A trip from Brooklyn to Piermont by Bicycle (briefly recounted)
This spring I played host to Janeen McCrae, the Brooklyn-based writer and cyclist, inviting her down to Austin to give a presentation to my staff on the website she and BreakfastNY built to document her bike trip across the country, www.yesiamprecious.com. Janeen was recovering from a very bad crash when she was visiting Austin and had to stay off her bike for a couple of weeks beforehand. While she was here we went for a long ride together and she was very frustrated how far her fitness level had dropped during her time off the bike. Since then I’ve continued to keep up with her online, reading her occasional updates to her story about her cross-country trip and also following the various blogs and sites she publishes. This included her ride reports at dailymile.com.
She left Austin determined to get her fitness back and so her ride reports at Dailymile were frequent and occasionally epic. She described the long rides she’d take away from the city, the training laps she’d do in Prospect Park, nights and rainy days spent in her apartment on a trainer, hundred-mile-plus expeditions upstate and over mountains. The rides she described sounded like a lot of fun – dodging tourists over the Brooklyn Bridge, out to Piermont or Nyack, down River Road or up 9W, stopping for coffee and a muffin, expertly pacelining down the road at 25 miles per hour. So, when I registered for a conference that was being held in Philadelphia the next thing I did was to write Janeen and see if I might be able to join her on of these rides. After a bit of back-and-forth over schedules and logistics, we got things setup for me to join her and a friend of hers for a ride from Brooklyn, out across the George Washington Bridge, and up the Palisades towards Piermont. We’d leave early and see how far we could get before turning around to ride back through Manhattan. And, she promised me at least one hard climb – perhaps as turnabout for a steep climb I took her up on our ride in Austin – including this bit of warning in an email discussing some changes to the planned route:
“We’re going to turn around at the State Line, which will shave about an hour off the ride…and cuts out a tonne of climbing on the way back, which you will probably appreciate since I’m going to make you climb Alpine.”
After my conference ended on Friday I hopped on a train for New York. I rented a bike and got to experience the excitement of riding through the city during a weekday afternoon getting it back to Brooklyn from Pier 16 at the southern tip of Manhattan. I met Dan, the rider who’d be joining us on the ride, for an early dinner and a couple of beers and we talked about riding, Austin, and life in the big city. After dinner I went back to my hotel and laid out all the riding gear I’d brought with me so I’d be ready for a 6:45 start, by the time I had everything sorted it was well after 10PM.
Then I tried to sleep.
1:50AM – Ugh, what the heck am I doing up? I need to go to sleep. I don’t know what the ride is going to be like and I don’t want to be exhausted before we even start. Sleep, sleep, sleep…
4:50 – Oh, I must have fallen asleep. Still too early. Should I get up? What if I sleep through my alarm? Should I go ride around, get loosened up, maybe see what Prospect Park is like? How do you get there, again? Another hour…try to go to sleep…sleep…
5:45 – [Klaxon Alarm] Oh crap! What the heck is that?!? My phone. Alarm. Time to get up! Make some coffee, get ready to ride.
I rolled out of bed and began getting dressed, turning on the weather to see how cold it actually was outside and trying to remember what I used to wear before this summer burned all memories of cool weather out of me. We were going to be riding out of the city, where it would be much cooler, but the day was going to be sunny and as the sun rose it would warm up pretty quickly. I figured it would take us long enough to get out of the city that it would be warm enough on the shady back roads to just wear some arm warmers, a cap under my helmet, and a sleeveless wind vest. I’d brought my Twin-Six “Cat 6” jersey and matching socks, (sadly, I’m still too heavy to wear the matching bib-shorts I’d gotten to complete the kit) and I hoped that it would be enough to pass muster with Janeen. She has high standards for cycling apparel choices and I didn’t want to get things off to a bad start by offending her sense of style.
Rental bike in the boutique hotel
I went down stairs to the lobby of the hotel, expecting to find the continental breakfast that they had told me started at 6AM. Unless, it turns out, it is the weekend in which case it starts at 7. Fortunately they had some cereal bars and fruit laid out early and there was a coffee maker in the room. I made a few cups of coffee and fueled up as best I could before putting on the rest of my gear, loading up my pockets with energy gels and ziploc cycling wallet, and rolling my bike to the elevator to wait for Dan. In addition to making sure that I was able to make it from my hotel to the meet-up point with Janeen at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, Dan was also going to bring me some water bottles. I’d managed to forget mine, along with a few other items, in packing for my trip.
