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Vicious cycle: Biking the Big Apple’s core and beyond

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You try and raise your kids right - Minutes into the Five Boro bike ride and Emma's nabbed by NYPD.

F. Scott Fitzgerald loved Manhattan. In The Great Gatsby, he described its “first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world,” when viewed from the Queensboro Bridge.

Chances are Fitzgerald wasn’t crossing the Queensboro on a bike when he wrote those words.

With 30,000 other cyclists.

In the pouring rain.

I looked back at Manhattan over a river of bobbing bike helmets on the Queensboro Bridge and saw imposing shades of grey, the tops of skyscrapers concealed by even greyer clouds.

It was Kilometre 24 of New York’s annual TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour, a 68-kilometre celebration of car-free cycling through Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The week before, temperatures hit 32 degrees Celsius. Today, the day of the big ride, the reason we’d trained together as a family, our motivation for flying almost 4,000 kilometres to New York, the mercury was barely nudging 10.

30,000 cyclists brave the rain in New York's Five Boro bike ride.

“This is actually fun,” said my daughter Emma, without even a hint of sarcasm. “Really!” she added, registering my look of disbelief.

Emma was clearly enjoying being the centre of attention as one of the tour’s younger participants. Soon after our 8-a.m. mass start from Battery Park and ride through the concrete canyon of Sixth Avenue, she’d been noticed by three NYPD bike cops as we snaked through Central Park.

“Hey, look at that kid, she’s barely breaking a sweat!” shouted one.

“What’s your name kid?” shouted another. “Well, listen Emma, don’t be thinking of beating us to the finish line, Emma. We can ticket you.”

We seemed destined to bump into the trio throughout the day, despite the numbers of riders involved and the distance covered. Accommodating 30,000 cyclists through New York’s five boroughs and across five major bridges must be a logistical minefield.

The fact that the tour has been staged annually since 1977 surely helps, but it’s only in recent years the city has begun to embrace bike culture on the other 364 days of the year. New York has expanded its urban bicycle network by 320 kilometres since 2006 while the number of New Yorkers commuting by bike has doubled in the last six In one of the busiest cities in the world, home to seven million people and 13,000 honking yellow taxi cabs, where rush hour starts at 5 a.m. and finishes about 15 hours later, riding a bike here is not as intimidating as you might think.

The day before the Five-Boro Bike Tour we had rented bikes from Liberty Bicycles five blocks south of Central Park. With some trepidation we cycled our aluminum hybrids west to the Hudson River Greenway, the longest stretch of a series of bike paths that circle the island of Manhattan. While busy with walkers, joggers and inline skaters, the greenway with its dedicated lanes and traffic signals is a great place to get acclimatized to biking in New York.

And after our first two days spent hopping on and off open-top buses visiting the Big Apple’s more obvious attractions — Empire State Building, for example — we felt a little less like tourists. (You can hardly visit New York and not visit such places, but be prepared for long lineups and short tempers.)

Crossing the Queensboro Bridge, over a century old, much loved by F. Scott Fitzgerald and made famous by Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).

With the eight-lane Joe DiMaggio Highway rumbling just a few metres to our left, it felt good to be setting our own pace, gliding south along the Hudson River past waterfront tennis courts, batting cages and soccer fields, piers and playgrounds. We had little trouble navigating the older, narrower streets of Greenwich Village, where we hooked up with a two-wheeled tour conducted by Levi Zwerling and Bike The Big Apple.

The company takes small groups of cyclists beyond the tourist trail through New York’s diverse neighbourhoods.

Nowhere epitomized that more than the Bedford- Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we cycled empty streets in eerie silence.

Home to a burgeoning population of Satmar, a Hasidic movement of mostly eastern European Jews who survived World War II, this well-kept community of row houses and apartments might just be the quietest place in all of New York’s five boroughs during Saturday sabbath. Conservatively dressed families, distinguished by men wearing oversized fur hats called shtreimel, ambled along the sidewalks ignoring the less modestly clothed cyclists in their midst.

