Sunday, May 11, 2014

Biking NYC with Urbexia

 Last Saturday I traveled with friends to New York to take part in the 37th Annual Five Boro Bike Tour, where 32,000 cyclists from all over America and 65 other countries cycle just over 40 miles for the world's biggest charitable bike ride. We found later that not all of the money goes to charity and a lot goes into the organization as well I'm sure, lining a few others' pockets. But we were there for the experience and the adventure.
 We met in NJ and rode the train to Penn Station and then rode our bikes through the streets of New York to our hotel in China Town.
If you've ever cycled the streets of DC and found it overwhelming and a little frightening, then never cycle New York. It was at least 10 times more harrowing but very exciting. There are cycle lanes in the roads but you have to be aware of the lights for cyclists, the lights for traffic and pedestrians as well as watching for vehicles on your left and right and seasoned NY cyclists who bomb about fearlessly and fast. But Richard was leading us and he has a superb sense of direction and soon had us on a bike trail which, although meant a longer ride to the hotel, was a quieter and safer route. We locked our bikes up outside, dumped off our back packs and walked down to the expo and registration.
Jason looking a little frustrated after being told he'd spelled his name wrong and entered an incorrect birth date! We didn't ask questions! After quenching our thirst at the beer tent we had a quick look around the expo but not finding it that exciting we decided to walk the neighborhoods in search of dinner.
We saw a lot of this style building which reminded me of the Brewster buildings in Detroit.
We came across a small market area, Hester Street Fair, where at the back we found a couple of women cooking small samosas. It was their first day there but the food was amazing. For $10 I got the 3 above, salmon and potato, chicken, and tuna. They made them up in front of us, dropping the ingredients in a cup, a quick mix, then wrapping them up in a sheet of filo pastry before dropping them in the pan to cook. Delicious.
We found a cool little bar, Old Man Hustle, and started playing Cards Against Humanity. I hadn't laughed so much in ages. We had such a fun time. Then Jason and Emily went to meet a friend and so Richard, Margie and I went to a bar just down the road called Clockwork. It played a lot of English music and people were so friendly.
Before I knew it, all my well laid plans of not drinking the night before, plenty of sleep, and being refreshed and energized for the morning's bike ride went down the hatch with the gulp of a Margarita.We met a guy called Jef with one 'f', and the evening became crazy and blurry as Richard's photo illustrates. He took a lot of photos of the the evening with my camera, and this was one of the clearer ones, although he did take a very good photo of his glasses. I have no idea when or why we left but we started walking back to the hotel and found a little store down some steps.
The cat didn't like Richard for some reason, so we left and then stumbled in to another tiny place with 2 tables serving Chinese food. There was a menu on the wall and you could see the guys cooking the food out back with another stretching out pasta on a huge marble slab.
I had the most awesome dumplings I've ever had here. I used to hate dumplings, but I've slowly been changing my mind, and these were fantastic. Richard and Margie enjoyed their soups. I don't remember if I shared my dumplings...
We got back to the hotel and I made us all drink water with Aleve before going to bed, which I think saved a lot of pain the next morning.
We all manged to pile out of the room the next morning with numbers pinned to our shirts, covers stretched over our helmets and clutching the numbers to put on our bikes, which were parked securely in a nearby underground garage. Wobbling a bit as we started we rode to the starting point, Richard and I realizing that we may have been a bit silly not bring jackets or an extra layer. We were only wearing t-shirts. I had cycling sleeves on my arms but nearly everyone else was wearing at least 2 layers. The atmosphere was brilliant, we could hear voices on the intercoms and news helicoptors circled overhead.
And then we were off! And dissolving into fits of laughter as we realized how typical it was of Urbexia to be doing a 40 mile bike ride on empty stomachs and nursing hangovers. We didn't even have any water in our water bottles! And then to top it off Margie had decided to open up a huge map to see if she could work out our route and had no opportunity to fold it as we needed to move once the start horn blew. She was most definitely the only cyclist captured on camera riding with a huge map billowing and flapping next to her. I nearly crashed, I was laughing so hard.
Starting off was slow because there were so many people but we got got some speed going and it was great to see cheerleaders and members of the public waving at us and shouting good luck..
Looking across at Richard, Jason and Emily. None of the photos taken on this ride are well taken, I had to simply snap at things of interest and hope I got them. Cycling and photographing should not be done at the same time!
A cool old church we would have liked to explore.
And then after 10 miles, a rest area. Food at last! We were all handed bananas, bagels, raisins and a granola bar, which we clutched to our chests as we made our way to a quieter area so we could devour our first meal of the day.
A bamboo bike. Cool!
Cycling over the East River into Queens and looking down onto Roosevelt Island. There were quite a few bridges on our route which provided the only real inclines but also great views. It was amazing to see New York in this way, especially with the roads being closed down as we passed through. It was also very windy and definitely chilly with heavy clouds threatening rain but the sun persisted in shining.
Brooklyn Bridge in the distance. We didn't cycle over that, we assumed it would have caused too much chaos to shut that down to traffic so we could use it.
There were a lot of teams cycling and raising money for specific charities, many wearing cool head gear, with animals on their heads, or ninja turtle shields. A few riders also had awesome speakers on their bikes, playing music as they traveled round. As we stopped for traffic here, Shout by Tears for Fears was playing from a bike and we all sang along.
