July 17, 2012

Cycling USA: New York City (and beyond)

Route: Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, New Jersey and more
Distance: 82.8km
Duration: 3 hours 39 minutes

View of Manhattan from the George Washington Bridge.

I’d heard stories about New York City cab drivers. About how they veer across lanes with little regard for other road users, responding to pedestrians waving from the curb. As far as I can tell, the stories are true.

To make matters worse for cyclists, it seems mandatory in New York City to stand a few metres off the curb when hailing a taxi, arm fully outstretched, regardless of traffic that might be using the lane.

Accordingly, riding down 5th Avenue would have to be among the most intense cycling experiences I’ve ever had and one that took a bit of courage, a bit of stupidity and probably a bit of luck to get through in one piece. Ironically it wasn’t till I left the streets of Manhattan that I ran into trouble. More on that shortly.

My NYC hire bike. And yes, I know it’s a triple. Shhh.

On Saturday morning I ventured out from Manhattan’s Upper West Side (where my brother Ash and I were staying with a friend of a friend) and went in search of a hire bike. I found myself at Columbus Circle on the southern edge of Central Park where a mob called Bike and Roll had an outlet. According to their website, they had several ‘racing bikes’ available — Trek 1.5s to be more specific.

When I arrived at Bike and Roll though, there was nothing even remotely resembling a racing bike to be seen. They had plenty of ‘comfort bikes’ and when I asked the overly friendly gentleman who accosted me where the racing bikes were at, he showed me to a beaten-up, flat-bar Specialized beast of some description, with 30mm tyres, describing it as ‘best kind of bike … very fast’. When I asked for a helmet he shook his head saying ‘you don’t need!’ When I insisted, he went to his bag and pulled out a helmet of his own for me to try. At that, I made some excuse and left.

A quick Google search showed a proper bike shop in the vicinity and in no time I was on the road, riding a Specialized Allez with my own saddle and pedals. Win.

Cycling in Central Park.

I headed for Central Park, having heard that it’s more or less closed to cars on the weekend. In effect this means you’ve got a 9.8km anti-clockwise loop through one of the most famous (and fabulous) parks in the world, with no cars to contend with. As long as you’re prepared to dodge the many pedestrians and a surprising number of rollerbladers sharing the road, it’s a terrific way to get in some kays.

I ended up doing a lap-and-a-bit of the park, most of it chasing some speedy dude on a rig with some kind of aerodynamic setup. Let’s call him Mr TT. I felt surprisingly strong without a backpack on and I was able to keep up with Mr TT for most of the lap. Until we started climbing anyway.

In hindsight I was probably expecting the Central Park loop to be flat but it turns out there are at least two climbs in the 9.8km. They aren’t long or particularly steep, but when you’re attitude is ‘I’m going to go full gas at this little rise and leave this guy in the dust’ they are a little harder than they could be.

I shot up the start of the climb and opened up a sizeable break on Mr TT. But on a bike I wasn’t used to and being at sub-peak fitness, I wasn’t able to stay at full gas as long as I would have liked. As we continued around the bend, my power dropped right off and, sure enough, Mr TT went blazing past. Damn it.

Mr TT putting me through my paces.

After finishing the lap rather sheepishly (and with Mr TT well gone) I headed south on 5th Avenue. As mentioned earlier, this was a somewhat harrowing experience. It’s challenging enough riding on the wrong side of the road (unless you’re on a one-way street in which case the bike lanes are on the left … sometimes) but when you’ve got a multitude of taxis, buses, other cyclists and pedestrians coming from all directions, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

And I really mean ‘from all directions’. Many times I found myself in a clearly marked one-way bike lane only to have a cyclist or five coming straight at me. At other times I had taxis swerve across three lanes from the left, to pick up a pedestrian who was just in front of me on the right. And red lights? As far as I can tell, red lights in Manhattan mean ‘Sure, stop if you want but hey, I won’t tell if you don’t.’

I saw drivers and cyclists run reds all in clear view of NYPD officers with zero consequences.

Taxis, taxis everywhere.

After surviving 5th Avenue and East 34th Street in one piece, and after traipsing my way down the East River I decided a quick detour via Brooklyn was in order. I didn’t really know what I was going to do there, but I mainly just wanted to ride over the Brooklyn Bridge. After a slightly confusing detour through Chinatown I ended up on the bridge walkway which has one lane for cyclists in both directions to share, and one lane for pedestrians.

As I powered up the bridge in the totally clear bike lane, a bloke in the pedestrian lane shoved his mate straight out in front of me. They were walking in the same direction as I was riding so I can only assume it wasn’t deliberate, but it happened mere metres in front of me.

Climbing one of the more crowded parts of the Brooklyn Bridge.

I slammed on the brakes and yelled out ‘WOAH!’ turning my head to the left as the inevitable impact approached. I must have hit him at about 25km/h, shoulder on shoulder but he seemed to be alright. His instinctive reaction was to turn to his mate and throw his hands in the air as if to say ‘What are you doing?!’ but after that he kept walking without even looking at me … so I kept on riding.

Apart from getting a bit of a fright and having a slightly sore neck that night, I was alright. It could have been a lot worse.

After reaching the Brooklyn side of the river I promptly turned around and rode back to Manhattan. From there I headed through the Financial District and Battery Park for a bit, getting pretty lost in the process, before joining up with the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway on the west of the island.

Riding north on the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, toward George Washington Bridge.

The first few kilometres of the ride up the western edge of Manhattan were pretty stop-start, with a lot of pedestrians to dodge, but after that it was smooth sailing. The path opened up and I was able to fly north with very few traffic lights to stop me. As a bonus, the path spent a lot of time very close to the water, providing great views over the Hudson to Jersey City. I followed the path all the way up to Washington Heights and after getting a little bit lost again, I headed over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey.

