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Features

Aug 19, 2018

New York on Two Wheels

Road biking in and around NYC has it all: Urban adventure, quality pavement, non-yahoo drivers and bucolic surroundings. And good muffins.

WRITTEN BY

Peter Sikowitz

This story was originally published in print, in the Summer 2014 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

You think you know New York. You’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby, Saturday Night Fever, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, Do the Right Thing, The Taking of Pelham 123 (the original and the remake)  King Kong (the original and the remake), Ghostbusters,  Escape from New York, etc., ad infinitum….You’ve heard the songs urging you to take a walk on the wild side, suggesting that if  you can make it there you can make it anywhere, seeking refuge up on the roof, pursuing dreams amidst  the lights on Broadway, etc., ad infinitum.  Maybe you’ve even actually visited the place. You know New York is full of adventure that’s good (the worlds of arts and entertainment and commerce,  romance…), and less good (overpriced and undersized living quarters, overpriced and undersized restaurants, various real and imaginary dangers, millions of people a lot like you trying to do everything and go everywhere you want to at the same time…).   

But here’s something you may not know about NYC: It’s now one of America’s most cycled-in cities, an exhilarating place to bike in many ways. Cycling types/categories include:

  • hipsters atop fixies and 1970s-era 10 speeds;
  • commuters who dodge taxis while slaloming  around pedestrians and parked vehicles in bicycle lanes;
  • messengers (formerly known as The Last American Cowboys), once out of jobs thanks to fax machines, but now back thanks to the package trade courtesy of Amazon and eBay;
  • Take-out food delivery guys (thrilling for pedestrians as well – always look both ways on one-way streets. And sidewalks);   
  • turistas thanks to the newly omnipresent blue Citi Bike rental/sharing system;
  • low-grade adventurers  riding around the circumference of Manhattan in around highly enjoyable five hours, which provides the opportunity to see a lot of greenery and how exactly how neighborhood connect, something actual New Yorkers rarely see. (No joke:  I’ve lived in NYC for more than half of my life and the only real dead body I’ve ever seen was while biking that route);
  • And, of course, road biking, which has experienced a dramatic increase in popularity due to the recent triathlon craze.  
A Saturday morning in early spring at the Runcible Spoon in Nyack. Photo harry Zernike

I’ll stick my neck out and say there’s only really one route to do: the 100-kilometer ride from  Manhattan to Nyack

While we’re on the subject of roads, there are nearly 10,000 kilometers of pavement in the five boroughs that comprise NYC. Naturally, that presents a virtually unlimited number of routes.  However, when you knock out routes with too many taxis, buses, potholes, tourists and traffic lights, the options diminish quickly. In fact, as a long-time New York cyclist, I’ll stick my neck out and say there’s only really one route to do: the 100-kilometer ride from  Manhattan to Nyack, New York, with an option to go even further to of Bear Mountain, a 391-meter mountain in the scenic Hudson Highlands. Starting in mid-Manhattan, you can ride through Harlem, take the George Washington Bridge (aka the GWB) over the broad Hudson River and head up north through bucolic splendor where the congestion of Manhattan quickly becomes a distant memory.     

Few cyclists in town have as much road cred as Steve Chang. His CV, in part, reads as follows:  lifelong New Yorker; member, New York’s Century Road Club Association (the country’s oldest racing organization founded in 1898); United States Cycling Federation (USCF) Cat IV racer (started racing at 17); former bike messenger and Chinese food bike-delivery guy; currently working in the financial services industry.

NYC is now one of America’s most cycle-in cities. It’s common to see all types of cyclists on the roads, including commuters, messengers and take-out food delivery guys who have to navigate their way around taxis and pedestrians. Photo: harry Zernike

Chang says you may feel inclined to believe that the serious NYC cycling scene is either impenetrable, unknowable or both. But it’s not.

Chang says you may feel inclined to believe that the serious NYC cycling scene is either impenetrable, unknowable or both.  But it’s not. “It’s a close-knit community, but not a closed one,” he says. “If you come to ride in New York, or you come for other reasons and end up wanting to do a ride while you’re here, it’s not a problem.  Bike shops rent bikes and many organize group rides. And there are also bike networks like The New York Cycling Club or the CRCA, which have members who are happy to help an out-of-town rider find a bike. You can reach out to these guys and tell them what your size is and you’ll help get you a bike.”

