Friday, May 6, 2011

Just Keep Swimming

At long Five Boro Bike Tour recap!

Before I get to the meat of this post, I want to say a little something. I am usually a very optimistic blogger. I don't think that I am ever untruthful, but I choose to look at the bright side of things, even when I may have been disappointed. I don't refrain from mentioning the bad, but I try to focus on the good.

But nobody wants to read a blog that doesn't reflect what really happens, nor do I want to write one. With that being said, I will warn you in advance that this post will take a turn for the negative part of the way through. I wish that it didn't have to. I wish that it would say nothing except how amazing the Five Boro Bike Tour was, what a fantastic time we had, how the only struggles I faced were due to my own lack of athleticism. Sadly, that's not true. In fact, my lack of athletic prowess was quite low on the totem pole of things that kept us from a total positive experience. More so, poor planning and lack of organization by Bike New York, the organization responsible for coordinating the Five Boro, created a situation that was at best incredibly frustrating and at worst, potentially dangerous.

This post is going to get long, I can tell you that right now. We took tons of pictures and I have a lot to say. If you're in a hurry, here's the Cliffs Notes version: We had fun, then we stood on an elevated highway for two hours, then we hated life, then we crossed the finish, then we spent three more hours trying to get home. The take home point: WE DID IT, and that's awesome, but it was not always pretty.

And a note about the pictures in this post, just FYI: most were taken with our point-and-shoot, by Eric, while riding a bike through New York City. Hence, most are fairly poor quality, but that is thanks to the camera - Eric's take-a-picture-while-riding-a-bike skills are exceptional! We did have our DLSR with us to take photos at rest areas, so when you see super clear standing-still pictures, you know what's going on!

Okay, enough preface. Let's get to it!

We spent Saturday evening before the race resting up, eating pasta, getting hydrated, and preparing our bikes for the Big Ride the next morning. We got our vests and helmets all set, too.

Our vests and helmets, all set to go. I've never had a race number before! I felt so fancy.

Sunday morning  we woke up around 5:30. My first words to Eric were, "don't make me do this." I realize that is not a good way to approach an athletic challenge, but I really think I was more talking about getting out of bed before sunrise than riding a bike for 42 miles.

We left the apartment around 6:00 and caught the 6:15 PATH train with no trouble. We needed to get to the World Trade Center, and on weekdays there is a train that runs directly from Hoboken to the WTC. Unfortunately, on weekends they combine train lines so no such direct route exists. That meant we had to take the train from Hoboken two stops to Grove Street, then transfer to a WTC-bound train. There were few fellow bikers at Hoboken, but the platform at Grove Street was jam-packed with bikes. Everyone was in good spirits, taking pictures and generally being excited about the ride.

Grove Street PATH platform

Waiting for the train 
(This is the first of many, many pictures we would take together throughout the day! I honestly don't think we've taken so many pictures together since our wedding day.)

We managed to cram ourselves onto the next WTC train, and had no trouble getting out of the WTC station without having to carry our bikes up a billion stairs. (How there was no line for the elevator is still beyond me.) From there, we were just a couple blocks from the back of the start line, so we filed in and began the wait. We were in line by 7:00 a.m., and the first wave of the race was scheduled to start at 8:15. We spent our time people watching, updating Facebook/Twitter (my first of many throughout the day) and shivering, because it was pretty chilly in the shade. We were excited, though!

I'm feeling ready!

Crowds of cyclists behind us

Let's do this thing!

As expected, around 8:15 we caught sight of a pyrotechnics show off in the distance as they let the first wave of people through. We were in the second wave, so once the first group was through they basically redid the opening ceremonies and we actually got started around 9:00. The best part about crossing the starting line was the pyrotechnics, because that fire felt WARM. My cold legs loved it. The fire show was very "PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!" which I thought was funny. Also, they had music playing as we crossed the starting line - including "The Lazy Song" by Bruno Mars. As much as I love Bruno Mars and that song, a song with lyrics like "Today I don't feel like doing anything, I just want to lay in my bed" is not exactly a good pump-up song for a 42-mile bike ride. But whatever, we were on our way!

Pyrotechnics at the starting line in the distance

Here we go!
(As a result of Eric working the camera, there are a million pictures of me on my bike and few of Eric. Sorry, Eric!)

The first leg of the ride took us north along Sixth Avenue. It was pretty awesome to ride in the shadow of the Empire State Building, past Bryant Park, through Herald Square (usually one of my least favorite places in Manhattan because it's always so crowded, but the roads were clear for the ride!), and up past Radio City Music Hall. I enjoyed this part of the ride because these are places I am very familiar with, and seeing them in this new way--on a bike in the middle of a closed-down road--was a cool experience.

