2003: In a New York Century
For a few years now, I have hoped to participate in the New York City Century, a 100-mile bike ride in the city. For one reason or another I had never been able to do the ride, but this year, having done several long rides in training for triathlons, I was in good enough cycling shape and had the time, so decided to go for it.
Being the procrastinator that I am however, I did not get around to making specific plans, including booking a room, not the easiest (or most inexpensive) thing to do in New York. In addition, there was the issue of how to travel. Since the ride started at 6:00 a.m. driving the 230 miles was impractical, and the train was out for various reasons, not the least of which was that they do not accommodate bikes. But Greyhound does, and lo and behold, there was a 12:30 a.m. trip on the schedule, due to arrive in the city at 5:00 a.m. Voila! I would take the bus, and then cycle to the start. After the ride, I would reverse the process. The plan seemed simple enough, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Nonetheless, there I was at Boston’s South Station at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday—and I was not alone. Never did I imagine so many people would be traveling on this overnight bus: students, foreign travelers, working types, vagrants, and another group of people I had not factored in, fans that had attended the Bruce Springsteen concert at Fenway Park, which had just ended. There were enough riders that they had to add another bus. Greyhound says they accommodate bikes “only if there is room in the cargo bin,” so I thought my trip might end before it even started. But the bus driver told me “I like bikes” and went out of his way to help. He did not have me put the bike in the cargo bin, but in the space directly behind the driver’s seat! I sat directly across from the bike, to make sure it did not go flying in case of a sudden turn or stop.
I was mildly concerned the bus would be late and I would not have time to get to the start of the ride, but those fears were quickly allayed as the driver tore out of town at an alarming rate. In fact, we reached New Haven in two hours, a distance that normally takes three hours. Call it the Acela bus, I suppose. Well before the scheduled arrival time, we pulled into the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan.
Most everyone knows New York is the city that never sleeps and that nocturnal activities in and around Times Square are, well…unusual. But as I clicked and clacked my way up the stairs in my bike shoes, clad in skin tight cycling gear and my bike helmet, and emerged onto 42nd street, even the late night hookers and transvestites must have thought I was a stark raving lunatic.
Carrying a bag over my shoulder containing a change of clothes and shoes made for an awkward ride as I cycled along 8th Avenue towards the start at the northern entrance of Central Park on 110th Street. It was both eerie and interesting to be completely alone as I pedaled through the Park. I thought it was populated 24 hours a day! The previous day I had researched and found a hostel near the park where I could leave my gear; a real plus was that I was able to use the bathroom there and avoid the portajohns, which would surely be crowded. At 5:30 a.m., right on schedule, I arrived at the start of the ride.
I couldn’t help but compare this crowd to those at cycling events in Boston. Right away, it was apparent that the makeup of this group was different. As opposed to many rides I have done in Boston, where the many the riders are—how can I put this nicely—uptight and less than friendly, this crowd seemed loose, relaxed, and friendly. Not one person reprimanded me for using a bike with aero bars. There were all kinds of bikes, from sleek machines to mountain bikes to clunkers.
The start was a real experience, almost in and of itself worth the effort of making the trip. Led by a police vehicle, we wheeled down 5th Avenue, several hundred strong, flying through the intersections, hooting and hollering at the pure exhilaration of it all. It’s hard to explain the feeing of cycling freely through the heart of the world’s most famous metropolis.
We headed over the Brooklyn Bridge into Brooklyn on a surprisingly wide, wooden pedestrian walkway. I was feeling all right but not great, riding on virtually no sleep. Having to be vigilant at every street crossing in Brooklyn (of which there many) was tiring, and would become more so as the day progressed. Many parts of Brooklyn have undergone a revitalization, a nice thing to see. In addition, Prospect Park was beautiful, almost a clone of Central Park, not surprising since it is also an Olmstead designed park. I met one rider who told me he trained exclusively for the Lake Placid Ironman by riding exclusively around the park’s three-mile loop!
A little further on we popped out next the ocean onto a nice paved path that led us up to Coney Island. As we passed under a mammoth bridge far above us I asked another rider what it was and he replied “the Varrazano Narrow.” This was quite a different perspective than you get at the New York City Marathon, which I have run three times. I picked up the tempo on this stretch and before I knew it we were at the 35-mile rest stop. There was a view back into Manhattan from the oceanside stop; it looked like it was 100 miles away!
