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Reflections on New York's Great Five Boro Bike Tour.

There are only two kinds of cyclists: those who have fallen, and those who are going to fall. While I belong in the former category, she was in the latter.

For the past several decades, on the first Sunday morning in May, some thirty thousand bicyclists descend on lower Manhattan to begin the Great Five Boro Bicycle Tour, a forty-two mile ride through each of the city's boroughs. The tour begins at 8:00 a.m., when the police close the roads and the riders go up through the canyons of lower Manhattan to the bucolic environment of Central Park. Exiting the park puts cyclists back in the urban setting of Harlem, where they cross Manhattan Island on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd lined with apartment buildings; it's nice to see all the people dressed for church who smile and wave as we roll by to ride over the Madison Avenue Bridge to enter the Bronx. After a short ride through a light industrial district, it is over the Third Avenue Bridge to reenter Manhattan and wheel down the East Side on the FDR. With the East River on the left and the city on the right, riders approach Roosevelt Island before taking a couple of ninety degree right turns and then facing the steepest climb so far to access the 59th Street Bridge to Queens. The turns and the ascent cause us to ease off the pace and accept Simon and Garfunkel's admonition to "slow down, you move too fast / you've got to make the morning last." Once on the bridge deck and over Roosevelt Island, we pick up speed and cruise along to Astoria Park, where the first part of the tour is held for forty-five minutes at a mandatory stop to compress the riders, making the road closings less of a burden for motorized traffic. Along the East River, Astoria Park is near Hell Gate and the north entrance to New York Harbor. The MASI stop near the site of the city's second worst disaster. On June 15, 1904, carrying 1,358 passengers plus crew, the side wheeler General Slocum left its Lower Manhattan berth, not far from where the Five Boro Bike Tour now starts. Filled with German-American immigrants on their way to a picnic on Long Island's North Shore, the boat caught fire and sank before the captain could beach it on North Brother Island, within sight of Astoria Park. Over 1,000 people died; only 321 passengers survived.

Leaving the park, riders learn why Queens is the "Borough of Homes"--we pass through several residential neighborhoods on our way to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Because we have the Expressway's southbound side to ourselves, drivers on the northbound side, which is usually congested due to rubberneckers watching the cyclists cruise along, frequently direct epithets in our direction. Once in Brooklyn, the tour leaves the expressway and meanders through old industrial neighborhoods on its way toward the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, the embarkation point for millions of soldiers bound for the European Theatre of World War Two. Riders then enter the Shore Parkway to reach Brooklyn's residential neighborhood of Fort Hamilton, where they travel over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the finish at Staten Island. The approach to the bridge represents the steepest climb on the tour. Once on the bridge's four thousand two hundred and sixty foot center span-the longest in the United States and the eighth longest in the world--the views are spectacular. Coasting down toward the toll booths, we enter the Festival at Fort Wadsworth, a part of Gateway National Park. After enjoying the music, display booths, food, and camaraderie at the park, riders saddle up to complete the final three miles to take the ferry back to the start at Battery Park.
   I had done the tour for several years when I invited my girlfriend
   to come along and join me as a MASI marshal. How many
   invitations, lashed her, do you get to lead thirty thousand
   bicyclists through New York City? In Brooklyn, she fell.

I grew up in Queens Village, New York City, where my parents bought me a one-speed Rollfast, which I learned to ride with my brother's help. With my friends, we rode to each other's houses, to a variety of parks, along the Vanderbilt Parkway, to school, and on youth group picnics. Since you had to be eighteen before you could earn a driver's license in the city, we bicycled until we scattered to go to college. Like others of my generation, as soon as I could, I got a driver's license and left the Rollfast to rust in the garage. Only after many years as an adult did I develop a passion for bicycle touring. Spending a weekend on eastern Long Island for some organized bicycle tours, I heard a couple of riders discussing the logistics of organizing the Great Five Boro Bike Tour, the largest bicycle event in the United States. Intrigued by the idea of riding through New York City traffic free, I got an application. When the information arrived, it included a space to check if I wanted to be a marshal. Knowing I possessed at least adequate bicycle skills, 1 checked yes and, lo and behold, I received a confirmation that I was a member of the Madison Bridge team.

