I recently spent a week in NYC, feeling a need to support a city I love after the 9/11 events. It turns out I spent most of the time on a bicycle, strange as that might seem. The weather was unusually warm and dry, and I managed to accumulate more than 300 miles in the saddle over the course of 5 days. I keep a bike stashed in my in-law's apartment building on W. 96th St., just a block from Central Park. We have visited the city virtually every year since we moved away in 1967(!), hence my need to have a bike there.
The roadway in the park is closed to vehicular traffic from 10am-3pm during the week and all day on the weekends. The pavement is perfect, and the 6 mile loop in the park provides a great workout. There are a few sloping inclines, plenty of wind and one short relatively steep rise. This one decent hill (Harlem Hill) in the northwest corner of the circuit is a good place for a cyclist from hilly Norcal to challenge the local flatlanders.
I am riding a 30 year old Raleigh 10-speed which is equipped with ragged toe clips and straps and clunky 27" wheels. I bought this antique for $25 at a flea market and shipped it to NY about 5 years ago. Although I have never really checked it out (it's too filthy to examine close up), I assume that the freewheel is of the 14-18-22-24-28 variety. Wasn't that the standard in those early days?
I am dressed rather eccentrically in standard bike attire except for the foot gear, which consists of canvas deck shoes. The shoes allow me comfortable walking access to the various food emporiums I visit as part of my accustomed cycling tours of NY and NJ. The well-equipped New York cyclists doing the circuit in Central Park usually give chase as I pass them by, and a good heart-thumping battle is enjoyed by all. After 4 or 5 laps, however, one begins to get bored (and exhausted), and I head to the in-law's kitchen to gorge on whitefish, pickles, lox, fresh mozzarella and various breads and pastries.
I made it down to the 9/11 disaster site 3 times, each time more depressing than the next. The smell in the air was a combination of burning garbage, plastic and electrical stuff, and the pavement was wet from attempts to wash off the particulate matter falling from the air. Being on a bike afforded me no special privileges, and I was stuck behind distant barricades with the other onlookers. All very sad.
One sunny day I rode over the Brooklyn bridge for a tour of that boro, passing thru Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst (Naples), Boro Park (Jerusalem), and Flatbush (Kingston, Jamaica). Pizza, knishes and Jerk Chicken passed for Clif bars, but my ancient leather saddle began to fall apart on my return. A passing cyclist recommended a shop (Frank's) on Grand St. on the Lower East Side where I picked up a respectable touring saddle for $15 installed. I love NY.
Inquiring in the park about a longer ride, I was told by the locals to try for Nyack and Bear Mountain, north along the Hudson towards West Point. Up Riverside Dr. and over the George Washington Bridge (a route I have taken many times in the past to visit my mother in Fort Lee, New Jersey) on a sunny and warm Sunday morning, I observe many of my ilk enjoying the unseasonably pleasant day on their spotless and beautiful machines. North on route 9W goes the peleton. My rear end is getting sore from being stuck in the saddle for a lack of hills, a fact that I am eager to communicate to any cyclist who gets close enough to hear me. Little sympathy from them.
Arriving in Nyack, a town on the west bank of the Hudson about 30 miles north of the George Washington bridge, I find the coffee and pastry shop on the main drag where every cyclist from the 5 boros seems to be congregating. What an array of fine bikes and multicoloredjerseys! I am feeling a bit embarrassed at my shleppy appearance and retro steed, but everybody is polite and no insults are hurled in my direction. I leave the Raleigh leaning against a garbage can as I enter the shop, crowded with Sunday cyclists. With dozens of Colnagos, Serottas, Lightspeeds and Treks on hand, I doubt there is any thief stupid enough to snatch my faithful clunker.
After wolfing down a pair of large muffins, I begin to inquire about the whereabouts of Bear Mountain. I am told I have another 15 miles or so up 9W, and that I should be prepared for a significant climb. Nobody seems to be interested in going beyond Nyack, much to my disappointment, and I proceed alone. The road begins to roll a bit, and I enjoy getting out of the saddle now and then. The climb up Bear Mt. is a major anticlimax, being a 5 mile stretch that only takes me to 1200-1500 ft. I am not exactly sure of any of these stats, actually, but it really felt like less than the ascent up Spruce to Grizzly Peak. Turning around at the top, I race the 50 miles or so home lickety split to enjoy more cheese, salami, fish and bread!
On another day, I decided to ride out to Plainfield, NJ, the town where I was born in 1943 and which my parents abandoned in 1951. I studied my grossly inadequate map the night before, trying to chart a route thru the grotesque and bewildering streets of urban and suburban NJ. What a mess! Fort Lee, Leonia, Teaneck, Bogota, Hackensack, Saddle Brook, Rochelle Park, Paterson, Clifton, Montclair, Verona, West Orange, Milburn, Westfield, Fanwood, Plainfield, towns that run the gamut from gritty ghetto to mansion-studded wealthy enclave ... through this wilderness forges the intrepid adventurer. Not one cyclist do I meet or even see in 9 hours on the bike!
The house I remembered at 63 Grove St. is gone, alas, and after a mournful hour or so of cruising around the few blocks I can only dimly recall, I turn for home. Buoyed by the good time I have made on the outbound leg, I take some adventurous detours on my return: Upper Montclair (enormous estates), Great Notch, Little Notch, Washington's lookout, Washington's retreat, West Paterson etc. etc.
Finally, at about 4 pm with about 2 hours left of light I approach a confluence of freeways, highways (80, 46, Garden State Pkwy.), bridges, and a river (the Passaic). Somehow on my way out I had managed to get thru this blotch of on-and off-ramps, access roads, etc. but now I am at my wit's end. Every road seems to lead to a roaring herd of trucks and cars, all entering a decidedly non-cycling highway. To make matters worse, the terrain is flat and there are no landmarks I can recognize. I actually end up at one point inadvertently retracing my path 2 or 3 miles before I realize I am going in the wrong direction. Shopkeepers and others with whom I plead for directions can not get it thru their heads that I am on a bicycle: they all want to direct me on to the freeway or highway "Hey, buddy, you wanna get to Noo Yawk, get on route 46 ", etc. etc. Finally a friendly group of gas station guys actually listens to my plight and directs me through the maze of roads to the other side and safety. I still must enter a couple of on-and- off-ramps, but I never have to negotiate a shoulderless highway.
I lose an entire hour getting from Paterson to Hackensack, a distance of 3 or 4 miles, and I am lucky to get to the bridge, Riverside Dr. and 96th. St. with the last rays of light in the sky! The bagels and lox never tasted better!
Arrivederci, New York!