x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Breaking the cycle

Kipat Wilson tries out a new tour of Manhattan, which expores using NYC’s new bike rental scheme.

One of Citi Bike’s 300 docking stations around New York. Photo by Kipat Wilson
One of Citi Bike’s 300 docking stations around New York. Photo by Kipat Wilson

“Make sure you cycle in the right half of the left lane!” shouts our guide.

It’s a bewildering instruction, particularly as it’s 9.30pm and I’m about to cross the hectic traffic of South Street to ride up to the midpoint of Brooklyn Bridge with my wife. Currently celebrating its 130th birthday, this mighty Manhattan landmark is providing the climax to a dramatic, five-hour guided “Skyline at Twilight” cycling tour that we’ve boldly signed up for.

Zigzagging through the spirited streets of this great city, our motley group of 14 has already toured the bohemian homes of Greenwich Village and shaken our eyeballs silly bumping over the cobblestones of the Meatpacking District. We are escorted by Levi, our affable, always-smiling leader, who is backed up by two guardian outriders who bravely stop in front of rushing yellow cabs to ensure that we all pass by unscathed. Clad in assorted helmets and bright-yellow high-visibility vests, we look like a wobbly posse of not-so-spring chickens. For first-time visitors, it’s a wild, dusk-into-night ride that provides an eye-popping introduction to the wonderful, crazy whirl of life that is “Noo Yawk”. A baptism of tyre, perhaps, where famous sights like Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty plop into view in a cavalcade of just-like-the-postcard wonders.

Having visited the Big Apple several times, I have my reservations whether a ride like this is the best way to appreciate a place once described as a city “where everyone mutinies but no one deserts”. A cycling tour of downtown New York is an experience that proves both challenging and rewarding – the pressure-cooker traffic guarantees that. It’s exhilarating, but at times scary, too. And it can also be frustrating, as you suddenly find yourself beholding the splendid bulk of, say, the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park, but then have no time to study it, or even snap a photo.

Even with the emboldened mood that comes with being in a large group, we need to keep our wits about us. The greatest threats, Levi warns, are car doors opening, hazardous road surfaces and the person in front of you. Powering up Brooklyn Bridge over a decking of wooden boards, my wife and I are caught in a frantic rat race of pedestrians and cyclists rushing by. Add in the traffic belting over the girders below, and it’s one thunderously noisy – and exciting – place, an urban jugular into which all the high-octane energy of New York is channelled. Visiting at night, the views to either side of the East River, with their brightly-lit skyscrapers and forever-busy bridges, just amplify the sensory cacophony of this monster metropolis. “Look over there!” Levi exclaims as he points uptown. “All those lights flashing are from hundreds of people taking pictures from the top of the Empire State Building.”

Oh yes, this is one amazing city – but are two wheels a good way to explore it? Well, on a good day, cycling can be a pleasant alternative to travelling on the dark and grimy subway, or sitting in a traffic jam in a cab with a driver who doesn’t know where anywhere is, or wearily footslogging round a grid of blocks and pedestrian crossings that appear to have been built using the hardest concrete known to man. One thing is certain – New York is having a big cycling moment. Many locals credit Mayor Michael Bloomberg for this. “Over the last few years, he’s given a lot of this city back to cyclists and pedestrians” Levi explains. According to the local Department of Transport, cycling here has “never been safer”. In the last three years, some 320 kilometres of bike lanes have been added across New York’s five boroughs, and there are now more than 1,200km of bike routes to enjoy.

But I’m afraid it’s still not all plain pedalling. Construction frequently blocks those bike paths, and you need to watch out for potholes, manholes, men with earphones in, women with phones in ear, yellow cabs turning left, dog-walkers turning right, dustcarts suddenly stopping, police cars suddenly going ... Albert Einstein is said to have thought up his ideas about relativity while riding a bicycle, but he clearly wasn’t taking on Broadway in rush hour. (If he was, then this byword for genius would have most certainly penned a great Theory of Vulnerability.)

