New York City is experiencing an upswing in bicycle riding of every stripe. The racing scene in New York City remains vibrant and commuting is more popular than ever. Scratch a little deeper into the New York cycling scene and you will find alleycat racing, bike polo, mountain bike parks, BMX, track racing and plenty of nearby cyclocross racing. Citi Bike, NYC’s new bike share program, was launched in 2013 after many delays and has been widely embraced, even while poor management threatens its continued existence.
Outside of the city, New York’s racing cyclists are sometimes met with disbelief that anyone could ride and train in Gotham. However, great cycling terrain abounds all around NYC. For a road cyclist looking to escape the city’s confines, the default ride is route 9W, across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. The town of Piermont, 15 miles to the North, is a popular destination. A slightly longer ride leads to the town of Nyack, and an array of possibilities to stop for coffee and some food. Still further north are Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain. From the exposed rock on that summit on a clear day the skyline of Manhattan is visible, 45 miles distant, behind a series of hills, green and lush in summer. 9W is a tremendous asset. It provides a mostly uninterrupted road with a wide shoulder, through mostly undeveloped or protected landscape. But by no means is it the only place to ride a bicycle outside of New York City. Other routes simply run parallel to 9W, while some will take riders as far away as Pennsylvania or Massachusetts, and may involve a train ride.
There is an evolving range of group rides that leave from the city. The new Rapha Cycle Club, opened in 2013, has been hosting an evolving series of group rides, open to all. Volunteers from the New York Cycle Club lead frequent rides from the club’s extensive online ride library. Racing cyclists looking for a race-paced training ride might join the Rocket Ride, which starts in Nyack every Sunday morning, picking up riders along its 50 mile loop. Bucolic Westchester County, north of Manhattan, is generally less well known to most cyclists, though racers may know the Gimbels Ride. The ride has a reputation for attracting local and visiting pros looking for a workout. Andy Shen, of the popular local website nyvelocity.com, once wrote: “Be careful – guys are out for blood on this thing.”
There is no shortage of racing in New York. “In the peak of the season it is possible to race five days a week, without a car”, notes Alex Ostroy, who runs Lucarelli and Castaldi, one of 45 sub-teams that comprise the Century Road Club Association. CRCA was founded in 1898, and with around 750 members, is today the largest racing club in the United States. Kissena Cycling, another local club, has around 140 members. Clearly, there is a huge pool of riders from which talent emerges. A good number of domestic professionals regularly come up through the categories of US racing in New York, from CRCA, Kissena, and a number of smaller USA Cycling-affiliated teams. George Hincapie, the best known of local racers to have reached the men’s professional peloton, cut his teeth racing in Central Park in the 1980s and ‘90s. A number of Olympic cyclists, too, have come from NYC. Nelson Vails, for example, became the first, and still only, African American to win an Olympic medal in cycling, racing to silver in the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. He began as a bike courier from Harlem, nicknamed ‘The Cheetah’.
Recently both CRCA and Kissena have been fostering women’s involvement in the racing scene, offering clinics and entry level races. In 2008, Evelyn Stevens, then working on Wall Street, was spotted riding in Central Park by a local racer. She was invited to join a CRCA clinic, and then a CRCA sub-team. She soon began leaving her field behind at local races. A month later, in the queen stage of the Green Mountain Stage Race in Vermont, she famously caught the pro women – whose field had started 5 minutes ahead of hers – on the final, grueling climb. Then she passed them (briefly). That year she quit her investment banking job and signed a professional contract with Columbia HTC. She is currently racing for Specialized Lululemon, with many palmares to her name.
The racing scene is a microcosm of the melting pot that is New York. Bankers – those who have not risen above category racing – mingle at race registration with artists, students, lawyers and web engineers. Riders from any number of nations may line up together on a Saturday morning in Central or Prospect Park. All real estate in New York is hotly contested. Finding and holding racing venues in and around the city is challenging to say the least. Weekend races in the parks begin as early as 5:30 AM so that they will finish before the roads become too crowded and too dangerous for racing. CRCA’s racing privileges are continually threatened by complaints from other park users. In this respect Floyd Bennett Field has the advantage of being out at the edge of Brooklyn. A former airfield, Floyd has a desolate, slightly surreal character, made more emphatic by its relative proximity to the city’s teaming streets. It can also be subject to wind off the Atlantic Ocean, making the racing brutal and unforgiving, even on entirely flat ground. On Thursdays the Burroughs brothers, from Guyana, run a series at the venue, which is operated by the National Park Service. Charlie Issendorf, who grew up racing alongside the Hincapie brothers George and Rich, runs a Tuesday night series. “Now there are fewer races around New York”, says Issendorf, who also promotes races in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “Promoters have given up many races for various reasons,” – Issendorf cites lawsuits, or promoters simply tiring out – “so that now what used to be the training races are the big races: Floyd Bennett, Prospect Park, Central Park.” “The races are more competitive now”, says Ostroy. “The front of a Prospect Park race is like NRC (National Racing Calendar) quality.” Perhaps this has always been the case. New York does attract hard-charging, Type A personalities. George Hincapie, asked about the racing in his formative days, said Central Park was “crazy tough. Guys would want to win at all cost”.
