Once again, cyclists get to peel around 42 miles of the Big Apple

May 16, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

It's a damp Saturday morning a year ago. A gang of bicyclists are standing shoulder to shoulder on Manhattan's Church Street -- about 15,000 of us, actually.

Looking downtown toward the distant greenery of Battery Park, all we see are helmets bobbing atop a rainbow river of bright cycling clothes. Uptown looks the same -- except that maybe five blocks ahead a banner overhangs the street, denoting the starting line of Bike New York, '92.

The Great Five Boro Bike Tour had returned.

The cycle tour began in 1977 with just 200 riders. In 1990, before the loss of chief sponsor Citibank caused a one-year hiatus in 1991, about 23,000 riders participated.

Now officials say the event is back for the foreseeable future, and Bike New York '93, the 16th edition of what has been billed as the world's largest bicycling event, is scheduled for next Sunday.

This year's ride -- principally sponsored by American Youth Hostels -- is part of the new national Bike America series, which includes similar large events such as Bike Boston (June 20) and Bike San Diego (Oct. 24).

"It's a very friendly day in New York City. It's a way to see neighborhoods, to see New Yorkers in a good mood," says Paul Sullivan, the longtime ride director.

That was certainly the case last year.

Awaiting the tour's start, a small terrier in a makeshift travel cage fixed to the rear rack of a mountain bike is getting a lot of attention. Amazingly, he never barks. Some riders carry their kids in bike seats, and one guy has a boombox the size of a suitcase strapped to his wheel rack.

Uptown, we hear someone saying something over the public address system, and music plays in the background. People are raising their hands and hopping on their bikes.

The ride is on.

More accurately, the walk is on. For the first few blocks, riding is impossible because of the crush. But somewhere on the Avenue of the Americas, the crowd finally thins out and we are able to mount up.

We pedal north through Manhattan's fabled canyons on wide lanes of asphalt amazingly devoid of automobiles. Police officers, some of them still wearing yellow slickers from the earlier drizzle, guard the cross street intersections.

"There are only two rides we know about in the world that have full closure of streets," says Mr. Sullivan, "this one and Le Tour de L'Ile in Montreal [in June]."

For the rest of the ride -- uptown through Central Park, briefly into the Bronx, back downtown on the southbound lanes of the FDR Highway, across the Queensboro Bridge, up and down Queens and on through Brooklyn and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island -- the entire route is -- reserved for riders.

Thousands of automobiles snarl and wheeze nearby, of course, but a festive air prevails. In many neighborhoods, residents wave and clap and offer cups of water to the riders.

The city's ethnic diversity unreels like a filmstrip: white, black, Hispanic, Portuguese, Jamaican and Asian enclaves breeze by, their identity obvious from store signs and the language overheard.

In south Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, just before the long pedal up the Shore Parkway to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, boys and girls dressed in dark clothes wave shyly. A few wish the riders "gut Shabbos," or good Sabbath.

And even though there are no cars, traffic jams do arise among the riders themselves. Getting onto FDR Drive, for example, we must dismount and once again walk a few blocks. And we do the same upon entering the mid-way rest stop at Astoria Park in Queens.

And then there was that ferry ride over from Staten Island.

Our group of three had driven from the New Jersey suburbs to the Naval Station end point and parked there. After the ride, we figured, we'd hop in the car and drive home, avoiding the crowds returning to Battery Park on the ferry.

This is actually a good plan for riders wishing to avoid downtown Manhattan's parking hassles. But you have to be on a ferry very early to make it through registration and to the start on time.)

An easy half-mile ride brought us to the ferry landing -- but you couldn't prove by us that we actually boarded a boat. Thousands of riders all had the same idea, and we all shuffled blindly down a runway and onto the car deck of the vessel.

For the entire half-hour trip we stood amidships, holding our bikes. We never saw the Statue of Liberty, nor the Manhattan skyline; most of us never even saw water. At the Manhattan end of the trip, we all crowded out again into the terminal building and then into Battery Park.

We do see water later on. As we pedal down FDR Drive, the East River to our left carries tugboats and other marine traffic. Crossing the Queensboro Bridge offers a postcard look down river, with the United Nations buildings standing out.

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