The New York Century –  Sunday 9th September

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.  Like all half-forgotten conversations having taken place months before suddenly I was confronted with the reality of going to New York to ride a bike round the city for 100 miles in the 23rd edition of the New York Century organised by Transportation Alternatives, a not for profit organisation set up to promote cycling in the city.  Air miles and an offer of a bike loan had tipped the balance so I packed my white TCC ‘foreign excursions’ jersey and was on my way.

Saturday in Manhattan was not looking good.  Early grey skies and light rain had given way to sunshine and humidity pushing the temperature into the 90s.  As I sweatily made my way back from Soho to my hotel close to Central Park (chosen for its location to the start of the ride) Andy Murray was fighting a battle of his own in the US Open semis as much with the increasingly windy conditions as with his opponent.   By early evening weather warnings appeared on the local TV stations warning of tornadoes and heavy rain in Brooklyn and other areas of the city.  It was looking worse still.

Darkness and rain fell at about the same time as I made my way to the Upper East Side to have dinner with my riding companions and family.  Carbs loaded and loan bike set up adjusted I made my way back through the rain to my hotel having been reassured that by the time we met again the weather would have broken.  Given we were due to meet in about 6 hours time, I was less than convinced.   When we met again outside the same Upper East Side apartment I had eaten dinner a few hours ago it had indeed stopped raining.  It was warm.  It was dark.  We rolled around to the start in the middle of Central Park to join several thousand other riders many of whom had also signed up for the full 100 miles.  Like the nearby zoo, a number of familiar species of rider could be observed.  Mostly male, there were herds of MAMILS flanked by more dedicated looking club riders with a sprinkling of couriers, hipsters, fashionistas (it was NY Fashion Week) and the plain bicycle curious.

On the stroke of 6am we headed out under the cover of darkness in to midtown Manhattan.  For the city that never sleeps it was doing a pretty good impression of having slipped into a coma as we moved along a deserted 11th Avenue downtown.  By the time we reached the Village the field had already begun to break up and our small group were cheered by some young locals who I assumed were on their way home from the night before rather than having bravely made the effort to line the street to cheer us on.

When crossing Brooklyn Bridge the day was beginning to break with cloud clearing and the promise of blue skies ahead.  It was looking better.  Brooklyn is a large suburban sprawl which extends way beyond the hipsters of Williamsburg.  The roads were still quiet as we rode further into Sunday morning.  A long stretch of good road before the first food stop gave us the opportunity to establish a pecking order in our little group and after a short but sustained burst of speed TCC emerged ahead of the pack (there were no hills to speak of but with what climbing their was your correspondent would have bagged the KoM jersey as well…).   There were no further challenges along the way.

Brooklyn gave way to a section along the waterfront with stunning views across the water to Staten Island (the one borough not visited by the route) and a reminder of how much water surrounds New York.  The slightly grittier and more ethnically diverse but still determinedly suburban Queens was the next section.  Bagels and coffee were taken on board for further fortification for what was now becoming an increasingly sunny and warm day.   The next section (I think in the Forest Hills area) was more bucolic with the route following trails through extensive parkland.  Large amounts of leaves, twigs and other debris on the path were evidence of the high winds from the night before and some large puddles from the rain gave the course an unexpected (and for some a plainly unwelcome) cyclo-cross aspect.

As I was on a borrowed bike I could at least comfort myself with the thought that someone else was going to have to clean it…   As the day and the ride wore on we eventually entered the Bronx. Urban and full of grit.  The contrast with the Upper East Side could not have been more marked but there was a vibrancy and energy about the area and the people living in it (most of whom seemed to be engaged in one big street party) that made it the highlight of the ride (but MAMILS are probably better off not roaming around there after dark).   The route then brought us back to the top end of Manhattan and the fringes of Harlem before finally counting down the cross-street numbers to reach the end point in what was now a light and sunny Central Park.  It was looking a lot better.

We had been in the saddle for 9 hours which is apparently par for the course with food stops and endless careful crossing of junctions which soaked up a lot of time and meant there were no prolonged stretches of steady riding.  The stop and start also made it tiring even though the average speed was quite low and the terrain could not be said to be challenging in a Sunday Hill Ride kind of way.  It also helped having an experienced guide with us who could pick up the direction signs spray painted on to the road surface (less easy to tamper with than the usual sportive signs).  There was a good atmosphere all day and the relationship between city (and drivers) and cyclist was pretty good although we did witness the odd exchange of views between driver and rider as you might expect.

That said, it was a unique and very enjoyable way to see one of the world’s great cities and I know I will soon be confronted by that half-forgotten conversation with my host as I prepared to head for the airport in which I said I would be back again next year….


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