|Aziz Gökdemir's Archive | THTB Index | June-July 2000|
Elian's dream, here we come. The Manhattan skyline as seen from the northbound Staten Island ferry. We're on our way to the most crowded bike ride of the year.
(Aziz Gökdemir, 7:30 am, Sunday, May 7, 2000.)
Bike New York 2000It's when the Statue of Liberty emerges from the morning mist north by northwest that the crowd of bikers packed onto the upper deck of the Staten Island ferry breaks into a recitation of the Emma Lazarus poem.
The familiar lines get radically improvised in the buoyant spirit of the moment, and we end up with: "Give us your poor, your destitute, your Elians, and by God we promise to turn them into kings and queens of idiocy and excess, make entire communities of La Zorros and Marysleazies." See, the infamous news conference following the infamous jack-booted raid is fresh in most people's minds, and... why, yes, I'm having another one of my visions; my mind plays tricks on me when I'm hungry. Luckily I snap out of it before I can fully picture the lot of us kneeling and barfing in protest against the wind, thus spraying the lower deck and starting a riot before the ride even begins.
Bikers on the lower deck of the ferry.
As the twin towers of the World Trade Center loom ever higher I'm snapping photos with one hand while scarfing half a bagel with the other. "Should've gotten up earlier, should've eaten earlier..." it goes around in my head and makes me panic because I'm about to do my longest-ever bike ride (42 miles, or 67 km) with barely any food in my stomach. When I have my gleeful vision I glance at the unsuspecting souls below and laugh and try to prevent pieces of bagel from flying out of my mouth. I feel better already. It's a great post-dawn morning, the wind feels good, and I know I'll be fine even if I starve. I'll still be infinitely better off compared to millions who traveled up this bay packed into ships.
Bike New York is billed as the greatest communal bicycle ride in America, with about 30,000 people participating each year -- more than a third from the city, a fifth from the rest of the state, another third from the three closest states, and 10 and 4 percent respectively representing the "rest of the country" and "fore-ner" contingents. We'd signed up for this after reading about it in the Washington Post (Dana Hull, March 15, 1998, Travel section) and subsequently finding James Menzies' account of the 1999 ride. (The page offers very good parking tips and is definitely worth a visit. It helped us out a lot.) By the time we got our act together, we'd barely squeaked by for early registration, and all the good hostel/hotel deals had sold out, not to mention the only two guesthouses on Staten Island: Cecile's and Harbor House. [The ride's official Web site, BikeNewYork.org has information about the lodging deals as well as everything else you need to know.]
Bottom line: Plan early and act. Next year's ride is set for May 6, and registration begins March 1. (The ride is always on the first Sunday of May.)
The reason we ended up not having much of a breakfast is tied to all this. We'd picked a Hampton Inn in Jersey, about 25 miles west of the Staten Island ferry, which meant we'd need to get up at 4:45 to be able to take showers, eat breakfast, load the bikes, zoom through the sleepy "fifth borough" after having paid their exorbitant bridge toll roads as the sun rose up ahead, unload the bikes, reattach the front wheels and make it to the 7 am ferry -- which they say is the latest one you should catch because otherwise you'll be forced to follow a shortened route.
We probably miscalculated the wake-up time a little bit; it didn't help that we'd gone to bed around midnight. We'd been on a hopeless quest to spot Tony Soprano's house (you don't watch The Sopranos? Oh well) in North Caldwell, so we took in a leisurely dinner at Positano's in Caldwell (black lobster ravioli; highly recommended!), and of course the car was acting up as usual going back to the hotel. In fact, the aging, non-AC'd beast was the cause of much crankiness on the trip up from DC; I'd especially like to pin the violent map-related outbursts on the car since I need to think of us as a reasonable couple.)
Then, in the morning, the tub turned into a gross pool, causing further delay, and when we pointed it out during checkout, they gave us the room for free. It turns out Hampton Inn has no partial discount policy, it's all or nothing. Well, we chose all and walked out of there a little bit richer -- but late.
So anyway, after we pour off the boat, we coast and walk, coast and walk until Central Park, and get a good dose of the day's styles of spot-your-buddy helmet ornaments (beer cans, Viking horns, free-form sculptures, even a fully functioning camcorder).
