Cinco de Mayo, May 5th, was the date of 2013’s 5 Boro Tour: 40 miles/64.3 km through New York City’s five boroughs, ridden by approximately 32, 000 cyclists, of whom Basil and I were one. (I am, after, One With My Brompton!). I rode Basil to the subway station — on Manhattan streets for the first time. (Sunday streets; they were deserted except for a friendly cab driver who smiled and gestured to show me he wouldn’t run me over.)
We got up at 5 AM — earlier than theoretically necessary — but missed the first train. This turned out to be a lucky break. It was a good thing that I’d taken seriously the event’s warnings to arrive early — the suggestion was to arrive up to an hour before our actual start time, and I’d allowed well more time than needed. Basil and I were in Blue — the first start, thanks to the number of miles we rack up each week — and our start time was 7:45 AM. That’s Basil, above, just before we descended into the subway. In May, it was light already, though just barely.
We were coming from Washington Heights, not terribly far from The Cloisters, so the ride would have been at least 40 minutes at best. 5 Boro riders number 1 (!) and 10, dressed in Giro d’Italia jerseys, joined us on the train, as did rider 62. For reasons that mystified rider 62 and me, 1 and 10 got off three stops before the race start.
Rider 62 asked me what stop I was using. “Canal Street”, I said. He was relieved . . . which was a serious mistake. The next thing we knew, the train was pulling into Metro Tech station. In Brooklyn. Rider 62 looked at me again and said “Metro Tech?”, just as I was realizing that something had gone very, very wrong. The A train had skipped every stop below W 4th Street, because, you know, on weekends they can do that.
**Important Tip: don’t just type the day of the week into HOP STOP when confirming directions; type in the actual date. HOP STOP gave me standard Sunday directions. On 5 Boro day, with an early morning influx of 32,000 riders clogging the system, the MTA, in its infinite wisdom, changed the downtown A route.
We got off at Metro Tech with Rider 62, crossed over, and prepared to retrace our steps. Waiting on the platform was another 5 Boro rider — a resident of lower Manhattan, and therefore conversant with the MTA’s local changes — and she assured us that we’d all be able to get off on Canal Street, now that we were going uptown. And so we did. There was no mystery about where to go; volunteers were everywhere, and so were cyclists.
That’s the view in front of us (above) as we joined the crowd. Very early, in spite of our little side trip to Brooklyn, we were blocks from the start line! Below is the view behind:
People just kept pouring in. We were only the first third of the cyclist waves: Red cyclists started 45 minutes later, and Silver 45 minutes after that. There were roughly 11,000 riders in each wave.
As the start time drew closer, things tightened up. You can’t really see it, but there’s a fine white line stretched from one side of the street to the other between the buildings, directly in the center of the picture. That’s the start line — blocks away!
A bunch of gobbledygook came over the loud speakers during the ten minutes before the start, none of which ws comprehensible until a voice sung out tinnily ” . . . the laaaand of the freeeeee” (line from the USA national anthem), and the crowd roared.
A few minutes later, we were on our way. At 1 mph/1.6 kmh! Feet on the ground . . . and then 3 mph/4.8 kmh, and then a whopping 6 mph/9.6 kmh . . . at which point I realized something significant: This ride was not going to be about speed. It was particularly not going to be about my speed — how fast we went was going to be determined by a bunch of other factors, most of them irrelevant to whatever Basil and I were doing at any particular moment.
Soon we were leaving lower Manhattan and blasting up Sixth Avenue, where I got the first shock of the day: Streets were closed to motorists, but not to pedestrians. I figured this out when an older gent came tripping across in front of Basil, dragged along the street by two enthusiastic Golden Retrievers. The guy looked shell-shocked. At other points ride marshals were gathering groups of pedestrians and stopping the Tour, crossing-guard style, but there were points all along where pedestrians were just obliviously stepping into the pack of riders. I was glad I got the wake-up call early in the ride. (No Golden Retrievers were hurt in the process.)
I didn’t take any photos at first, except for this shot of the RFK/Triborough Bridge from the Manhattan. Getting oriented was plenty enough to occupy me, and it was surprisingly difficult to curb my natural tendency to stop at red lights and to ride the correct way down one-way streets . . . all of which were irrelevant on this ride.
The big disappointment of the Tour was not being allowed to stop on the bridges; this was an inevitable injunction, probably, as a result of last month’s bombing in Boston. I took the photo above as the tour was beginning, and, once I had my bearings, snapped a couple others (below) before I realized that we weren’t supposed to stop.
We then rode up through Central Park, through Harlem, and headed into a tiny corner of the Bronx over the Madison Avenue Bridge. Then it was back into Manhattan over the 3rd Avenue Bridge, onto the FDR. It was verrrry strange to be cycling on the FDR, which is a massive, usually hugely over-crowded, espressway. Drivers on the other side, who were going the other way, sometimes honked and waved — in a friendly fashion — as the Tour passed on the closed portion.
