Ride report™: New York City (Bike Snob Shows Me Around)

This post is the second in a series about the cities in which I've had the pleasure of riding a bike in. As I've explained before, I don't take fancy cycling vacations to places like Italy and France, although I kinda' wish I could. What I do is that during my travels (be they for pleasure, vacations, weddings, work etc.), I try to ride a bike in order to simply enjoy a city for the fun of it. These are not "epic" rides, though some can be longish and epic-ish. So are these posts.

Cycling Inquisition's Proprietary Ride Report™ Metrics:

Length of the ride: 40 miles
Bike used: My own amazing road bike
Quality of the roads: 7
Relative sense of safety while in traffic: 8
Fun Index: 10

Unlike the first post in this series which was about Bogota, a city few of you probably know much about, this one is about New York City...a place we all know too much about. I mean, we've all seen Friends, Annie Hall and (most importantly) King Of Queens and Mad About You...so we all know and understand exactly how the big city works. Right? As such, I won't go too deeply into what New York is all about. After all, I firmly believe that Bike Snob NYC has already done a better job of that than I ever could. Still, it's my blog...so I'll give you my opinion.

I don't live in Ohio, and I don't really hate New York..but this shirt is pretty cool.

I don't really dislike New York, but I also don't love it blindly. Like any other place on earth, I try to see the reality of it, and not simply drop to my knees in order to service it. New York has lots of things I love. It has friends and family, it has great food, fantastic history and a cultural mix that is superb. Where else could you see a girl from Japan, who has never seen Hasidim in her life, ask if two elderly Jewish men are "wizards". No, I'm not making this up...it really happened. She really did ask if they were wizards.

No, they are not wizards and they have no special powers. Unless you consider getting a discount on a digital camera at B&H Photo a "special power".

I love so much of what New York has to offer. I was born and raised in a city that is roughly the same size...so I can certainly feel at home there. At the same time, I strongly dislike the sense of entitlement that most New Yorkers (and NY transplants) have. People often speak about the "Ugly American", what about the Ugly New Yorker? No, I'm not just talking about New York native Scott Ian who is very ugly. I'm talking about a greater problem here...and that's saying a lot, because Scott Ian and his awful facial hair are a HUGE problem. Look, most people would agree that a redneck who argues that every other country in the world is horrible, and has nothing he can enjoy or learn from is ignorant. I'm talking about the type of person who refuses to set foot outside his country or enjoy anything from another place while blindly believing that America to be "number 1". So that guy gets made fun of, but when New Yorkers display the same type of attitude about the rest of the country (and the world), they are heralded as highly evolved and very metropolitan. During my time living in New York, I worked with a Manhattan-born IT professional who proudly stated that he had never been to Brooklyn or Jersey. I'm not saying that he was missing much by not going there (ironic tight pants and ironic mullets in Brooklyn, Armani Exchange pants and non-ironic mullets in Jersey)...but my point stands. What I'm trying to say is this: being born in New York City doesn't make you enlightened, and simply moving there three years ago doesn't either. It just means you moved there, and that's all. I applaud those few individuals who manage to keep this in perspective (I happen to be friends with most of those people), those who realize that they have not suddenly moved up the rungs of society simply by changing zip codes. Sure, while living in New York you encounter all kinds of new things...but it doesn't necessarily make you better. If simply moving to New York and having your parents pay for an apartment makes you so evolved, how can you explain someone like Vinnie Stigma? He was born and raised in New York, and still only has the mental capacity of a retarded toddler. So you get my point, New York City is fine...but I sometimes get the feeling that the awful steam that comes out of manholes in the winter time throughout Manhattan is self-importance gas...and if you inhale enough of it, you turn into a complete douche.

That's not steam, it's New York City farting "self importance gas" in your face.

Now that I've explained myself and my feelings about New York, perhaps we can move on to the ride I enjoyed.

