On the first Sunday in May, our NYC correspondent Gemma Gracewood went for a springtime bike ride through the city… with 32,000 other people. Here’s her report, with fantastic photos.
New York, New York: a city of islands, bridges, tunnels and five boroughs. What’s not to bike? The motorways, of course. But actually, for 38 years in a row, Bike New York has been allowed to unleash thousands of cyclists on the city’s freeways during its annual tour of the city’s five boroughs – an event that raises funds for its bike education programmes.
This year was my third in a row – I first covered the event for Metro with my brother, Greg, and then went back for more because – well, who wouldn’t? Thanks to glorious spring weather, the third time was even more of a charm than the first two.
The TD 5 Boro Bike Tour starts in Lower Manhattan, goes straight up the Avenue of the Americas to Harlem, makes a quick loop through the Bronx then down the FDR Highway and over the especially pretty Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge into Queens, before heading down through Greenpoint and Williamsburg, under the Brooklyn Bridge and up onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for the last stretch to Staten Island over the expansive Verrazano Bridge.
It’s an epic ride, and, coming at the start of New York’s annual Bike Month, it’s the perfect hook for a bike-mad person’s spring trip to the Big Apple.
(NB If you’re considering a trip to New York for the ride, hot tip: registration opens every January, and sells out within hours. Sign up here to get updates about how to be the early bird or the up-very-late bird, depending on your timezone).
Fancy joining the tour next May? Here are ten reasons that might help convince you:
1. It’s an All Ages Celebration
In Central Park, I chatted with Team Golden, four friends ranging in age from 52 to 66 who traveled from north Michigan for the ride. Team Golden? “Because of The Golden Girls! You gotta keep moving so you can make it past 70!” they cackle. To be honest, none of them looked a day over 50.
Later, on the headwind-heavy slog towards the Verrazano Bridge, I’m overtaken by an 8 year old I thought I’d left in the dust 30 miles back. Meanwhile, a Mum and Dad are still cheerfully pedalling their two kids along on their tandems, while nearby, a toddler snoozes in her trailer as her Dad cajoles her big brother to keep going.
2. The Bikes
Amidst the sea of speedy Specializeds, the ride is becoming populated by more and more “other” bikes. Beat-up old ten-speeds. Cute new cruisers. Danish cargo bikes.
And tandems. So many tandems!
3. The Sights
We start downtown near Calatrava’s “will it ever be finished?” transportation hub.
We ride past Radio City Music Hall.
We cruise through Central Park past the oldest outdoor monument in NYC (thanks, Egypt!), and catch a glimpse of the Guggenheim through the trees on our right.
So far, so New Yorky. But keep your eyes peeled for other city secrets such as Keith Haring’s Crack is Whack and this little brown shack in Greenpoint…
4. The Music
At critical junctures, there is live music to liven up the ride, from bluegrass downtown to gospel in Harlem, alt-country in Williamsburg, a brass band on the FDR…
And one guy took it upon himself to bring the bass to the ride himself. All hail Speakerbike guy.
5. That One Guy Wearing Acid-Washed Denim Jeans
6. The Company
I rode alone this year, but I didn’t feel alone. The pace is cruisy enough in parts that you can strike up convivial conversations. And I happened across another pair of New Zealanders, Andre and Olivia. Olivia – an Aucklander – now works for Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, who are connecting up Brooklyn’s waterfront to create the longest unbroken stretch of walk-run-bike path in NYC. Their 40-mile Epic Ride is coming up in July. We caught each other up about Auckland’s latest cycle network announcement and talked cycle chic and fixed a puncture and sneaked off for coffee in Williamsburg and parted ways beside the Brooklyn Bridge.
7. “Doing Illegal Things Legally!”
One delighted cyclist yelled this as she crested the arc of the Queensboro Bridge, to a joyful reply of whistles, whoops and bells.
In the past 38 years, things have changed a lot for bikes in New York City. We have bike lanes and bike paths of our own, now. But the glee of rolling along the FDR and the BQE freeways with every lane to ourselves – you can’t top that. Check out these whoops of joy:
8. The Off-Ramps
Dunno about you, but whenever I’m on a motorway I gaze longingly at on- and off-ramps with a cyclist’s envy. So swoopy, so smooth, so darned downhill. The 5 Boro offers the rare chance to enjoy a few of these. coming down off the Queensboro Bridge, I had happy tears. When was the last time you had a happy cry just driving your car down a motorway off-ramp?
9. The Pace
The ride is manageable for almost anyone. Many people spend months preparing; some just jump on their bikes on the day.
There are a few decent uphills on the bridge approaches, but everyone helps out, including the marshalls: “Slow bikers on the right, fast bikers on the left” and “Now’s the time to drop into a low gear… or just pedal faster!”
This was the first ride in three years that it’s been warm enough not to take extra layers for the early start, and I think the gorgeous spring sunshine slowed everyone down more than usual. I noticed less blatting, more tootling, a lot more walking-with-bikes at bottlenecks, and an entire Queens rest stop shaved off by the time I got there (to help keep everyone moving and the road reopening schedule on track).
10. The Course Marshalls
These are people sent from Bike Heaven. Upbeat, kind, encouraging, there to egg us on and keep us safe. In a city that often takes yelling-at-people to an uncomfortable level, these beautiful volunteers find a way to corral and cajole 32,000 cyclists without making us feel like nuisance cattle. I would pay the woman who joyfully megaphoned “I know you can! I know you can!” during the Verrazano Bridge’s uphill climb to follow me every day of my life.
And that’s just ten reasons among so, so many. You want to be a part of it, New York (New York)? Sure you do. Sign up here to get updates about next year’s ride, and see you on your bike!