A bespoke tour of Manhattan
The Greenway cycle path gives visitors a new perspective on New York
Probably our darkest hour is when I am quietly consulting a map and Jack says to me: ‘Dad, I think we’re about to be arrested.’ I turn to see the NYPD cruiser and its spinning lights and hear the dreaded words crackling over the police loudhailer: ‘Step away from your bicycle now.’ We are in New York for a few days and I have decided I want to ride a bike all the way around Manhattan. Jack, 16, thinks it is a crazy idea: it’s a long way and he has far better things to do.
‘OK,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine on my own. No problem.’ I throw in ‘I may be some time’ too. ‘All right, all right,’ he says, grudgingly, dragging himself out of bed. ‘Stop torturing me.’ I recently spent a year in New York, and lived there once before in the Eighties, so I know that New York has greened up a lot. It is no longer a concrete jungle, but more like Cambridge or Oxford with very tall buildings.
You can bike around the place quite easily. The 32-mile ‘Waterfront Greenway’ now enables you to ride all the way around the perimeter of Manhattan. I once knew someone who reckoned he had surfed Manhattan (but he is dead now), and another guy who was setting out to swim around New York (I never heard from him again), and it occurs to me that cycling around the island has to be a piece of cake by comparison.
‘Planting the flag’ is how I sell it to my son. ‘We’ll own New York’. When we finally set out, one chilly morning, we dive right in: marching confidently down the road in shorts. Probably a mistake. After a snowstorm two days before, the weather is a strange mix of summer (blue skies and bright sunshine all the way) and winter (freezing temperature and biting breeze blowing right up the shorts). Even while tucking into banana pancakes at the Deluxe diner on Broadway, I’m already wishing I had thought to bring some decent tracksuit bottoms.
Rex at West Side Bicycles on 96th Street kits us out with the bikes and warns us that anyone under 18 is legally required to wear a helmet. When we get out on the street, Jack whips his off and sticks it in my backpack. Which is why I am half-expecting the police to swoop.
We take off south, cycling away from the leafy, cloistered Upper West Side, heading downtown. The Greenway takes you all the way along the ‘left bank’ (so to speak) of the great Hudson River, with skyscrapers on the horizon, following the line of Riverside Park. The underpass we are eventually siphoned through looks at first glance, as Jack says, like ‘a good place for muggings’. But the mood of the place has changed so much in the past 25 years that the only other people we see are joggers and dog walkers and fellow cyclists. We pedal on relentlessly past the Hustler Club on one side and the Intrepid aircraft carrier on the other, pausing somewhere around 34th Street to take in the sight of the Empire State, basking in the morning sun. To my way of thinking, you have to back off to get a decent sense of the scale and form of the building, and the Greenway gives the perfect angle.
At the opposite end of the scale is Ground Zero, an absence of tall buildings, another few minutes south. Curving in from the water’s edge, it is like a giant artist’s studio, with a lot of work-in-progress but a largely blank canvas.
We take our first major break at The Battery park, on the southern tip of the island, looking out across the sparkling water at the Statue of Liberty and, passing by, the Staten Island ferry. Completely out of the blue, a New York Times photographer stops to take our picture. ‘What are you doing?’ she says to us. ‘Cycling around the island of Manhattan,’ we say. She says: ‘Wow!’ and starts snapping away. Which only goes to prove, I think, that the sight of two people cycling around the Greenway is not half as commonplace as I guessed.
Weaving in and out of piers, we shoot right under Brooklyn Bridge. ‘It’s better than the Golden Gate,’ says Jack. I am put in mind of romantic scenes from Woody Allen films. Jack remembers the Mouse in Manhattan cartoon, when Jerry goes to New York to get away from Tom for a while, and a skateboarding video game. Either way, the whole waterfront itinerary is moodily iconic and filmic.
This might go some way towards explaining how we get hopelessly caught up in a Hollywood scenario. Now we are heading due north, going along the East River, with the fairytale Chrysler Building in view and the United Nations on our left, going past the Empire State all over again, but in the opposite direction and on the far side. And, as it turns out, on the wrong side of the law.
We somehow manage to run out of Greenway and end up on a thinning ribbon of pavement on the outer edge of some massive freeway, with giant trucks thundering past our shoulders. It feels like walking along a tightrope over Niagara and I start to wonder what Jack’s mother would say if I came back a man down. Which is when we get arrested. Or nearly. I agree with New York’s finest that it would be an excellent idea to back up and they let us go.
The only serious problem with the Greenway is that, here and there, it goes grey rather than green. Unable to hew religiously to the riverbank, it cuts in and dumps you somewhere back amid the concrete canyons. So it is that we cycle by the front door of the great slab of the UN building, as ambassadors pour out for lunch at swanky East Side eateries. We stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts and take a hot chocolate down to the river and tuck into the cupcakes we bought for the expedition at the Magnolia Bakery in Bleecker Street. And savour being at liberty.
Further north we are forced to go off-piste again and swing in west through Harlem. At which point you have to keep a very close eye on those slightly wishful-thinking Greenway signposts not to completely lose the thread. A long downward couloir shovels us back out on the East River, but now coming around to the most northerly stretch, with the Bronx glowering back at us on the far side and, on our side of the river, huge outcroppings of Paleolithic rock looming up out of, in Jack’s phrase, Jurassic Park
‘Is this the Greek Temple?’ Jack says. According to the map, we are supposed to come across some kind of Greek temple. And it certainly looks like a slightly down-at-heel Greek temple, but in truth I am getting too tired to care. A Greek temple in Manhattan? Whatever. I am still trying to be a hero about the whole thing, but my calf muscles are moaning.
We are way up above the good old Hudson River again, around 180th Street, in Washington Heights. ‘This is the best view yet,’ says Jack, more enthusiastic than ever. ‘It looks like Canada over there!’ It is, in fact, only New Jersey, but in all its glorious maple-leafed colours it definitely has a Canadian feel about it. We freewheel downhill back towards (as I think of it) civilisation, going past the ‘Little Red Lighthouse’ next to the George Washington Bridge and tracking along the beach.
We are nearly home. Except for one thing – what turns out to be the Alpine section of our Tour de New York, the biggest bloody hill in the world, going up Riverside Drive. Jack, who is actually speeding up by this stage, kindly waits for me at the top while I struggle up, huffing and puffing. He is like one of those sinewy long-distance runners who hangs on your shoulder for miles and then goes streaking past when the bell rings, leaving you for dead. Back at the bike shop, Rex says: ‘Who won?’ ‘He did,’ I have to admit. ‘Dad, can we go round again?’ Jack says, just to rub it in. It is about four in the afternoon. We have taken about five hours or so (depending on whether you count stops) to go the whole way. I have a meeting downtown. I put Jack on the subway and take a yellow cab. It is the best cab ride I’ve had in my whole life.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow to New York JFK from £339 return, including taxes. Bike rental is available for $45 a day from Metro Bicycles (metrobicycles.com) which has shops, including West Side Bicycles, around New York. More details on New York and Brooklyn’s Greenways can be found at nycgovparks.org/facilities/bikeways (The Observer)