Chang is right in dispelling a myth (thanks a lot, movies) that New Yorkers in general are rude and cyclists in particular really rude as well as dangerous and unhelpful. Courtesy actually is the norm. If you pull off the road for any reason – a flat, to make/take a phone call, to unpeel a banana / energy bar — most cyclists will call out an “Are you OK?” as they approach. Courtesy here also extends to drivers, who are accustomed to a) sharing the road in large part because of the common site of cyclists, and b) are aware that vehicular homicide is against the law.

Not that it’s all Nirvana all the time. “I did see someone try to jump from the Bridge once,” recalls Chang. “I was one way on the south side of the bridge. The guy was on the north side. Some cyclists were egging him on to jump. I don’t know the outcome.”      

John Eustice, Left, the former American professional cyclist and now promoter, riding down 5th Avenue, alongside Central Park, with visiting former German professional Erik Zabel. Photo: harry Zernike

Knowing that calculating risk is a way of life here, and today I’m feeling the odds are on my side, I begin the ride at Central Park, the 3.4 square-kilometer oasis of greenery in the middle of Manhattan Island. Many visitors believe that the city developed around this naturally-occurring area, but America’s most visited urban park was actually created in the late 19th Century by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, America’s premier landscape architects. Amid runners, walkers, skateboarders, illegal mountain bikers (you’re supposed to stay off the grass and obey all traffic rules or subject yourself to automobile-grade fines) and rock climbers are road bikers. The primary roadway, with a cycling lane, loops 10 kilometers around the park. The North end at 110th Street is a popular meeting spot for cyclists looking to do The Ride. Best ways to go are via Riverside Drive (you ride past the immense Cathedral of Saint John the Divine), or through Harlem.  Today, a Sunday morning, I go through Harlem. From 110th Street, at the most northern part of the Park, and the southernmost part of Harlem, I take Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. and head north to the GWB, about 3 ½ miles away from there.   

Harlem is quiet at 8 a.m. on this cool, windless morning. In general, weekend mornings are the best time to do this route since auto traffic is light.  What little activity there is is church-based. Locals attend services and tourists attend to watch locals attend service and hear legendary church choirs. Many of the churches have long lines of guidebook-toting visitors  seeking to enter and see a soulful service, like at the First Corinthian Baptist Church at Adam Clayton Powel Jr. Boulevard and West 116th  Street.

The Boulevard turns into St. Nicholas Avenue at 120th Street. I go up to 141st Street and head toward Riverside Drive, which runs along Riverside Park, passing through a Dominican Republic neighborhood.  It’s then a climb near the hospital at 165th Street to Fort. Washington Boulevard to 177th Street. You pass the A Train subway stop – the same subway line popularised by Duke Ellington in “Take the A Train” – at 175th Street before riding onto the ramp to the cycling lanes of the GWB over the Hudson River. The river is named for the British explorer Henry Hudson who discovered the river in 1609 while searching for a shorter route to Asia from Europe through the Arctic Ocean. That probably came as a surprise to the indigenous inhabitants who believe it existed before Hudson told them it existed.  And so it goes….

The GWB, was the world’s largest suspension bridge when its construction was completed in 1931.  In this direction, the 1,401-meter bridge provides three views: straight across, the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades (especially travelogue-like when autumn leaves turn yellow, orange and red);  south, down the Hudson toward middle and lower Manhattan; and north, up the River which divides New York and New Jersey.

On a sweltering day in July, Matt Richards, a local racer and coach, stopped near the George Washington Bridge to refill his water bottles at an open fire hydrant. Photo: harry Zernike

Two coming/going cycling lanes, which also accommodate  the occasional pedestrian and/or runner, stretch approximately 3.5 meters across.  Although it’s stable and moves little even in high winds, the GWB, 184 meters above the river,  still may not be the best place for someone with a fear of heights. Multiple lanes of traffic whiz safely behind a retaining wall, but the most dangerous aspect of the bridge crossing is when riding around the two towers near each end of the bridgte. You can’t go fast, but that doesn’t prevent some cyclists from trying; it’s always a good idea to shout “rider up” when riding around the tower to give a  warning to someone coming the opposite direction who may be absorbed in the view and taking the turn wide and into your lane.

