Wednesday, May 18, 2011

TD Bank 5Boro Bike Tour 2011

I am not really sure how the envelope with the flyer for this event got mailed to me in the first place. But man, am I glad it did. I shared it with the usual suspects and the decision was made to partake. Even though there were 32000 spots available, I assumed they would go rather quickly. After all, who in their right mind, would want to pass up an opportunity to ride the completely car free streets of New York City, visiting Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and eventually Staten Island? Or to ride your bike on FDR Drive, BQE or Verrazano Bridge? And I was right, after the registration opened, it took only about 30 or so hours (me thinks) to sell out all 32000 spots. Me and Millicent waited at our computers for the registration to open, that's how much we wanted to make sure we will be one of the lucky 32000. After initial system overload (apparently we weren't the only ones ready to pounce), we successfully registered. Shortly after us, Matt, Hyuck, Richard and Laura registered as well.
Getting ready in the ferry parking lot.

According to the packet sent out by the organizers, the suggested time to arrive at the start line was around 6:30AM, if you wanted to ride in front of the pack. This seemed like a good choice for us, albeit with one caveat. Just when exactly do we have to get up to be able to be in Manhattan at 6:30? 2AM is the answer. I got up preemptively at 1AM, because why the f*** not (couldn't sleep anymore, that's why). After a quick shower I packed up and headed to the department to meet Millicent and load the bikes. We left around 3:15AM and after about an hour stopped in Garden City to pick up Matt. At first it seemed like his bike was not going to fit on our rack but eventually, after taking his front wheel off, we managed to secure it reasonably well. At about 4:20AM we left continued to press for Staten Island. The plan was to park at the Staten Island Ferry parking lot and then take the ferry to Manhattan. This way, after the tour ended we would just load the bikes and leave. With the exception of one accident on Belt Parkway, there was barely any traffic and we got to Staten Island Ferry around 5:15AM. Well, us and hundreds of other cars loaded with bikes. We grabbed the first spot we saw and started getting ready. It turned out we parked close to Richard and Laura who got there just a titch earlier.
Manhattan skyline in the background with the Staten Island ferry to the left.
Waiting in line for the ferry.
The line was getting long. Quite long.
It was still fairly dark outside as we started to walk towards the ferry terminal. For the first time, Manhattan skyline appeared, lit by rising sun. After living in the area for so long, I no longer find the city exciting or fascinating in any way, but this view was quite spectacular. We waited around for maybe 30 minutes before they started loading us on to the ferry. We got lucky as we were one of the first ones to get on and were able to enjoy the views as the ferry approached Manhattan. The ferry was packed with people on bikes and perhaps that helped a bit to protect us from the rather cold wind that appeared as soon as we set sail.

Manhattan (center right) and Jersey City (left) at sunrise.
The view from inside the ferry, towards Manhattan.
Manhattan at sunrise, one more time. The cranes are standing at Ground Zero, rebuilding the former World Trade Center Plaza.
Out of the ferry we spilled onto the streets of Manhattan and followed the directions of tour numerous volunteers and NYPD police officers to State Street, Trinity Place past Ground Zero to Church Street where we stopped around Murray Street, few blocks away from the official start line. Even this ride, however brief, was quite enjoyable and hopefully a sign of things to come. We were hoping to meet up with Hyuck but alas, he was already waiting there somewhere ahead of us. With about an hour to kill, we bullshitted around. People and bicycles were everywhere. All kinds of people, and all kinds of bicycles. Big, small, tandem, recumbent, cruisers, fixies, mountain, racing, road, cyclocross. Jerseys, spandex tights, jeans, shorts, skirts. And helmets. With things attached to them - pink flamingos, flowers, trumpets, flags, sparking things, blinking things.
Waiting at the start line.
People, people everywhere.
Inching towards the start line.
First few miles on 6th Avenue, Millicent in the lower left corner.
First few miles on 6th Avenue, Millicent in the lower left corner.
Laura, Richard and Millicent.
Laura, Richard and Millicent.
Empire State Building on in the background, towards the right.
Bicycles indeed.
Along 6th Avenue.
Richard, Millicent and Matt.
Time to put the camera down and focus on riding. 
8:15 am rolled around, and the excitement peaked as we started moving, slowly inching towards the start line. Carefully at first, hopping mostly, we eventually started pedaling. Not even clipped in yet, because of all the frequent stops. And a lot people seeming too eager to run into you. The first few miles on 6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) were slow, with frequent stops. There were no cars but there were still people needing the cross the street. The cops and the volunteers would blow the whistle and the mass of cyclists would stop at a crosswalk. As we were nearing the Central Park, we were getting quite disillusioned. I mean, was it going to be like this the entire way? Central Park South was the next big intersection. There was no way it would be closed to traffic, so we had to wait our turn as the cops let us through in small batches.

