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18 May, 2020

The Fever and Its Rewards: NYC cycling in the era of the virus

By: Allied Cycle Works

The birds. They’re much easier to hear. In the mornings, in the afternoons, in the evenings. So many birds. Their songs are impossible to decipher but they are warbling a single tune; come out and play, the roads are clear.

Looking south from 5th & 56th

The road beckons, with one caveat; guilt. Not only is the personal good fortune a result of suffering, but there’s the fear of getting injured and having to go to an overcrowded hospital jammed with Covid-19 patients to get patched up. That’s not doing right by society, family, or self. This guilt prevents outdoor riding on rainy days, though the risks of riding outside seem way down. On dry days, it’s a plaintive warning not to go too far, not to get carried away. Have fun without gloating or showing off. It’s imperative to bring everything you need, because finding food, drink, a spare tube, a ride home won’t necessarily be easy or wise.

Every cyclist in New York City knows at least four ways to get anywhere by bike. The quickest, the most direct, the safest, and the one they prefer. The route from A to B is selected by putting the time of day, day of the week, and the weather into a personal, continuously-updated algorithm. Rush hour calls for one route, mid-day another, rain changes the equation to yet another still. If you have to get somewhere fast, it’s one way, if you want to zone out, it’s another.

Covid-19 has upended all those considerations. Busy streets are empty. Quiet streets are nearly silent. Park bike paths can be busy. Park roads can be crowded.

Every day on the streets becomes New Year’s Day at dawn. Traffic is light enough to leisurely look around, check out the architecture, think about where to eat when restaurants open up, wonder what stores won’t unshutter when this thing ends. Midtown belongs to another city, one that never wakes up. The police on Park Avenue appear to be staking out obvious positions to deter scofflaws; car traffic volume is way down, while speeding is up dramatically. Should cyclists run lights when police are everywhere and sightlines go for blocks? Do you think they want to catch Covid-19 over a non-essential traffic stop?

Climbing to the Orchards at Concklin
Farm Market in Concklin, where Apple Cider donuts taste best on that bench. The market seemed closed

Easy rides used to mean finding park roads and paths. Now, it’s simpler to cruise the avenues, as there’s so     much     room   . It’s visiting the city after an apocalypse, tourism for locals. We know this place, but we’ve never been here before.

Even the essential travel routes, those that go to bridges, are changing. Broadway, the only north-south street that runs the length of Manhattan, is almost always a clogged mess of cabs, buses, vans, trucks, and private cars from before George Washington Bridge at 178th street, to the Broadway Bridge into The Bronx, and all the way to Yonkers.   Now, we might as well ride it because it’s wide, has good sight lines, and apart from a few cabs, the only other cars are double-parked police cruisers with cops on the lookout for people not social-distancing while waiting to go inside supermarkets, pharmacies, and liquor stores. Besides, it won’t last forever.

The GWB is the gateway to New Jersey and better riding. The bridge, the busiest span in the world, makes landfall in Fort Lee, part of Bergen County. Bergen is a bit on an anomaly for the state and region. It has “blue laws,” where most businesses, save food stores, are closed on Sundays. In Bergen, every day is Sunday now, except no angry drivers annoyed by cyclists slowing their trip to church. And most restaurants are either closed or pickup-only.

Cars have disappeared from the roads. Driveways are jammed with parked cars. It’s hard not to feel greedy and take up more room on the narrow, winding roads; few drivers are there to complain.

Looking north at the GW Bridge Market on Broadway at 178th St
Broadway and 42nd St, aka Times Square looking north

Though state, county, and town parks are closed in Jersey and New York, parked cars are crowding trailheads, an unusual sight in early spring. Where there are park roads, it’s easy to pick your bike up, lift it over the gate, and go for a ride in a closed park. Peaceful, if you don’t have to dodge walkers, joggers, and other cyclists. It might feel wrong, but skaters have taken advantage of the closings and emptied plazas to work on their skills in front of schools and in downtown plazas, and no one seems to be hassling them.

One of the things about the fanciest suburbs everywhere is that the roads are empty, and the neighborhoods silent, as people do their living not only set back from the road, but behind curtained windows, noises masked by closed windows and pumped air units. About the only people typically seen are landscapers manicuring grounds. Not so in the leafy enclaves and amongst the McMansions. People are now walking their home roads, couples two by two and families in packs, with impromptu-looking gatherings starting in driveways; homeowners have set up chairs where their property meets the street. These people are now making the formerly-empty enclaves crowded for cyclists.

Central Park, at East Drive and 72nd

The riding, besides the wetter-than-usual past few weeks, has been excellent. Sunny days seem wrong, the result of an evil spirit, suggesting the emptiness has become normal. Overcast days are notionally more apt; a pall has come over the land, one whose spell should shortly break.

The sensation of speeding along empty roads while the world sleeps is very much a winter concept in this neck of the woods. Doing so in shorts as the cherry trees blossom feels out of place, as if the world was realigned, offering up a feast of options, hoping there’s time to ride them all, fearing there’s time to ride them all.  


Piermont Rd (NJ) looking north at NY

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