New York City Century Ride: A Few Quick Thoughts

Yesterday I did my first NYC Century ride, 100+ miles of Gotham glory, everything from stunning ocean vistas to broken-bottle-strewn tunnels, from estaurine marshes to riverine gulleys. Given that the event is supposed to demonstrate the joys and possibilities of everyday city cycling, I did it on a bog-standard Trek commuting bike (thank you, Bontrager Hard Case Race Lights, for not flinching as you rode over the detritus of millions). As invigorating as the riding was, the event highlighted something else: The sheer panorama of the spectacle of the city, unfolding at a scale that is beyond the limits of pedestrianism, but more closely-observed than the car. Here, in no certain order, is a sample of the things we saw: Morning tai-chi in Sunset Park; Chinese fisherman in Sheepshead Bay, Russian guys in fatigues in Brighton Beach carrying assault rifles (let’s hope this was for paintball); an apartment building on fire; a woman being dragged unconscious out of a bar in Queens (at ten in the morning); an aerial view of soccer games, looking like Playstation, from the towering bike bath of the Tri-Boro Bridge; the huge bustle of sound, dancing, marching and speechifying that is African Day; the similarly boisterous San Gennaro Festival in Lower Manhattan (whose streets were so traffic-clogged suddenly it was Canal Street that seemed the least chaotic option); white-suited West Indian cricket in Queens; striped-shirted women’s rugby in the Bronx; a motorcycle training course (which we accidentally rode into) in the shadow of the Steinway piano factory; Evangelical storefront churches booming with praise; slack-jawed European shoppers in Soho; the tote-bag clutching patrons of the Brooklyn Literary Festival; the emerald constellation of city parks from Marine to Forest to Van Cortlandt; the Cyclone of Coney Island quiet but proud in the early morning light; pitbulls barking from high terraces; a handful of “ghost bikes” lending sober perspective; the shining Unisphere, which we circled twice looking for the ‘C’ to guide us (a hot dog vendor had pulled over it accidentally)…

I could go on, but you get the picture. And while there were some dodgy connections, some threatening three-way intersections, some fading sharrows, what the event spoke to was the possibility — and promise — of riding in the city. People kept asking, ‘is this a bike-a-thon’?, as if to ride means it must be for something; and of course, it is — for the right and pleasure and utility to ride itself. In the depths of the South Bronx, on some of the least cycling friendly streets, there was always a kid waving, giving a thumb’s up, or shrieking “bikes.” The city felt at once vast and intimate.

Curious to hear of others’ experiences, highlights, low-lights, in comments section.

This entry was posted on Monday, September 19th, 2011 at 8:57 am and is filed under Bicycles, Cities, Commuting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “New York City Century Ride: A Few Quick Thoughts”

  1. Mandi (Bike Writer) Says:

    nice wrap up! i had an amazing time. it was my first century ride and i think transalt did really well. it really did show how great urban commuting can be, especially since they rarely had any roads section off exclusively for us (like other NYC tours). it was all about interacting with motorists and everyday traffic in NY. my favorite moment was the manhattan skyline viewed from that bridge that connected brooklyn to queens…i wish i could remember the name.

  2. Peter Says:

    I did the Century too (third time), and I love it for all the reasons you mentioned. The random audience participation from cheering pedestrians in the Bronx, especially–it always happens, and it only happens in the Bronx. I’m still not sure why, but I love it.

    I’ve started to think of the Century as being simultaneously an advertisement for city bicycling, and a subtle critique of New York’s bike infrastructure. The tour shows you everything–the beautiful parks and luxurious bike lanes, but also the torn up pavement and sketchy intersections, and the sometimes harrowing joints between different segments of the bike network (i.e., that exit from the Henry Hudson greenway that deposits you in the mouth of what’s essentially a highway offramp). Maybe this is unintentional, and just an inevitable consequence of trying to string together a 100-mile route, but I’m always struck by the way the Century makes NYC’s bike network look, at large scale, like a series of impressive set pieces amateurishly joined together.