The ride through Central Park featured some faint hills but they were enough to stagger the mass of cyclists just a wee bit. Every now and then out speed hovered around 10mph but was steadily rising as we were approaching Central Park North. As we got into Harlem, 7th Avenue allowed for yet higher speeds as well as some passing as were getting more more comfortable riding in such a large group of people. We left Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge into the Bronx. Our visit to the Bronx was brief. Disappointingly so. I mean, it could not have been any shorter since we almost immediately turned south and returned to Manhattan via the 3rd Avenue Bridge. Oh well, maybe in upcoming years this will change.
Now the density of cyclists decreased enough to allow for unimpeded 14-16 mph speed as were pedaled down the Harlem River Drive past the Triborough Bridge onto FDR Drive towards the first rest area on Pleasant Avenue (adjacent to the Jefferson Park). It looked quite chaotic, with music blaring, volunteers yelling, handing out and something throwing bananas, bagels and Larabars. I was getting quite hungry so the food really hit the spot. After a short break we moved on, mostly downhill on the FDR Drive and eventually up the hill again onto Queensboro Bridge with fantastic views of the East Side and East River. 

I told you I was hungry.
More or less organized chaos at the rest area.
On the Queensboro Bridge.
On the Queensboro Bridge.
View of the FDR Drive and the East River from the Queensboro Bridge.
View to the south from the Queensboro Bridge, with United Nations building to the right.
View of Manhattan from just across the river in Queens.
View of Manhattan from just across the river in Queens.
On 25A, just after the Queensboro Bridge with views of East Side.
After crossing into Queens, we turned north-eastish again on 21st street and straight into Astoria Park under the RFK (Triboro) Bridge. Here was another rest stop, this time with mandatory dismount. We inched forward, grabbing a few bananas along the way and eventually made it to East River, got on the bikes and enjoyed the ride through Queens, on Vernon Boulevard and across the Pulaski Bridge into Brooklyn. Except for the different (worse) smell, not much has changed. The weather was still pretty much perfect, sunny with an occasional cloud or two, the cyclists staggered enough to allow for unobstructed riding and passing. Still continuing south along the East River, we passed under the Williamsburg Bridge and looping around the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Just before crossing under the Manhattan Bridge my right quadriceps started cramping up. I must have underestimated how much I have been sweating because I have never had issues with my quads cramping up, even during hotter and significantly longer rides. We stopped for a little bit while I downed some sports drink and ate a banana. That seemed to have been the solution to my problems which disappeared shortly thereafter.
Mandatory dismount in Astoria Park, under the RFK Bridge.
Mandatory dismount in Astoria Park, under the RFK Bridge.
Taking a brief break in Brooklyn.
Taking a brief break in Brooklyn.
The merge onto BQE marked the beginning of one the most awesome stretches of the tour (I mean, we were biking on B-Q-E!). Unfortunately, the fast riding, and excellent views all around were interrupted by two events. First, while going downhill at around 25 mph my front tire blew out. At first I didn't know what's going on but the loud hissing sound that lasted only split second was followed by me almost losing control of the bike. I called out to Matt and Millicent, pulled over and quickly changed the inner tube. Especially the compressed CO2 pump gizmo thingy saved a lot of time. The hole in the tube was only about 1/8" big but there was no apparent reason why it blew out - there was nothing stuck in the tire. The second event was a rather prolonged wait a few miles later. For no apparent reason everyone stopped and waited for around 30 minutes. No explanation was offered at the time and eventually we moved on towards the Varrezano Narrows Bridge. Few days after the Tour, an email arrived from the organizers stating that:
"During some parts of the Tour on Sunday, there was a regrettable lack of communication to riders, which caused delays and inconvenienced some of you."
While it is true that there was a delay, I don't really think it was that bad. But maybe other riders had to wait significantly longer that we did. And, how else would I have seen a Madrasa with a separate entrance for men and women?
On Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
On the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
On Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Manhattan in the background.
On the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Manhattan in the background.
Unexplained bottleneck on BQE.
Unexplained bottleneck on the BQE.
The line was massive ....
The line was massive .... 
I thought this was interesting ....
I thought this was interesting ....
The tour was coming to an slow but a sure end as the Varrezano Bridge appeared in the distance. A couple of turns later we were on the on-ramp to the bridge, followed by a steady climb on the lower level of the bridge. The views of the Narrows were fantastic, overlooking Staten Island on the left and Brooklyn on the right. We savored the last minutes of the ride downhill from the bridge on the Staten Island side and crossed the finish line at Ford Wadsworth.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Belt Parkway
Verrazano Narrows Bridge from the Belt Parkway
Fort Hamilton Park from Verrazano Narrows Bridge
Fort Hamilton Park from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge
On the lower level of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge
On the lower level of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge
We met up with Richard and Laura, decided there was nothing to see here and followed the crowds towards the Staten Island Ferry terminal. And here comes my biggest complaint about the tour. As we approached the terminal we were forced into a corral with all the people who were waiting to get on the ferry. Except, we were parked right there on Staten Island. Literally a stone's throw away from the car, we were forced to wait with hundreds of other people for well over 30 minutes until they let us out. We inquired and were told to wait. We were pissed off, but fine, I figured, we are already here and would have to jump the porta-fence to get out. But those who avoided the line in the first place were told to turn around and get back in line. This seemed incredibly stupid and I hope will be resolved for next year's tour.

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