To make the ride happen as smoothly as possible requires the help of one thousand volunteers, divided into two groups. The Tour Corps sets up and manages riders checking in, staffs several rest stops along the route, and oversees the Festival. The other group consists of teams of riding marshals who, under the direction of captains, are divided into teams and assigned to different sections of the route. They are issued yellow vests and instructed to control bicycle traffic at choke points along the route where riders have to negotiate turns, downhills, or road hazards. In addition to keeping the tour moving safely, marshals offer directions, make minor repairs, or whatever else might be needed. In exchange, marshals get a T-shirt, lunch, and preferred boarding treatment at the Staten Island Ferry slip, the only way back to the start at Manhattan's Battery Park. To handle the increased traffic, the ferry company puts extra boats in service; still, for Tour participants, the line to the pier is several blocks long, meaning a thirty to forty-five minute wait. Marshals are able to avoid the queue and ride directly to the ferry slip.
   She had led the tour to Astoria Park with the first MASI team, and
   then became a roiling marshal for the rest of the tour.

Most teams ride out early and set up at their designated location to be ready when the 1bur arrives. In addition, two special teams control the speed: the MASI, the front line riders who set the pace for the tour at fifteen miles an hour as they provide a barrier to keep the hotdogs from getting ahead of the police escort, and the H LIFFY riders, who bring up the rear and keep the tail moving at no less than eight miles an hour and make sure that all riders stay ahead of the police rearguard.

MASI marshals begin arriving at the start line about 7:15 a.m. and, by 7:45, they are all there. Earlier the MASI's have been divided into two teams, after the fashion of the Pony Express. The first team leads the tour through Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens as far as the Astoria Park mid-point rest stop, while the second starts off a few minutes before 8:00, rides directly to the 59th Street Bridge, and then on to Astoria Park. There, they await the Tour's arrival, and after the forty-five minute hold, they lead the tour through the rest of Queens into Brooklyn and over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the finish at Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth. For several minutes before the start the MASI captains lead both teams through the chant, "This is a tour; this is not a race," though it is doubtful any of the wannabe Yellow Jerseys lined up behind hear or understand the meaning. They are all anxious to see who can be first to Astoria Park and then first to the finish. Even though the MASI ride in a tight formation, someone usually manages to break through, at which point a MASI sprints ahead to bring back the bandit.
   Although she was an experienced cyclist who had ridden several
   centuries, the term for an organized bicycle ride of 100 miles,
   this was her first time in the Big Apple. I told her it would be
   fun. It was also one of our early dates, and I sure didn't want it
   to end with her in the hospital or worse.

Falling and the Great Five Boro Bicycle Tour have a lot in common. No, I've never fallen on that ride, but their similarities come in the speed with which they occur. When I ride as a MASI, my tour begins with a phalanx of motorcycle police officers starting their engines and moving up 6th Avenue. It usually ends in the mid afternoon when I get off the ferry at Battery Park and pedal back to my car. The ride, the time in the park, and the ferry crossing all go so quickly that I generally don't realize it's over. That's similar to falling--one second I'm upright, and the next second I'm lying on the ground wondering how I got there. In both cases, the reflection on the event is usually as significant as the event itself.

I don't race; I tour and travel by bicycle, and I ride very conservatively. Not long after I started riding seriously, someone told me about the two kinds of cyclists. Though I had been riding for years and though my skills and reflexes were excellent, I was riding to class--in my other life, I teach history at Ashland University, a small private college in north central Ohio--when 1 reached over to adjust my left glove and found myself lying on my neighbor's lawn. The only part hurt was my pride. "Oh, well," I said brushing myself off, "at least I don't have to worry about that anymore."

Not having the vaguest idea what a marshal would do, or where Madison Bridge was, I arrived as instructed at Battery Park at 5:00 Sunday morning. I met my captains and, along with the rest of the team, rode up Manhattan, well before the tour started, to Madison Bridge. Because we started about 6:00 a.m. before the police closed the roads, we had to contend with a little traffic on 6th Avenue, through Central Park, and then in upper Manhattan. Riding the eight and one-half miles to the bridge at a leisurely pace, we arrived about 7:30 a.m., about the same time the police closed the roadway. Once there, the captains dispersed us to direct riders around potential hazards. Accompanied by an experienced marshal, I was on the Bronx side of the bridge, instructed to steer riders away from some trolley tracks that had never been taken up. Tracks of any sort are potentially a serious threat to bicyclists, since the bicycle's wheel can drop into the slot for the flange on the trolley wheels and flip the rider off.

