Two-Wheeled Tours of Hidden New York

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Jul 01, 2015

by LANCE RICHARDSON, Writer

Mostly flat and endlessly fascinating, New York City is the perfect place to explore by bike. Lance Richardson road-tests three cycling tours of the Big Apple.

Portrait Photography by Sam Polcer sampolcer.com

In May 2013, when 6000 blue bicycles appeared overnight on the streets of Manhattan, many residents were dubious. A bike-share program in a city notorious for its aggressive drivers? Citi Bike sounded like a looming catastrophe.

But two years later, with plans to expand the program further into Brooklyn, Queens and northern Manhattan, opinions have changed. More than 34,000 Citi Bike trips are now taken every day. Protected bike lanes have sped up traffic, appeasing drivers. And cycling has become an avid pastime, a popular alternative to overtaxed subways and a revelation for curious travellers to New York. “I think the beauty of it is that you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world,” explains Jimmy Phillips, an Australian expat who recently launched cycling tour company The Domestique. “On a bike you break down the barriers. It sounds clichéd but you get all the elements – even the smell.”

July in the Northern Hemisphere means clear skies and radiant warmth. The Tour de France is electrifying Europe and cyclists are more numerous than antelope on the plains of Africa. So I decided to put New York to the test, taking three different tours that look after everything (so all I have to do is stay upright). In 2015, what’s the Big Apple really like from the seat of a bicycle? 

Bike and Roll: Guided Bike & Boat Tour

Cost US$64 ($80) + tip for the guide (15 to 20 per cent is standard)
Duration Three hours. Starts at Battery Park, Manhattan
Frequency Daily
Level Easy
bikenewyorkcity.com

For my first tour, I meet Joseph Schwarz near the open construction site of Battery Park, at the pointy tip of Lower Manhattan. Schwarz, wearing a beret, was once a video editor for PBS television but now he works for Bike and Roll, which operates out of a shipping container filled with bicycles.

“I’m from the country of New Jersey,” he says with a laugh, pointing across the Hudson River to Jersey City – which, in the mind of most New Yorkers, may as well be a million miles away. 

This morning I’m the only arrival but the tour will go ahead regardless. As an introduction, we cycle to a nearby model of New Amsterdam – what Manhattan looked like several hundred years ago when Broadway was “de Heere Straet” and farms and windmills occupied the current footprint of multinational banks.

It’s extraordinary how much history survives in New York, especially when somebody is on hand to point it out. Castle Clinton, for example, is an odd structure that prompts Schwarz to talk about the British during the War of 1812. “They torched the White House,” he says with a twinkle. “They had a lot of fun down in DC.”

We cycle up the Hudson River Greenway, which became the most used greenway in the country within six months of its opening. As people go about their workday – drinking coffee, dodging yellow cabs and enjoying the sunshine after a brutal winter – we visit memorials like one dedicated to the Irish famine.

The new World Trade Center rises above as a shard of glass. A film is shooting near the Woolworth Building; catering tables line the sidewalk near giant spotlights aimed at a second-storey window. Such is New York, always turning back to admire itself.

We head across the Brooklyn Bridge, which vibrates over the East River like a vast musical instrument. On weekends, Schwarz tells me, navigating the pedestrian promenade on a bike can be “nerve-racking” because crowds are so big. Today he rides ahead, whooping loudly so people clear a path for us.

Before Iong, we’re standing on Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights. The wide, leafy terrace looks back towards Manhattan and you can trace the tour’s route up from Battery Park. Schwarz has lived here all his life and yet “it still makes me go ‘wow’”, he says, sweeping his hand along the skyline. “This is truly amazing.”

Get Up and Ride: The Classic Bike Tour of Brooklyn

Cost US$89 ($111) + tip
Duration Five hours.
Starts at 449 Broadway, Brooklyn 
Frequency Wed, Fri, Sun
Level Medium
getupandride.com

My second tour takes me deeper into Brooklyn, to a small lot occupied by a taco truck, a pink flamingo, hanging pots of coriander and Get Up and Ride, a company founded by Felipe Lavalle.