Dan was a few minutes late, so I started texting Janeen to let her know that I was awake and on my way in the hopes that it would keep her from taking off without me. Dan arrived with bottles and some lights for my bike since dawn was still a half-hour or so away and the NYPD’s crackdown on cycling law-breakers this summer was still a fresh memory. He also was dressed for a much colder ride than I was, with knee-warmers and a fleece vest and a few more layers. It made me a little wary. After getting bottles and lights transferred and setup, the two of us rode into the mean streets of Brooklyn to meet Janeen.
Or, to wait for Janeen. We were at the appointed place at the appointed time, but she was not. I pulled out my phone to see if there was a message. Nothing. I sent her a text to let her know that we were where we were supposed to be. I had a late afternoon flight out of Newark, but I also had to get a number of things done after the ride was over, including getting cleaned up and packed, checking out of the hotel, and getting the rental bike back to the shop, before figuring out how to get to the airport in New Jersey. It made it important to get an early start, but it was also important to leave early to avoid crowds and traffic as New York got itself in gear on a beautiful fall Saturday. Timing and logistics had been at the front of my mind for much of the planning for this ride and didn’t want to have something go wrong before we even got started. After what seemed like an eternity to me, I spied a rider making their way to the bike path up the bridge decked out in Fat Cyclist kit. Janeen. Hugs and hellos. She pulled out her phone and noticed my messages, “did you text me? What did you say?” Dan and Janeen talk a little bit about the route, some initial decisions on where we’d go and how, and as the sun is just starting to turn the sky orange we lit out up and over the Brooklyn Bridge headed for Manhattan.
Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian chute
The Brooklyn Bridge is undergoing some maintenance right now, so a significant portion of the pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn side is guarded by tall metal fencing which forms a cattle-chute of sorts and obscures any view you have apart from what is directly in front or behind, or above, you. Since it was early we had the bridge to ourselves – a far cry from when I’d ridden across it the previous afternoon while thousands of tourists made their way over it at the same time. I slotted in behind Janeen and followed her over the bridge and onto the surface streets of Manhattan. Already there were enough cars around that you had to be watchful, and Dan and Janeen heightened my sense of vulnerability by telling me that this time of day is particularly dangerous as people trying to make their way home from the late-night clubs, still drunk from the night’s partying, get in their cars. Pretty quickly we make our way across the island to the West Side bike path, a protected pedestrian and bike path that runs up the west side of Manhattan. This is something of a revelation to me, a very nice bike path along the Hudson River that we have more or less to ourselves. Since we are out of traffic I slide up alongside Janeen and we chat and catch up a bit about what had been going on since we last saw each other in Austin. She brought me up to speed on the projects she’d been working on, including an exciting one that may turn into something cool for her [Good luck, J!].
We work our way up Manhattan, with Dan and Janeen pointing out various landmarks and points of interest as we go. This is my second time in New York, and just like the first time I’m struck by just how many famous places and sites there are. Almost everywhere you look there’s something you’ve either heard of, or showed up in a movie, or you learned about in school.
“There’s the aircraft carrier Intrepid.”
“There’s where they filmed scenes in ‘You’ve Got Mail’.” Janeen’s got a soft spot for the works of Nora Ephron it turns out.
“In the summer, this park’s usually filled with the bodies of drunk people from the party the night before.”
Before too long the coffee I drank is telling me it wants to leave. As much as I hate to stop the ride when we’re just getting started, I ask my companions if there’s any convenient place for a man to release his burden. Predictably, we’d just ridden past the last public restroom that either of them could think of, but while we’re discussing the merits of various bushes and stands of trees along the bike path for concealment a small park with a row of Port-o-lets (Port-o-loos, according to my Australian ride leader) appears and I make a quick pit stop. While their waiting, Dan snaps a picture of Janeen, whom we dub the “Queen of the Port-o-Loos” after spotting a chair across from them perched atop a storage container like a throne. The sun continues to rise and warm up the morning air and it is quickly turning into a very nice day for a bike ride.