Good morning, Empire State Building!

Passing Bryant Park

Radio City Music Hall

Just after Radio City is when we hit our first bottleneck. They were stopping bike traffic to let pedestrians cross the road, and I think they were also staggering entry into Central Park. We were only stopped about 10 minutes, I think, and we made the best of it. We had already gone three or four miles and were feeling pumped!

Hanging out on Sixth Avenue

When we got moving again, we turned right onto 59th Street then left again to go north into Central Park. It was pretty crowded through this stretch and the going was slow, although for the most part it did keep moving. We got to see some blooming trees, which were very pretty. Central Park is great this time of year.

Riding through the Park

Wow! He can even self-take a picture while riding a bike! He's so talented.

One of the pretty trees we rode past

We exited the Park at the north end and continued on past Eric's original NYC digs and up through Harlem. Eric and I stopped at the first rest stop outside of the park, where I posted another Twitter update before we got back on our way.

From there it was just a short distance to our second borough of the tour: the Bronx. (Did you know the Bronx is the only piece of mainland U.S. in New York City?) We crossed over the Madison Avenue Bridge, rode briefly through the Bronx (where I popped the chain on my bike, but quickly fixed it and we were on our way), then back into Manhattan via the Third Avenue Bridge. That was it for the Bronx - one borough (and nine miles) down!

Crossing the Madison Avenue Bridge

Eric in the Bronx (we had just been stopped in a traffic jam, which is why he's standing - he didn't just randomly stop in the middle of traffic, not to worry.)

Crack is wack, yo.

Welcome back to Manhattan!

Once back in Manhattan, we hit another bottleneck, but weren't stuck for too long. We rode south along FDR drive, which is usually closed to cyclists. This part was pretty cool, with the Queensboro bridge visible off in the distance. We rode through a tunnel on our way, and everyone started hooting and hollering and ringing their bike bells, which was fun.

NYC Bike Tour Sunday on FDR Drive

Me (and Eric's elbow) riding through a tunnel

Riding towards the Queensboro Bridge, seen off in the distance!

What came next ended up being my favorite part of the tour. We rode over the Queensboro Bridge (and yes, I did start singing Simon and Garfunkel, as promised), which was so neat. It's a very cool structure and the views of the East River to the right and the left were fabulous. After the bridge we rode down a long ramp with stunning views of Manhattan, and past Silvercup Studios (where many TV shows/movies are filmed). Going down that ramp and seeing those sights after just having ridden over the Queensboro Bridge was without a doubt the most euphoric feeling I had all day. I was loving it. Plus, that ended our time in Manhattan - two boroughs down, three to go!

Cyclists approaching the Queensboro Bridge

Ready to head to Queens!

How cool is that bridge?

Again, let's marvel at Eric's photography-while-biking skills. He got both of us AND the view in the picture!

Riding down the off-ramp, with Manhattan in front of us

Quick picture during another brief traffic jam. See the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building behind me?

Eric, after having crossed that bridge behind him

Silvercup Studios

I have to stop for a second and mention how crappy my bike was. I mean, we knew our bikes weren't great, and we considered upgrading before this ride, but just couldn't quite afford to invest the money we would have needed to in order to make it worthwhile. And really, our little bikes served us just fine and got us through the ride with no trouble. But, EVERYBODY PASSED US. Me in particular. I was so slow! How? Even going down hills, I was super slow. Eric would just speed on ahead of me, and I'd catch up later. I can only assume that this is not my poor biking ability but rather my bike's fault. That's reasonable, right?

Now in Queens, we stopped at the Con Edison Learning Center rest stop to take a quick break and eat a little something. It was a great place to stop - at the foot of the bridge, with great Manhattan skyline views. They had live music, free bananas and places to fill up your water bottles. We snacked, updated the Twitter world of our progress, and took some pictures. Then it was right back on our bikes!

This is me telling the Internet that I'm still alive.

At the base of the Queensboro Bridge

In Queens, but with a great view of our favorite borough behind us!

We continued south through Queens, then into Brooklyn via the Pulaski Bridge (third borough and 22 miles down!). The start of the Brooklyn ride was actually pretty nice - not necessarily scenic, but just a nice, long stretch of flat road that enabled us to ride for quite some time uninterrupted.

Welcome to Brooklyn - like no other place in the world!