    Also, is it just me or was this the Century of Confusion? So many times, I saw big groups of riders miss the “C” marks and veer off in the wrong direction–a couple of times they drew me with them. In previous years I only saw that happen once or twice. Maybe it’s because the route was changed pretty substantially this year, but it seemed to be happening even on the unchanged portions.

  3. Betty Barcode Says:

    A lovely recap. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the century ride was invented in the 1890s here in Buffalo, NY.

    What seems to be dawning on more and more of us, including policy makers, is how perfectly adapted the bicycle is to the city.

    It uses the existing street grid without needing invasive, expensive, and destructive highways. It can be stored almost anywhere without requiring disfiguring demolitions or colossal ramp garages. It emits no noise or pollution and requires no service stations, junkyards, washing facilities, and all the rest of the automotive infrastructure that everyone demands but no one wants next door. It causes precious few fatalities, freeing up law enforcement, courts, medical personnel, and insurers for other problems. It doesn’t require a massive state bureaucracy to manage its owners and uses.

    And for the rider, it offers unparalleled agility, nimbleness, sociability, and immersion in one’s environment. On a bicycle, you see hundreds of things and have hundreds of interactions that you can’t have when sealed in a two-ton steel chamber.

    It makes the automobile look like an elephant trying to play in a dollhouse.

  4. gpsman Says:

    Street riding was suicidal when I did a thousand miles+ a month as a young man in the ’70s-’80s.

    In my golden years I realize I was completely out of my friggin’ mind.

  5. Saba baba Says:

    For my first Century I arrived early ehough to be among the first fifty to leave the park. The silent gliding of a flashing red light serpent winding its way down to Riverside Drive, greeting a glorious dawn on the Brooklyn Bridge, riding with many experienced riders, sharing their quiet enthusiasim and professional skills.
    Riding past Reiss and Marine Park where my children played 30 years ago was surreal. Seeing new and beautiful parts of the city I have never seen before in quite the same way.
    It was a great ride that I look forward to repeating again.

  6. urbandata Says:

    Fantastic description – matches my experience of the #NYCCentury each year.

    It’s also worth repeating Kasey Klimes’ excellent point, at

    “Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle.”

    The Century gives you an appreciation of the benefits of real, Class A, cycling infrastructure such as slower streets and cycle tracks, versus the somewhat dubious (but also much needed) markings like sharrows. A class can’t teach that.

  7. ROBERT Says:

    As a Rolling Marshall for I think the 6th or so time I am glad to hear when people can say that they had a great time. Obviously to some a ride like this can be a race, a challenge or the ability to see the city in all it’s glory or gory. You did miss out on some of the shoreline bike paths but due to the Hurricane parts of the shoreline greenway is closed.
    My goal is to make this fun for riders and I try to give then some idea of exactly “where” we are.

    You obviously caught the most striking part of the ride which is saved for the last 25 miles and that is the B-X, or Bronx as it’s known. The hilliest of the boros but I always tell people the ONE boro
    where you will be cheered and always get a “GOOD JOB” cheer from the folks.

    Glad that your tires did the job as I think I changed 4 tires that day and handed off another 3 tubes.

  8. Don Doornbos Says:

    I LOVED this ride! I’ve done other centuries but never in such an urban area.

    Check out my blog at

    You were much better at recalling the detail than myself…but reading your description brought it all back to me. Thank you!

    One fault I had with the ride was the rampant blowing through traffic lights and stop signs! We relied on following those who knew the route as this was our first time and we are TOTAL NYC newbies. So we didn’t want to lose our lead and also had to blow through traffic, leading to one very close call.

    I’m not sure what I would recommend as a solution but this was a significant damper on what was otherwise a great ride.


  9. Bob Says:

    Great ride, but I got lost 5 times! With the economy as it is, they did not remark some of the route. It is always a fun event. It was the second year they had two starting points. The Prospect Park start is much better than Central Park. Almost like doing a club ride. Can’t wait until next year’s ride.

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