Janeen McCrae: Queen of the Portaloos
After riding nearly the length Manhattan on the bike path, we turn and head into the Washington Heights neighborhood to make our way to the George Washington Bridge, gateway to New Jersey. To get there we have to climb up a few steep streets, which helps get the blood pumping. I’m eager and excited, so I charge up the hills ahead of Dan and Janeen, only to have to stop at each block and wait since I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. At least this early in the ride it seems that we’re all pretty well matched physically, and that bodes well for the ride ahead. It’s also warming up, so I slip off my wind vest and stuff it in my jersey pocket and take a long pull from my water bottle. We go past a hospital and catch up to another rider as we make our way across the GWB.
We ride across the bridge with the sun shining brightly over the city skyline and the water of the Hudson far, far below. The view is pretty amazing, but instead of taking a picture I stick close to Janeen and follow her into New Jersey. Crossing the bridge puts you back into nature, and I see the start of the orange, yellows, and reds in the trees which now tower over us. A few turns and we’re headed down a long hill to the start of the River Road. I pull a gel out of my jersey pocket, tear it open and slurp down the contents as we glide downhill at 30mph.
Turning onto the River Road (technically, Henry Hudson Dr.) is like riding into a picture. This narrow, two-lane road runs through a park right along the west bank of the Hudson. As we head north beneath a canopy of trees I can make out the skyline of the city to my right, across the river, and to my left is a towering wall of rocks and trees. We see some other riders out and the occasional car, but the only real threat seems to come from suicidal chipmunks and squirrels which dart out into the road ahead of us. It has taken nearly an hour for us to get this far, but now we can start to pick up the pace and we work our way over some rolling hills pretty quickly. Then the road kind of points up for a while, and Dan says to me, “This is sort of an appetizer!” as we climb up a pretty long hill.
Like an E-type Jag, I’m best photographed from the rear 3/4 view
I’m not an especially good climber, but in Austin you don’t have to be. Austin has a lot of hills, but they’re what a woman I ride with at Mellow Johnny’s calls “sprinter’s hills.” They can often be steep, but they’re short and you can almost always see the top of the hill from the bottom. When you can see how far you have to go it isn’t that hard to figure out how to meter your effort to get to the top. This hill we’d come to on River Road was kind of like that. It wasn’t steep, but it did go on for a bit. Once I could see the top though, it wasn’t hard to pick a gear and a pace that I knew I could hold over the top. We crested the hill and coasted down the backside to catch our breath. As we rode on I continued to admire the view and marvel at how amazing it was that something so pretty could be found just outside the city. It was a lovely bit of biking and there’s nothing in Austin I can think of that would compare.
Dan and I on River Road
We rode on down river road catching up to, and being caught both, other cyclists either on their own or in groups of two or three. We’d pass each other, back and forth, with everyone taking it moderately easy. It seemed no one wanted to really push the pace on this cool and delightful morning. Since I had no idea what to expect from the road ahead I was more than happy to keep up a consistent but manageable effort and enjoy the view and the company. The road continued alongside the Hudson for a number of miles before finally dropping down right to the river’s edge and ending at a park. Just before we got there I saw a road sign that included the word “Alpine.” We’d reached the start of the climb Janeen had promised me. To make sure we had a good run at it we rode in to the parking lot and slowly turned around and made our way back to the start of the climb. Janeen and Dan had an established start and stop point for measuring their time on the climbs and kept track of how long it took them to cover the 1.3 miles, and we paced ourselves getting to the starting line. In retrospect I wish I’d paid more attention to the “1.3 miles” part of the description, because that’s a lot longer than any hill I can think of that I’d ridden here in Austin. Long requires a different approach than steep, you have to manage your effort in a different way, use a different technique to get yourself up and over the hill. At least I’m guessing that’s the case because the things I knew to do didn’t help me too much on this climb. As we got near the start of the climb Janeen gave me a brief description of the road ahead and told me where the climb ended and where to stop to regroup, “In case you make it to the top before us. Which you will.” Apparently she’d watched me climb away from them on the previous hills and mistaken my enthusiasm for ability. She’d learn the truth in the next 1.3 miles.