Riding through scenic Brooklyn

One thing that was kind of fun throughout the race was that there were often people on the side of the road cheering for the bikers. I have always been on their side of the fence, so to speak, as I am often spectating at Eric's athletic events and cheering him on. I have never been one of the people that the spectators are cheering for! It was weird and kind of fun to be on the other side of things, although I'm not sure I'll make a habit of it.

Before too long we were approaching Dumbo and the Brooklyn Bridge, another area I am familiar with. We rode past the long line at Grimaldi's Pizza and realized again how lucky we are to have a Grimaldi's that delivers in Hoboken! We decided to create our own rest stop and take a break at Brooklyn Bridge Park. We took some photos, and I texted family members to let them know that not only was I alive, I was feeling great with about 12 miles left to go. We also talked ourselves into getting some ice cream at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, which has fabulous ice cream. We figured, we don't get out here much, so why not?

Taking a rest break with the Brooklyn Bridge behind us

Eric enjoying his ice cream cone

My to-die-for strawberry ice cream cone. I don't even particularly love strawberry ice cream, but I could eat this strawberry ice cream every day of my life.

Eric is ashamed that we are eating ice cream while the rest of the tour zooms on by. Whatever, it was delicious.

We briefly mentioned to each other that the Brooklyn Bridge was sort of our last "out" - if we didn't feel like we could finish the whole tour, we could just ride back over to Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge and head home. But, "no way!" we said. We were feeling great and only had about 12 miles left. We could do 12 more miles, no problem. So, we hopped back on our bikes (realizing for the first time that our backsides might be starting to be displeased with the day's events) and continued on.

We rode for a bit before hitting yet another bottleneck. This one was the longest yet, with no apparent explanation for why we were stopped. Once again, we made the most of it even though we were eager to continue on to the finish.

Ready to tackle the second half of Brooklyn

Stopped again, but still having fun!

When we got moving again, we entered the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which is where everything went downhill. Well, first it went uphill (ha, corny joke) - I fought my way through one steep (to me, at least) incline, only to have my spirit crushed when I saw another big hill in front of me right away. I walked up that one. Shame, I know. I was trying to save my strength for the last bridge of the tour, which I heard was a doozy!

That sign reads "NYC Bike Tour Today: Expect Delays." We had no idea how ominous that sign would later prove to be.

Motoring my way through an uphill climb

Ah, busted. This is me being mad at Eric for taking pictures of me walking. Don't judge me!

We weren't back on our bikes but for a few minutes when we hit THE TRAFFIC JAM. The bottleneck to end all bottlenecks, and the reason for my (and many others') sincere dissatisfaction with this ride. We were stopped at a virtual standstill on this portion of the BQE for TWO HOURS. I wish that I were exaggerating. Thousands of us were just trapped there. After waiting an hour, we finally learned the hold-up was that construction narrowed the course to just one 12-foot lane up ahead, and that was causing the jam. The geniuses at Bike New York apparently felt that fitting 32,000 riders through a 12-foot space would be no problem. As a result, we sat. And then crept forward. And then sat some more. And then crept some more. FOR TWO HOURS.

The view in front of us on the BQE...

...and the view behind us. Thousands and thousands of people trapped.

Some people got so desperate to get moving that they crossed over the concrete barriers into oncoming highway traffic to try to get ahead. They ended up getting stopped up too, and eventually (though it took some time) NYPD decided to force them back over to the designated course. They then crowded in and cut in front of thousands who had been waiting longer.

This wait was not only inconvenient, it was potentially dangerous. We stood there for literally hours in the sun with no shade, no place to rest, no food and no water. People who had skipped the previous rest stop with the intent to hit the next one just a few miles away were left with nothing to eat or drink, and no bathroom facilities for hours. Thankfully I didn't witness it firsthand, but in the days after the race many stories surfaced about people having to just go to the bathroom in the street, in the middle of the crowd. Can you imagine? We were on an elevated roadway with absolutely no way out. There were no exits, and being elevated meant there was no simply walking off the course and calling it quits. There was no going back. We had absolutely no options but to stand there and wait, with no information as to why we were waiting or how much longer it would be. Even the Ride Marshals stuck in the crowd with us had no idea what was going on. People were sunburned, irritable, thirsty and uncomfortable. There were children and elderly stuck up there. Thankfully, at least to my knowledge, there were no serious medical emergencies, because if there had been, there would have been absolutely no way to reach the person in a timely manner.

This poor little girl fell asleep on her bike as we sat and sat.