Once over the GWB, you’ll turn right onto Hudson Terrace.  The objective is to find Route 9W, which you connect with within a couple of kilometers. It’s easy to ask directions or simply follow other road bikers who look like they know where they’re doing – the probability that they will be riding the 71 kilometers from there to Nyack is extremely high.  

It’s a beautiful ride along the Hudson River; beautiful, weathered homes overlook the water and it’s a very quiet ride into Nyack.

I come upon a group of approximately 15 cyclists wearing jerseys of various local bike clubs forming a pace line.  There are groups of varying ability congregating there; this one appears to be one of the faster ones. I get to the back of the line; it doesn’t matter that I don’t know any of them. There’s no riding two abreast here; the single-file riding law is enforced here in northern New Jersey as are all other road rules.  Cruising along between 30 and 40 kph, we whiz by Strictly Bicycles, a well-equipped bike shop that features drool-inducing Colnagos, Pinarellos and others, repairs, food, energy drinks and bathrooms.

The whir of chains on cogs and shifting clicks provide the soundtrack along with parts of  dialogues that involve recent races, recent romantic encounters and a “totally evil” landlord who is trying to evict one of the riders who is illegally subletting an apartment,  a common occurrence. It’s always struck me as peculiar to cycling culture that people who barely know each other, if at all, can have the most intimate conversations with others who they may never see again. Just one more titillating fact of life in the age of anonymity, I suppose.  

The road, with a broad shoulder, winds through hilly and wooded semi-rural countryside; it’s hard to believe that Manhattan is so close by.  We come upon state line, which juts back into New York State, and I detach myself from the group. This is the hilliest part of the route; it’s possible to reach a speed of 65+ kph on the steepest decent.

There are signs pointing to Piermont, New York, a quaint little town on the Hudson with a cyclist -friendly bakery called Bunbury’s in Piermont and  wetlands. Some days, this is as far as I’ll go (it’s 34 kilometers from Central Park), but today, I’ll continue for six or so kilometers further to Nyack.  

It’s a beautiful ride along the Hudson River; beautiful, weathered homes overlook the water and it’s a very quiet ride into Nyack. The most popular destination for cyclists is The Runcible Spoon on North Broadway, a bakery/coffee/sandwich shop that specializes in mega muffins in many flavors. It’s easy to spot – there are a couple of water coolers out in front, bike racks stuffed with top-of-the-line carbon fiber bikes, and riders swarming like bees at a beehive. Inside, cyclists are outnumbering locals by a three-to-one ratio, clopping around on their cleats, playing with their phones and waiting in lines to order food and use the bathroom.  I order a large coffee and a banana nut muffin early as big as my head to make sure I’m properly fueled.

If I were feeling more ambitious today, I would continue on to Bear Mountain, an additional 65 kilometers. But right now I’m happy to stay put at a sidewalk table, watching the world roll by and enjoying my escape from New York.

 

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Features

Aug 29, 2018

The Original Dirt Bike – Riding a Vintage Norton in the Himalaya

American author Stephen Alter has spent a lifetime riding vintage motorcycles, from a BSA in the desert around Cairo to a Norton in the Himalaya. This is the story of an enduring love affair with the bikes that first made their mark during WWII.

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WRITTEN BY

Stephen Alter

All four fingers on my left hand squeeze the clutch as the heel of my right boot kicks the gearshift into first. The other hand and foot are poised on the brakes, a synchronized choreography of man and machine. With a twist of my wrist on the throttle, the motorcycle responds, defying gravity and altitude, as it makes its way to the top of the hill.