Janeen describes her style on a bike, especially going up a climb, as a “rock with wheels”. Heavy, dense, she puts her head down and grinds her way up the incline as inexorably as the tectonic forces that built that hill in the first place. I would describe myself as a “dandelion puff with muscles”. I’m fairly strong and have ridden myself into moderately good shape on the bike. I can go fast, I can force my way up a hill, and I can pull for a long distance as long as my spirit and ego remain intact. What I can’t do is suffer. As soon as I get put into the red zone my will and effort get cast to the wind, and I crack and fold. I’m more likely to mentally quit and check out than I am to pace myself to recover and attack again. It is my secret shame and the hump I’ll have to get over if I want to really improve as a rider. Here endeth the introspection.
Buoyed by Janeen’s confidence in my climbing ability, or smartly tricked by a more sophisticated rider, I took off up the first part of the Alpine climb. The start of the climb isn’t especially steep, opening up at around a 4% grade before kicking up a bit, and I power up the first quarter-mile or so pulling away from Janeen and Dan. There’s a switchback where the road flattens out a bit, then it gets more serious as you head up the road at an 8% grade with a few steeper bumps tossed in for good measure. And it just keeps going, and going, until it disappears into the tree limbs which cover the road. I’ve not climbed a hill like this before, with this kind of gradient over this amount of distance. It isn’t a brutal climb but it’s serious enough to grab your full attention. I shift down into a lower gear and as my heart and respiration rate keep climbing up my confidence begins to flag and fail.
“I’ve made a mistake and jumped too early, I’m not sure I can make this climb without walking, I can’t climb off now and start walking – I’ll look like an idiot, wait – have I really run out of gears to shift down too, God – I’m such an idiot, I suck of biking.”
These and other, darker, thoughts fill my head as my progress up the hill slows. There’s a phrase in cycling used to describe a hard effort, where you go beyond what you think you can do: “turning yourself inside-out.” The “Dandelion Puff with Muscles” doesn’t turn himself inside-out, he rides within himself at all times. I might say that it is insurance to ensure that I’m able to finish the ride, especially since I’m in a strange place and don’t know what’s next. I can say those things, but the truth is that I’m pretty chock-full of “quit” and it doesn’t take much of a squeeze to have it spill out of my pores and sap the strength from my legs. So I slow, and before too long I hear the “Rock with Wheels” huffing and churning the cranks over my shoulder. We’re getting near the summit, but she’s going to overtake me before we get there.
As she passes me, I tell her, “I’ve chosen poorly!” – meaning I went out too hard too soon, didn’t make a hard enough effort at the right times, went out ahead instead of pacing myself up with Dan and she.
“What?!?” she responds, “What do you mean?”
There’s no time, and not enough air in my lungs, to respond as she rolls by me. Besides, my inability to communicate effectively and confidently with Janeen is already well documented in various email threads and text messages. Anything I would have said at that point to clarify what I meant would only have added to the tally of failed efforts on my part. I enjoy knowing her; I just can’t talk to her. It keeps things interesting.
We finish the climb and circle the parking lot at the ranger station at the top, collecting ourselves and waiting for Dan. Janeen has put in a big effort, 10 seconds or so off of her very best time and “Cadel-ing it” in the manner of her fellow Aussie cyclist. And she dusted me very unambiguously. I don’t call her my cycling hero lightly, her 4000 mile ride across the country last year notwithstanding. Dan crests the hill and joins us in the lot very soon afterwards, but there’s no rest for the wicked so as soon as he’s back with us we head out for the next leg to the north, 9W.
The Palisades Parkway is a highway that runs up through northern Jersey into upstate New York. The road is fairly lightly traveled on the weekend and is a designated bike route with a wide shoulder and plenty of bikers. We’ve left early enough that we’re at the vanguard of riders headed North. As we pick up 9W we start to see more and more folks, but still either singles or small groups like ours. The large group rides are still behind us a bit. Dan, Janeen, and I form a single file line and make our way north at a pretty good clip up and down some rolling hills. We pass some people, who either pass us back or drop in our wake. There’s one rider in particular, a very fit older man, grey hair and titanium Lightspeed bike, who we can’t shake. We stick with him, sometimes ahead and other just behind, for a while as we get close to the state line.