Then we rode over the Queensboro Bridge into (naturally) Queens, northward, with a mandatory dismount at Astoria Park, before continuing south on to the Pulaski Bridge into Brooklyn, where we rode through Greenpoint and past Red Hook, and onto the BQE/Gowanus Expressway and then onto the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island.
The mandatory dismount at Astoria Park was a surprise. I had been warned not to stop at the first rest stop, since lines were likely to be terrible, but I didn’t need a stop there, nor at the next two. I’d started out well-hydrated, it was a cool day, and I was used to riding 20 miles or more without a stop. But it wasn’t possible to just continue cycling through the park. Basil and I just wanted to ride!
We were lucky, though, that we arrived just after 9:15, since all riders who had arrived earlier were held there until 9:15 while further streets were closed so that the Tour could continue. We didn’t have to wait, and I did take advantage of the enforced walk to take pictures.
Two bridges connect to Astoria Park, neither of which we rode on. On is the RFK/Triborough (above), and the other is Hell Gate (below).
Hell Gate is a railroad bridge with excellent towers at each end, along with a very pretty arch spanning its length. Surprisingly pretty, considering that it’s Hell, and all.
Basil had had enough of this photo delay, but it was important to immortalize him, too, at the park.
We moved on quickly, into Brooklyn where a “Welcome to Brooklyn” sign greeted us as we crossed the Pulaski Bridge. The crowd had thinned out quite a bit by this time, probably thanks to all the rest and water stops that dotted the route. No one who was unprepared was likely to go thirsty or hungry on this Tour.
We entered Brooklyn at Greenpoint, and I rode by some streets which were quite familiar from previous visits to New York. If I recall correctly, this is the only point at which I really noticed the wind — but not for long, as Basil and I were soon flying through Brooklyn, with very few other riders by our side along this stretch.
This may have been where I was restrained from taking more pictures. Someone official (a marshal or security officer?) told me that, a little oddly, I could take pictures from the left side, but not at the right, where I had stopped. (That was particularly strange, since, naturally, anyone stopping or riding slowly is expected to keep to the right.)
It was a beautiful day. Some people claimed that it was too cool, but cool is best for rides. I was wearing shorts (with padded liners), a 5 Boro jersey, and a light jacket and was perfectly outfitted. I did unzip the jacked about halfway through, and ditched it altogether when Basil and I stopped at our one “rest” stop, nine miles from the finish. There was plenty of clean, sparkling water available, but one had to hunt for it, since it was hidden at the back, far, far from the enormous Red Bull presentation at the entrance of the stop.
The city has been on a kick attempting to get residents to drink NYC water. Maybe this is to reduce bottle litter? Anyway, NYC water tastes just fine to me, so I was happy to tank up. I can’t even imagine doing a 40 mile/64.3 km ride on Red Bull. (If you need it, maybe it would be better to train instead?)
There were plenty of snacks. Fairway Market (oh, Fairway, how I long for you on my home turf!) supplied apples, Kind bars (“ingredients you can pronounce”) handed out their treats with abandon, and there were piles and piles of bananas, one of which I happily consumed on the spot.
There were views and not so many cyclists at this stop, which was about three-fourths of the way through the Tour.
The Brooklyn Bridge loomed in the distance:
Basil met a friend, the first raw lacquer Brompton that I’ve seen in person. This is one handsome bicycle!
The other important business of this stop was the dreaded Port-A-Potty. No, I wasn’t dreading it for the reasons you might imagine. Many years ago I used to backpack and camp, so I learned a long time ago how to deal with, ahem, interesting situations which require delicate operations where one might not want body parts touching unhygienic or unsavory flora or toilet seats. No, that was not the concern.
The concern was Basil. As frequent readers of my blog know all-too-well, I quite boldly take Basil into just about every bathroom I encounter. Port-A-Potties, however, have dimensions that challenge even a person of my relatively small size. Either I was going to have to find an extra-wide cubicle — probably somewhere around — or I was going to have to leave Basil outside. Gulp.
So that’s what I did. But I didn’t like it! (And that was probably a world’s record in rapid toilet use.) I do think it was quite clear that Basil was waiting for someone. Had I heard anything untoward outside the door, I’d have been outside in a minute, modesty be damned. Must keep the priorities straight.
In the months leading up to the 5 Boro, almost everyone I talked to said that the bridges were tough because of the climbs. At this point, we’d crossed 4 of the 5 bridges on the Tour and, really, they hadn’t been an issue. Ahead, though, was the über-dreaded Verrazano, cited specifically I think, by everyone I’d talked to.