Born to ride in the Himalayas

Our driveway in Mussoorie, 7,000 feet above sea level in the Indian Himalayas, is a good test of the pulling power and resilience of any vehicle, though recently it has become a little easier, now that the steepest sections have been paved. Most drivers surrender before attempting this route. But my 1936 Norton 16H takes the acute angle of ascent without complaint.  It has the torque of a tractor and its center of gravity is low enough to keep us from bouncing around on the ruts. Antique car rallies often include a “hill climb” but when you live in the Himalayas, this becomes a daily routine. Born and raised in these mountains, this is where I learned how to drive. It’s one thing to maneuver a 75 year old bike on a flat city road or an open highway but an entirely different matter to negotiate hairpin bends and gravel inclines of 60 degrees.  The Norton 16H is designed for rough terrain, the original dirt bike with a proud legacy going back to World War II.

It’s almost as if they were designed to leak oil, with dripping gaskets and bleeding crankcases.

It’s a true growler, especially going uphill, yet reaching the top of the climb, the 500 cc side-valve engine settles into the slow, steady beat of a classic single piston thumper.  They don’t make motorcycles like this anymore. Even the so-called retro-models are as revved up and complicated as an iPad overloaded with apps. By comparison, my Norton is like a manual typewriter, a simple piece of machinery that gets the job done. These days most off-road bikes are equipped with stabilized shock absorbers and hydraulic dampers cushioning the rear suspension, which take most of the punishment. Certain models even offer heated hand grips for winter driving. On a Norton 16H, the only allowance for a driver’s comfort are two stiff springs under the saddle – an unforgiving “hard tail” with rigid girder front forks.  If nothing else, it creates a greater connectivity with the road, and not the digital kind.

Nothing is ever hopeless; everything can be fixed

Both my father and my grandfather loved road trips, along with the vehicles that made these journeys possible.  In 1916, my grandparents first came to India as American missionaries and our family has lived here ever since. Long before I was born, they toured the subcontinent in a Model A Ford, from the Northwest Frontier to the borders of Bengal. Though I failed to inherit their theological persuasion, I still carry my forefather’s love of engines in my genes.  At sixteen, I learned to drive on the precipitous hill roads of Mussoorie, behind the wheel of my father’s 1952 Willys Jeep, which he bought from an army disposal auctioneer in Delhi. The only way it started was with a crank and among the many important lessons I learned from my father was that “nothing is ever hopeless; everything can be fixed.” One of the first driving skills he taught me was how to start on a steep hill without a handbrake, placing your toe on the footbrake and your heel on the accelerator, as you let out the clutch. From my mother I learned to carry a good book wherever you go, to read while you wait for repairs to be done. I suppose these are the reasons I became a travel writer.

I take a deep breath and give it a smooth, easy nudge of my boot, like stepping into quicksand. There’s nothing more satisfying than the responsive rumble of internal combustion, a
tiny electric spark setting alight the fuel vapours which gets the piston pumping. All of a sudden, the dead weight of more than 200 kilos of steel comes to life.

Once, when the cylinder-head on a Norton exploded because of overheating, the British dispatch rider took a block of teak and bolted it on top.  His ingenuity got him safely back to his barracks

My romance with motorcycles began soon after my first novel, Neglected Lives, was sold in 1977. Immediately I squandered the entire advance of 500 pounds sterling on a new Royal Enfield Bullet. A subsequent obsession with WW II bikes started when my family and I lived in Egypt for seven years in the 1980s, while I was teaching writing at the American University in Cairo. During the Second World War, Cairo was headquarters for the Allied Forces in North Africa and stockpiles of arms and vehicles were stored here. A good friend and guru, David Mize, who taught at AUC and spent most of his life in the Middle East, was an antique automobile enthusiast with a predilection for Fords and Bugattis.  One day, he mentioned that there was a mechanic in Shubra, one of Cairo’s most congested neighborhoods, who had a warehouse full of old motorcycles. We drove into a maze of streets until we came to a brick wall with a small door in the center.

An elderly Egyptian holding a spanner in one hand and grease on his galabeya, the loose garment he wore, was changing the rear tyre on a beatup Suzuki. He spoke no English and my Arabic was barely sufficient to order coffee. David could converse in Egyptian colloquial but eventually they settled on speaking in French because both of their accents were equally bad, which made the language mutually intelligible. After a lot of vehicular palaver, we were admitted to the inner sanctum of the workshop, as dark and cluttered as a pharaoh’s tomb.  The bikes, which had been stored there since the end of the war, had been salvaged from an army warehouse. They were stacked together so closely, I had to climb over top, until I found the one I wanted – a BSA M20, with a single cylinder half-liter engine, just like the Norton I have now. While the two bikes are similar, they are not clones of each other, with unique styling and distinctive features. But both share a reputation for dependability. When I was growing up in India, the BSA M20 was a favorite of circus daredevils, who would ride them around inside a spherical steel cage called the globe of death.  As a boy, I remember watching with fascination, as the driver picked up speed going around and around until he defied gravity, turning upside down.

