There’s a cycling revolution in New York, but bike enthusiasts need to know how to survive
IN the rich iconography of New York City, you don’t get a lot of bicycles. Martin Scorsese didn’t make a film called Rickshaw Driver. For the best chase sequence in cinema, The French Connection featured a Pontiac, not a Raleigh. On the mean streets of Manhattan, it’s always been four wheels good, two wheels dead.
Until now. In the past decade, the number of cyclists in New York has quadrupled, and two new developments will make the city a whole lot more cycle-friendly for visitors, too. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is launching a bikeshare scheme to rival that of London counterpart Boris Johnson, with up to 10,000 bikes at 600 locations.
Sadly, he’s just announced that software problems have delayed the launch until next (northern) spring. In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with one of a rash of new cycling tours, including a 52km circumnavigation of Manhattan Island.
All very well, but cycling Gotham City still sounds like a daunting prospect. The traffic and aggression are notorious. When I mention I am going to try it, an old friend gives me a hug and says he’ll always remember me fondly.
I book a preview of that round-the-island jaunt, but first I go solo, wobbling off into the Meatpacking District on a clunker borrowed from my hotel, the Maritime, just one of the properties now keeping free bikes for guests. Within minutes, I learn that cycling here is not what you’d expect.
First, the traffic’s slow. Really slow. Even on my heavy, gearless tourer, I am showing most cars a clean pair of wheels. This lot drive like they’re lost in their own city, weaving uncertainly over the road. On Eighth Avenue, a swerving cabbie almost squishes me against a fire hydrant.
The biggest revelation, though, is that it’s fabulous. The drag about New York has always been getting around — it’s just too big to walk, and the cabs aren’t cheap. Having a bicycle is like being given the freedom of the city. Manhattan’s the perfect cycling size, with nothing below Central Park more than half an hour’s lazy spin away. Choose your route with care, and that spin can be mainly along cycle lanes or quiet cross streets.
After a tasty Thai snack in cool Hell’s Kitchen, I pootle up to Central Park, down Broadway, through Times Square, nip over to the Empire State, swing through Greenwich Village and SoHo and back to the hotel, all in two hours. I own this town. And I don’t get run over once. Or even shouted at. I have mixed feelings about this. If New Yorkers aren’t brash and gobby, what’s the world coming to? Some of the driving is lousy, but the manners are impeccable. I feel cheated, somehow.
The next day, I join my guides, Steve and Tony, in Battery Park, at Manhattan’s southern tip, for that 52km ride around the island. Pedalling east along the waterfront, dodging strolling matrons from nearby Chinatown, a very different New York emerges. We spin under Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, gawping up at the intricate webs of steel, then take in the old factories of Williamsburg across the East River, and skirt the vast Con Edison power plant that squats on a chunk of the trendy Lower East Side, its gaunt smokestacks sharing a skyline with the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
On past cranes and gantries to the islands — Roosevelt, where the city sent its smallpox victims, and Randall’s, where it still sends psychiatric patients, with a glimpse beyond to Riker’s, where the press has been busy exposing vicious gang rule in the notorious prison. Stephen Bleach was a guest of American Airlines and the Maritime Hotel.