Monday, May 02, 2005

The 2005 Five-Borough Bike Ride

Welp, I did it: all 42 miles of the 28th Annual Five Borough Bike Ride. I got there at starting time, eight o'clock. I figured I'd be early, having left at seven, but the trains are a special kind of screwed up early on Sunday mornings. No big deal, though, since the beginning takes a long while to get through. With 30,000 or so cyclists clogging Broadway, most will have to wait a while before they get a chance to advance.

A light rain started falling while we were waiting. I'd rather be moving when it's raining, but still, it wasn't insufferable. In fact, the weather was perfect for a ride like this: mid fifties in the morning, and then it got up to 65 later on. We crowded Broadway until Herald Square, where we switched to Sixth Avenue. From curb to curb, there were cyclists. Cops were stationed along the route, telling pedestrians that it was pointless to even think about crossing. Some did it anyway, either darting across or weaving their way through where the crowds of bikes slowed to a stop. At 57th Street the cops were stopping us en masse, letting pedestrians cross. After a few had made it, they let us go again, and we hit Central Park South.

Central Park was easy riding, though crowded. The rain picked up a bit, but we kept going. Many riders wore ponchos, but I learned my lesson in 2000: you really can’t stay dry on a bicycle in a rainstorm, and if you keep going long enough, you’ll dry out eventually. The park roads were slippery. Someone wiped out on one of the wet bends in Central Park; you really have to watch that. Through Central Park it rained some more, but by the time we got to our Bronx crossing—at around 140th Street or so—the rain had petered out.

We left the Bronx after a few blocks and then back to Manhattan. We started wending our way toward the FDR Parkway. I remember passing a police tow truck parked by the road. The driver was sitting in the front seat with the radio on really loud. A woman on the radio was singing Do You Know the Way to San José? I don’t know if it was Dionne Warwick. I was tempted to stop and listen, since it’s one of my favorite songs. Someone once described it as “the happiest song about failure ever written,” which I find is apt. I’m not a big fan of failure—nor of success, for that matter. What I mean by that is what Rudyard Kipling said: If you can meet with triumph and disaster | And treat those two imposters just the same… you’ll be a man, my son! Triumph and disaster are illusions, and ultimately don’t mean much. Philosophically, this ride agrees with me: you might come in first, or last, but on the whole, it doesn’t matter. (Of course, you could also crash your bike, like some did, and be carted off in an ambulance, so I guess that’s a disaster that does mean something, so… um… I should think about these things before I wax sophomoric, shouldn’t I? Ah, well…)

Then we reëntered Manhattan and headed down the FDR's southbound lane, blocked off specially for us. Right off the FDR was where the first rest stop was, where they gave us free bananas and oranges and Balance bars. Balance bars with caramel in them—is that what athletes eat? That doesn't seem right, somehow. I remember an old episode of the kid’s show New Zoo Revue, in which Doug, one of the human characters, was getting into jogging. To get short bursts of energy, he kept eating candy bars. Henrietta Hippo was very impressed with the notion of an exercise regimen that included candy, but wise old Charlie Owl told Doug that he was nuts and that he shouldn’t be training with candy, but rather with fruits and vegetables and the like. I can’t remember how we found out that Charlie was right; I’m sure Doug didn’t die or anything; the show wasn’t like that, but I’m sure Doug wound up laying off the candy when the half hour was over. I remember watching this when I was ten, thinking, “Doug is an idiot. I’m no athlete, but even I know that you don’t eat candy bars to get into shape.” Imagine my surprise to find out, a quarter of a century later, that Doug was right all along! Candy bars are good for you! I hope the beer industry has enough sense to get into the act.

Then we headed down the FDR, through the tunnel toward the Queensboro Bridge, which Simon & Garfunkel made famous in their 59th Street Bridge Song. It might have been nicer to have had the lane that was right on the river, but still, it was nice to be as close to it as we were. The route pulled off the FDR and then up to the bridge, which is a murderous climb that I, after a winter of physical inactivity, decided would be better walked, part way. I was not alone in this decision; there were plenty of us who acknowledged our lack of fortitude and bravely wimped out for all to see. Those climbs up to the bridges are rough, though! I bet I could have handled it better if I hadn’t just biked fifteen miles. Fifteen miles, and 27 to go. The weather had cleared up nicely, too.