Marshal down!

The captains indicated that each marshal had several responsibilities. First and foremost, I had to complete my specific assignment--warn approaching cyclists about the dangers of the trolley tracks while waving them away. It took an hour before anything happened and then I saw police cars, followed by a platoon of motorcycle police, and then the MASI marshals bearing down on me. Then, the roadway disappeared as thousands of bicyclists poured over the bridge. For almost two hours, I directed riders away from the tracks. I completed my primary assignment--no one fell on MY trolley tracks. After most of the riders had passed, the captain told me to saddle up and join the tour, at which point I became a "rolling marshal," and my responsibilities shifted. The overall assignment is to spot and prevent problems due to road hazards, crowding, and inexperience among the riders. Since it is inevitable that some riders fall, marshals are instructed to control the scene to prevent more riders from going down. To do this, I provided a visible presence, keeping the riders on the route, encouraging the tired and weak, providing information and answering questions, the most common being "how far to the next rest stop, and will there be bathrooms?" Then, there were the mechanical problems--flat tires, chains that have jumped off the sprocket, and other simple repairs. Major breakdowns generally put the rider on the side of the road waiting for one of the sag wagons that follow the HUFFY riders to pick up those who cannot complete the tour due to mechanical problems, exhaustion, or the lack of will.

Great, I thought, as I wheeled through the Bronx and headed toward the Third Avenue Bridge. Ahead of me, I saw a swarm of bicyclists, most of them walking. Even though marshals urged the walkers to move to the edges of the road, there were so many who found the ramp up to the bridge too steep to ride that they created a bottleneck, causing a chain reaction and slowing down the entire tour. Even if I thought the route was flat to slightly rolling, I had to keep in mind that such terms are relative. To people who probably never ride forty-two miles in one day, and who probably don't ride more than a few hundred miles during a good year, the Five Boro, especially coming as early in the season as it does, is a major challenge.
   I don't know who yelled it. I was too busy stopping to direct
   traffic around the accident to care.

Once over the bridge, I remounted as the tour curved around and under the bridge onto the FDR. Glorious! Gliding along with thousands of bicyclists, I enjoyed the sun and the water. I cruised on the smooth pavement at eighteen miles an hour with a fellow marshal who actually knew of Ashland, Ohio. Together, we passed many riders, working our way closer to the front of the pack. At this point, about one-third of the way through the ride, the MASI riders were over an hour ahead of the HUFFY riders; by the Verrazano Bridge, the gap had increased to nearly four hours, despite a mandatory forty-five minute rest stop at Astoria Park for the MASI and the head of the tour.
   We were in Brooklyn, not quite to the Navy Yard, and I knew she was
   going to Jail. I could tell an accident was about to occur, but I
   didn't have the time to prevent it.

The tour left the FDR and I rode up and over the 59t" Street Bridge, "feeling groovy," and then through residential and commercial neighborhoods in Queens to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. While on the BQE, another marshal flagged me down to assist with an accident. The fallen rider was moaning, so I knew he wasn't dead, but he couldn't get off the pavement. With the EMT's working on him, I needed to make sure they didn't get run over. I went back about fifty feet and starting waving the bicyclists to the right so there wouldn't be another accident. Wouldn't you know it--some hotdog not paying any attention ran into me! He looked up at the last second, jammed on the brakes, but couldn't stop. Just before impact, I moved to my left and he bounced off me, continuing around the fallen rider. I did hear him yell "Sorry." The EMT's put the guy on a back board, strapped him down, and then put him in the waiting ambulance. With lights and siren, they started for the nearest ramp and then the hospital.
   She was riding on my left when the rider in front of her lost
   control of his bicycle, taking her out as well. Then, the rider in
   front of me turned his head to see what had happened and he went
   down, nearly taking me out.

