The last time that I (allegedly) rode through a red light in the presence of a police officer, I was handed a personal invitation to explain myself to a traffic court judge. So it felt rather strange to be rolling through red lights under the watchful gaze of not one but dozens of police officers, none of whom made any move to stop me or anyone else.
For half a day – and on a rather limited set of roads – the cyclist is king. It‘s quite impressive how much of New York City gets shut down for the Five Boro Bike Tour: the 59th Street Bridge, a whole side of the Verrazzano, part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and a whole host of lesser roads all get closed off to cars so that 20,000 cyclists (32,000 in a normal, non-pandemic year) can take a leisurely ride around New York City.
We started in Lower Manhattan, and rode briskly up toward Central Park, through Harlem, and across the Madison Avenue Bridge into the Bronx (second borough). The route pays a fleeting visit to the Bronx, then makes a hard right and returns to Manhattan via the Third Avenue Bridge for a trip down the east side of the island on the Harlem River Drive and the FDR.
Somewhere under Sutton Place, after rolling unhindered for perhaps twelve miles, we had our first stop. For about fifteen minutes, a few thousand cyclists were all jammed together in the tunnel, in a sea of helmets, lycra and brightly-colored nylon, waiting for the signal to move on. Another brief halt at the foot of the ramp leading up to the 59th Street Bridge, and then we were in motion again, riding up and over the bridge. I stopped by the guardrail to admire the views over Roosevelt Island and the East River, then rode on down into Queens (third borough).
The ride so far had been easy going, and I wasn't tired in the least. But the rest stop at Mile 20 in Long Island City had snacks, so I pulled over and collected a handful of assorted goodies. These included some kind of caffeinated oat milk beverage which I took a hearty swig of before realizing my mistake. I don’t drink coffee or tea normally, so caffeine tends to have a disproportionate effect on me. I resigned myself to jittering all the way to Staten Island, and finished the drink.
A few miles further on, the route crossed Newtown Creek to enter Brooklyn (fourth borough). A little while further on, we were riding on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, with a whole side of the road to ourselves (and three lanes of disgruntled drivers on the other side, scowling at us). The BQE gave way to the Gowanus Expressway, with inspiring views over the mostly-decontaminated Gowanus Canal. I stopped to take photographs, and was passed by an elderly lady wearing a plastic flowerpot on her bicycle helmet. A little distance behind her was a shirtless man riding a Citi Bike. He was pedaling hard and looking as if he was beginning to regret his decision. I felt a pang of sympathy for him: much as I love the Citi Bike bike share scheme for the freedom of movement it has given me, the heavy blue bikes are designed for indestructibility rather than speed, ease or comfort. The idea of riding forty miles on one makes me shudder. And that’s without taking the fees into account. After the first forty-five minutes (free to members), they add up pretty quickly.
I passed another Citi Bike rider as I climbed toward the midpoint of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. This one had given up trying to propel the heavy vehicle up the slope and was grimly pushing it. Not for the first time, I felt grateful for my own bike – a road-bike built by a bike enthusiast friend, it's a mongrel machine but light and quick and, as it turned out, surprisingly comfortable over long distances.
Going downhill into Staten Island (fifth and final borough) was something that even the Citi Bike riders could probably enjoy. A little after that, however, we hit a hill, one of a handful of real slopes on the whole route. I watched two paraplegic veterans in arm-powered recumbent bikes struggle grimly up it. They didn’t look like men who gave up easily, but to spring this on them when they'd almost reached the end seemed like a mean trick.
And then, surprisingly quickly, I found myself at the finish line. I skipped the after-party, accepted a celebratory ice-cream from one of the sponsors, and joined the queue for the Staten Island ferry and my ride home to Manhattan. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Sunday morning, and it offered a chance to see parts of the city that I wouldn’t normally see, from vantage points that aren’t usually available to anyone except car owners. Maybe I’ll do it again next year.
I sent text messages to M. at significant points during the ride. They give a glimpse of my progress and of my state of mind:
09:46 - Central Park
10:21 - Back in Manhattan on Harlem River Drive
10:32 - Snarled up in the tunnel
11:05 - Queens
11:35 - Long Island City Mile 20
11:42 - I just accidentally drank a caffeinated beverage. I’m in trouble now. Everyone is in trouble now.
12:02 - Brooklyn
12:40 - Industry City
12:50 - Strawberry-banana energy gel is horrifying
13:18 - Stagnant Island
13:42 - And done