Every motorcyclist must find the right bike to match his or her temperament and style, but for me there’s a certain anachronistic pleasure in driving a motorcycle that has exceeded its expiry date..

Detour in the desert

A murky green colour, my BSA in Cairo spewed black smoke every time it started, but I fell in love with that bike from the first time I rode it. The mechanic in Shubra got it working, in a manner of speaking, though he didn’t bother with the niceties of tuning or servicing. Fortunately, driving it from downtown Cairo to where we lived in the suburb of Ma’adi, south of Cairo, the tyres didn’t go completely flat and the wheezy piston produced enough compression to get me home.  After that it took two years of tinkering and cajoling mechanics to fix the ill-effects of old age and neglect. It always started, even if I had to kick it a dozen times. Four of us, including David Mize, used to go for drives on our BSAs in the desert around Cairo, reliving the glories of the North African campaign. Another friend, who made the mistake of riding pillion – the rear seat has even less cushioning than the front – remarked uncharitably that the only reason the British were able to defeat the Germans in the battle of Al Alamein was because they couldn’t get their motorcycles started fast enough to retreat.

Old British bikes take a lot of patience to drive and maintain. It’s almost as if they were designed to leak oil, with dripping gaskets and bleeding crankcases. The other thing the Brits are famous for is designing a different sized nut or bolt for every part of the bike, so you need an assortment of at least 24 wrenches to take it apart. And, of course, they’re not metric but Whitworth, a different caliber of wrench. When I finally left Egypt in 1995, with my wife Ameeta and our children, Jayant and Shibani, to take up a teaching position at MIT in Boston, the last thing I sold was my BSA. It wasn’t an easy decision but the paperwork to take it out of the country was as complicated as trying to export Tutankhamen’s treasures. Waving goodbye to the young man who bought it, I felt a sharp pang of regret, listening to the receding beat of its engine for the last time.  As a memento, I kept a link from the chain, which still sits on my desk today.

A memento, a link from the chain, from my old german BSA M20, with a single cylinder half-liter engine, just like the Norton I have now.

Zen on two wheels

even half an hour’s spin on hill roads leaves me with a sore back and rattled bones. Until I’ve had a beer to toast our excursion, my arms and legs tremble with residual vibrations.

For the next ten years, because I was living in America, the land of strict emission controls and prohibitive insurance policies, I stayed away from motorcycles. Harleys never really captured my imagination, though I always coveted an Indian Chief, the ultimate native American bike, which went out of production in 1953. When we left Boston and the MIT and came back to India in 2004, after I said farewell to academia and returning to writing full time, one of the first people I visited was a mechanic named Chaudhury. He had a workshop in Dehradun, thirty kilometers from Mussoorie at the foot of the hill. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Chaudhury had kept my first bike running. From time to time, old motorcycles found their way into his workshop. Chaudhury had a reputation for knowing how to repair vintage bikes. Earlier during that time, whenever I went to have my first Enfiled serviced, I would longingly eye the 1950s slope single 600 cc Panther that sat in one corner of his garage. It was a rare British motorcycle designed primarily for use with a sidecar. The owner, from Bijnor, had no papers and was asking Rs. 15,000 (about $250), which was more than I could afford in those days. There was also a Sunbeam, another classic British bike, which had a boxy two cylinder engine and looked like a sleek road roller.  But by the time I came back to India those bikes were long gone. Having prematurely cashed in my retirement fund, I had some money to burn. Chaudhury shook his head sadly and said he had nothing but a couple of old Bullets and a Yezdi without an engine… then, he hesitated… but of course, what about that?  He pointed to a heap of rusted parts, old mufflers and leg guards, bald tyres and a couple of scooters which had been deconstructed beyond repair. Under all of this, lay the skeleton of a bike. As I began to remove the junk from around it, my excitement was growing. It was clearly WW II vintage, like my BSA in Cairo, but when I was finally able to dig it out, the Norton emblem made my heart jump.

