Surviving the 5 Boro Bike Tour



All over New York City

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

This winter I spent two months in Michigan working on a book. Halfway through my stay my girlfriend called and said her parents were visiting New York soon, coming from California to ride in the annual Five Boro Bike Tour. She said they wanted us to do it with them. I said I’d think about it, which really meant no. A couple days later she brought it up again, this time saying she thought it’d be a cool thing—we’d see the city as we’d never seen it before, ride in places typically closed to bicyclists. She said her parents were so eager for us to accompany them they’d spring for the entry fee and rent us some gear.

“When is it?” I said.

“I’ll have to double check,” said Karla, “but it’s sometime in May.”

In the end I said yes. I had other things on my mind and May seemed far away.

* * *

Around the first of April I rolled back to the city. Shortly after my return Karla and I had lunch with my friends Saïd and Karen. We went to Patsy’s, on University Place. Saïd and Karen are the quintessential urban bike-riding couple—they ride pretty much everywhere and own sturdy bikes with baskets on the handlebars for parcels—and as we sat there eating pizza I mentioned this thing, this race or whatever, that Karla and I would be doing, the details of which were vague in my mind.

“The Five Boro Bike Tour?” said Saïd.

“Yeah. Have you done it?”

“I’ve done it a couple times.”

“How is it?”

“Well it’s interesting but it’s—”

He looked at me with a measure of concern. I’ve known Saïd a long time—he knows I’m not Mr. Fitness. I don’t belong to a gym or own a bike or go running or anything like that.

“When it was over I definitely felt it,” he said.

“How long is this thing?”

“It’s probably a good . . . forty, fifty miles.”

Forty or fifty miles.

I suppose on some level I should’ve known this—I mean it’s all five boroughs of one of the world’s largest cities. But the whole thing had come together quickly and I hadn’t given it much thought.

“Fuck that,” I said, “I can’t do that.”

Karla reminded me I’d already been entered. A number had been assigned to me, a bike rented in my name. Everyone assured me I’d get through it, it wouldn’t be that bad. All right, I thought. I still had some time. I could start training somehow, get myself in some kind of shape. I reached for another slice of pizza, shoved it into my face.

* * *

The days passed. I thought of nothing but finishing my book. I spent long hours working on it, moving only from the desk to the bathroom to the kitchen and back, breaking the monotony with sets up push-ups, which I’d read in the Times were an excellent barometer of physical fitness. At the end of the day I’d watch three of four episodes of The Wire. Finally the draft of my novel was complete.

A week before the tour Karla and I went to Provincetown, the beautiful resort community at the tip of Cape Cod. Many of the businesses were just opening up for the season. Saturday afternoon we stopped at a place on Commercial Street and rented some bikes. I asked the kid who worked there where we should go. He gave me a map and pointed out some trails. We set off for them. It was leisurely at first—we rode along on a residential street, crossed a highway and went up a small hill. At the top of the hill we crossed over and entered the trail, which was mellow for a time, then became more challenging. Soon it was clear neither of us was prepared for this. We were out in the middle of some dunes, climbing steep hills in the blazing sun with no water. My chest burned and I was panting and my legs had gone rubbery. Occasionally other bikers would pass us, real bike people with helmets and biker shorts and water bottles in holders attached to their bike frames. I thought of the Five Boro Bike Tour as sweat poured down my face. We came to a particularly grueling incline and Karla and I stopped and walked our bikes.

“I can’t do this thing next week. You’re gonna have to tell your parents.”

“Let’s talk about that later,” she said. “For now let’s just get to the visitor’s center and get some water.”

But the visitor’s center was closed, it wouldn’t be open for another week, and the water fountain was turned off. Karla and I sat there catching our breath. I felt like I’d just completed a triathlon, though we’d only ridden about four miles.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I can’t do that fucking race.”

She didn’t respond.

* * *

The following weekend her parents arrived. The night before the tour we all stayed in Manhattan, at the Maritime Hotel. We ate a huge meal at La Bottega, the Italian restaurant in the Maritime, then retired for the night. Karla and I read for a while, then got ready for bed. Around eleven o’clock I lay my head on the pillow, feeling full and sleepy. I closed my eyes, began to drift. Seconds later the noise began. I had trouble placing it at first—I thought it was a TV or a video game in the one of the neighboring rooms. It was loud and low, bass-heavy—not only heard but felt.

“What is that?” said Karla.

“I don’t know.”

“Is it coming from outside?”

I went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Across the way were dark windows and the figures of people moving behind them. Occasionally what appeared to be a camera flash would go off. The noise—the music—was coming from there.

