New York: Spin around Manhattan

By Rob McFarland

Biking around New York takes Rob McFarland off-trail and into less-seen neighbourhoods.

Joggers and cyclists going through Central Park. Photo / Thinkstock
Joggers and cyclists going through Central Park. Photo / Thinkstock

We were tantalisingly close to the northern tip of Manhattan. Through the trees, I could see the Henry Hudson Bridge, a great steel archway that connects Manhattan to the Bronx, as well as the riverside path that we would have been on if I hadn't just taken a wrong turn.

It was the first hiccup in an attempt to circumnavigate Manhattan by bike. Over the past few years, the city has developed a network of dedicated riverside bike trails or greenways that, in theory, should allow you to ride the whole way around the island, a distance of 51 kilometres.

Up until then, it'd been smooth sailing. We'd collected our comfortable 24-gear Trek Hybrid bikes from Bike and Roll's outlet in Battery Park and joined a riverside path that runs for almost the entire western side of Manhattan.

Within minutes we'd passed numerous picture-worthy highlights, including a section of the Berlin Wall, the police memorial to September 11, 2001, and a dazzling flotilla of multimillion-dollar yachts in North Cove marina.

Further up we hit Chelsea Piers, once the intended end point of the Titanic voyage and now a huge entertainment complex containing bowling alleys, a spa and even a golf driving range.

It's an example of the gentrification that is happening all along Manhattan's waterfront as disused piers and warehouses are slowly being transformed into public parks, restaurants and recreation areas. They've become a welcome respite for traffic-harried New Yorkers and, on a sunny Friday morning, the parks were full of sunbathers and picnickers.

We pushed north, past the futuristic-looking Gehry-designed IAC Building in Chelsea and the USS Intrepid warship moored at Pier 86.

Short detours would have taken us to any number of sights, including Grant's Tomb, a presidential memorial in Morningside Heights and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the world's largest Gothic Revival cathedral.

After a short three-block detour to 12th Ave at 132nd St, we were back on the bike path and heading towards the impressive George Washington Bridge. At its base stands the diminutive Little Red Lighthouse, the star of a much-loved 1942 American children's book and now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Unfortunately, stopping for a picture here robbed us of crucial momentum that would have been handy for the hill that lurked, smirking, around the next corner. After a thigh-burning ascent we followed the path down to Dyckman St in the Spanish-influenced suburb of Inwood and stopped for lunch at a Japanese restaurant.

Part of the appeal of this ride is that it exposes you to neighbourhoods you'd rarely venture to otherwise. While tucking into my chicken teriyaki at Mamasushi, I had to remind myself we were still in Manhattan. The service was friendly and unhurried, none of the other diners was bellowing into their mobile phone and I didn't hear a single siren during the entire meal.

A quick check of our free bike-path map revealed that the reassuring green line we'd been following for the past two hours had ended. We were now off-trail. But it seemed crazy to come all this way and not see the northern tip of the island so we pressed on into Inwood Hill Park, lugged our bikes over a pedestrian bridge and made the fateful wrong turn that led us to the Henry Hudson Bridge toll gates.

Undeterred, we continued. The trip was now taking on an exciting Man vs Wild feel and I was feeling positively intrepid until I lost mobile phone reception and Google Maps stopped working.

Eventually, we found our way out and, for proof of our achievement, stopped for a picture at 220th St, the northernmost street in Manhattan. From the bemused looks on the locals' faces, this wasn't something that happened very often.

After heading down 10th Ave, we found a bike lane that steered us on to one of the newest, and nicest, parts of the greenway: Harlem River Drive. A dedicated cycle path next to the East River, it meanders past elegant Victorian-style street lights adorned with hanging baskets. This is more like it, I thought. This will be a breeze from here on. I was just relishing the prospect of a leisurely ride home when the path suddenly veered away from the river and dumped us unceremoniously on to 155th St.

It was to be the first of several detours. We rejoined the riverside path at 145th St, only to be turfed off again by construction work at 135th St. We managed a good stretch between 120th and 79th streets before more construction forced us off on to Second Ave. The ensuing adrenalin-fuelled 40-block charge down this six-lane thoroughfare, swept along by a cacophony of horns, whistles and sirens, was one of the most exciting parts of the ride. But it's not for the faint-hearted. At 34th St we rejoined the cycle path and from here it was an easy run home.

The welcoming sight of the financial district's glittering array of skyscrapers inspired weary legs and, exactly five hours, 50 minutes after leaving, we coasted back into Battery Park.

Although some of the construction work we encountered was temporary, the greenway on the eastern side of Manhattan still has a couple of significant gaps. It's improving all the time but it'll be a few years yet before the dream of cycling on a dedicated path around the entire island is a reality.

In the meantime, if you're a confident cyclist who's not fazed by the occasional detour on to a city street, this ride is one of the most rewarding ways to explore Manhattan. My backside remembered it for weeks.

GREAT RIDES IN NEW YORK

Central Park: By far the best way to explore this 341ha expanse is by bike. Hunt out lesser-known spots such as the Conservatory Garden, with its French, English and Italian formal gardens, in the far north-east corner of the park.

Governors Island: Accessible during summer by a free ferry from Battery Park, this old coastguard installation has been converted into a national park and is perfect for exploring by bike.

Prospect Park: Designed by the same team that planned Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park is actually bigger than its better-known sibling. The 5.4km Park Drive loop is popular with cyclists and takes you past Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Prospect Park Zoo.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: United Airlines flies Auckland-New York via LA/San Francisco.

Getting around: Bike and Roll has outlets in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Governors Island. One-day hire US$44.

Further information: nycgo.com

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of United Airlines and Bike and Roll.

- Herald on Sunday

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