Our main Trail Talk blogger is back from New York City where he discovered the best way to see and experience Gotham City is on the seat of a two-wheeler. Just watch out for those taxi drivers!
By Jim DuFresne
In the middle of Manhattan I wanted to look up at all the skyscrapers surrounding me. Or to the left and right at the bustle of life, of people and commerce and street vendors that makes New York City one of the greatest in the world.
But I didn’t dare take by eyes off the road in front of me because I was on a bicycle in the middle of Second Avenue. Lord help me. As Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz said, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Or Detroit.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon I still had to contend with steady traffic, and pedestrians dashing across the avenue and workers unloading a double-parked truck and those famous New York City taxi drivers. And I was in a designated bike lane.
At times it felt like I was in the middle of a Mario Brothers Go Kart game, only there was no reset button.
It took me almost an hour to feel comfortable with urban cycling in the country’s largest metropolis, population 8 million plus. Then I unexpectedly discovered something; two wheeling was a great way to explore Gotham City.
At the urging of my daughter, a proud NYC resident and avid cyclist, I trooped down to her local bike shop in Queens and rented a bicycle. I could have rented one almost anywhere in Manhattan or even Brooklyn and Queens through the Citibike Share Bike program which features 10,000 bikes at more than 600 outdoor stations. But those tend to be three-speed clunkers.
At the bike shop I rented a lightweight Scott equipped with 24 speeds. I also rented a helmet. But Carlos, the shop owner, said the heavy duty chain and lock were on the house. “New York City is the stolen bike capitol of the world,” he said. Noted I replied and threw the hefty chain over my shoulder.
I had no more stepped out of the shop then I found myself following my daughter over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. Biking is surprisingly easy in NYC, a level place where one or two gears pretty much covers you for the day.
The exceptions are the bridges. They all have designated pedestrian/biking lanes that begin with a long steady climb. But once I topped off in the middle the view was magnificent. High over the East River I could take in the entire skyline of Manhattan, including the new World Trade Center, along with the green oasis that is Central Park. And unlike being on a bus, taxi or train, I could pull over and savor it. Then I found myself speeding downhill towards Manhattan, passing Citibikes left and right. Eeeha!
Cycling, I quickly discovered, is much more challenging on the other side of the bridge in the land of skyscrapers. NYC has more than 800 miles of designated bikes lanes including one down Second Avenue. But I was hardly on the side of the road. To the left of me was a lane for parallel parking. To the right four lanes of congested traffic.
I had to watch out for buses suddenly pulling out, and construction crews blocking lanes, and taxi drivers in the bike lane, illegally but still there. Perhaps the greatest danger to cyclists is what locals call “getting doored.”
My natural inclination was to hug the side of the bike lane that parallels the parking lane, putting me as far away from the honking traffic as I could be. Bad idea because you never know when somebody is going to suddenly jump out of a car without looking and “door” you. It’s one of the reasons that all bicycles in NYC are required to be equipped with a ringer bell, a $25 ticket if you are caught without one.
After 30 blocks, we departed Second Avenue in lower Manhattan and wove our way through side streets. Suddenly the traffic was considerably lighter and slower. There were more people out walking their dogs than cars. The most challenging aspect here was not stopping at every café and restaurant you passed. And we passed hundreds of them. Putting a foodie on a bike in NYC is like a runner in a marathon. You can pass only so many water stations before you finally have to pull into one.
We did. In a small corner bar I feasted on homemade cheese biscuits served in a pool of red, spicy gravy and topped with pouched eggs. Two cups of coffee and I was fueled for the next challenge, pedaling to Brooklyn via another bridge.
Though it was nearby, we passed up the historic Brooklyn Bridge. It’s one of the city’s most popular attractions, overrun with tourists spilling into the bike lane, families stopping to take group photos, vendors selling trinkets, and Citibikers ringing their bell nonstop. It’s a trail conflict worse than anything we have in Michigan.
We opted for the much less crowded Williamsburg Bridge and on the other side slowly wound our way north back to Queens. When we reached the bike shop we had pedaled only 12 miles on our three-borough route.
But it took us most of the afternoon. Part of it is the constant stopping for red lights (a $270 ticket if you’re caught running one). Mostly it’s the fact you’re riding in New York City where the sights and sounds are unmatched by any other city in the country. Maybe the world.
Just don’t take your eye off that taxi in the bike lane in front of you.
For more on cycling in New York City, includes regulations, popular routes, and bike rental shops, go to the Bike New York website.