New York’s Five Boro Bike Tour: We Hit the Road with 32,000 Happy Cyclists (Including Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Tyson and Nye at Five Boro Bike TourTyson and Nye at Five Boro Bike Tour

Cycling and science geeks Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson at the finish of the Five Boro Bike Tour with young riders Matt Ginsberg and Ben Krohnengold. Image: Stuart Krohnengold

Bikes on bridgeBikes on bridge

My son enjoys the view from the Queensboro Bridge. Image: Kathy Ceceri

I still remember my first Five Boro Bike Tour. It was only a couple of years after the event started in 1977, and about 7,000 of us in our Merino wool tights and jerseys with the logos of Italian bike teams printed on them were escorted through the city streets. The draw was 40 miles of biking past breathtaking views of Manhattan and the four outer boroughs (the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island) with no buses, rude drivers and other hazards of city life to worry about. The Tour‘s purpose back then was just to introduce New Yorkers to the joys of biking through their own city streets, and it definitely delivered.

By the 1980s the ride had swelled to about 40,000 participants, and I was not only riding in the event but helping to organize it. My husband and I had one of our earliest encounters in the tunnel under the United Nations. I was standing in the road, making sure my marshals were in position. He was headed up the FDR Drive towards me at about 20 miles an hour, leading a team of tough, ultra-fast cyclists whose job was to hold back the mob of bike messengers and other aggressive riders from outpacing the cop cars. It was my first time working on the ride, and somehow no one had bothered to inform me that the Team Masi volunteers rode literally curb to curb. Luckily, I turned to see him frantically waving me aside in time to jump onto the concrete divider seconds before being squished like a bug.

With death-defying memories like that, it’s no wonder that my husband and I kept coming down for the Five Boro, even after we moved upstate. But once the kids came along, my involvement became limited to sitting on the sidelines with our boys and cheering as Dad pedaled by. It took a few years, but eventually the kids grew up, and this year I had the privilege of bringing my younger son along on his first Five Boro Bike Tour.

The BQE, minus the cars, is rather nice. Image: Kathy Ceceri

A lot has changed since I last rode the route. Today, along with promoting biking in New York City, one of the main goals of what is now the TD Five Boro Bike Tour is to raise money for cycling education. Bike New York, the non-profit organization which runs the Tour, taught 5,000 people, from kids to adults, to ride a bike last year. They also teach bike safety and repair, street skills and commuting tips — and all their classes are free. The Tour is the primary fund-raising source for all of Bike New York’s programming.

To further that mission, this year Bike New York also put on the first Bike Expo New York, a showcase of bike-related products, services, and organization, presented by Eastern Mountain Sports at Basketball City, a sports complex along the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge. Held the Thursday through Saturday before the Tour, the Expo also served as a place for registrants to pick up their Tour packets, ask questions and get information. Included was a full schedule of presentations, such as talks on how to ride with kids, mountain biking in the city, and bicycle physics. There was also a cycling gear fashion show, and pedal classes held outside overlooking the river. More than 43,000 people attended the Bike Expo, and officials said they expect next year’s to be even bigger and better.

Capt AmericaCapt America

Costumes and decorations were everywhere. Image: Kathy Ceceri

Another big change is the registration lottery. The present-day ride is limited to 32,000 people, and last year’s Tour sold out within 24 hours. So this year, potential riders paid a $6 fee for a chance to have their name drawn in a random lottery that would give everyone an equal chance at participating. (The cost of this year’s Tour was $75 for adults and $55 for children 13 and under.) Another 950 riders guaranteed their spot by raising money for one of 40 charities. And several hundred more took advantage of VIP registration, which for $300 each included a place at the front of the pack, breakfast, private bathrooms, and hot lunch afterwards at the Finish Festival in Fort Wadsworth Park on Staten Island.

Because of massive backups on the route along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway last year, even the format of the Tour was different this year. Three separate start times helped ensure that riders were spread out along the route and avoided congestion. From our place at the front of the ride in the first wave of starters, the tactic seemed to have worked. Although we rode at a fairly slow and comfortable pace, we weren’t caught behind crowds walking up the hills and on-ramps, as in most years past. Even on the flats, where our pace picked up thanks to a nice tail wind, there were no crowds to elbow our way through. Even for my son, with his limited experience riding on city roads, the Tour was safe and enjoyable.

As always, there were lots of families with kids on the tour. About 1,500 kids ages 3 and up rode this year. Up to age 9, kids were required to ride in a trailer, bike seat, or on a tandem or tagalong. Children 10-13 could ride their own bikes, but had to stay with an adult. Teens 14 and up could ride on their own, although anyone 17 and under had to sign up with an adult guardian. There were plenty of rest stops and service areas with food, water and bathrooms, not to mention mechanics for minor repairs.

On the Verrazano BridgeOn the Verrazano Bridge

The last bridge — more than a mile uphill and the same going down. Image: Kathy Ceceri

But by now you may be wondering: Why would anyone, let alone families with kids, want to ride around New York City? The allure of the Five Boro Bike Tour is, as it has always been, the chance to see the city from a vantage point like no other. The excitement as the ride pulls out of Lower Manhattan just north of the site of the World Trade Center is amazing, and the views all along the way are classic. The Tour heads up through Greenwich Village and past Rockefeller Center and on into Central Park, through Harlem and across a pair of bridges into and out of the Bronx. Back down the East Side along the aforementioned FDR Drive, the Tour goes across the Queensboro Bridge high above the East River.

After a rest stop in Queens, the Tour heads down through the hipster Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO and onto the BQE. The one disappointment this year was the part of the route in southern Brooklyn along the Shore Parkway was changed due to construction, so that some views of the Verrazano Bridge are lost. But once on the bridge, once the longest suspension bridge in the world, the view of New York Harbor is still awe-inspiring, and the downhill into Staten Island a welcome treat just before the end. After a rest at the Finish Festival, there’s a short (downhill) ride to the Staten Island Ferry, which takes you past the Statue of Liberty as it sails back to Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.

Staten Island FerryStaten Island Ferry

Tired cyclists head back to Lower Manhattan. Image: Kathy Ceceri

It’s true that the Tour is no longer the casual affair it once was. It’s expensive enough to require a commitment to go, and signing up takes planning. For out-of-towners like us, it’s necessary to stay overnight to pick up tickets during the Bike Expo, which adds to the cost. But when the weather is beautiful, as it was last weekend, and the Tour’s organization goes as smoothly as it did this year (with the only backup being the wait to get on the ferry, which took about an hour), the Five Boro Bike Tour is still worth all the effort.

Disclosure: My son and I received media passes to ride in the Tour. My husband attended as a Masi volunteer rider.

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