Lots of images spring to mind when thinking of the streets of New York – wailing cop cars, texting jaywalkers, careening taxis. And now a brave new breed of street life merits entering the fray, the urban cyclist.
I cycle in New York. Even the city with some of the craziest traffic on Earth has made room for the humble two-wheeler.
A bike gives you an alternative to congestion and gridlock, and besides, it’s a fun way to get around.
New York is no Amsterdam, but it has gotten serious about becoming more cyclist-friendly.
The city has added hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes in recent years, and this spring it unveiled its own bike-share program modelled on the Bixi system launched in Montreal in 2008.
No one should think a ride in New York is a walk in the park. It takes basic skills and good reflexes. But biking provides an ideal above-ground compromise between cabs (often slow) and walking (often exhausting). Plus, there’s the fitness bonus.
I’ve rented bicycles or taken guided bike tours in cities such as Barcelona, Lima and Bangkok.
In each case, cycling let me cover more ground than walking, and offered an intimate street-eye view of squares, parks and alleyways where cars can’t go.
In Bangkok, the night tour by Grasshopper Adventures led my multinational group to the famous Wat Arun and Wat Pho temples.
We got to experience the magnificent sites in moonlit silence, with just us and a few monks about.
It felt like a rare treat compared with the smothering crowds and heat of daytime visits.
In New York, it’s easy to rent a two-wheeler and pedal around Central Park, or head out along the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, where your only competition will be walkers and baby strollers.
It’s also worth crossing the East River and exploring parts of Brooklyn, where a waterfront bike path meanders through the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
On weekends, continue onward to the eclectic Williamsburg Flea, a great way to pick up some handmade jewellery and savour a Japanese spicy tuna taco or Texas-style smoked brisket from one of the numerous food vendors.
Then pedal on through Williamsburg and stop at an outdoor café to watch the neighbourhood’s uber-hipsters go by. Note: The paths through Brooklyn aren’t continuous and you will end up travelling part of the way in regular traffic. Stay calm and pedal on – it pays off.
For those who find the notion of sharing the street with maniacal motorists too daunting, there is another option. It’s called the Five Boro Bike Tour (bikenewyork.org). On the first Sunday in May, large swaths of New York are closed to traffic and bikes rule.
The 64-kilometre course allows you and 32,000 of your new cycling friends to pedal through parts of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. (It helps to have done Montreal’s Tour de l’Île a few times to consider this idea fun rather than insane.)
It’s exhilarating to bike through the high-rise canyons of Midtown car-free, or take over FDR Drive while traffic speeds by in the opposite direction.
And this being New York, you’re treated to free street-side entertainment, like the gospel singers we heard belting out a tune in Harlem.
I loved the camaraderie of cycling with friends and the glimpses of New York that I would never see otherwise.
But the highlight was passing by Radio City Music Hall and seeing the Five Boro Bike Tour acknowledged on the pixel board above the street. It felt like the moment I’d been waiting for. Just us and the Rockettes – our name up in lights.
The writer received media accreditation to ride in the Five Boro Bike Tour. The tour did not review or approve this article.