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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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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

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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