Bicycling to the Botanical Gardens

Entry to Hudson River Greenway
Entry to Hudson River Greenway

After a late night on Saturday, I was not up bright and early. I pushed off about 11:30 a.m. on a 80 degree day. It was a little humid with a slight breeze along the Hudson River.

My goal was the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Google Maps gave me a very direct route that would take 1 hour 16 minutes on a 12 mile route up 8th Avenue and along the west side of Central Park. My friend recommended using the Hudson River Parkway instead. So I pedaled North along the river until the far end of Riverside Park at 125th Street. The greenway was packed with cyclists, roller bladers, walkers with and without strollers. The cyclists ride like New Yorkers drive; that is, they abide by the rules of the road occasionally. It kept me on my toes and my thumb on Black Beauty’s bell.

Take a bite of the big apple on your bike.
Take a bite of the big apple on your bike.

I stopped along the way and bought a Aquafina and Diet Pepsi from a vending machine and enjoyed the view.

There are only a few opportunities to cross the westside highway to get back into Manhattan. I crossed under the highway at 125th Street and found myself in Harlem.

As to safety in NYC, it was broad daylight and I never felt truly unsafe. Riding in a very urban environment is a challenge for me as I ride mostly in Davis, California and environs. This is like training for a mountain ride at sea level on the flat. I was worried about getting lost because I was using my phone and Google Maps app and in the sunshine it was a challenge to read.

I read the book BikeNYC for advice and I was most worried about getting “doored”.  There is also a lot of different paving and a plethora of manhole covers and other kinds of metal covers on the street.

My original plan was to borrow my friend’s lock, but this went awry because he does not ever leave his bike away from home. So I knew that wherever I went I’d need to fold my bike and push it rather than leave it locked.

My Brompton bike attracts attention and at one point two guys in a tricked out Mercedes followed me slowly. It crossed my mind that someone might steal my bike out from under me, so I practiced defensive riding. I spotted a guy taking photos ahead on the sidewalk. I stopped by him, got off and walked in a new direction on the sidewalk for a block. It was enough to shake them.

Harlem is not scary
Harlem is not scary

Let’s face it, New York City is a far cry from the scary legends I heard when I was growing up. The real challenge was finding my way across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

By the time I crossed the bridge and entered the Bronx I had been riding Black Beauty for almost 2 hours with only short breaks. I was wearing jeans, not bike shorts, so it is official: my Brooks bike seat is fantastically comfortable.

The other good news: New York is almost as flat as Sacramento, California.  I was feeling pretty good and more mentally tired from watching for car doors opening and trying to find my way along.  My daughter rode across the USA with Bike and Build and I remembered how they navigated and realized why it was a great way to stay on course. They just typed out the directions on a small piece of paper and taped it to their handle bars. My route would look something like:

Turn right on Hudson River Greenway, ride 9 miles.

Turn right on 125th Street.

Turn left on St. Nicholas Street…

and so on. Good lesson for the next ride.

The new Yankee Stadium at game time.
The new Yankee Stadium at game time.

Crossing the bridge was far from intuitive, so I asked the policewoman who was directing traffic how to cross on a bicycle and she did not know. A lot of people bicycle in New York but I guess it still is a novelty to some.

I was rewarded with a great view of Yankee Stadium once I crossed the bridge. A game had just started and people were still pouring into the stadium. I love visiting ballparks and I was tempted to stop and try to buy a ticket. As a Giants fan and secondarily as a Red Sox fan I felt slightly guilty. Plus I have been trying to get to the New York Botanical Garden for years. I checked Google maps and pedaled on.

Riding along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
Riding along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx

Again, the reputation of the Bronx is much worse than current reality. My main beef was with all of the drivers who viewed the beautiful bike lane as “reserved parking” and twice I had to brake hard as a cab darted in just in front of me to drop off a fare.

I was getting closer to the Garden and my mental focus was wearing down. Google Maps had me ride to Bedford Park Boulevard and enter the NY Botanical Garden from the Bedford Park Gate.

The New York Botanical Garden website encourages you to ride your bike and provides some guidance on how to arrive. It does say that you can not ride your bike in the grounds; however, I thought if I folded up my bike I could push it around like a stroller. I should have probably folded it up before approaching the ticket booth. The staff would not let me take my bike in and suggested I leave it in the parking garage a half block away.

Close to Botanical Garden train stop and parking garage
Close to Botanical Garden train stop and parking garage

I rode to the parking garage and discovered that instead of bike lockers there is just a classic s-shape bike rack. I was close to tears now as I was so close to the Garden but could not get inside.

I saw an official looking man driving a golf cart and I asked him if there was any other bike parking. My lucky day: it was Mark, the head of NYBG security. He listened as I told him my tale of woe and he came to my rescue. He asked me to fold up my bike and put it on his cart. He whisked me over to the Moshulu Gate and locked my bike in his security hut and assured me that the nearby security guard would help me retrieve it when I was ready to leave. What a stand up guy!  My day went from catastrophe to brilliant. With some parting advice from him on the best things to see, I started my garden adventure.

