You’ve heard about the Citi Bikes that now throng Manhattan. There are thousands of them parked in solar-powered docks from Battery Park to Central Park. Anybody with a bank card can rent one for half an hour. (There are some bikes in the outer boroughs, too.) They’re making New York into Minneapolis or Melbourne or any of the other healthy bike-sharing cities around the world. Everybody in New York is taking a set of wheels out for a spin, tourists and natives alike.
I said, when asked, I wouldn’t do it.
I did it.
My logic: there are a lot of things on my reverse bucket list, my fuck-it list, things I pledge never to do. Anything involving getting lofted high above the ground. No skydiving for my 60th birthday. No bungee jumping any time at all. The list goes on.
Then there are things I will probably never do even though it’s my dream. Leaping over a fence, say, while gracefully swinging my legs out to the side. It’s not a question of being young enough — I never could do it. Too difficult.
But riding a soft-saddled steed on a Manhattan summer afternoon? This I could probably accomplish without undue shock to the system.
It would only be 30 minutes, after all.
We started at luxury car alley, that stretch of Eleventh Avenue in Midtown where drivers with a fat wallet can take away a Lexus, an Audi or a Mini. Glossy, glassy buildings on every side. But as in so many corners of New York, shreds of a past neighborhood identity can be found if you look, like old signage for a supermarket over the Lexus dealership.
Someone was watching us.
We’d better behave. Across the avenue from the bike rack, at 59th Street, stands a grand monument to both the subway system and steam, a full-block-square Stanford White designed industrial temple that was originally the Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse.
Built in 1904, it has bold Rennaissance Revival details. When it outlasted its usefulness to the subway system in the 1950s, Con Edison took is over to supply the New York City steam system.
Under the shadow of its grand façade we pedaled to the Hudson, wobbling ever so slightly and nearly getting sideswiped by several taxis. Then we joined the stream of cyclists on the pavement along the river under the West Side Highway.
Biking is hardly a new fashion in New York City, especially for women. In the 1890s, female cyclists crowded the urban streets, and their exploits were enthusiastically described by gossip columnists. Pictures of glamorous women, the wind in their upswept hair, graced the covers of Puck, Life, Scribner’s.
A slight hitch in their pursuit of the sport lay in their mode of dress – the yardage of their ankle-length skirts had a tendency to get snagged in the wheels of the so-called “safety bicycle.” But that was okay, split skirts – bloomers – were coming in. Just ignore the consternation of cycling advocate Mrs. Mary Hopkins of Boston on the subject: “It has made wheeling just another way for a woman to make a fool of herself,” she told the New York Times. “She has made a half-way sort of creature of herself. She can’t be a man, and she is a disgrace as a woman.”
Susan B. Anthony thought differently. She said: “I think cycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” Feminism before feminism, all on the mean streets of Riverside Drive.
“The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” I don’t know if Susan B. Anthony rode a bike herself.
I don’t see how I could come to any harm if I got off my bike in one of New York’s new, pristine waterfront parks, aside from getting a headache from looking up at one of the oversized sculptures looking out over New Jersey.
The sculpture by Benat Iglesias Lopez is one of a group installed this year called The Bathers.
I somehow prefer the art of the decrepit pilings that march along the coastline, vestiges of a different age.
They’ve been there so long, and they’ve seen so much.
I’ve also always loved this landmarked historic ruin, the control tower of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, which at one time belonged to the West Side Line of the NY Central Railroad. The bridge was built in 1911 and enabled the transfer of train cars from rail to boat, to be floated across the river to the rail yards of Weehawken, New Jersey.
I often get a view of this spooky structure from the West Side Highway that runs alongside it at just about its level. Something else, too, that I can usually spot from the highway but now get a better view from my bike, the proud classical gateway to the Sanitation Pier at 58th Street.
We checked our watches and found it was the moment to return, but promised ourselves this wouldn’t be the last time we risked our necks for a half hour of the Manhattan wind in our hair. As we picked up to go, I felt a certain proud resemblance to another female cyclist of the past.
Only her cycling get-up’s a little more elegant than mine.