Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bike Behind Bars

OK, Lil Blue isn't really doing time in the pokey. But she is currently locked up behind my apartment until further notice. It's been more than 48 hours since my keys disappeared from my coat pocket and I think, according to police investigation protocol I've learned from Wikipedia and Dexter, that I can now officially declare them missing.

I don't mind, really, the apartment key thing. One quick trip to a locksmith and I had two bright new shiny spares. Unfortunately, the only key I have for my bike lock happened to be dangling right behind them at the time. Whoops.

The lock came with three keys when I bought it off Amazon a year ago and, honestly, I'm impressed it's taken me this long to lose them all. You'd be impressed, too, if you only knew how many things I misplace on a daily basis. It's a handicap I've learned to live with.

So...anyone have any idea if Kryptonite can make spare keys? Also, if they do, which of my limbs will I have to give up to get one? The weather is just starting to behave itself and it'd kill me to have to start taking the glorified sardine can that is the subway to work.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Five Boro Bike Tour Cluster F—K

Wow. First of all, thank you, thank you, thank you for the positive feedback! I have to admit, I was a little nervous kicking off a new blog. A few people encouraged me to write more about biking but I never really thought I was "hardcore" enough of a cyclist to write about it.

I haven't competed in tours de anything and I didn't start biking as part of some crazy weight loss challenge or to reach some personal life goal. I do it simply because it makes me happy and I hope that comes through in this blog.

I've been pouring my heart and soul into my travel blog for a while now and although I intend to continue my travel blogging, the truth is that most of the traveling I'm doing these days isn't by plane or boat or even bus — it's on two wheels, seven days a week and in one of the greatest cities in the world.

So, let's get right into the good stuff! I teased a bit about doing the 42-mile TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour in my last post. And believe me, right now, I'd love nothing more than to cozy up to this comp and conjure all the flowery, superfluous prose in my literary arsenal to describe the experience for you.

But if there's one thing you should know about me as a writer, it's that I try to keep it as real as possible. That being said, I will attempt to sum up the tour in one clear, concise sentence:


OK, now that that's off my chest, allow me to elaborate.

It sucked. It really, really sucked.

The worst part is that it didn't have to suck at all. With pristine weather conditions and nothing but infectious excitement practically oozing from the other 31,999 participants' very pores, it had all the makings of a #winning experience.

Unfortunately for us, from start to finish, the race was an organizational nightmare that left thousands of cyclists grumbling and feeling cheated by day's end.

For me, the problems started at 6 a.m. the morning of the tour. My apartment in Astoria, Queens is about 9 miles from Battery Park, where the tour kicked off. Although I'd been training and I felt strong and prepared for the tour, I didn't want to wear myself out before I even started, so I, like many others, planned on taking the subway to the starting line.

According to the information given to us by the event organizer, Bike New York, the best train for me to take was the R, conveniently located a few blocks from my apartment. So I grabbed all my gear and lil Blue (Yes, I named my bike. Just let it happen, OK?) and headed out at 6:20 a.m., feeling pumped and ready to go. I zoomed over to the station and just after I swiped my metro card and wriggled through the turnstyle, I saw it.

The dreaded pink tape. The pink tape they use to block off the stairs at metro stops when the trains aren't running.

Dun. Dun. Dunnnn.

The attendant at the station told me there were no Manhattan-bound trains due to construction. Frustrated, I hauled my bike down to the Queens-bound platform and chatted with another cyclist as we waited for the train. When, finally, I managed to get on the right train in the right direction, I tried to stop myself from stressing and took some steady breaths to relax. That worked for about 15 more minutes until the train conductor squeakily informed us that the train would be skipping lower Manhattan and heading straight to Brooklyn.

Of course.

I was beyond the point of being pissed off. I didn't expect BNY to foresee construction delays but to tell all participants to take a train that wasn't even going to the right stop—seriously?

I hauled ass off the train at Union Square, leaving a handful of other tour-bound bikers behind me. They apparently hadn't heard the announcement, but I had only seconds to squeeze my way through a gaggle of glaring passengers and no time to relay the message.

Finally, I made it to the 6 train and got off at City Hall, just a couple of minutes by bike from the starting line. At that point I was an hour late and expected my friends to be all sorts of spitting mad. Luckily, they were pretty understanding and we all just brushed it off and headed over to the park.

Once we queued up with the crowd, I started to feel excited again. It was pretty surreal to be surrounded by thousands upon thousands of other cyclists, all helmeted and grinning like my coworkers on Free Lunch Friday. We were all clearly ready to have a ball.

Because BNY was staggering everyone's start, we waited about 40 minutes or so before we got rolling. For those of you not familiar with the tour, here's quick rundown: it's been going strong for more than 30 years and covers 42 miles across all five boros of New York City —Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. It also shuts down a lot of major roads and expressways which are open only to cyclists. This year, all 32,000 slots filled up in less than three days.