The Ride
As I mentioned before, I visit New York City often, and even lived there briefly at one time. I have never, however, ridden a bike there, so this was a real treat. The reason for going into Manhattan that day was to meet up with Mr. Bike Snob NYC. I figured that if I was going to enjoy the city while on a bike, I needed a true connoisseur to show me around. Bike Snob was kind enough to agree to meet me, and thus a man-date was set. We also planned on meeting up with John Prolly that day, but it didn't happen. Funny how I don't really know people who ride bikes, and never ride with anyone...but in the context of New York (by virtue of the internet) I do. Can you imagine if such a meeting had taken place? Two famous bloggers and one wide-eyed, clueless tourist who has trouble clipping in from time to time (that last one would be me) having a meeting of the minds. Had the meeting of the minds occurred, the skies would have surely opened up right then and there, and the apocalypse would have commenced. Sadly, it was not to be, and the world was spared.

My host was kind enough to give me a gift.

Unlike my ride in Bogota, where I had to use a weighty mountain bike made of pink rebar, in New York I was able to use my own bike. This made a huge difference...since my bike is fucking awesome. The route I chose took me from northern Yonkers, through the South Bronx and into Manhattan. Having never ridden a bike around the New York City area, I wasn't sure what to expect. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the general respect I got from cars as I approached Manhattan. Riding around the pillars for the elevated subway tracks on 9A in the Bronx took a little while to get used to, but overall the experience was good, even during weekday traffic.

My camera ran out of batteries that day, so pictures from Google Streetview will have to do. This is the approach to the small bridge that goes into Manhattan.

As I approached the Broadway/9 bridge into Manhattan, I must admit that I felt a slight sense of accomplishment. I felt like a Dutchman, setting foot (or wheels to be more precise) on Manhattan for the first time. The illusion of entering unconquered land was ruined quickly however, due to the Target store off in the distance. My solution? I simply squinted in order to make it seemingly disappear, and it worked. Squinting is not a safe thing to do as you ride your bike, but my sense of accomplishment (or my drive to have that sense) knows no bounds. Here I was, conquering Manhattan via bike...something no one had EVER done before...aside from the six Mexican delivery guys in rusty Diamondback mountain bikes who were riding beside me. I tried to squint in order to make these guys fade away also...but they were too close and it didn't work. Damn it.

Still, I felt like a bit of a pioneer entering the big city. I felt important, and thus better than everyone else. Suddenly I became concerned. I had just set foot (or wheel) in Manhattan, and I was unknowingly falling victim to the very self important and douchy attitude that so many New York transplants had fallen victim to before. I too felt important for no reason at all, other than my general location in a map. The self-importance gas must have been getting to me, and I couldn't fight it. I was was being drawn-in by the big city lights, even though it was daytime. Manhattan's sweet siren song was calling, and oddly enough it came in the form of a very loud, very huge garbage truck in front of me. Said truck was slowly chugging along, dumping garbage juices and chunks of used diapers in my path as its loud diesel engine blew hot smoke in my face. I followed the truck and its hot stench, afraid to pass it in fear of being struck head-on by another of its kind.

I rode on this street's bike lane for a little while. Yes, UPS trucks and cabs were blocking it multiple times.

Once I found myself in Manhattan, I rode through a few smaller streets which happened to have bike lanes. I'm not very used to bike lanes at all, so I suddenly felt extremely happy and special. New York City was cradling me, holding me in a warm bike-lane embrace. It was as though I was safely cocooned in a soft sleeping bag made of angel feathers and pixie dust. This feeling, however, came to an end when I realized how often the god damned bike lanes are blocked by delivery trucks in the big city. Undeterred, I made my way down to the west side bike path. Having never ridden in New York City before, I had difficulty figuring out the best route to take in order to go from it's northern-most point down to 14th Street...so the bike path it was.

The west side bike path is really convenient, but you will encounter creatures such as the ones pictured above. Like raccoons, they may look mild-mannered...but if you approach them too quickly, they will blow a fuse.

In the northern portion of the path, I was able to ride rather quickly due to the general lack of traffic. Other people seem to know this well, so I was actually passed twice by triathletes with full aero helmets, skinsuits and, in one case, a disc wheel. Suddenly, I felt like a country bumpkin. Back home I'll often see people with clip-on bars, I'll even see triathlon/TT specific bikes from time to time. Being passed by a guy in a full skinsuit and a Zipp disc wheel was certainly things to a new level. Just as I began to recover from the sight of the disc wheel, I saw something even more shocking and amazing. I'm talking, of course, about the behemoth that is the Hustler strip club. You may not be able to tell from this picture, but the damn thing is an an entire city block long, and even features some kind of Greek temple over it. It's like a Costco of ass for guidos from Jersey.