We start down a moderate descent, picking up some speed, but as we start up the hill on the other side everyone starts to pick up the pace instead of falling back into line. I don’t realize it until it is too late, but we’ve hit the “State Line Sprint.” Near the top of the hill we will leave NJ and go back into NY, and Janeen seems to have made it her goal to get to NY before the greybeard we’ve been pacing for the past few miles. Not really understanding what’s going on I make a bit of a jump to stay on their wheel and watch as Janeen falls just a bit short of her goal. The man she chased congratulates her on her effort and they both agree it is a nice way to enter New York (unless I’m remembering this wrong and Janeen did manage to nip him at the line, in which case, “Whoohoo, J!” and please don’t be upset with me).
Janeen on 9W
The night before, Dan had warned me that the trip beyond the state line to Piermont is a mixed blessing. The good part is that it is significantly downhill from there and you don’t have to pedal much to get to coffee and muffins at the Bunbury Cafe. The bad part is that after warming yourself with coffee and filling your belly with delicious muffins you then have to climb, a lot, out of Piermont and back to State Line. As we crest the hill and start riding down into New York again, I see what he means. It is a long descent and we’re flying along, but across the street are riders in various stages of distress slowly making their way up. We zip along and I find myself in the front of the group, happily taking in the scene, until voices from behind me shout out “TURN!”. I jump hard on the brakes and manage to get slowed enough not to pass the intended turn as Dan and Janeen blow past me and down a quiet side street through a National Reserve at the outskirts of Piermont. We continue downhill, with Janeen warning me to be careful on the curves, and I slot in behind her to watch her descend. She’s better at this than me, and she knows what’s coming up, and as we get into a couple of tight switchbacks I can see how experience and confidence translate into speed.
Before too long we pop out of the woods and into the very picturesque village of Piermont. We wheel through town and stop outside of the Bunbury Coffee shop, which is jammed packed with cyclists. They make riders welcome at the shop and have two bike racks on the street in the place of parking spots for cars. Those racks are full of expensive rides, and as we enter the cafe we see that it is full of very fit folks in team kit. Because they’re New Yorkers they’re also talking about twice as loud as is necessary for the small space. We get in line and Janeen very gallantly asks me to buy her a coffee – it is a cash only place and she’s brought none. I’m so happy to be out in this place, with these people, and on this beautiful day that I buy coffee and muffins for everyone and we head outside to warm up in the sun.
Outside we sit on a stone fence and eat and drink, feeding the fat little birds that cluster at our feet each time a crumb falls. We check our phones for messages, take a few pictures, and shoot the breeze while we finish our muffins. Excellent, tasty muffins, although Janeen admits she’d sworn off them after fading badly one of the last times out this way on the return leg – no doubt the fault of the muffin she’d eaten. She’d forgotten that when I’d offered to get her one, but while she’s content to eat hers after hearing that story I kind of loose interest in mine and give the remainder to the birds. I don’t want any extra problems climbing back up to the state line when we leave. It is so nice sitting in the sun, having a chat, that I pull out my phone to snap a picture. I can’t remember what I said, but as I click the shutter button Janeen flashes me a look that will be captured forever and inspire fear in the hearts of weaker mortals everywhere. Afterwards she christens it her “Blue Steel” equivalent, the “D.B.A.” or “Don’t Be Absurd” and Dan and I agree it makes her clearly “not a person to be fucked with”.
Consumables consumed, bottles filled, bladders emptied, we hit the road and start heading back through Piermont. We comment on the quaint houses discuss which we’d like to live in if given the chance, and enough money. Piermont is tiny, so in no time we’re back on the 9W and begin climbing our way back up to the state line. The climb is in stages, nothing too steep or too long, and after a good cup of coffee and a muffin I’m enjoying myself and making it up pretty easily. We’re all in the same kind of mood for this ride, making an effort but not going out too hard, staying together and helping each other along, it is really nice. Our little group is working together nicely and it is a wonderful thing to be part of.
Finally we reach the long final climb back to New Jersey and Janeen says just to go at whatever pace you want and we’ll all wait up at the top. There had been some other riders with us, a bit ahead or a bit behind, and when I see people in front of me my lizard brain says they should be behind me. So I stand up and start climbing as best I can, intent on passing whomever I can going up the hill. I can see the top of this one so I know that I’ll make it. I pull away from Dan and Janeen and catch a few folks before reaching the top of the climb and pulling to a stop just after the border. A dude on a TT bike congratulates me on my climb, just as he’d congratulated Janeen on her effort as he passed her. While I appreciate his remarks to me, Janeen didn’t appreciate his to her which prompted a little online soul searching on her part afterwards.