I have to say, riding up a deserted Sixth Ave. without the usual din of car horns and squealing tires roaring in my ears was like entering the twilight zone. I loved every minute of it. We zoomed along, laughing at all the crazy helmet decorations we saw and loving life, until we got up to the theater district. The tour slowed to a crawl and, eventually, a complete standstill. There was a bottleneck at the entrance to Central Park, where the tour began its way along the park's east-side bike path and, later, into Harlem.

So-called tour "Marshals" and "Captains" were stationed along the route to wrangle bikers, attempting to stagger our entrance into the park to avoid further pile-ups. Unfortunately, there was nothing doing. We practically walked a quarter of the route through the park. We were still in pretty high spirits though and the weather was phenomenal enough to make up for it at that point.

Harlem was a smooth and easy ride. We made it over the Madison Ave. bridge and into the Bronx, but I was disappointed to see so many people getting off to walk. It caused even more backup and we wound up having to walk up the whole Third Ave. bridge back into Manhattan. It really wasn't steep, even for irregular riders, so I didn't understand why so many dismounted. I think some of the captains/marshals might have instructed cyclists to get off and walk, but as soon as we reached the peak of the bridge, people suddenly remounted and the traffic jam broke up.

I loved every minute of flying down FDR Drive, a major highway whose south-bound lane was completely shut down for the race. Speaking of surreal experiences! I kept looking over at my friend and our faces said the same thing—are we actually doing this right now?

(Not actually a picture of said friend, who is camera shy.)

Things continued smoothly and I started to get pumped for the Queensboro Bridge. I wasn't too nervous. As a proud resident of Astoria, Queens, I bike this mile-long beast every day during my commute to Union Square, where I work. It's always been tough but I knew I could do it because I'd done it hundreds of time before. It actually ended up being even easier than I'd imagined. We were directed to the second level of the bridge and the incline was barely as steep as the regular bike path one level below.

I didn't mind too much that people were taking it slow and stopping to hop off because I was pretty busy, too, being stunned by how beautiful it all was. The bridge hung over us like geometric clouds (if clouds were made of a gajillion tons of thigh-thick steel)and the East River rippled to our left and right. We had a spectacular view of Roosevelt Island and Astoria/Long Island City as we wound our way down the ramp.

Here's the thing: I know bikers were doing a lot of angry fist shaking and yelling at people for stopping to take pictures. But I won't even try to pretend like I didn't. With the sky looking like something out of a Disney cartoon and the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop to a hundreds-strong throng of bikers zooming into Queens, I would challenge anyone not to stop and try to capture it on film. I just wish I had a panoramic shot for you guys, but this will have to do for now.

Everything was fine and dandy at the next rest area, where we refueled with some much-needed fruit and water. I don't think it hit me until then that the bike tour was really more of a festival on wheels than anything. There were random pop-up bands along the way and even a beautiful gospel choir that serenaded us all too briefly in Harlem.

We carried on toward the Pulaski bridge and into Greenpoint. Once again, we had to walk the bridge, but I had one small bit of comfort: we'd reached the halfway point!

In retrospect, I'm so glad we decided to stop at the Gowanus canal rest area for a break. The views were great and it gave us time to cool off from all the frustrating delays. We'd seen a sign warning of "20-min" traffic jam ahead and decided it could wait.

Stuffed with more food freebies and in slightly higher spirits, we set out again, unknowingly on the verge of entering the seventh circle of bike tour hell.

As we merged onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, we were met with, literally, a sea of bikers. Forced to dismount, we walked our bikes the entire way, inching along at a geriatric snail's pace and wondering when it would ever end. 

With a seemingly endless river of cyclists pouring in from behind, we had no where to go but forward. There were wall-to-wall people and bikes and enough grumbling to drown out the sounds of the vehicular traffic just feet away from us. Just imagine a volcano ready to pop its lid.

Two hours.

Two hours it took us to move one mile and get off that godforsaken highway. We had no communication from event organizers the entire time, and I saw a dozen or so marshals/captains stuck in the jam with us, looking just as perplexed as we.

We'd been warned about construction-related delays on the BQE but nothing prepared us for how bad it really was. I imagined Monday's headlines would read "30,000 Morons Pay $80 For Bike Tour, Leave On Foot." Clearly, there was much bigger news to report on Monday morning (USA ftw!) but I just couldn't even pretend I was having fun anymore. It sucked, people. It really, really sucked.

After what seemed like ages of standing, I couldn't even get my legs to work properly when I mounted my bike and squeezed out of the bottle neck. The next stretch of road was wide open and our final obstacle, the hulking Verrazano Bridge, loomed ominously in the distance. I'd been warned it was the toughest leg of the tour by far, but I didn't care. I was dying to challenge myself. My feet were sore from standing so long but my legs had barely been worked all day.

We bypassed the last rest stop and made straight for the bridge. As I started to ascend, I quickly realized it was barely steeper than the Queensboro and I relaxed. Smooth sailing.