By contrast, we stopped for a noisy lunch and beer-tasting at the Brooklyn Brewery, whose 150-year-old premises have been restored to their original bare brick and timber finery.

Various estimates put the number of community gardens in New York at more than 600, with 10 per cent of those located in the hip East Village and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We paused to admire one, only for two of its creators to stop by and supplement Levi’s tour with their own version.

“That happens a lot in the East Village,” said Levi with a smile.

The ride back to Manhattan across Brooklyn Bridge’s busy boardwalk proved to be the most hair-raising part of the day. As we weaved in and out of pedestrians, clearly we no longer thought of ourselves as tourists — or at least not the kind of tourists who wander in and out of bike lanes. (Think Stanley Park seawall on any summer weekend.)

The experience helped prepare us for the Five Boro Bike Tour, which required plenty of weaving with almost 30,000 companions jockeying for space. While we passed expensivelooking Cannondales, Cervélos, Konas and Bianchis all requiring various repairs — usually flats — our trusty rentals kept us moving through the Bronx where churchgoers smiled at us in sympathy as the rain intensified.

Oh, the humanity! Bikers take cover under the RFK Bridge in Astoria Park during the TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour.

In Queens we took refuge from the elements at Astoria Park under the RFK Bridge with thousands of other soaked riders. In the trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) at Kilometre 43 we fell inside a busy Starbucks for a family meeting to answer the following:

Quit the tour here and shortcut to our hotel for hot showers and hot food, or slog on through the deluge to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the finish with everyone else at Staten Island?

“We’re going to come last if we stay in here all day,” said Emma, who clearly had decided on behalf of the family, much to her brother Ryan’s irritation.

So it was with some pride the Judd parents watched their kids high-five each other at mid-span of the Verrazano, once the world’s largest suspension bridge and closed to bikes on all but this day of the year.

Close ahead and all downhill was the finish at Staten Island.

Seven hours earlier, back in Manhattan and still half asleep, we’d cycled down Broadway and through Times Square (on a designated bike lane, no less!) to the starting line at Battery Park.

From here on the Verrazano, the city’s said to look spectacular on a clear day. Pelted by torrential rain and surrounded by leaden clouds, the view we got was lousy.

And we didn’t care.

If you go:

Bike New York organizes the annual TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour and has a wealth of information on its website (www.bikenewyork.org) for anyone planning to cycle in the Big Apple. While the Five Boro tour is the biggest event of its kind in the U.S., Bike New York also stages smaller rides throughout the year, details of which you’ll find on its website.

Otherwise, to plan a twowheeled adventure in New York, visit nyc.gov/dotnews and click on “Bicyclists” on the left-hand side. There you can download or order the comprehensive New York City Cycling Map. Not only does the map illustrate the routes to ride, it also lists dozens of bike rental stores throughout New York’s five boroughs.

We rented reliable adult and children’s bikes from Liberty Bicycles (libertybikesny.com or 212 757-2418) in Midtown Manhattan (9th Avenue and 55th Street).

Bike The Big Apple (bikethebigapple.com or 1 877-865-0078) offers several different guided tours throughout the week and can tailor tours to suit individual requests.

New York offers hundreds of hotel options, but hotels that accommodate bikes are harder to find. The Buckingham Hotel (888 511-1900), two blocks south of Central Park, is well located and bike friendly.

After a long, wet bike ride, nothing aids recovery quite like new sun glasses.

We found New York’s subway system to be safe, reliable and relatively affordable at $2 a trip or $7 for a day-pass.While Manhattan is a great place to walk and browse, with a little planning you can easily navigate via subway between the city’s major sights. Hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tours operated by CitySights NY (citysightsny.com) hit the highlights for $44 (adults) or $34 (children from five to 11) for a 24-hour period.

In the same vein, New York’s CityPass (citypass.com) at $79 (adults) or $59 (youth, 13-17) will buy you entry to six main attractions, including the Empire State Building observatory. It will also get you to the front of most lineups. For detailed tourism information, including the city’s calendar of events, visit nycgo.com

Written by nevjudd

December 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm