Tour De Bronx

18 Dec

The very fact that I was attempting a 25 mile (40 km) ride was daunting enough for me. A subway car packed with over zealous bikers only added to my nervousness.

But I convinced myself that this ride was all about participation – not about competitiveness and certainly, I hoped, not a test of fitness!

I met John near the 161 St / Yankee Stadium subway stop and we made our way a few blocks east to the Bronx County Courthouse – the starting point of our tour. Seeing the 5000 odd participants, the large police presence and local TV station choppers hovering above, it soon dawned on me that I was taking part in a massive organised event. A mixed feeling of trepidation and elation.

The loudspeaker crackled to life with a resounding “Welcome to the Bronx” and within minutes the 40 milers were on their way. They would set the pace and we – the 25 milers – would follow suit.

Started in 1994, the Tour De Bronx is the largest free organised cycling event in the city. The only other Borough that offers such an event is Brooklyn and it does so in the month of June. It is a wonderful opportunity to showcase a Borough less trodden like the Bronx and the organisers did just that.

For years this borough has had the seediest reputation of them all with most city residents associating it as no more than a place they drive through on their way to Upstate NY or Connecticut. At other times possibly to see a Yankees game or if they really stretch it, a trip to the Botanical Gardens or Bronx Zoo. But the borough offers so much more and we were all set to find out.

The ride was divided into 4 stages with 3 rest stops interspersed at varying lengths. In the first 5 miles leading up to our 1st rest stop, we would go through much of South Bronx passing through 2 historic districts (Mott Haven & Longwood), St.Ann’s Church, past St.Mary’s Park and finally climbing the steep slope into Crotona Park.

We regrouped in the heart of this very pretty park where free drinks and snacks were distributed. Within minutes, the park was swarmed by bikers – some stretching, others relaxing and some just enjoying the warmth of one of the last beautiful summer weekends in the city.

Throughout our route, residents came out in large numbers to welcome us warmly to their borough. The real highpoint for me – riding through an intersection ‘high fiving’ a group of Hispanic kids who had carefully placed themselves on the back of a pick up truck to do so. And crying hoarse from an apartment window above it all was an old black man shouting, ‘Welcome to the Bronx’.

A common misconception about the Bronx is its ethnic mix or lack of thereof. South Americans account for almost half the borough’s population – way more than Blacks as is commonly believed. A little know fact: leaving aside English and Spanish, Italian is the most spoken language in the borough and a part of the East Bronx even boasts a substantial Italian quarter!

A lot of sections in the Bronx that suffered urban decay years ago have recently gone through a transformation and some are still in the process of being gentrified. Granted, it still has more than its share of sketchy areas and we even rode through some of them. But contrary to myth, its not always graffiti sprayed walls that you see there – instead, in a lot of areas, local art rules!

Not to be outdone by the local flavour, some of the bikers showed up in their finest machines complete with jarring radios belting out the latest in Salsa!

All along our route, the NYPD – ably assisted by bike mounted volunteer marshals – ensured our uninterrupted and safe passage through busy traffic intersections. It was a great feeling, no doubt, to be given the right of way over traffic. Sure it was Sunday, but to their credit, none of the vehicle owners honked or even looked agitated at being held up. And for about 2 miles during the 2nd stage, they actually shut off the north bound lanes of the Sheridan Expressway for us to ride on. Now that’s a tough one to beat!!!

Wherever you are in the city, the famed Manhattan skyline can never be to far away and at Pugsley Creek Park we saw just that.

After riding for over a mile along a waterfront path, we reached our 2nd rest stop at the YMCA Camp in the very charming neighbourhood of Castle Hill.

With the busy La Guardia flight path fairly low over us and grand views of the Whitestone Bridge in front, we munched on fresh apples, sipped on juice (provided gratis of course!) and pondered the 13 miles that remained.

Photo ops were plenty but could only be taken on the go (a balancing act no doubt!) or else you’d be left trailing the group or deemed a ‘back marker’ as they say in F1 Racing! But moments like this surely warranted a stop. This mean machine was my pick of the lot!

2 miles into Stage 3 and we were riding through the Throggs Neck section of South East Bronx. A quick glance at the directions revealed, “Enter St.Raymond Cemetery – QUIET”. And for one very long mile we did just that.

Throggs Neck gets its name from the narrow spit of land that divides the East River from Long Island Sound. The Silver Beach neighbourhood of Throgs Neck has a mix of Germans, Italians and Irish and boasts some of the more posh homes one can find in this borough.

The neighbourhood following that – Eastchester Bay – is equally affluent and hosts several yacht clubs and marinas.

Of all New York City boroughs, the Bronx is easily the most undulating in its topography (Staten Island would be a close second) and that sets it apart from the rest. For this very reason, it is also excellent for biking – giving one an all round workout. At times, some of the steep slopes we encountered made us wonder if we were still within city limits or out in the country.

And unknown to most people, the borough also has the highest concentration of city parks in it – some even larger than Central Park! Pelham Bay Park, where the colours of fall were omnipresent is in fact the city’s largest park.

It was also our 3rd and final rest stop and not just us but the NYPD as well decided to take a breather.

With only 5 miles to go and a jovial crowd for company the task seemed more doable than ever before. But sometimes even cyclists aren’t spared traffic jams.

After clearing the narrow pathway, the neighbourhoods of Pelham Bay, Pelham Gardens and Olinville were passed in a flash and soon we were riding dedicated greenways leading into Bronx Park.

And finally, 25 miles, 3 rest stops and 4 hrs later we were there – at the Everett Garden Gate of the beautiful Bronx Botanical Gardens.

It wasn’t just food and drinks this time but the organisers had very thoughtfully set up a concert stage where a band performed for the bikers. In the lushness of the lawns, the tired bikers stretched out and soaked it all in.

For a lot of them, it was probably just another day out biking. For me, it was the biggest accomplishment since my trek up Mt.Washington a little over a year ago. It also, sadly, brought to an end my first season of biking in the city.

As we made our way out of the park, sights like this served as reminders that another season is never to far away.

Happy 2008 everyone and thanks for reading!

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