Granted, it was pretty lengthy and I know it would have been challenging for me a year ago, but I really have to credit the Queensboro Bridge for preparing me for what was to come. Its steep incline coupled with its length really helped me build up my endurance and strength, more so than I ever expected.

Now, I'd love to end this post by telling you we descended upon the finish line and so-called "Festival" on Staten Island in a fireball of glory, fists pumping and faces shining exultantly.

But all we could muster was a shoulder shrug and half-assed high-five. Woo hoo, I thought. I made it. Now, where is the food?

As it turned out, food was another issue. I was lucky enough to nab the last hot dog on the grill but two of my companions, both vegetarians, had to make due with a sad looking $6 fruit salad because all veggie grill options were gone. I mean, I know it's a little stereotypical, but when planning the menu for 32,000 people who think biking 40+ miles on a Sunday is their idea of fun, don't you think it'd be a safe bet to expect quite a few of them to be health nuts? Just a thought...

So, friends, that was that. What should have been a 5- to 6-hour ride wound up taking a whopping 8.5 hours. By the time we reached the finish line, all the festival booths were closing up shop and we hung around long enough to wolf down our meager rations before heading over to the Staten Island ferry, homeward bound at last. Naturally, there was another 20 minute delay for the boat, but I was past the point of complaining.

I wanted a shower and Indian take-out and my pillow and nothing else occupied my mind.

I will say that my ride from the ferry back to Astoria was probably the most fun I had on my bike all day. There's just something about riding side-by-side with crazy city motorists that really gets my heart racing and adrenaline pumping. I powered over the Qboro bridge and welcomed the burning in my muscles, least of all because it had gotten quite overcast at that point and I was freezing.

So, you're probably wondering whether I'd sign up for the Five Boro next year. I definitely would have said no on Sunday and I have to say, my feelings haven't much changed. Bike New York reps have taken to Twitter and Facebook to issue apologies for all the delays but I think the majority of participants are thinking the same thing—why don't you put your money where your mouse is, BNY?

Though I may have biked my first and last Five Boro tour, I'm not ready to give up on organized rides. Just an hour ago, I signed up for a 70-mile ride to Montauk, Long Island and I honestly can't wait. I've heard great things about this tour from friends and the mastermind, Glenn, seems like a character who takes no BS and won't stand for anything less than making sure everyone has an amazing experience. And, clearly, anyone who rewards starving bikers with pie at the finish line is A-OK in my book.

Because I hate to end on a sour note, I'll leave you with some of the brighter spots of the day.

Angry birds helmets!

Fun costumes.

Stunning vistas.

And in case you were wondering if I ever got that Indian food... :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bike Writer, Who?

Hi there! Welcome to my new blog. Maybe you're here because you clicked on a random Facebook link, stumbled on it from Google or you've wandered over from my usual stomping grounds. Whatever the case, I hope you'll stick
around for a bit and check it out.

First thing's first: who the hell am I and what's this blog all about?

I'm Mandi, a 23-year-old journalist (The Bike Writer–geddit?) working, living and biking in New York City. Just a year ago, I bought my first bike — a vintage 1970s Triumph cruiser that I still ride today. I found it on Craig's List and was so psyched at how great it looked that I didn't bother to check whether the gears worked (they didn't) or if the seat was the proper height (it wasn't). I made it half a block before I realized it was un-rideable and wound up taking the subway home. I was down, yes, but not defeated.

It took me weeks to realize I'd been riding the thing stuck in the toughest gear setting (OK, it also took me weeks to realize I even had any gears to speak of) and a few more before I learned about things like bike lanes, helmets that fit and how to buy a bike lock. Simply put—the only thing I really knew about biking at all was the general idea of how to pedal and, most importantly, that I was completely in love with it.

I'm no athlete now and I certainly wasn't when I first decided to start biking to and from work. I'm far from the hardcore cyclists I see whizzing around in spandex onesies with rock-hard thighs and those sunglasses that make them look like bugs with their faces smashed against a windshield. If you've ever seen them and thought you'd never be able to start cycling, please, take it from me—normal people bike, too.

I could barely haul myself over the Queensboro Bridge when I first started riding and just yesterday I completed my first ever 42-mile Five Boro Bike Tour. It's been quite a ride so far, one that's come with its fair share of bumps, bruises and plain ol' screw ups.

Though I've come leaps and bounds from where I was a year ago, I'm still learning every day how to be a better, safer rider. In a city of 8 million where cyclists and motorists have had a love-hate (OK, mostly hate) relationship probably since this lil fella was cruising the streets, I think I can shed some light on why people like me refuse to give up the right to bike.

So here I am, doing something I've wanted to do for the last 11 months—sharing my journey with you. Hopefully, I might inspire someone else to give biking a try. Not everyone's cut out for cycling in the concrete jungle (to be honest, someone probably should have legally barred me from Manhattan when I first started biking) but no matter where you live, I promise — for better or for worse — biking will change the way you see the world and the people in it.