It was a fucking nightclub.

Inside the hotel.

I lay back down and tried to ignore it. We tried to sleep but we couldn’t. We called the front desk to complain and a young man with a laid-back demeanor came to the room moments later holding a large circular pad resembling a hot tub cover, which he fitted snugly into the room’s window.

“There you go,” he said, “that oughta do it.”

But it did not do it. The music continued through the night and in fact only got crazier and more bass-heavy the later it got. I’d never experienced anything quite like it—it was as if our room was inside the club’s bathroom, is how fucking loud it was. We called the front desk another few times, explaining that we had to be up quite early and that this noise was outrageous. Finally we asked to be moved the next day.

I’d abandoned the idea of getting any sleep. I went on the Internet and read Frank Rich, whose column had been posted on the Times’ homepage at midnight, then scanned some travel websites to see if I could find anything about this crazy scene at the Maritime. I learned the club was called Hiro—the name appeared in several negative user reviews of the hotel.

“SHOCKING LOUDNESS!” read the most emphatic, “don’t stay here unless you plan on staying up till 4 a.m. every night.”

Sure enough, a little after four the music from Hiro cut out. A while after that, for the first time that night, I fell asleep.

Three hours later I was on a rented bike, unsteadily navigating the wet empty streets of Sunday morning Manhattan. I wore jeans and a helmet and a hoodie. I rode to the starting point in lower Manhattan. I joined a gathering of thirty thousand other cyclists waiting for the event to begin.

* * * The early stages had a hallucinatory feel—did I really just see a giant pro-Obama sign in the window of Gray’s Papaya? I rode up Sixth Avenue unaware of what my body was doing. It was an overcast morning, cool and damp. The wind numbed my fingers. A few blocks south of Fifty-seventh Street came the first of several delays. I found myself stopped on Sixth, between Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth, staring at the office building I’d worked in last year—it was the job I’d quit right before I went to Michigan. The building seemed to mock me somehow. A moment later I was in Central Park, cruising along, breathing in the smell of wet trees and grass, checking out the early morning joggers and dog walkers as I passed. Already it seemed like I’d been on the bike a long time.

After the park we rode through Harlem, were briefly in the Bronx, then shot down the FDR Drive. There were rest stops every few miles that supplied water and bananas and energy bars and, inexplicably, those little packages of bright orange peanut butter crackers. I ate pack after pack of those crackers throughout the day.

We rode over the bridge into Queens. Around this time the clouds moved on and the sun came out. I had to hand it to Karla’s folks—they’re in excellent shape. They rode along as if it were nothing. I myself passed through many phases: exhilaration, exhaustion, delirium, boredom, wonderment, anger, exhaustion, exhilaration. At one of the rest areas I saw a sign that said 15 miles to Festival Site.

“Fifteen miles,” I said to Karla, “that’s not too bad.”

Then I said, “Wait, what the fuck am I saying?”

We crossed the Pulaski Bridge into Greenpoint, went down through Williamsburg. I got my second and third and tenth winds. At last we reached the Verrazano Bridge, on the other side of which was Staten Island and the Festival Site—in theory at least the end of the line.

I entered the ramp to the bridge, clicked into the lowest gear. Here, after everything, was the most punishing part of the day, ascending that long, deceptive incline. I kept thinking I’d reached the summit, kept realizing I was wrong. I vowed not to walk, or stop and admire the view, as others were doing. Riding across the Verrazano Bridge became a metaphor for every hard or impossible thing I’d ever done or dreamed of doing: moving to New York City, writing and selling my first novel, finally finishing the second one, surviving job after shitty fucking office job with my head still intact. As I pedaled I realized I could end the pain by getting off my bike, walking a few steps and jumping over the side of the bridge. The cool blue water below called out to me. It was a strange feeling but I got through it. I reached the top of the grade. The downhill began.

* * *

Back at the Maritime I carried my bike up the stairs and went into the lobby. I was the first to arrive. I went immediately into the bar and ordered a beer. My body felt like a used-up thing. But it was all right. It felt good. I took the first sip of cold beer and it was wonderful.

“What’s with that club?” I said to the bartender. “It kept me awake all night.”

“Hiro?” she said.

“Yeah. Who would put a nightclub inside a functioning hotel?”

“You can talk to the front desk and see if maybe they can move you.”

It had already happened. Our things had been moved to a different room on a higher floor while we were out on our fifty mile odyssey. That night sleep came instantly, as if I’d dropped from a great height into a permanent void.


Bryan Charles is the author of the novel Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way. To read more of his writing please visit

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