Moving on from the helmets, American-flag bermuda shorts and smoking bikers are so common that I get used to them right away, but the footwear is something else. I see platform heels, combat boots, and flip-flops. How will they ever bike 42 miles wearing those? The strangest, though, (and saddest) sight has to be a stooped, paunchy, bent-legged, downbeat man who appears to be in his late 50s. He's wearing brown loafers, gray socks, formal shorts and a rumpled polo shirt. His glasses are sliding off his sweaty face. It's approaching 9 am and he's already miserable on what will soon turn out to be a very hot day. He's clutching what appears to be a milkman's bike, and he doesn't have a tour vest, though he's in the middle of the crowd. I lose sight of him when the pace picks up at Central, but I'm still thinking of him as I pull into Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth hours later.
Minimally he must have survived. No deaths or serious injuries were reported in this year's ride (but I saw 4 cases requiring medical attention, 4 crashes involving bike frame damage, 24 flat tires, dozens of dropped and destroyed water bottles, not to mention countless barely stirring exhausted bodies by the side of the road).
The ride offered a rest stop here, but we chose to press on to Queens, hoping to leave some of the crowd behind.
I wanted to walk in and yell, "Peace in Cyprus!" but I didn't know what they would make of that, so I kept my mouth shut and we left with our cold water.
Brooklyn, the next borough on the way south to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, has what is probably the longest unbroken single-borough segment of the ride, and we biked through a lot of deserted, bleak industrial blocks. New York doesn't have Washington's tree-saturated feel, and unlike WABA's 36-mile BikeDC, there's no effort (or perhaps, opportunity) to route the ride along scenic parts of town either (but the trade-off for DC is that the streets are not closed to auto traffic and thus that ride is much more dangerous). Pulaski Bridge, the link between Queens and Brooklyn, had an especially grim view of the projects of Manhattan's Lower East Side. It was no doubt even more grim for the fellow who was under the audible impression that we were approaching Verrazano Bridge and the ride was almost over.
Not so. Brooklyn was a long stretch, especially the second portion on the expressway and the Shore Parkway to the Bridge. I hadn't stopped long enough under the Brooklyn Bridge, and the pedaling under the scorching mid-day sun was now taking its toll. As the green Verrazano Bridge came into view the shore looked like a parody of the scene in The Simpsons, which was itself a parody of the sweeping "post-battle wounded masses" scene in Gone with the Wind. I'll admit I took some time out by the water, and it felt good.
People who must have known that this was coming were chilling out at a popular outdoor bar some five miles back near the Brooklyn Bridge, chatting with the ever-polite Hassidim walking by. But by now, it was too late to turn back and grab the opportunity.
I refused to pay $4 for a tiny bottle of water the extortionists were selling in John Paul Jones Park (memo to Tony: you know what to do; and perhaps you could work your magic on the elbowers too), split from the Parkway to begin the Bridge climb, and was rewarded by free water from a good Samaritan's garden hose right before the Bridge.
So many ride participants had talked or written fearfully about the "awful" climb right before the end of the ride that Verrazano turned out to be anti-climactic. It's such a gradual climb that you hardly feel it (which also means that past the mid-point it takes a while to gain any cruising momentum), and Manhattan is at this point too far to form the promised scenic backdrop, particularly on a hazy day. (For a truly scenic bridge crossing in New York, you can't beat the George Washington Bridge, slicing through the northern tip of Manhattan. See the Five Borough Bicycle Club for future rides.)
Once you're done with Verrazano Bridge, you hit Fort Wadsworth, where you can hear bands and eat more junk food. This looks like the end of the ride, but you still have three more miles to go. Marshals usher large groups of weary bikers through a scenic coastal road that bypasses most of the congestion on Bay Street and delivers you to the ferry terminal.
The smart thing would be to stay in the area for another night and pump some more money into the local economy, but most people have jobs to show up for, and on the highways heading out of town you see plenty of tired BikeNewYorkers.
We'd brought a change of clothes, so we stopped at the first rest area in Jersey to change into dry stuff. In the men's room a man was crapping so loudly (behind closed doors, thank god) that he could've been a dead ringer for our battered, about-to-explode Civic. And a few miles south of there we saw a car engulfed in flames where it stood on the left shoulder, with state troopers rushing to the scene sirens ablaze. Dead-on omens, it turned out: we ended up selling the blue belcher for $500 and buying a 1997 SW hatchback from Saturn (which conveniently happened to have a tent with helpful employees at Wadsworth Park) within the week. Finally, a car with air conditioning. Now to pay it off...
July 17, 2000
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