Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Cyclist of New York

Last week I spent a few days in New York to take part in its world famous marathon. Being a runner, (as well as a cyclist) New York City Marathon is a must-do race in my opinion. It was a great experience which I highly recommend - provided you train properly to run 26.2 hilly miles!

As a bike rider it would have been remiss of me to not cycle around the city, so I managed to get in a few bike rides.
Initially I had hoped to use a Citibike, an equivalent to the Santander Transport for London Bikes (aka Boris Bikes) that you find here. But a quick look at review sites did not fill me with confidence.

Folks talked about being ripped off, having difficulties finding stations to rack their bikes after usage because of the inefficient app, and being charged twice on their credit cards.

I can imagine how being ripped off comes into it, given that after an initial 30 minutes free of charge the rate then goes up to $4 per 15 minutes. So that would work out as $16 per hour, including the displeasure of knowing you are being shafted for up to $8 worth of time as you look for an available space to dock your bike!

In light of this, I quickly concluded that it would be a more pleasurable and cost-effective experience to do a traditional bike hire from one of the many bike rental shops around New York City.

Bike Friday in Mid-Town Manhattan

On a Friday afternoon a hired a Trek hybrid bike from Bike Rental Central Park on 6th Avenue close to West 54th Street, near where I was staying.

Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (photo: Lori Richmond)
It was $9 per hour plus $3 for insurance, and they gave me a bonus half-hour. A helmet and lock were included in the cost.

My first trip was to use the bike to do a recon of the route of the New York Marathon. So I joined the traffic on 6th Avenue, to turn right onto 59th Street  and rode to Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

From the junction with the bridge there was a network of cycle paths to get me onto the bridge, so I rode over it to get into Queens. At the end of the bridge, in Queens Plaza I then turned around to ride back over it to be in the direction of the marathon route.

The segregated two-way cycle path runs alongside the traffic (on the right-hand side of the bridge going towards Manhattan) and I felt completely safe. It's main feature is the hilliness of this bridge, making it necessary to take it steady. A couple of riders - perhaps unaccustomed to hills or without low enough gears - even stopped to wheel their bike on the steepest section.

Once over the top, a sign warns riders to moderate their speed, as the path descends fast, and curves sharply at the end of the bridge. Furthermore, as this is a shared use path with walkers and joggers potentially on the blind corner, this complicates matters further, though I didn't see any collisions. There'd definitely be a case for having a bike bell.

Harlem shuffle

Once back in Mid-Town Manhattan I crossed a couple of streets to get onto 1st Avenue. This is a very long straight, one-way road (like most streets in Mid-Town) that is crossed by loads of streets - starting from 60th Street, going all the way up to 126th Street to eventually cross the Harlem River. There was a segregated two-way cycle lane to the left of the carriageway which was all nicely ordered in Manhattan, but then got gradually less ordered - peppered with road works and loading vehicles - as you got further north, towards Harlem.

At 125th Street I should have crossed the river via the Willis Avenue Bridge to go into the Bronx, as per the marathon route. There was a cycle path that would have allowed me to do this, however it was late afternoon and I was worried that a) it would get dark and I had no lights and b) I was in danger of missing the 6pm deadline for getting back to the shop. So at this point I turned left along 125th Street, also known as Dr Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard.

The thing that I always find strange about New York - something I also noted when in Buenos Aires last year, is how a road can be so long and straight, keeping the same name and crossing many neighbourhoods. 1st Avenue started from Manhattan Bridge, where there was that central New York feel with tall buildings, lots of yellow taxis, and a certain level of affluence on the Upper East Side.

A mile or so after I joined 1st Avenue, the scenery changed. The buildings were not quite so tall, not as neat, the cars looked a bit old and beat up, plus there were not many white people. Loud music was blaring from the houses and from the cars. I realised I was in Harlem - it kind of reminded me of what Peckham (South London) was like a few years ago. I would have liked to come back there and go to a hairdressers shop, and chat to a few of the locals. But there was no time for that on this occasion.

In terms of the cyclist experience there were quite a few of us around, using the segregated cycle path along 1st Avenue, though not as many as you would see on a cycle superhighway path in London at an equivalent time of day.

Also, I still had to keep my eyes peeled when going straight on past left hand turns, when cyclists and vehicles both had right of way. Certainly in London, there have been a lot of accidents as a result of turning vehicles. On this day in New York, the motorists seemed quite amenable and gave way to me, so that was reassuring to see.