Heading north we pedaled through Queens and through its many parks. These were not so easy to negotiate, as the paths were narrow and the pavement uneven. We also had to dismount and carry our bikes up several flights of stairs in places. I was somewhat familiar with this territory, as we covered the same ground as in Rich Innamarato’s 50-km Quest ultra I ran last year. I reached 50 miles in three hours and 25 minutes, not exactly a sizzling pace, but not bad given the challenging route.
Negotiating the route became something of a problem during the second half of the ride, as the crowd of riders became strung out. We were given a turn sheet at the start of the ride, but it contained nearly 1,000 changes of direction. I don’t know about others, but I have never been able to read a turn sheet and simultaneously ride through city streets. There were also markings, yellow “Cs” painted on the road, but many were faded and hard to pick out. Thus, I tried to follow other riders who presumably knew the route, or were better than I at reading turn sheets and/or picking out course markings. That slowed my pace markedly on many stretches, however. At 60 miles I tagged along with a quartet of riders who were cranking along at 20 miles per hour. I felt I was set for a while, but after about 20 minutes they inexplicably slowed too. The deliberate pace, along with the increasingly warm temperatures and my lack of sleep all conspired to make me feel truly tired for the first time during the ride. On the last stretch through Queens we rode by LaGuardia Airport, Shea Stadium, and the famous Steinway Piano headquarters.
With three boroughs and 70 miles down, we were headed next for the Bronx, but I was puzzled as to how we would accomplish that. The answer was via a narrow, harrowing footpath on the Throgs Neck Bridge. After hauling our bikes up several flights of stairs, we rode single file on a path just about wide enough for rider and bike, the traffic whizzing by on one side, the river hundreds of feet below on the other. As if that was not tough enough, every hundred feet or so there were inch-high steel planks to deal with. I will never complain again about the ride over the Sagamore Bridge into Cape Cod! Needless to day, I was relieved to finally get back on level ground in the Bronx.
That relief didn’t last long. The trip through the borough was less than aesthetically pleasing. I felt like I was reenacting Bonfire of the Vanities on two wheels, when at one point, trailing a small group of riders by about 50 yards, a teenager walked out into the street and said to me “Hey, give me your bike.” It was hard to tell if he was serious or not, but I did not stick around to find out.
Heading north in the Bronx the surroundings improved. The New York Botanical Gardens were beautiful, as were Manhattan College and Van Cortland Park, all nice areas to ride through. With 90 miles completed it looked like we were home free. Not so fast. The two guys I was riding with and I somehow missed a turn and ended up on the Henry Hudson Parkway. After about a mile of almost getting flattened by the speeding cars we knew we were off course, so we backtracked to find the correct route. After a while, when we seemed hopelessly lost, we looked down to find a yellow “C” on the road. Yes! The last few miles were seemingly endless and annoying, but at about 1:15 p.m., seven and a quarter hours after we started, we wheeled back into Central Park to collect our race shirt and water bottle.
That of course was not quite the end of the ride for me. After a bit of socializing, I returned to the hostel to collect my gear, and also a bonus shower. Then I was back on the bike for five more miles back to Port Authority. But this time I had to deal with full-throttle midday Manhattan traffic. One final token of good fortune came my way however, as Broadway was closed to vehicular traffic due to a parade that had just concluded. So for the second time that day I biked unimpeded through midtown Manhattan. I managed to secure a spot on the 3:30 p.m. bus, whereupon I fell asleep almost at once, serenaded by chirping cell phones and of all things, a movie being shown and blared at high volume throughout the bus. By 8:00 p.m., 20 hours after the adventure began, I was back at South Station.
This ride is definitely worth doing, even if you don’t quite rough it as much as I did. If you have a curiosity about New York City and its surroundings, this is a great way to see it; it’s like a cycling travelogue. This ride is not for the feint of heart though. The constantly changing terrain and steady traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian) require you to be heads up the entire way. Although I did the ride on my triathlon bike, if I had it to do again I would use a mountain bike. The constant starting and stopping, along with the less than smooth terrain in spots, make this a ride that might be better suited to wider tires. Any way you do it though, the 100 miles of New York will be a true experience, a ride unlike any other you have ever done.