On the other side of the Queensboro Bridge you’ll find Queens, which isn’t too surprising. One of the ride marshalls was standing on the highway, flagging us to take a right turn, calling out, “Welcome to Queens. No talking!” I heard the same joke last year, and loved it. This year I wasn’t talking, anyway, having strained my voice on Wednesday trying to sing Cabaret in karaoke. Those notes are tough! Small wonder most karaokists stick to Neil Diamond and Billy Joel; they’re a lot easier to sing. So here it is Monday night and I’m warning you: don’t try any Kander & Ebb tunes unless you know what you’re doing, or you could wind up like me, still with laryngitis (or whatever this condition is. Strained voice, or something.)

Once in Queens we turned north again to a park where the second rest stop was. I didn’t stay long; just enough to make sure my water bottle was full. There were more bananas and oranges there, but I’m not sure about candy… er, energy bars. (Those things do taste pretty good, though. Imagine a Snickers without the peanuts or nougat.) We headed south again, through Queens. I had no idea where we were, only able to orient myself by catching occasional snatches of the Manhattan skyline through the Queens buildings. Not that I really needed to, of course; with 30,000 riders, you were never alone, always in a sea of orange-vested cyclists.

The third rest stop brought more bananas and oranges and water, plus real, substantial food: bottled, drinkable yogurt and those bright orange crackers with peanut butter smeared inside. That was lunch, and I found it quite agreeable. They were also giving away soda to all who wanted it—oh, that might seem silly, but it was diet soda, which is of course healthy. I mean, where else can you get your essential daily phenylkeutonics and aspertame? Mm! Better living through chemistry—any athlete will tell you! Some enterprising soul had also set up a grill on the side of the parking lot, selling hamburgers and hotdogs and shish kebabs. It smelled good, but I didn’t partake, choosing just to stand in the glorious smoke for a while. Maybe a little too long, because one of the marshalls started announcing that the rest stop was closing, and that we all had to move on.

We hit the road again—which road, I’m not sure—and headed south to Brooklyn. Through Queens we had a few families with kids cheering on the riders, but in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods, the locals were considerably more blasé, apart from a group of Hacidic kids who gave us a rousing cheer from the balcony of their school.

We were well past the halfway point by the time we got to Red Hook. I was starting to feel tired, and probably wouldn’t have covered the remaining twelve miles if it weren’t for the ride. Thirty miles in one day is pretty good for me, since I usually hover around twenty miles for my own sojourns. The crowd moved on down to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, one lane of which we had all to ourselves. The road was in good shape and it was sweet riding over the knolls. Eventually the Verrazano Narrows Bridge heaved into sight, which was close to the end of it all. I knew from last year that the incline leading to the crux of the bridge is awfully tough, so after pedaling constantly along most of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I saw a triangle of green grass between the expressway and an exit ramp, so I pulled over and laid down. The sky had cleared up and the breeze was gentle. I propped my legs up on the concrete barrier and relaxed. Some other riders stopped there, too. One said, “We better not get too comfortable; we’ll never get back up.” I did manage to get back up, though, and pulled back onto the expressway, on toward the bridge.

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is a somewhat mystical construction to cross by bicycle. You can kind of get the same feeling from it in a car, but you’re going to fast to really drink it in. It’s a steep climb to the top (I popped the bike into its lowest gear and, I confess, I walked it part of the way.) As you climb, it gets colder, and the winds get harder, blowing in all different directions. Last year there was a fog blowing across the bridge, but not this time. It was just cold. It’s worth it to stop and look out over the harbor; that’s something you can’t do in a car. Then it’s a nice, easy roll down to Staten Island, the fifth and final borough of the ride.

From your entry to Staten Island, it’s another three miles to the ferry. That’s an easy ride along Staten Island’s northern shore. The road was still mostly flooded from the heavy rain on Saturday night, but they were passable. The real issue is waiting for the ferry. They run two ferries per hour, filling each one up with cyclists and their rides, and it’s still a hell of a wait. I got in line at about 3:30, and I didn’t board the ferry until 6:00. When I got on, there was still a multitude on shore behind me. While waiting, I risked my weak throat and struck up my first conversation of the ride with a man who runs numbers for the Quebec tax department. We compared American and Canadian tax systems for a while, but eventually turned to more scintillating conversations about bike rides. He told me about an annual six-day, 600-kilometer ride in Quebec that sounds interesting. Maybe one of these days. For now, it was work managing these 42 miles. I hope to be in shape to manage the New York Century ride this coming September 11. We’ll see. I’m a slow, deliberate rider: I won’t come in first, but at least I’ll finish. Eventually.

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