Over the years, I'd seen several accidents like that. One time when I was a MASI, we led the tour through Queens, where we made a series of quick turns from a two-lane road to the next with four lanes before another turn to a two-lane road. In instances like this, it is hard for the MASI to maintain control, as other riders find an opportunity to squeeze in. That had happened on this particular tour and, just as we made a ninety degree right turn, the road narrowed and several of the hotdogs next to me got squeezed out. One lost control of his bicycle and flew, horizontally, for several feet before crashing, probably bringing down several of the riders behind him.

The worst part is I usually never learn how any of those riders fared. On a later tour, however, on the BQE, I saw marshals directing traffic away from the curb lane. Since they had the situation in hand, I continued riding. Though I did not see the accident, the rider on the ground did not look good. Later, after I had packed up my bicycle and was driving home, I heard on the news that two people had died on the ride. One had fallen and hit his head on the curb, causing irreversible brain damage. I learned later that he had died and that the family had volunteered several organs for donation.

The other fatality had a history of heart trouble, and had suffered a massive heart attack. Undoubtedly, the fallen rider I had passed on the BQE was one of these fatalities.
   I saw the collision and I knew from the way she fell that she
   wasn't seriously injured, but I was still scared. I also knew that
   the best help I could give her was to follow the marshal's
   instructions: take charge and keep approaching riders away from the

On a happier note, one of the more interesting aspects of the tour is watching the unusual bicyclists. A rider I'd seen several times alternates between riding a red or yellow bicycle and an outfit of the opposite color. Hundreds of riders decorate their helmets, some with shark fins, others with rabbit ears or balloons, but the really creative dress in various outlandish costumes. Once I saw a guy on a unicycle, wearing an outfit that completely covered him in crushed aluminum cans. Families enjoy the tour, with Dad and Morn on a tandem with a tagalong for a child or sometimes pulling a trailer with a sleeping infant or two. Though rare, I've seen families on bicycles with three, four and even five saddles. Such were popular at amusement parks and on boardwalks early in the twentieth century. Each year, the tour enjoys the company of more bicycle police who come from different precincts in the city. They are in uniform, riding the mountain bicycles they use on patrol. Neighborhoods like the bicycle police. They have greater mobility than officers on foot patrol, and they eliminate the barrier between citizen and officer created by the squad car.
   I grabbed the first passing marshal, and the two of us slowed the
   approaching riders as we moved them to the right of the fallen
   bicyclists. It seemed like hours, but I know it was more like
   seconds when I heard the other marshal say, "It's okay, they're

For me, the prettiest part of the ride is along the Shore Parkway in Brooklyn. When you look to your right, you can see the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. When you look out ahead, you see the Lower Bay, which usually has several freighters riding at anchor, and above it the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. You can smell the salt air, and there's usually the bicyclist's best friend, a tailwind. As you ride along with the sun glinting off the water, a careful look at the bridge reveals the bicyclists ahead going over on the lower level. One year, approaching the Parkway, I saw a marshal at the top of a hill with his bull horn set to siren. Looking ahead, at the foot of the hill, I saw a knot of bicyclists, which indicated an accident. Slowing, I stopped to direct approaching bicyclists away from the fallen rider. As instructed, I grabbed two other passing marshals and together formed a wedge, allowing the EMT's to attach both a cervical collar and a back board to the injured rider. After ten minutes or so, we stopped traffic completely so the rider could be moved to the ambulance.
   In a couple of minutes, all the riders were moving. She had scraped
   her elbow a little bit when she hit the pavement, but otherwise she
   wasn't hurt. Maybe even more importantly, she wasn't mad or upset.
   I guess she too was glad that was over.

After one of the tours, while sitting on the grass at the Festival eating lunch, a rider came up, asking, "Where did you get real food?" Explaining that it was reserved for marshals, he wanted to know what marshals did. Always looking for volunteers, I explained the duties and suggested that if he planned to ride next year, he might volunteer and join the marshals in a yellow vest. Like the majority of Five Boro tourists, he was a casual bicyclist, and he felt the requirements were more demanding than his skills permitted. But as he turned to go he said, "Thanks, marshal," a simple sentiment that made it all worthwhile. Without question, those words were the best perk of all.

She must have enjoyed the tour because she went again the next year, and for several years after that. She stopped doing the tour after we married and had a daughter. That first ride was the only time she fell.
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Author:Jamieson, Duncan R.
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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