After surviving the climb to the state line and taking a few minutes to recover, Janeen suggests we paceline it back to the GWB. We line up single file and Janeen takes a pull at the front while Dan and I follow closely behind. We’re quickly up over 21mph, holding steady over the rolling hills around 23mph. Janeen gives a flick of her elbow and moves over a bit so the next rider can take a turn at the front while she goes to the back. I take my turn at the front, trying to hold a steady pace, and counting pedal strokes as a way of measuring my time at the front. There’s a temptation to speed up, or to dig deep and take a long pull at the front. Both are to be avoided. The first is just bad manners, the second puts you at risk of blowing yourself up so that you miss getting back into the last rider’s slipstream and watching your group ride away from you. We get into a groove very quickly, and with the exception of one stop light that spoils things a bit, we practically fly down 9W humming along like a well-oiled machine. As we ride back I see all the group rides that left after we did headed north. There are so many people, more than I’ve seen on a regular Saturday out in Austin, that for a minute I think we must be seeing some sort of race or charity ride. Hundreds of bikes, in groups of 5 to 25 are headed up the road but before I say anything it dawns on me that this is simply the result of being near New York City, where a small percentage of the population doing anything turns out to be a big number of people. I marvel at it, quietly, and am grateful that we got an early start and avoided these crowds.
We take a quick detour into the posh suburbs of North Jersey to avoid a few risky intersections, and before you know it we’re back at the GWB and ready to head into the city again. We’re headed back to the city and now the sun is fully up so we’re treated to a wonderful view of the city skyline. As we ride across the bridge, down below I see a 46′ Coast Guard small boat swinging around a similarly sized cabin-cruiser headed down the Hudson. I turn to Dan riding behind me and smile. “Those are my people,” I say, pointing down to the action on the water below. The Coast Guard boat circles the cabin cruiser, likely chatting with them on the radio, before heading up the river towards the bridge, rising up out of the water as it comes fully up to speed. It is an impressive sight from up on the bridge.
As we reach the Manhattan side of the bridge Dan and Janeen both warn me that the roads around the Presbyterian Hospital at W 168th St are particularly dangerous. “Good thing there’s a hospital there,” I joke, lamely, but we pass through without incident. Since it is a beautiful Saturday morning, we avoid the West Side bike path since it will be absolutely clogged with people. Instead, we are going to ride through the city and head back to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge. We’re going over that bridge to avoid all the tourists who’ll be on the Brooklyn Bridge and wandering into the bike path as they try to take pictures of themselves against the city skyline.
We take Riverside Drive south towards mid-town, which is nice enough but there are stoplights every block. Dan says that during the NYPD crackdown on cyclists this route was a nightmare since you had to make sure you stopped and waited at each light to avoid incurring a $250 ticket. As it is, traffic is light and the best place for a bike rider to be is as far away from a car as possible so we snake our way down the road pausing at lights for only as long as necessary. Dan and Janeen call out items of interest as we roll down the road.
“There’s Grant’s Tomb,” Dan says.
“I wonder who’s buried there,” I joke – predictably.
“The world may never know,” Dan replies.
“There’s the Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument,” says Dan a few minutes later.
“Hmmm,” says I. “What’s that?” says Janeen.
At 72nd St we turn onto West End Avenue, and shortly thereafter I realize that my rear tire is going flat. We pull to the side of the road, out of traffic and I try and fail to work the pump on my bike to fill the tire. Janeen hands me hers, but while I’m trying to fill up the tire it ends up completely flat. I suggest taking the tube out to patch it, but Janeen points out that we’re right up the street from her primary bike shop, Toga. I put enough air in the tire to get moving again and we head down another block to the bike shop. If you happen to have a flat in NYC I can’t recommend a better spot than right in front of Toga. Especially if it happens right at 11AM on a Saturday, since that is when they open. Dan and Janeen lean against their bikes and watch me change my flat, joking with each other about who’s slower at changing a tire. Thanks to my misspent youth working in a bike shop, I’m able to turn the thing around pretty quickly and we’re back on the road for the final leg. Right through the heart of the Big Apple.