Motorcycle diaries

Only a few days before, I’d watched the film Motorcycle Diaries, in which Che Guevara takes a road trip around South America with a friend in 1952, before he became a Communist icon.  The bike that they rode was a 1939 civilian model of the Norton 16H, which they named “La Poderosa,” or the Mighty One. I could still see scenes of them pushing it through the mud, as the orchestral soundtrack swelled to the drumbeat of its engine. Before the Norton had been completely excavated from the debris in Chaudhury’s workshop, I had already tucked a generous advance in his hands. Retirement be damned, I was going to ride this bike into the sunset.  Never mind that there was more rust than paint and the nuts and bolts looked as if they were welded in place. It had no seat, except for a gnarly tangle of springs. Instead of two tyres, it stood on its rims. But she was more beautiful than any piece of machinery I’d ever seen. It took almost a year for Chaudhury to restore my Norton. I tracked down missing parts in different places, a magneto and carburetor from Chor Bazaar in Mumbai and a new set of valves and a piston from the gullies of Karol Bagh in West Delhi.  Finally, she was running.

In the strict caste system of the British Army, officers were issued Triumphs and Ariels, or maybe a Matchless or Enfield, most of which had effete 350 cc engines with overhead valves, which meant they had quicker pickup and ran more smoothly. Certainly, a better bike to escape the front lines under fire. By contrast, sergeants and enlisted men were given BSAs and Nortons, true working class bikes that took the brunt of the war. Hundreds of thousands of these machines were manufactured in the late thirties and early forties. World War II, more than any other global conflict, employed motorcycles as a strategic vehicle and many of the classic motorcycles, such as the legendary American bikes, Indian Chiefs and Harley Davidsons, or the German BSA, proved their value on the battlefields of Europe and Asia. My Norton is a “colonial model” from 1936, just before the war began, equipped with an extra-large air filter mounted on the petrol tank and a heavy iron shield under the crank case, both of which were necessary for navigating unpaved roads across the Libyan desert or through rough jungles near the Burma front.  Heroic war stories celebrate these indomitable bikes. Once, when the cylinder-head on a Norton exploded because of overheating, the British dispatch rider took a block of teak and bolted it on top. His ingenuity got him safely back to his barracks, just before the wood went up in flames.

Kick starting a mid-life crisis

Though Choudhury claimed he once drove the Norton all the way to Gangotri, the source of the Ganges, I haven’t taken it on any long drives.  It isn’t a touring bike and even half an hour’s spin on hill roads leaves me with a sore back and rattled bones. Until I’ve had a beer to toast our excursion, my arms and legs tremble with residual vibrations.  Here in Mussoorie, my friends all drive Royal Enfield Bullets or Harleys. I salute their preference, for every motorcyclist must find the right bike to match his or her temperament and style, but for me there’s a certain anachronistic pleasure in driving a motorcycle that’s exceeded its expiry date. With most bikes today, you just press a button and it starts. Meanwhile, I tug on the choke, tickle the carburetor, adjust the manual advance/retard lever, before decompressing the engine so the kick start won’t lash back and pop my knee out of joint. Then I take a deep breath and give it a smooth, easy nudge of my boot, like stepping into quicksand. There’s nothing more satisfying than the responsive rumble of internal combustion, a tiny electric spark setting alight the fuel vapours which gets the piston pumping. All of a sudden, the dead weight of more than 200 kilos of steel comes to life.

I head up our driveway with a slow, pulsing roar, no more than half throttle. Then I circle the chukkar road at the top of the hill, breathing in the resinous fragrance of deodar needles on the breeze.  To the north the snow peaks of the high Himalayas gleam in the crisp October air. My Norton leans into the corners and its rigid suspension holds the rough road as securely as any new Japanese bike. Back in the seventies, Robert M. Prisig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance created a cult following but this bike leads the way on less travelled trails.  Riding a Norton 16H, one feels both the weight of history as well as what Milan Kundera once called, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

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