Pedalling Manhattan

Manhattan is the home of dire warnings: this is no place for the faint-hearted. They tell you that driving cars in this madhouse should be left to the cabbies. Survival rates for the stranger are said to be slight.

The worst warnings came from the new natives – those living in the Big Apple for nearly a year; they know everything. They warn against getting behind the wheel because it is mad, and anyway cabs are so cheap and plentiful and parking is impossible or extortionate.

Yes, parking is difficult and the cabs are steady and yes, the traffic is unmerciful. But anyone who has driven in Cork or Dublin can do Manhattan with a blindfold.

Gobsmacked by the lack of any real challenge driving around the little island of mostly square blocks, and undeterred by the fact that I have not pedalled anything other than dodgy articles for years, I took to the bicycle.

Astonishment greeted my off-handed announcement to some friends who live in the city: “You didn’t make the six o’clock news with the car, but we’re looking at the top story here”, laughing in my face as they mentally re-scheduled their week to include hospital visits or a quick trip to the auld sod for a funeral.

I set forth on my journey north along the East River. It was quiet enough, flat and almost free of traffic. After ten minutes my sense of adventure forced a left turn onto 34th street. One good thing about Manhattan is that there are not too many hills. A slight climb westward and I was passing the Empire State Building, nearly meeting a cab the hard way as my gaze was drawn irresistibly upwards. A few more blocks and I hang a right to head north for Central Park.

The park is a cyclists dream. Traffic is quiet (they do have special bicycle-only days, though I did not have the foresight to check), shanks mare and roller blades are the order of the day, save for those with dollars to spare to pay for a pony and trap. Here poodles lead their liveried dog-walkers equipped with silver poop scoopers as they stiffly stroll from the nearby exclusivity of 5th Avenue apartments. These dogs are treated better than their human neighbours a dozen blocks north in The Bronx. I soon tire of this tranquillity and set recklessly forth into the hubbub, eager for adventure.

Down Broadway, a nice slow hill, and into Times Square. When you drive through here you see little and hear nothing, being too preoccupied with avoiding all the traffic. At night the famous lights sparkle but in daytime you could be anywhere. Walking is no joy because the pavements are thronged with tourists asking directions. But on a two-wheeler it is a different story.

Traffic is sparse enough for me to use the middle of the road, an undertaking fraught with danger but spiced with adventure. Extra care is needed belting down the centre of Broadway, the wind in your face, making the best of the breaks in traffic; this is the way to see mid-town. Here, where Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue at the Flatiron building, my favourite in the city. Built in 1903, it is often incorrectly reported as having been the first steel-framed office block, though it was, for a short time, the tallest, as were dozens of others for brief periods before they were outgrown by their neighbours.

I travel all the way downtown until I get to Chinatown. Here it is time to trust the bike to a stout lock and a large lamp-post and have a look around the small shops and stalls.

Having bought all the five-dollar Cartier and Rolex watches I could use in a lifetime, I continue on my mission, across Delancey Street and into the Wall Street area, dodging limos and enjoying the exaggerated stature of the buildings created by the narrow streets. Some of the nicest buildings in Manhattan are here, including the old Courthouse and City Hall.

Onwards to Battery Park, the southern tip of Manhattan, looking out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the bay, a fine place to have a rest after all that pedalling.

Having given up the bike on the streets of Dublin, mainly though fear, I can recommend that the Big Apple is best seen from the saddle.

© Ronan Quinlan 2004

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