West End Ave becomes 11th Ave at 57th. We pass through Hell’s Kitchen, over the Lincoln Tunnel, and past the Javits Center where Dan and Janeen both comment on having missed ComicCon. We turn left on 24th St. and pass under the new Highline Park, an elevated train trestle that’s been turned into a very cool elevated park with trees, grass, and water features. Dan points out that we’re passing through the Chelsea neighborhood, and then helps me out with a verse of Elvis Costello’s “I don’t want to (go to Chelsea)” which I sing, Tourette’s-like, whenever I hear that word. I’ve got a student who works at our Help Desk named Chelsea, so she’s heard me do that dozens of times although I doubt she has any idea who Elvis Costello is. We take 24th to Madison Square Park before turning south to head down 5th Ave.
Over the past several years, and with no small amount of controversy, New York has added hundreds of miles of bike lanes and bike paths in the city. The bike lanes have made riding in the city a bit easier and safer for cyclists, and having a stripe of paint on the rode does help keep cars and bikes off of each other. But they don’t do miracles and riding in the city with traffic is a pretty intense experience. One advantage for bikers is that the traffic in town is moving pretty slowly and with a little bit of effort you can insert yourself into the flow of traffic at the same speed it is moving. That’s different from riding around on the streets in town here where traffic is going to be going 30-35mph and a bike is going to be merely a speed bump. But that’s about the only advantage. The roads are packed and parked cars, and parking cars, line each side of the street. Cars turn across the bike lane without warning and without consideration for you. Trucks use them as ad-hoc loading zones, forcing you to go out into traffic to get around. “Assert yourself in the flow of traffic. OWN YOUR LANE!” was Janeen’s advice.
Most annoying of all, although I’m fully aware that to most of the drivers out there we three lycra-clad, red-light skipping, slow-moving bikers are at the top of the annoyance list, were the dreaded bike lane “salmon”: The bikers, skateboarders, and walkers who would use the bike lane as a sidewalk and head against the flow of traffic. Mostly they were an annoyance, but at one point we were trying to squeeze past a truck that was making a delivery, and taking up the bike lane, when right at the point when we were pushed furthest out into the lane a kid on a skateboard salmoning his way up 5th Ave popped out from around the truck. Dan was in the front and restrained himself from throwing the kid an elbow to the jaw while all of us merged quickly into the sea of cabs and back again without getting killed.
We rode down 5th to Washington Square. At that point, as Janeen was pointing out the arch at Washington Square, she said, “You know, we didn’t intend to show you all these sights on this ride. It is just…this is the way we go and there’s all this noteworthy stuff.” It’s New York, man, you can’t throw a rock in this city without it bouncing off something, or someone, famous. Also, don’t throw rocks while you’re out on the streets in NYC. We headed east around Washington Square then then rode down Broadway. “Holy crap, I’m riding a bike down Broadway!” was what I was thinking but I tried to play it cool. While all of this travel through the city was exciting, it was also a little bit painful as we bounced over potholes, grates, and the other minor road imperfections so common to these streets. Also, there were stoplights and stop signs seemingly at every corner which meant lots of stopping and starting and quick accelerations to try to keep up with traffic. After riding nearly 60 miles this was kind of hard and the climbing muscles that had gotten a big workout going up and down 9W were protesting. Plus, because the day had been so cool and we hadn’t really gotten very thirsty, I hadn’t been keeping up with my hydration like I ought to have done. As a result, each time I’d start off from a light and have to stand up on my pedals my hamstrings and calves would tighten up and threaten to cramp. The last thing I wanted to have happen on the mean streets of NYC would be to suffer a cramp and either fall or have to pull over and nurse my legs back to functioning on a busy sidewalk.