Having now been shocked twice during my trip down the path, I looked for other things that would continue to wow me beyond belief. Knowing that celebrity sightings are common in the west side bike path, I kept my eyes open (I had stopped squinting by the time I made it below 42nd Street) waiting to see David Byrne. I was also willing to settle for this bike-riding muppet that was made in his likeness some years back:

No luck. Instead of seeing any muppet/celebrities, I began to see more and more dog walkers, and more signs telling me where to stop and where to go. It seemed as though, just as the bike path traffic increased the further south I got, the amount of signs and painted lines increased rapidly. I was out of triathlon-land, and was now firmly in beach cruiser/dog walking land.

It was there (in beach cruiser/dog walking land) that I met up with my host, Bike Snob. Making our way through Manhattan traffic, I was pleased once again to see how relatively safe I felt. Perhaps being a wide-eyed tourist was distorting reality (this has been known to happen to me by the way, and not simply as a result of all my squinting), but I felt safer than I normally do in my daily commute. Was this as a result of lower Manhattan's relatively lesser traffic? Perhaps, but more than likely it was the route that Bike Snob chose which made all the difference. Either way, I was simply amazed by how fast we were able to get around New York City by bike. You see, when I visit New York, I tend to get around by walking and riding the subway. While this method of transportation seems impressive and efficient when you are clueless about the city's size and layout...when you look closer, it's not exactly great. Manhattan is about 13 miles long, and 2.3 miles at its widest. Think about that. Manhattan is small. It's for this reason that I propose that we all stop calling New York City "the big city", and instead switch to calling it "the tightly packed city". So, while the subway can be great, and makes it easy for people in far away portions of the outer boroughs to come into Manhattan...the speed at which it travel is not all that amazing. This is particularly true when you factor in the need to transfer trains, and having to wait for trains that never seem to come. Plus, have you smelled the Canal Street station? Have you ever had to wait for the stupid shuttle train between Grand Central and Times Square? It's not fun.

Peeing into a Wendy's coup while waiting for the train? Sure, why not.

Once you're out of the subway, walking can be just as annoying and slow. By contrast, riding a bike around Manhattan seemed (don't laugh at me) magical. At a comfortable pace, we rode around the city through areas I had never seen before...and got around surprisingly fast. Having never really ridden with anyone else in my life (aside from one failed group ride), I was unsure as to the general do's and don'ts. Is it okay to carry on a casual conversation as you ride behind someone else? If you're speaking, and you come to a stop, do you stop behind the person leading, or do you stop next to them? It's when questions like this come up that I realize just how much of a clueless outsider I am to the world of cycling. I simply don't know these things. Similarly, I felt like a bit of a dope wearing my helmet while in Manhattan. Almost no one wears a helmet while on the streets...although the bike path was full of them. I felt like I do in that recurring dream I have where I show up to a mid 80s Agnostic Front show at CBGB's wearing nothing but a baby blue tennis mini-skirt. Is that weird? You guys don't have that dream? Anyway, I was similarly ashamed by the fact that I had forgotten to bring a lock or chain to New York with me. Bike Snob assured me that he could lock both of our bikes, and that it wouldn't be a problem. He did indeed lock both of our bikes, and I was amazed by how thorough he was, and just how much protection was deemed necessary for my lowly bike. Suddenly, I felt like I was ridding around in the most desirable steed in town. That was clearly not the case though. It had more to do with the fact that New York residents will steal anything and everything...even if it is a sub-par road bike with so-so components.