But, you know, it wasn’t that bad. The incline does go on forever, and I’m not saying it was a walk in the park — although I guess it could have been, since I do recall looking at my Garmin at one point and reading “2.3 mph/3.7 kmh”, so I could have been walking for a brief few moments. And I did use first gear, although I’d never dropped lower than fourth anywhere else on the Tour.
I wonder how many people who do the 5 Boro ride city bikes and rarely use low gears? It seems odd that so many people found the bridges so rough . . ..
Huge numbers of cyclists were stopped on the Verrazano, checking out the views. The “no stopping” rule was essentially unenforceable, once those kinds of numbers decided to engage in a little civil disobedience.
Even little old law-abiding me stopped for two seconds to get a couple of shots. (Too fast to compose them well!) Security was more of an issue this year than in past years, which made it even stranger that there were neither security nor marshals for quite a [literal]span here. I assume they figured they had the bridge covered, and we had gone through security choke points along the way, with riders with non-compliant bags stopped as they went by.
The NYPD had us covered in the air.
Basil and I finished just before noon. Well, that’s not technically true, since the “finish” line is at 37 miles/59.5 km or so; there was a “festival” at Fort Wadsworth, where we all, once again, dismounted, and were offered the opportunity to buy all sorts of things (food included) that we’d mostly seen at the Expo where we’d picked up our packets.
I took a very quick look around, and then we found out way out — but not until I’d bought an embroidered patch that will end up on a bag for Basil. This was a ride to remember, and I think he’ll be pleased to have a souvenir on his gear.
On the way out, there was a sign pointing to an overlook. This seemed like a very welcome consolation prize for having not been able to fully enjoy the views from the Verrazano, so Basil and I detoured there.
OK, it’s a long bridge . . .
and it’s a high bridge! And it was one fun bridge to ride! Normally, neither pedestrians nor cyclists are allowed across.
See the heads, just above the side of the lower deck? Those are more, ever more, 5 Boro cyclists, streaming over. (The heads are the little blips between the lower rails and the single rail just above. The road racers are leaning forward at an angle, as is their wont.)
Here’s Basil, beneath the Verrazano Bridge, having traversed it all the way:
Several people asked me to take their pictures at the lookout, which I was happy to do. The favor was returned: Here are Basil and me, none-the-worse for wear, just about at the end of the 5 Boro Tour:
Is that a Brompton directly behind Basil?
Why yes, it is, a beautiful all-black M6 — not only that, but the fellow riding it identified himself as a reader of this blog — who would have imagined it? (That was actually a pretty cool moment . . .. )
Then Basil and I returned to the Tour route to ride the remaining three miles to the Staten Island Ferry.
The line for the ferry was long, but the wait was only about twenty minutes.
I didn’t have any idea how much time the the ferry trip would take, and we were right at the exit doors, so I didn’t fold Basil all the way. This ferry’s capacity, in humans, was 2,639, so carrying capacity, even with bicycles, was considerable.
Later, I moved Basil, and folded him partially. As the aisles filled up, a fellow near me gave me his seat so that he could stay closer to the bikes he was watching. We ended up in exactly the right spot to get this shot:
Then it was time to disembark. (Is every single person in this picture checking his phone?)
This was the scene behind us as walked down the ramp:
This is an absolutely fabulous experience, and anyone who has the slightest interest in travelling through New York on otherwise forbidden, inadvisable, or inaccessible roads and bridges should seriously consider doing the 5 Boro Tour. The various waves are designed for all levels of cyclists; wave Silver included families and children, and the Tour offers suggestions for people who may want to ride only part way.
Actually, the 41 miles/65.9 km we rode wasn’t enough. I decided to cycle all the way “home”, back to Washington Heights (another 12.5 miles/20 km), instead of returning by subway– but that’s a post for another day.
Here’s Basil, though, on the 5th floor landing, back “home”, once we’d returned from the 5 Boro and the trip up the West Side Greenway:
This event turned out to be cream puff for me, though, and I owe that entirely to the experience I’ve gained while riding, only since last October, with the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia. Thanks to leaders like Tim C. and George, and experienced mentors like Saul and Mike, I’m used to riding 30 miles/48.2 km and more on a regular basis. (Even if the most recent ride nearly knocked me out — sometimes you learn the most from mistakes.)
Admittedly, had the day been much hotter, or weather conditions terrible (it could happen) this would have been a much rougher ride, but the biggest surprise of the day was how ready I was for this particular challenge . . . bridges and all. (Gotta love Brompton’s BWR — Brompton Wide Range — gearing, too!)
But anyone with some experience riding a bicycle can probably manage the 5 Boro — though maybe with a little walking here and there. And anyone can probably make it a great event with just a little focused preparation! What a fantastic day this was!