Pointer: Bring a bike lock! And there is a more visible bike rack at the Moshulu Gate right by the security guard station.

I rode the train to Grand Central Station and cabbed it to my friend’s house to make it back in time for dinner plans. My Black Beauty is easy to take on train, and folded she fits easily in the cab’s trunk.

It felt great to reach my goal of riding from Chelsea to the NYBG, although I wish I started earlier so I had most of the day at the Garden. And the next day when I went to the Bicycle Habitat shop in Chelsea the staff person said that the way I rode was probably 20 miles!

Maiden Journey with Black Beauty

Unfolded with bag
Unfolded with bag

My goal is to learn to travel with my Brompton bike so that it is as simple as taking a carryon.  My ultimate purpose is to take my “Black Beauty” to Europe next summer as I follow the Tour de France.

When I recently bought my Brompton foldable bike in Portland I brought it home on the plane; however, it was not a fair test of ease-of-travel because I also had a suitcase and a backpack.  This trip I am on the go with just my bike, my Baggalini purse and my Brompton bag that slides conveniently on the front (like a basket).

It is not a big challenge to pack light—just the clothes I absolutely need for a weekend in New York City–mostly casual clothes for biking around Manhattan with at least one excursion to the Bronx for the Botanical Garden.  I also brought a dress for dinner out with my friend Ray.  My bag was fairly light until I added my MacBook and all my recharging cords.  (I wish Apple would join the universal charger revolution.)

I did not bring my bike lock because it is heavy and I want to try to bring my bike along wherever I ride.  Nor did I pack my bike helmet. I am hoping I can borrow one. The size and inflexibility of a helmet is a “pack-light” challenge.  While packing, I discovered quite a few pieces in my wardrobe that are beyond their expiration date. No worries: I am going to New York City. Shopping is always on the agenda.  And I have time on Monday to ship a box home if necessary.

Getting from the parking garage to the gate I abandoned the supposedly easy method of pulling it completely folded, with bag on front using bag handle.  With any real weight in the bag it seems to be dragging on something.  So I removed the Brompton bag and brought the handle bars up and continued on my way carrying the Brompton bag in one hand and wheeling the bike by the handlebars with the other. Even that proved tricky and I ended up controlling the bike from the fork of the handlebars.

Getting through security was very straightforward. The folded bike glides through easily. At the gate I removed the clamps and the seat and put them in my bag, then wrapped the bungee cord I brought for the purpose. As I gave the Southwest staff my ticket at the gate she asked me what I was bringing aboard. Instead of saying it was a bike, I replied, “It fits in the overhead compartment. And if it does not I will check it.”  She offered to let me try and then if not, ask to put it in the closet for wheelchairs. (!) This was much friendlier than the staff at Portland.

Black Beauty folded

Lucky me, this Southwest plane is a modern Boeing 700 and the overhead compartments are just big enough. The gentleman behind me saved the day: with his extra height he was able to slide my bike in and close the door. It works when the wheels are facing out. Hooray!

It is more exhausting than I thought it would be and I am hoping that I get accustomed to the weight and the mechanics of it as I go along.  I was able to load my bike in the overhead easily by myself from Denver to Newark. When I got off in Newark I stopped immediately and unfolded Black Beauty and reattached the seat and clamps.  I had two fascinated airport workers with lots of questions watching me. I put my Brompton bag on and pushed along. This is a much better solution because people find the novelty of a bicycle in the airport amusing and it takes much less physical effort. Plus if there is an opportunity to ride (through an empty baggage claim area to the women’s restroom in Timbuktu) I can just hop on (just sayin’).

The rest of the trip became a typical travel f-up. The plane was delayed leaving Denver so we arrived at Newark at 12:15. The AirTrain was on reduced schedule after midnight. Instead of waiting for another one in 15 minutes, I hopped on Black Beauty and rode from Terminal A to Terminal C. The staff at the AirTrain stations were all terrific and walked with me until they could show me exactly where I needed to go. The cool air and light exercise was refreshing.

Unfortunately the only way to get to the Rail Station is by AirTrain. Eventually I got there, but the trains never did. Electrical problems had all of the trains woefully behind schedule. Now it is 1 a.m. I was supposed to be at Penn Station by now in my original plan.  At 1:30 a.m. a group of us gave up and reboarded the AirTrain for Terminal C to catch cabs. And my final travel indignity: getting reamed by the cabfare: $51 to Chelsea plus round trip tolls of $18 plus tip—on top of my train ticket.  Makes me rethink my enthusiasm for flying into Newark.

The true measure  of traveling with my bike is how much I enjoy Black Beauty as transportation when I get to Chelsea.