Cross-town traffic

Dr Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard did not have a segregated cycle path, so I just freestyled through the traffic to reach 5th Avenue and rejoin the marathon route that would take me back into Mid-Town Manhattan.

Traffic was getting busy, and a few times we had to give way to blue lights. That is definitely something that I noticed more in New York than in London - emergency vehicles and sirens seem to be going off almost constantly. There probably was a cycling-friendly route to get from Harlem back to Mid-Town, but I didn't have time to look for it. Years of London driving and cycling have taught me how to handle myself in traffic, so I didn't feel particularly unsafe just weaving my way through the rush hour traffic. I will admit that it's not necessarily for a faint-hearted commuter cyclist though.

A few youths on mountain bikes came by, zipping between the vehicles along 5th Avenue, in between pulling the odd wheelie, so I followed them, as they seemed adept at picking the clearest lines. (I couldn't pull a wheelie though.) Nevertheless, they were a bit bemused when they looked behind at the lights and saw this 50-year-old woman in civvies right on their tail. Or who knows, maybe they were impressed!

Very soon, we were riding along Central Park, which was the sign that this was the closing part of the marathon route. I tried to enter the park to follow the blue line that indicated the marathon route, but the problem I had, as with other parks in NYC is that cyclists are obliged to go around the park in one direction only - anticlockwise. That wasn't helpful for me, as the marathon route through the park was going clockwise, so I was forced to stay on the road in the traffic if I wanted to simulate the route.

By this time I had lost my erstwhile cycling companions so I continued along the undulating avenue alone, scooting past the yellow taxis and the buses of the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) - the New York equivalent of Transport for London.

It was now sunset, so I became conscious of the need to push on as hard as I could in order to be back at the bike shop in time, and be off the road before it was properly dark. I didn't mind not riding the last section of the marathon route in Central Park, as I had planned to run that part the following day.

So instead I carried on down 5th Avenue until I was level with the bike shop and then I could cut across via 55th Street to touch base on 6th Avenue. I actually felt somewhat star-struck as I passed places that I had only previously seen on TV or read about - Mount Sinai Hospital, Guggenheim Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, not to mention a square with all the biggest names in fashion plastered everywhere - Burberry, Dolce and Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren etc.

Eventually, I reached Bike Rental Central Park a few minutes after 6pm, at nightfall. The woman in the shop was relieved to see me. She said that folks normally just hire bikes to do little group rides around Central Park, so she was quite surprised that I had ventured into Queens and Harlem.

As a first outing on two wheels around New York City, it had been a pleasant ride, and I was looking forward to getting out in the city again.

Recovery ride along the Hudson river

Given that I was in New York for barely five days and some days were taken up with resting up prior to the marathon and doing the marathon, I ended up only riding on two of the days.

Hudson Greenway passing nusiness district of Lower Manhattan
The second outing on my bike came on the day after the marathon, when I hired a bike from Waterfront Bicycle Shop on the edge of the River Hudson near West Village. This was a Marin commuter bike that I hired at a cost of $12 for two hours, including helmet, lock and basket on the front.

I did a ride along the Hudson Greenway, a path that starts at George Washington Bridge and goes all the way round Manhattan Island. Given how pushed for time I was, I could only manage a spin that went North up past Hell's Kitchen, and then back on myself to Battery Park.

Spin was all I could do as my legs were shot from the previous day's efforts. Mind you, it was still better for me to do an activity that involved sitting down.

The path went parallel to Tribeca, and the business district of Lower Manhattan from where there were good views of the financial institutions of Wall Street, as well as the World Trade Centre.

The 9/11 Memorial was in that area too, though time didn't allow me to stop there. At Battery Park I got clear views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Brooklyn Bridge was nearby too, and it was probably a crime against tourism on my part that I didn't ride across this iconic landmark.

To be honest, my legs were pretty sore, and I had had my fill of bridges around New York since the previous day! My priority was to just spin an easy gear and not do anything that remotely involved riding up a gradient. I was happy to stay on the pan flat riverside, traffic-free ride. Brooklyn Bridge could wait until another day.

My five-day introductory trip to New York had been as pleasant as it was energy taxing, and I saw enough to know that it will be worth my while to return there before long.


Related posts
One month till New York Marathon

Paris Velib - the love affair is over

Festive 500 - Traffic-free in London

London's Cycle Superhighway - friend or foe?

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