Sure things weren't all absolutely perfect during my ride in Manhattan. Yes, we saw one Asian kid wearing a Rock Racing t-shirt. Yes, we saw many examples of cyclists going the wrong way in designated bike lanes, as well as cabs dropping passengers off while on a bike lane. At the same time, however, I realized how quick and fun riding around New York City can be. Look, I'm not going to tell you that this was an out of body experience, but I can tell you that seeing that much of Manhattan by bike was vastly different than how I had experienced it before. I saw more of the city, and enjoyed more of it by riding a bike. This is probably not news to anyone who rides a bike, we're all well aware of how differently you see and experience things while on a bike (I know that sounds almost new-age)...but even to me, it came as a bit of a surprise. I didn't expect to have a city I know pretty well look and feel so absolutely different by virtue of the mode of transportation I was using.

The Ride Back, mostly via Metro North

Since I was not staying in Manhattan, I had to ride back at some point. It was getting dark, and I didn't have proper lights for my bike. Unsure about riding all the way back, I chose to catch a Metro North train from Grand Central Station. Bike Snob was kind enough to show me the way up to Grand Central. It was during this last portion of the trip that I had my only semi-close call with a car. As we were both making a left-hand turn, a slight gap opened between my dear host and I. As small as the gap between us was, the cab behind me felt it was large enough to go around me and use it to keep going straight. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Still, this sort of thing has happened to me back at home, as well as in other cities...so overall, New York felt no different to me. The traffic in midtown was far worse than it had been downtown, but the cars were moving slowly and the situation was very manageable.

Soon enough I found myself inside Grand Central, holding my bike and wondering if I would be allowed into a Metro North train. The answer? Oh yes indeed, as long as it's not during peak hours. I bought a lifetime bike pass (for like five bucks) and went down to the platform. Luckily, I had my sweet road bike with me, because 29ers are not allowed on Metro North trains, and neither are penny-farthings. Yes, it's true. According to the MTA, only bikes with 27" diameter wheels or less are "bikes". Sorry 29er riders....no hopping around big logs in Manhattan for you. I know that 29er rims and 700c rims are the same diameter...but that big fat tire puts you well over the 27" limit...thus, no train for you. Anyway, the conductor was extremely helpful, and told me where to put my bike. Normally, when you say that a New Yorker "told you were to put something", you're referring to the fact that he told you to stick a garden hose, an anvil, or your car's carburetor up your ass. That, however, was not the case here. I put my bike in the area designated for wheelchairs, and sat right by it. Having a tiny chain or something to keep it in place would have been helpful, as it would be more to keep it from falling over than to keep it from being stolen. I didn't have anything of the sort, but the bike stood there by itself.

I found this picture on the innerweb. The Metro North train I was on didn't have one of these fancy hooks. I should also point out that my bike has way cooler reflectors, and a way cooler pie-plate.

I arrived at my stop, got out of the train and rode in the dark to my final destination. Overall, the ride had been a great success thanks in great part to a gracious host. The week after, I was home and back at work. I mentioned to a co-worker that I had ridden my bike in Manhattan. Based on the reaction I got, you would have thought I had been juggling live grenades while swimming with sharks (as though that's even possible). I told him it was really not a big deal...but then I backed off a bit. If New York is a big and scary place to some, who am I to mess with that myth? He continued to ask me questions about it, often annoying ones. What was I to do? I squinted, and tried to make him disappear.

My scores explained:

Length of the ride: 40 miles
This is the estimated length of the ride that day. Not much to explain here.

Bike used: My own amazing road bike
My bike is amazing, again...not much to explain.

Quality of the roads: 7
Although Manhattan's streets were generally good, the Bronx left a bit to be desired in the pothole department. Also unsettling were the scary uneven spots in the bridge going into Manhattan. The bridge's surface is that metal grate type stuff that you can see through, and having certain parts bend and buckle under you is not fun. Here's a picture of the bridge's surface.

Relative sense of safety while in traffic: 8
Considering the size of New York, I think this is a pretty good score. Once in Manhattan, drivers were not courteous or mindful, but generally seemed to ignore cyclists. This is probably mostly a bad thing, but I didn't feel like I was a target, or that I was hated by drivers...which often happens in many places.

Fun Index: 10
Had I never been to New York City before, the score here would be through the roof. Still, it was great to see the city in such a new way...and to see so much of it so easily and quickly.

Do any of you live in New York? Have any of you ridden in New York? Feel free to comment. Anonymous comments are now accepted.