In 2008, to celebrate his birthday, David August Trimble held a dinner party and a fixed-gear bike race through the cobbled streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Trimble did not bother with the hurdles that rule out most racing venues – he never secured permission from the city, or sanctioning from USA Cycling, who would not have had a category for this race anyway. The event developed a legendary reputation. Seven years later the race has expanded to include races in Milan and Barcelona. The Brooklyn edition has moved to a closed course at Red Hook’s new cruise ship terminal, and can attract as many as 10,000 spectators, all of whom are still invited to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to David before the race begins. The Red Hook Crit is an unusual mix of bike subcultures – messengers, road racers and track riders. The series’ international presence has started to attract riders from abroad to the Brooklyn race. In its first six editions the race was won by New York locals. This past year Thibaud Lhenry, an amateur mountain biker and roofer from France, took the top prize in a cold, steady downpour.
From the 1890s through the 1920s track cycling was a popular spectator sport in the United States. The track event still known as Madison began at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, then an enormously popular velodrome, one of many in the city. Today track racing is comparatively invisible here. Kissena Velodrome, in the borough of Queens, is New York’s only remaining venue. There is an effort to build a new velodrome within the city, backed by a 50 million dollar gift from a reclusive philanthropist. This effort very nearly came to fruition opposite downtown Manhattan on the Brooklyn waterfront, which is currently undergoing a change from industrial to park land. The ‘Brooklyn Field House’, as the project became titled, was encountering resistance from neighbors over traffic and parking concerns when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the U.S. in 2012. The storm flooded the site and exposed its vulnerability, and major construction costs were added to the Field House for hurricane resistance. The location was soon scrapped. The search for more suitable real estate is ongoing.
With Americans racing in the European pro peloton since the 1970s, and with the Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge taking place in the U.S., it may be that interest in professional cycling has inspired more American cyclists to begin racing. Cycling as transportation however has caught on independently and entered the mainstream of New York – and American – culture. As evidence, you will often find display bicycles in the windows of, say, a clothing store, and it seems de rigueur in advertising, for example, to include a bicycle in the portrayal of any young person’s living space.
Facing the changing climate, the recent ‘great recession’ and crowded public transit, many New Yorkers have turned to bicycles as a greener and cheaper mode of transportation. And for food and fitness conscious New Yorkers, bicycling lifestyle is an easy fit. As early as 1894, New York built the county’s first bike lane. But as cars became predominant on New York City’s streets, riding a bike became increasingly a fringe activity. As David Byrne, an intrepid urban cyclist since the 1970s, has noted, riding in the city in that time was usually equated with lunacy. In 1980 a forward thinking mayor Ed Koch created bike lanes on four north-south running avenues, from Greenwich Village up to Central Park. He had been to Beijing and been inspired by the number of cyclists there, and he sought to make a “balanced, efficient and clean transportation system” for New York. A month later the lanes, poorly planned and underused, were ripped out. By 1987 Koch’s attitude had swung 180 degrees, and he attempted a ban on cycling in mid-town Manhattan, primarily affecting messengers. The backlash against that ban coalesced cyclists around a burgeoning movement. Membership in Transportation Alternatives (TA), a fledgling pedestrian and cycling advocacy group, increased ten-fold during that time. By the turn of the millennium, TA had grown into a well-connected and effective lobbying organization. When mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected in 2001 they became instrumental in shaping his administration’s far reaching plans to ‘re-imagine the city’s public realm’. Bloomberg hired the firebrand Jeanette Sadik-Khan, a champion of ‘complete streets’, as his transportation commissioner. She, in turn, hired former TA executive director Jon Orcutt as a senior advisor. The lunatics were, to some extent, taking over the asylum. TA introduced Sadik-Khan to the Danish urban design consultant Jan Gehl, who helped design major changes to New York’s streets, including protected bike lanes, part of a network of more than 400 miles of bike lanes around the city. In contrast to Ed Koch’s hastily laid down concrete barriers, Gehl’s protected bike lanes have an air of permanence, integrated into the urban infrastructure.
The Bloomberg administration also oversaw the implementation of a bike share program, created as a public-private enterprise, without city funding, to avoid political liability. The system faced a storm of criticism before it appeared on the street – as have similar programs in other cities – but Citi Bike finally got off to a rocky start, after many delays, in May of 2013. Native New Yorkers and, to a lesser extent, tourists, have enthusiastically adopted it. “Citi Bike has normalized bicycling in NYC”, says Paul Steely White, TA’s current executive director. “The urban professional on a Citi Bike has become the new icon, finally usurping the intrepid messenger.” The program continues to experience physical, financial, and management problems, but letting it fail and leaving its more than 100,000 members in the lurch would be foolish and tragic.
Here to stay
The new trend of sustainability – of which the cycling culture can be seen as an important part – seems, at least to some extent, to be paying off in New York and its surroundings. A short ride over the George Washington Bridge, River Road runs through a narrow swath of forest between the base of a cliff – the Palisades – and the west bank of the Hudson River. For the past two years, during the warmer months, a bald eagle has taken up residence in the trees at the northern part of River Road, another delight for cyclists. Eagles would not have been so extraordinary long ago. But an increasingly polluted river long made it an untenable habitat for America’s majestic national bird. That trend has now reversed, and once common species are returning. As with cyclists on New York City’s streets, one can only hope that, this time around, they are here to stay.