Restless crowds, although really most people were far more patient than they should have been. It's a blessing we didn't end up with a riot on our hands.

The worst part was that Bike New York clearly knew about this construction ahead of time and knew it would be an issue. In their "here's what to expect on Tour Day" email the sent out a few days prior to the ride, they mentioned that "ongoing construction on the BQE" might cause a "bit of a jam." Bit of a jam?! This did not count as a "bit of a jam." This was more like "uh oh, we need to reroute the entire race" caliber. There were so many things they could have done to improve this situation, including a full reroute (at least to a street that was NOT elevated, thus allowing for exits as needed); providing notice at the Brooklyn Bridge that people should take that shortcut back to Manhattan to avoid the extensive delay; notifying people at the last rest stop before the jam that it would be their last available rest stop for over two hours; allowing people up onto the BQE in waves; or at the very least, figuring out a way to provide the poor stranded cyclists with necessities. It was just completely unacceptable.

Since Sunday, Bike New York's Facebook page has been inundated with negative comments from riders ranging from disappointed to completely irate, and rightly so. As of yesterday, however, Bike New York deleted all comments from their Facebook Page and closed it to comments. They issued a vague apology and apparently got tired of hearing about it. I also came across this blog post (before Facebook comments were shut down), which includes an open letter from the organizer of the SAG operations ("Support and Gear" - they provide help to cyclists who need it) about the absolutely appalling way this situation was approached beforehand. Of course, this is one person's account and I can't verify it, but judging by how things played out on Sunday, I am not inclined to doubt what is said in that letter.

By the time we finally got moving again, soreness had set in. Our muscles were tight, we had lost our momentum, the weather had turned cold and windy, and all our goodwill built up during the day had been dashed. All we wanted was to be done. We ached and were tired and just didn't have it in us anymore.

Of course, the next stretch of the course went along the waterfront, into a relentless head wind. It was cold and very difficult, and for the first time, I started to question if I would be able to finish. And looming ahead of us was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which we had heard was the toughest challenge of the entire ride.

I was hating life at this point.

This bad boy was looking pretty darn intimidating.

We bypassed the final rest stop before the Verrazano in favor of getting this awful ride over with as soon as possible. As we started the ride up the Verrazano, I knew I wouldn't make it. After that long, cold ride into the wind I felt completely exhausted. I dismounted to walk up and started to feel like I was having an asthma attack. My chest tightened up and I started wheezing, feeling like I couldn't breathe. I had asthma as a child, but haven't felt that feeling in probably 15-20 years. It scared the daylights out of me, especially knowing that any medical attention I may require was most likely still trapped back on the BQE. This attack may actually have been anxiety more than anything, as I wondered how on earth I would gut out the rest of this ride.

I don't know how I would have gotten past this point if it weren't for Eric. I know he was feeling completely spent too, but he didn't show it. He stopped me in my tracks and made me relax my breathing and drink some water. He switched our handlebar bag over to his bike to make my bike as light as possible. He walked slowly up the bridge with me and just having him there helped to calm me. We made it to the top of the bridge and felt a bit better, so we rode the rest of the way down. (That bridge went on FOREVER, though - it's 6,690 feet long!)

We weren't the only ones walking up the bridge, but more people rode than I expected! Good for them!

Views of Brooklyn and Manhattan from the Verrazano

And at the end of the bridge - at long, long last - was the POST-RACE FESTIVAL. In Staten Island, our FINAL BOROUGH! I felt such a sense of relief after crossing that finish line! I wish that it had been nothing but joy and pride in my accomplishment, but unfortunately, thanks to that two-hour traffic jam, I was just glad it was over. I promptly flopped on the grass and vowed to never move again.

Crossing the finish line!

Posing with a crazy "You Made It!" guy


We are spent.

But, alas, I did have to move. And here comes the other thing about that two-hour traffic jam that really bothers me: by the time we reached the festival, they were shutting it down! All the vendors, including free food and drinks (Snapple, chocolate milk, etc.) were packing up and there was nothing left to enjoy. I heard after the fact that even the food-for-purchase was mostly gone. We got in line for our free photo, and were told we may not get to have it taken because they were closing at 5:00 (we arrived at the festival at 4:45). They ended up keeping it open for another hour (so we did get a picture, which I posted in my "I Did It!!" post), but we were so frustrated that this festival, funded I'm sure with our $80/person entry fees, was closed to us by the time we arrived thanks to THEIR poor planning. Unbelievable!