Richard and I got separated from the others and stopped at a rest stop to have his brakes checked. On our way out I was dismayed to see a familiar straw hat in front of me. I nudged Richard and sure enough he confirmed it was Bill who owns a 'bar?' called Bardo in DC. It's a patch of scrubby dirt with a couple of wooden benches, no building, just a place to drink beer. We knew by his attire that he had not paid the $90 registration fee that everyone else had. He had no numbers on his shirt or bike, or cover for his helmet, yet he'd been taking free refreshments and was riding the route with everyone else. We moved away, not wanting to acknowledge him. I was extremely pleased to find out that further along the route, there was a checkpoint that everyone had to cycle through, so he would thankfully be ousted at that point. By looking at his dirty clothes it looked liked he'd also slept the night on the streets to avoid paying for a hotel room too.
There were some interesting sights along the way. Scattered along the route were bands playing, groups of people holding up encouraging placards and thank you posters, folks dressed up and many marshals shouting through megaphones to direct us the right way or slow down for obstructions. I was set off into a laughing fit when we passed one such marshal, yelling at us to slow down for the approaching left turn bend. Directly across the street from him was another guy hanging over his balcony, yelling equally loudly to, "keep going, it's not that bad, you can do it, just lean into the corner!"
Unfortunately we also passed a lot of accidents. Even though this was a most enjoyable ride, you had to be concentrating 100% of the time. Riders constantly rushed by from both sides or someone in front would suddenly slow down, or someone would cut in front, not on purpose, but because they'd been caused to veer themselves. Folks crashed into each other, into walls and came off because of the horrendous road surfaces. We saw one old gentleman laying on a stretcher with his neck in a brace, which saddened me because I assumed this would likely have stripped his confidence away to take part in future events. One poor lady came off, dashing the side of her face along a concrete barrier, and I shuddered thinking how her life may be changed because of her injury. There were always many people that stopped to help and ambulances were always close by, but it was alarming how quickly these accidents happened.
The last big stretch was along 278. One side of the interstate had been closed down and we had to cycle hard along here battling the wind and the cold.
It was a long stretch that seemed bleak and endless but we spotted various points of interest as we pushed hard against our pedals, an old abandoned grain silo and girls wearing tutus!
And in the distance loomed our last obstacle, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, leading to Staten Island. It's the longest spanning bridge in the U.S. and looked very very tall on the horizon.
Groups of people had stopped before tackling it, taking a last water and food break, but Richard and I kept pumping. As the bridge climbed it seemed the wind got stronger. It was blowing us over to the left and quite a few people got off and walked. But many persevered and the organizers had chalked a lot of encouraging messages on the road, 'The Road is Yours', 'What Goes Up.......Must Come down', 'Eye of the Tiger' and 'Bike Power'
'Walking on Sunshine' was blaring out of a speaker and I tried to push my pedals to the beat. Then finally we peaked and it was a wonderful coast down the other side of the bridge to a park where vendors had set up food stands with musicians playing on a stage and free food samples were being handed out.
We parked and lined up at a food van where we purchased the best banh mi sandwich ever, with raw kale salad and watermelon juice. Heaven! We had to wait nearly an hour for our food, the lines were so long and the poor staff so few, but it was well worth the wait. And the others found us there too.
We still had a few miles to cycle to the ferry that would take us back to the city so didn't hang around too long, just long enough to take in some of the strange sights. I admired immensely this team who had completed the route on what looked like mobile elliptical machines.
 I have no idea why these folks were dressed like this but they stood alone with a wide berth between themselves and other people!
One very dapper rider!
And so after admiring the views of the city from Staten Island, we cycled the last few miles to the ferry terminal. We had to dismount and get in line, which actually moved surprisingly fast. Everyone was handed a welcome popsicle and water was available.
A link to the map of the tour is here. It really didn't feel like 40 miles to me when we'd finished and I felt I could easily have cycled a lot more, but we all admitted to feeling mentally exhausted from the experience.
We got back to the city to black skies and huge drops of rain were plopping down onto the pavement. We decided to make a dash for it and cycled fast back to the garage, Richard once again leading the way as though he'd done it a dozen times before. He was feeling sick and so we stopped at the grocery store which was underneath our hotel.
The Chinese have a superb method of shaming shoplifters, one we should follow. Richard bought medicine while Margie and I bought beer.
This little chap was eating his dinner in another store we dropped into. his mother was serving behind the counter and obviously wanted to keep an eye on him. his dinner looked great!
We had another night on the town but nobody went crazy this time, although Emily and I did stay out until 1pm to meet one of her old friends who I'm rather fond of. It was a fun evening and little sleep was had before we were all up early to prepare for the journey home.
Richard, Margie and I were the first ones up so we went for a walk to give the others time to get ready.
I loved these fire station doors, really impressive.
And of course no trip to New York would be complete without a few fire escape images.
We walked around a small park watching the residents perform their morning Tai Chi. Some standing in groups and others in pairs, some young, some elderly. We sampled a pastry from a Chinese bakery then made our way back to the hotel passing the Beekman Tower, the tallest residential building in New York.
And finally, a last manic cycle ride back through the NY streets to Penn Station and catch our train home. It had been an amazing cycling weekend, filled with fun and plenty of laughs, yet although we were all tired as we parted and finally went our separate ways, I have to admit that I was reluctant to strap my bike to the back of Stuart for the last leg home, and I had to suppress a yearning to cycle just one more little ride.

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