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There’s a cy­cling rev­o­lu­tion in New York, but bike en­thu­si­asts need to know how to sur­vive

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STEPHEN BLEACH

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.

THINKSTOCK

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