A bike tour for the masses

This past Sunday I participated in the Five Boro Bike Tour. This was the second time I’ve ridden the Five Boro and I am a bit conflicted about whether this event is worth doing in the future.

Five Boro Bike TourThe first time I rode the Tour in 2011, I was shocked at the poor organization of the ride. The starting line was mass confusion, there were tons of bottlenecks that required you to walk your bike, and the ride marshals seemed to have no clue what was going on. To top it all off, the event planners failed to coordinate with the Department of Transportation, leading to a huge group of riders being stuck under a relentless sun on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway for almost two hours with no food, restrooms, or water. This part of the ride sucked so much that The Wife™ was turned off of cycling entirely, a situation I am still trying to rectify to this day. Thank you for that, Bike New York.

However, even with all of the problems, it was a cool ride. At the time, 42 miles was a long ride for me and I felt a great sense of accomplishment after having completed the Tour. You also can’t beat the setting — cycling through NYC without having to worry about traffic! I decided to try it out again this year and see if they had improved on things.

The first big difference this year was Bike New York’s reactionary security policy. After the Boston Marathon bombings, BNY issued a statement saying riders in the Five Boro would not be allowed to carry backpacks or CamelBaks. What an utterly ass-backwards policy. This created a huge inconvenience for a lot of riders, especially those coming in from out of town, and forced people to change their plans or purchase new gear only two weeks prior to the event. This stupid policy did nothing to increase security for riders, and was laughable in its execution — fanny packs and handlebar bags up to 420 cubic inches were allowed, so it seems no one cared if you carried a bag as long as it wasn’t strapped to your back. Because obviously you can’t fit a bomb in a fanny pack or 420 cubic inch handlebar bag…

Don’t get me wrong — I have no problem with increased security when it actually accomplishes something and isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. This policy is the epitome of what is wrong with security thinking in this country. Someone does something bad with Random Object X, so obviously we must ban Random Object X! Like Williams Sonoma pulling pressure cookers off of their shelves in Massachusetts, this BNY policy did nothing to improve security and smacks of some suit looking to check a box off on a list (“See? We take this stuff VERY SERIOUSLY!“)

"Everything looks good from here, boss!"

“Everything looks good from here, boss!”

All I can do is shake my head at this stupid thinking, and the way BNY handled this (not offering refunds to riders after making a major change to the ride with only two weeks notice) makes me very hesitant to support them or any of their rides in the future.

On the positive side, the crowd management was MUCH better this year. There were still way too many bottlenecks for my taste (I don’t like to walk much on bike tours) but the overall congestion seemed much lower. One problem area was the rest area at Astoria Park in Queens — there was no bypass lane or anything, so even though we did not want to stop there we were forced to get off our bikes and shuffle along for twenty minutes until we could resume riding. We were also forced off the bikes at all the bridge crossings, but those delays weren’t very long so they didn’t bother me very much.

I don’t have any pictures from this year — mostly because I did not want to take my hands off the bars for the second needed to snap a picture. The Five Boro is a definite crash-fest, with about 31,000 of the 32,000 participants possessing absolutely zero bike handling skills. I saw several falls, luckily none too serious, as people weaved across the roads like drunks driving home after last call. The worst was on the approaches to the bridges — these were the steepest grades of the ride and people were just stopping in the middle of the road or swerving off into the path of faster riders to the left.

I remember in 2011 (when I had just a couple of months of riding experience) these grades were a challenge…this year, they seemed like nothing. In fact, the entire ride (40 miles, 2 miles shorter than the 2011 course) was easy-peasy, something I attribute to my recent randonneur training. Even the last stretch up the ramp of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, known as the hardest part of the Five Boro, seemed like a walk in the park. I had some right knee pain during the ride (which I was surprised at, since it hasn’t bothered me on any of the longer rides this year) but it seems to have just been a temporary thing and the knee felt fine on a short ride yesterday.

Tragically, one rider did not make it through the Tour. 51-year-old Michigan man Michael Boren suffered a heart attack while riding up the ramp of the Queensboro Bridge and was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Mr. Boren had suffered a heart attack two years ago and was using cycling as a way to recover and improve his health. He had cleared the ride with his doctor before participating. Stories like this frighten me — this could have been any of us, and medical issues are something I worry about as I get into the longer distance rides. My heart and prayers go out to Mr. Boren’s family — I am so sorry for their tragic loss.

At the end of the day, I would not recommend the Five Boro to any serious cyclist looking for a solid riding event — the NYC Century seems like a better option (and I plan on riding that event this year). However, it is a fun time and most casual riders will be able to get through it (and feel like a real cyclist at the end!). It makes for a good friends and family ride, especially when you take the absence of traffic into consideration. So if you have never done the Five Boro Bike Tour, grab some non-cyclist friends and give it a shot next year – just do everyone around you a favor and make sure everyone has at least a basic grasp of bike handling and holding a line!