Escaping Into New York City on Mountain Bike
Sometimes the most crowded landscapes are also the most expansive
In cycling, as in life, it can be all too easy to compartmentalize. Road bike for the road, mountain bike for the trails; water for during the ride, beer for after the ride; and so forth. And while this approach makes sense most of the time, sometimes mixing it up is when the real fun begins.
Hey, every once in awhile you've got to hit some dirt on your road bike or crack open a beer before the ride. You know, live a little.
Many of us similarly compartmentalize our route choices, and as a New Yorker I certainly tend to so with regard to town and country. Riding in the city is for going places and getting things done, but when I'm riding strictly for pleasure, I make a beeline for the hinterlands. Most of the time this is the right choice, and I revel in the sensation of escape as I launch snot rockets in the direction of the crowded metropolis I'm leaving behind.
Every once in awhile though I'm reminded that riding for riding's sake in the city can be just as sublime as riding in the country—maybe even more sublime. After all, there's some very good riding outside of New York City, but the city itself is positively world-class. So fleeing it every chance you get is a little like living next to the Grand Canyon but spending every day at the mall.
Such was the case for me recently, when I felt like riding my mountain bike, yet for whatever reason the trails outside of the city just weren't calling to me like they usually do. Instead, I felt myself drawn towards the island of Manhattan, which is pretty much the last place on earth anybody associates with knobby tires. So how to reconcile these contradictory impulses?
Well, near the northern tip of Manhattan is a place called Highbridge Park. While much of the island has been flattened and tamed, upper Manhattan retains its original hilly topography, and the street grid is stretched and distorted by ridges and rocky outcroppings into an Escher-esque landscape of buildings, retaining walls, and step-streets. Highbridge Park sits on a cliffside overlooking the Harlem River. Towards the southern end of the park is the High Bridge itself, an arched 19th century engineering marvel which once carried water from upstate to the growing city, and where Edgar Allan Poe used to come and sulk while his wife was dying of tuberculosis in their Bronx cottage. [Smiley face emoji!] On the northern end of the park is Fort George Hill, named for the 1776 redoubt where patriots fought the British until Washington's troops could flee to New Jersey.
Highbridge Park is also the location of another historical landmark of a more recent vintage—Manhattan's only legal mountain bike trail network—and that's where I decided to go.
Hitting a trail three miles away doesn't exactly require much in the way of preparation, and when that trail is in the city it's about as complicated as shuffling into the living room to watch TV. Actually, watching TV's even harder, because you've got to remember to bring snacks or else you have to go all the way back to the kitchen. Highbridge, on the other hand, is surrounded by anything you could possibly need in a pinch: street vendors, stores, bike shops, transit both public and private… There's a subway station across the street from the trailhead for chrissakes! It's not exactly Moab, but there aren't too many places where you can do some surprisingly technical mountain biking, then lock up and visit a tapas lounge or hit up the podiatrist.
Once you really know the city, it becomes one of the greatest places in the world to ride.
Oh sure, there are certain drawbacks to urban mountain biking. For one thing, parts of the park are de facto dumping grounds, which means you've got to contend with the odd piece of furniture or empty Prestone bottle. Also, there's sometimes a bit more broken glass in the soil than is ideal, and the odd discarded needle may cause you to regret putting off that tubeless conversion or hepatitis shot. You may even encounter park users whose idea of outdoor recreation is different from your own. (On a prior visit some years back, I came across a couple in flagrante delicto, and after about my third lap it started getting awkward—for me, anyway. They couldn't have cared less.)
At the same time, the sheer improbability of the Highbridge trails more than makes up for their idiosyncrasies and diminutive size. Opened in 2007, these were the first-ever legal mountain bike trails in all of New York City, and they are the result of a massive volunteer effort in a park that had fallen into a state of deep neglect. This work continues, and thanks to the dedication of NYCMTB, there were plenty of moments I forgot I was in the city until the smell of blunt smoke or the words “FUCK TRUMP” spraypainted on a tree promptly restored my sense of place. But far from finding any of this jarring, I was grateful for the reminders of where I was, because I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else. There's nothing quite like riding an off-camber trail cut into a Revolutionary War battleground, the buildings of Manhattan looming above you and the resolute skyline of the Bronx across the river as the backdrop.
And when the trails started feeling a little tight and I felt like spinning, I simply popped out of the park and onto New York City's expanding bike lane network. First I headed downtown via the Harlem River Speedway, and then I climbed back uptown on Edgecombe Avenue, past the erstwhile residences of Count Basie and Paul Robeson. At the top of the hill I dropped back into the trails at the dirt jumps, where a group of kids in yarmulkes were sharing a single bike and helmet and taking turns hitting the berms.
Sometimes people planning to visit New York City email me and ask whether they should bring a bike. I tell them not to bother. See the stuff that makes the city great, and if you really need to ride, grab a Citi Bike. But the fact is that once you really know the city it's one of the greatest places in the world to ride, whether it's the novelty of Highbridge, or the release of the Tuesday night races out on the old airstrip in Brooklyn, or the sheer pleasure of rolling out to Rockaway and then diving into the surf. And while of course I'm partial to my hometown I don't labor under the delusion that it’s the only city that comes alive by bicycle. You've probably experienced a similar sensation of communion riding where you live—though if you haven't maybe you should consider moving, or at least indulging in a pre-ride beer.
So yes, life can feel compartmentalized, and life in a crowded city like this can feel doubly so. But space is infinitely divisible, and that's the real secret to living here. Whether you ride away from the city or straight into its heart, as long as you've got a bike you'll never know confinement.