My initial plan was to head north to the Palisades, a neighborhood by the Hudson that overlooks the Bronx. But with a tickets booked for an evening session of Jersey Boys on Broadway I had to cut the ride a bit short.

More views from the George Washington Bridge.

I stopped for a quick drink (track-side drink vendors = awesome) and then headed back across the bridge and back down the bike track toward the Upper West Side. I had a few minutes spare so I rode a little past where we were staying and doubled back, notching up a nice and neat 50 miles (~80km) for the ride.

Route: Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the Palisades, return
Distance: 51.4km
Duration: 2 hours 4 minutes

Looking across the Hudson River at The Bronx, from New Jersey.

With the bike not due back at the rental place until 2pm I had a bit of time for a ride on Sunday morning … even after a lie in.

I was keen to head further north than the day before and check out the Palisades. I’d read a little bit about a short climb in that neighbourhood and with most of my recent riding being on pretty flat roads (including 61 pancake-flat kilometres in New Orleans) I was keen to try even a short climb.

From the Upper West Side I headed north, following Amsterdam Avenue up to Washington Heights. It was frustratingly slow going — I had more than 80 blocks to travel and every one of those blocks had a set of traffic lights.

Eventually I reached the familiar twists and turns that take you over the George Washington Bridge. On the other side I took a right and headed north, noticing a shedload of cyclists coming the other way, Beach Road style. It felt as if I was going slightly uphill as I headed parallel to the Hudson River and a quick look at the Strava profile later showed that to be the case.

A big bunch rolls south from the Palisades toward the George Washington Bridge.

Having left the house later than expected I was fighting the clock the whole way, but I was keen to see the Palisades, given I’d missed out the day before. I pushed on, knowing vaguely where to turn to get to the climb I’d read a bit about.

Just as I was about to turn back (I’d given myself a cut-off time) I spotted the turn-off and took a right, downhill. I’d found it. The road descended for a couple of kilometres, snaking its way through the lush greenery of the Palisades Interstate Park, before ending on the shores of the Hudson. Across the river I could see signs saying ‘Yonkers’ — a neighbourhood in the Bronx.

I took a deep breath and turned around and went straight into the climb. I knew it wasn’t all that long and so I decided to have a bit of a crack; test the legs and all that. I managed to hold a reasonable tempo on the way up and were it not for a clumsy moment in which I dropped a bidon, I would have been even faster. As it was I’d managed about 950 VAM — reasonable given the drop off in my fitness, the fatter tyres and, well, that’s probably enough excuses right?

Looking down the Palisades Park climb.

After reaching the top I rejoined the main road and powered my way back toward Manhattan. I’d be pushing it to get to the bike shop by 2pm … and then I got a flat.

As I stopped to change the tyre I realised just how disgustingly hot and sticky it was. The sun doesn’t seem to beat down in NYC as it does in Melbourne — too much smog I suspect — but what you get is a horrible, humid heat that makes you sweat like you’re in a sauna. When you’re riding, the breeze blows the sweat away, but when I stopped to change the tyre, it felt like someone was pouring a bucket of sunscreen-infused sweat into my eyes. Delicious.

Just before the George Washington Bridge I tacked on to the back of a group ride and, chancing my arm, followed them south. As it turned out, their way south was much quicker, riding down Riverside Drive which had far fewer traffic lights than Amsterdam Avenue.

In the end I got the bike a little later than I was supposed to but the folks at the shop didn’t seem to care.

A nice little group on the way back home.

As I write this I’m sitting on the bank of Mirror Lake in the township of Lake Placid, upstate New York. It’s a town that hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics and infrastructure from the Games (including the ridiculously high ski jumps) are a constant reminder of the town’s history.

But, to be honest, I’m more interested in what’s around the town. My primary objective is conquering Whiteface Mountain — a climb that’s almost identical in length and gradient to the famous Alpe d’Huez: 13km at 8.3%. It’s going to be a seriously tough climb and one that I’ll definitely be doing without a backpack on.

Thanks very much for reading and please try to stay safe on the roads (and bridges).

9 Comments

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  1. Andy / Jul 19 2012

    Whiteface? Even the name sounds vaguely ominous..! Looking forward to the write-up!

  2. brian / Jul 19 2012

    This was a fun ‘ride’ on all the roads/bike-ways I ride everyday. It was great to read about it from the perspective of a visitor. Glad you had a nice time and great post!

    • Matt / Jul 19 2012

      Thanks Brian! I had a great time. Newblog post coming soon …

  3. michael Placidi / Jul 18 2012

    Enjoyed the read again…….as usual

  4. Michael / Jul 17 2012

    Brave soul taking on 5th Ave in NYC. And getting lost in Brooklyn – well, at least the sun was up! New York would be a fantastic city, if it weren’t for all of the yankee fans! Great riding – especially Central Park.

    Enjoy – and if you get down near Maryland – we have a few good climbs for ya!

    MV

  5. Mariano Kamp / Jul 17 2012

    Great writeup. Thanks for taking us along for the trip.

  6. Mark / Jul 17 2012

    fantastic service and advice mate.
    Heading to NY myself and I will try these routes.
    Cheers

  7. Aaron / Jul 17 2012

    Nice write-up. I had no idea New York was such a great cycling town. That Greenway looks pretty cool. I’ll have to make a trip there someday. Have a good ride up Whiteface. That’s another one on my list.

    • Matt / Jul 17 2012

      Thanks Aaron, will do! I’ll let you know how it goes. (my prediction: difficult)

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