Not that this has deterred New York from introducing a bike-sharing system similar to those now found in many cities around the world, including Dubai. Launched in May, the Citi Bike scheme has sprinkled the streets with 300 docking stations offering some 6,000 bikes for hire. Reaction has been mixed. Some consider it a valuable addition to city life, others object to the unsightly rental stands imposed on the streets and the publicity that it gives its big bank sponsor, Citigroup.

Is this a great new way to see the city? The scheme is more expensive than at other locations – US$9.95 (Dh37) for 24 hours of access, as opposed to £2 (Dh12) in London, but we find hiring a pair of bikes a straightforward process. Users still have the common problem, particularly in the rush hour, of finding stations at popular locations either have no bikes left or are so full that you can’t drop one off, and it works best if you have a smartphone with an app that helps riders track the availability of bikes and docking spaces. The bikes are simple and sturdy, and many car drivers have learnt to give their users a wide berth. It’s a pity that the scheme currently only extends as far north as the southern perimeter of Central Park, thereby only just touching the fringes of the city’s most pleasurable cycling environment.

Our verdict? If you are familiar with bike-share schemes, go for it. Alternatively, just hire a bike for half a day or longer from a rental company like Bike and Roll, which has 11 locations around the city, including key spots such as Battery Park and South Street Seaport (they get busy, so it’s best to reserve in advance). The flexibility this brings is attractive, although our romantic vision of gaily freewheeling along the shoreline, licking ice creams with the wind in our hair, is soon punctured. On the map, the Hudson River Greenway that runs down the entire west side of Manhattan Island looks a dream ride – except the whole world (and don’t forget, New York is the capital of the world) seems to have the same idea. High-speed commuter cyclists, sharp-elbowed rollerbladers, joggers with dogs, joggers with buggies, hordes catching cruises, gaggles of girls off to a yoga festival ... Only later do I read that this is the most heavily used bikeway in the US.

Is cycling through all this fun? Yes. Relaxing? Hmm. “There’s a lot to look out for,” concedes Chris Wogas, president of Bike and Roll. Now in its seventh year, the company clocks up over 100,000 rentals a year, and Wogas relishes the way that both New Yorkers and visitors are increasingly keen to get cycling. He recommends an early morning ride down the Upper West Side from 96th Street to Columbus Circle to see the city waking up, while my tip is to pay a visit to his company’s two locations in Central Park, from where you can then make a leisurely 10km pedal around this green and leafy oasis.

New York’s cycling craze has not been lost on the city’s hotels. Some now offer packages that include a few hours of bike rental, while others have their own bikes that guests can use for free. Often it’s as much about making a style statement as getting from A to B, a good example being the British-built Bobbin bikes available at The Surrey, an elegant 189-room luxury hotel set in a 1926 Beaux Arts residence on the Upper East Side. Custom-painted in the hotel’s silver-and-black livery, these come with a chic, chrome cycle helmet and a classic wicker basket perfect for popping in a carrier bag from the shops on nearby Madison Avenue, or a yummy picnic from the hotel’s French restaurant, Café Boulud.

Could this, at last, be the perfect way to go cycling in New York? Pedalling through Central Park, past the families playing Frisbee and the lovers in their horse-drawn carriages, I do finally achieve that free-and-easy fantasy feeling that I’m after. It’s a shame that bicycles aren’t allowed on the park’s many inner paths, although many people seem to forget this. Wheeling our designer steeds to a leafy glade near Conservatory Water, with its model boats and Alice in Wonderland statue, my wife and I set out our picnic on the grass and dutifully munch our Dean & DeLuca crisps. Ultimate satisfaction comes a little later, when I notice that people are taking photographs of us riding our trusty Bobbins, a vision of total cycling happiness. Ah yes, I should have realised it long before. While I’ve been vainly thinking of the bicycle as a means of transport, in this most style-conscious of cities, its true value is as a fashion accessory.

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