“Bike + NYC = Love” declares the website and Lavalle’s chilled-out ethos extends to the bikes (sleek, monogrammed) and high-tech headsets that allow riders to communicate like secret-service agents.

My guide, the enviably named Chandler Wild, and I are joined by a French trio who say almost nothing throughout the day except “pizza”, once, when they’re hungry. So this is more like a private tour led by an extroverted artist who can wax lyrical on the maritime history of Brooklyn and then, in the next breath, point out signs for a hot-sauce festival and give tips on good dive bars like Turkey’s Nest Tavern (94 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn).
The tour begins near Hewes Street, in a neighbourhood largely populated by Hasidic Jews. Five minutes later we’re riding past CrossFit signs and million-dollar condos; 10 minutes after that, weather-ravaged warehouses and a film studio recently commandeered by Tina Fey for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The charm of Brooklyn is its odd juxtapositions
– Polish delis next to hipster cafés. Even a short trip can feel like fast-forwarding through a dozen different cultures. “The closest equivalent to New York in terms of economic diversity is Sierra Leone,” says Wild. “Which is insane.”

Over 20-odd kilometres of gentle legwork, we pass a farm growing produce on a factory rooftop, explore the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Downtown area (“The DA has been really good at prosecuting mobsters,” Wild explains as we spin past the courthouse) and cover topics from George Washington to night raves in an empty public pool.

That I’m sad when it ends is a testament to the tour’s pleasures. We catch the public ferry back up the East River to Williamsburg and, as we pedal towards Hewes Street, I’m tempted to ask for another round. Instead, I walk up to the taco truck and ask Stan for chicken with everything.

Bike the Big Apple: The Sensational Park and Soul Tour

Cost US$90 ($112) + tip
Duration Five hours. 
Starts at 1306 2nd Avenue, Manhattan
Frequency Sundays
Level Easy
bikethebigapple.com

I live in New York, in the neighbourhood of Harlem just north of Central Park, so for my final tour I decide to focus close to home. What can a cycling tour tell me about the streets I walk every day?

It’s a Sunday morning, the sky as blue as the ocean, when I arrive at a bike shop on the Upper East Side. “Life is like riding a bicycle,” reads an Einstein quote in the window. “To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” A dozen people in chinos and lycra pants stand around, waiting to be assigned their rides by workers from Bike the Big Apple. A Belgian woman, observing me scribble in a notepad, asks, “Last will and testament?”

Our guide is George Pingeon. “There are people who do walking tours, food tours but the bike lets you combine everything,” he says. Pingeon has biked from Paris to Berlin and he rode tandem around Iceland for his honeymoon. “I basically live my life on a bike.”

Soon he’s leading us through Central Park. The park is a great feat of landscaping – “an illusion of nature”, Pingeon calls it – that houses everything from an Egyptian obelisk to a roller disco. But we zoom through, past people doing tai chi, playing baseball and gossiping on blankets, out the top end into Harlem, where things really get interesting.

Once a Dutch village a day’s walking distance from “the city”, Harlem took off with the construction of a railroad that made commuting much easier. Eastern European Jews moved in, built brownstone townhouses then gradually gave up the streets to African Americans – 200,000 of whom lived here by the early 1920s. Today Harlem is the epicentre of black culture in the US. It’s a vibrant place where you can buy delicious steamed crabs from street stalls and find more churches than convenience stores.

“We try not to treat it like a show,” says Pingeon, as we park our bikes outside a tiny brick building labelled Shiloh Church of Christ. “They’re worshipping so be respectful.” Welcomed by the pastor, our group sits in the back pews, listening to gospel singers croon. Afterwards, we admire a white Cadillac outside with the number plate GODIZLOV. Then we eat soul food – collard greens, corn bread – and learn about one of the first integrated hotels, the Hotel Theresa, and a Civil Rights movement that’s more relevant than ever given recent events in St Louis and Baltimore.

The tour is fast, covering a lot of ground. But it makes me see details I’ve never noticed, from Stars of David to water towers. We finish in Central Park, near the Dakota building where John Lennon was shot, and I realise that a single morning has made me feel like a new arrival again, dazzled by the exuberant excesses of the city that never sleeps.