities he plays in, and when he gets home he cycles around New York.
I’ve been to New York City three times (and though I’ve never seen Mr Byrne). Each time I’ve seen a different kind of city. The first was in the late 1980s with two other British trade union members on a two week exchange visit to learn about U.S. politics and see how American unions worked (yes they do have them).
The second was on St Patrick’s Day for my fortieth Birthday when I graciously accepted the drinks and best wishes of several New Yorkers who thought being born on St. Patrick’s Day made me as Irish as they weren’t. In fact such was their generosity, I forgot I was missing Kraftwerk play at the Velodrome in my home town of Manchester.
Last year I went back for a belated fiftieth birthday trip. This time I saw what the city looked like from a bike with 32,000 of my closest friends in an event I’d heard about on a cycling web forum.
New York has some of the most famous (and busiest) streets in the world. And every year on the first Sunday in May, many of them are closed to traffic for ‘The Five Boros Bike Ride’. The annual event, which started in 1977, gets its name from its 42 mile meander, which goes through all five of the boroughs that make up New York City – Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. It is organised by the city’s Department of Transportation and ‘Bike New York’, a not-for-profit group that promotes cycling in the city and uses the proceeds from the $100 entry fee to fund cycle training.
The day before the ride, there is the wonderfully bizarre ‘Blessing of the Bikes’ service held at the Cathedral of St John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue. I’m sure I wasn’t the only atheist amongst the couple of hundred cyclists who brought their bikes right into the Cathedral. Bikes and riders lined up and rang their bells whilst being sprinkled with holy water, remembering cyclists and pedestrians who had been killed on the city’s streets.
The following day started early in Lower Manhattan just near the World Trade Centre site. Getting there was surprisingly easy. The New York subway though grotty, runs 24 hours a day, and by 6am the carriages were full of riders and their bikes, and despite the local’s reputation for straight talking not a single passenger moaned about it.
It takes a lot of organising to get 32,000 people off from the same place going in the same direction. It’s so busy there was as much walking as riding for the first mile or so. Once the ride gets going it passes landmarks such as Radio City, continues through Central Park into Harlem and The Bronx, and shows you there is more to NYC than Manhattan’s skyscrapers. New York is a big industrial/harbour city and a bike ride on closed roads, with free toilet, food and water stops is a great way to see it.
There’s a carnival atmosphere to the whole ride. Think of it as a Skyride rather than a sportive. Some people rode as teams, some in fancy dress, there was lots of friendly chatting. It stayed sunny, but early Spring weather in New York can be changeable, so my Harrington jacket was ideal. It also meant that I didn’t have to take the subway back to the hotel fancy dressed (though in New York no one would have batted an eyelid).
At the finish line on Staten Island there was a small festival with more food, music and stalls where you could pause before catching the famous Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan. This is billed as the best free ride in the world and it’s a good end to a great day – you’ll get time to take in the view of that World Heritage skyline and savour one of the best urban rides you could ever have.
The 2016 New York Five Boros Bike Ride takes place on Sunday 1 May 2016.
- Registrations open on January 12th, 2016 at 10:00AM:
- The ride sells out, so register for their newsletter and book early.
- You have to pick up your numbers in person before the ride, so be in New York at least a day before.
- You can hire a bike for about $150 through Bike and Roll, as part of the registration process.