We left Broadway at Bleeker and headed to Bowery. At the corner of Bleeker and Bowery, at 315 Bowery to be precise, is where CBGB’s used to stand. Now it is a clothing boutique. On my only other visit to New York, this was the site of my first “Oh shit, that place is famous” moments. I’d taken the ferry over from Governor’s Island and then the subway up to mid-town to meet a friend of my uncle Ted’s who was going to give me some ideas about places to go, and NOT go, in town. I left our meeting and started walking around the SoHo area. I didn’t really know where I was, only having a crude map drawn on a napkin to navigate by, and then suddenly there was this place, this famous place that I’d heard about all my life right in front of me. It was the middle of the morning and it was closed, but it was there, just like I’d seen it on TV. But there wasn’t any sign pointing you there and all the people on the street were just walking by and ignoring it. It was just there. That happend to me a few more times on that trip, with the offices for “The Village Voice”, the studio for “The Letterman Show”, and a few other places that I just happened across while headed somewhere else.
We continued on through Chinatown and made our way to the Manhattan Bridge. Dan and Janeen insisted that the Brooklyn Bridge on a Saturday afternoon was going to be completely overrun by clueless tourists and had to be avoided. I was just happy to be crossing another landmark and our third major bridge for the day. The bicycle path over the bridge was basically empty; I guess everyone really was going over the Brooklyn Bridge instead. We made our way across the bridge and then onto the streets of Brooklyn once again. After a few twists and turns we made it back to my hotel at about 11:45, some 5 hours after we’d left that morning. We’d covered just over 60 miles, climbed nearly 2/3 of a mile and, thanks to the slow pace of progress through the city, averaged just under 15 miles per hour. It was about 1000 feet more climbing in 20 miles less of riding than I had done the previous weekend in the 85-mile LiveStrong Challenge. We’d never really buried the needle in the red on this ride but it was consistently fast, challenging, and a heck of a lot of fun.
We got back to my hotel and spent a few minutes saying our goodbyes. I couldn’t stop smiling and thanking Dan and Janeen for a great day on the bike. I still can’t believe that such great riding can be found within riding distance of the biggest city in the country. It was one of the best rides I’d ever experienced and well worth the effort to make it happen. I’m grateful to Dan and Janeen for making it possible and sharing the day with me. We said our final goodbyes and I watched them ride off in separate directions towards their Brooklyn homes. I dragged my tired body up to my hotel room and got showered, changed, and packed for my return trip home. I had to hop back on my bike and back across the Manhattan Bridge to get the bike back to the rental place. As I soon as I got back in the saddle the fatigue of the morning’s ride set in with a vengeance. The relatively small climb to get over the bridge felt like a mountain. After a few miles I’d gotten warmed up again and enjoyed my last ride through the city, which ended up being longer than expected as I got lost (which Janeen had predicted) trying to get back to Pier 16 from the bridge.
Since I was down in the financial district I walked over to check out the scene at the Occupy Wall Street gathering and the Ground Zero memorial. I eventually made it back to Brooklyn and got my bags then drug them by foot, subway, train, tram, bus, and airplane back to Austin. I tweeted this as I boarded the train at Penn Station:
I’m leaving NYC, hungry, thirsty, and sore. Pretty much what I expected. Huge props to @thenoodleator and @dkcholo for making today so great
I’m so glad that I got a chance to do this and I’ll remember this day for a long, long time.
Janeen posted her own write-up and the details about the ride from her Garmin at Strava.com. http://www.strava.com/rides/yo-fall-your-fly-s-undone-2062655.
Great write-up! I’m jealous that you got to ride with the Noodleator, and it’s good to hear what another Texas rider has to say about rides and climbs elsewhere. Like you, I’m used to the sort of climbing we had a couple weeks ago on the Livestrong Challenge where you can typically see the top of the hill. That said, I don’t think Austin is entirely without extended climbs. I’m not really familiar with the roads there (I live further east), but I did a ride through Austin earlier this year that included climbing RM 620 from the dam across the Colorado to 4 Points Dr, and, according to MapMyRide, that’s a straight 3 mile climb. No switchbacks, but it definitely requires special pacing.
Howdy Nicole! Having a chance to ride with Noodle, especially on her home turf, was certainly a treat. Dan, the guy who joined us, was in Austin last week and he and I tackled the Dam Loop together on a very windy afternoon. He enjoyed it but had to get acclimated to the terrain here – our climbs are different but there’s also nothing flat for very long. And you’re right, there are similar climbs in Austin and that climb up from the Mansfield dam is a long one. It was the combination of pitch, distance, and the view that blew me away about Alpine. If you have the chance you should give it a try.