With nothing left to enjoy at the festival, we got back on our bikes to ride the remaining three miles from the festival to the Staten Island Ferry. Although this ride was fairly easy, I just kept repeating what had become my mantra of the day: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!" Do you remember that from Finding Nemo? I got that into my head as I forced myself to "just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling" up a difficult hill, and all day long it kept popping into my mind when I started feeling tired or like I wanted to stop. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming... I "just kept swimming" for all three miles back to that ferry. FINISHED.

VIDEO: "Just keep swimming!" from Finding Nemo

But, not so fast. As I mentioned, we arrived at the post-race festival at 4:45. It took us another THREE HOURS to get home. We had the three-mile ride to the ferry terminal, then waited FOREVER for a ferry. We were freezing, exhausted, hungry and all around miserable. I was filthy and wanted nothing more than a shower, food and a couch.

Somehow, my legs got ridiculously dirty.

Huddling together for warmth as we waited for the ferry

We were finally herded like cattle onto a ferry and made the long (cold) trip back to Manhattan.

Tired cyclists crammed onto a ferry

We're exhausted, but we're still smiling!

We then had to do the two-trains thing again, thanks to the weekend track schedule. Of course, we had long waits for each train. At one point we nearly got on the wrong train, and in our hurry to jump back off, I slammed my ankle HARD with the pedal of my bike. Owwwww.

We were so exhausted and sick of the whole thing we seriously considered just abandoning our bikes on the side of the road so we wouldn't have to lug them around anymore. I'm sorry, bike. I know that's no way to think about you after you served me so well (albeit slowly) on this ride. But it was just too much. (Not to worry, our bikes did end up making it home with us.)

We finally got home at 8:00 p.m. We were gone for 14 hours that day, and only six of those hours were spent riding. The remaining eight hours were spent traveling and waiting around. How sad that we spent as much time standing around (2 hours at the start, 2 hours on the BQE, 2 hours for a ferry and more miscelleaneous stops throughout) as we did riding our bikes on this bike tour!

When we got home I jumped in the shower immediately, where I tried to scrub the "dirt" off the back of my legs, only to realize that "dirt" was actually bruises. The bruises on my legs turned out to be the most painful part of my recovery. All my muscles were sore for a day or two, of course, but those bruises live on.

The badly bruised back of my right leg. That ankle is also the one I slammed into with the pedal. Although the ankle bruise doesn't look too bad, it still hurts today.

Overall, I would say I was fairly disappointed with this tour. We did have a lot of fun at the beginning, but it is such a shame that the poor planning at the back half of the ride eclipsed all our fun memories of the first half and now the negative is what sticks in our minds. I certainly do not plan on doing this ride again. The only way I would even consider it would be with a greatly reduced entry fee, and then I would cut myself off at the Brooklyn Bridge to save time. But really, I have no intention of ever participating in another Bike New York event after the debacle we were were a part of on Sunday.

But now, back to my optimistic blogging: the best part of the day was getting to spend all that uninterrupted time with Eric. We had such a great time together, doing something so different, something neither of us has ever done before. We had fun together and struggled together, and emerged triumphant together. I'm so proud of us for accomplishing it, even with those hiccups along the way. We did it!


moderndaywife said...

Wow you rock for finishing it, that two hour wait sounds horrendous!!! :-(

Jessica Renee said...

Girlfriend! I am amazed by you, that is some serious stuff and you got through it like a champ! I can't even imagine how awful all the waiting and traveling was but you made it through and you can be proud of yourself! :)

Steph said...

You are awesome! I'm so proud that you finished. How horrible about the 2 hour delay. I would have panicked....

KSK said...

What an accomplishment!! I feel kind of claustrophobic looking at the traffic jam photos though!

Molly said...

Congratulations, Meghan and Eric, this is quite the accomplishment! I got tired just reading about it :)

Anonymous said...

What a great post Meghan. I could fell your pain.....
Loved the title of your post! So glad you and Eric were able to finish-what an accomplishment. Hope your bruises heal quickly.
Love, Aunt Rachel

Sara said...

Wow girl you have some wicked battle wounds, those look painful! Sorry the organizers let everyone down but you DID IT! And you looked great! Awesome job!!!

KT @ KT's Refinishing School said...

Wow that is a rough day--I congratulated you before when I had no idea what you had been through that day but my hat is definitely off to you for sticking it out. Hopefully the race organizers will take your feedback to heart and make changes for next year so something like this doesn't happen again!

That ice cream cone looks delicious though :)