Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the items on our Tourist To-Do List, but how to do it was up for grabs until the day we showed up at the South Street Seaport for a tour and spied Blazing Saddles, a vendor that rented bicycles by the hour. Each came equipped with a map that was marked up for a tour of the area, including a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge. Could it sound more perfect? I think not!
So on Friday morning, after stopping by the ticket booth on Fulton Street to see if there were any half-price tickets to the Broadway smash hit Book of Mormon and walking away sadly disappointed again, we headed down to the pier to rent bikes, or rather, a bike: they had a tandem Schwinn that looked to us like it might be a lot of fun. We’d never ridden a tandem together before, but how hard could it be, right? The guy renting the bikes showed us how it worked, took an impression of our credit card, strapped helmets on our heads and sent us on our way. Easy-peasy.
I’ve no doubt that, if we’d had a few days instead of two hours to practice riding a tandem together, we might’ve gotten good enough at it that we would’ve had the time to look around and enjoy ourselves, but here’s the thing: There were an awful lot of people on the bike path — walkers, skaters, bikers, people standing on their hands. On my own bike I would’ve felt confident enough to take a look around while easily threading my way between them, but that tandem steered like a cow. A twenty-foot-long cow.
Each time I lined up the bike to thread our way through a gap in the crowd, another pedestrian would wander into our way, or another bicyclist would whoosh past us and cut me off, or My Darling B would lean to one side to get a glimpse of something my head was blocking her view of. Any one of a dozen changes like this would require me to make a new adjustment to our trajectory, and very often all those things would happen simultaneously. I felt as though, if I took my attention off the people around us for even a second, I would probably hit every single one of them!
So the only time when I could look around and see any of the sights was when we stopped. That ended up happening more often than not, as it turned out. Like the time we had to stop so I could grab a stick off the ground and use it as a lever to get the chain around the gearwheel. It had jumped off when I shifted into the lowest gear. Luckily we were on a side street where there wasn’t a lot of traffic, and not a hundred yards further on, up the rather steep approach to the Manhattan Bridge, where suddenly losing the ability to crank the bike forward would have been about as bad as it could be. If you’re going to rent a bike from a vendor, by the way, take it for a spin. Ride it like you’re trying to break it. You don’t want to be a mile away from the vendor and find out that the shifter is crap or the tires are under-inflated. Voice of experience talking here.
As we rode away from the pier and under the Brooklyn Bridge, we were supposed to turn left and follow a side street to the on-ramp. We tried several times to do that but couldn’t find how to thread our way through the construction that was taking place along the road beside the bike path. Concrete barriers had been set up and, although there was one gap in them, it didn’t appear to line up with the street we were meant to take. The bike path continued along the East River toward the Manhattan Bridge, however, so we decided to do our trip ass-backwards and cross into Brooklyn on the Manhattan Bridge first, get a good look at the Brooklyn Bridge that way and maybe get the hang of riding together on the tandem.
Riding along the bike trail built our confidence a bit as there were only a few people walking or riding along it. Then we had to turn off the bike trail, ride through the neighborhood at the base of the bridge and thread our way up the entrance onto the walkway along the side of the bridge. I don’t even remember how we did that. It’s all sort of a blur of weaving through traffic while trying not to run any red lights. Other than that, I’m afraid I have to admit I suffered a sort of sensory overload and couldn’t even move my lips to answer B when she repeatedly asked me where I was going and what I was doing. Somehow, though, we ended up circling around a ramp up to the bridge and setting off across it.
We ended up on the upriver side of the bridge. Maybe there was a way to get to the walkway on the downriver side, which would’ve given us a great view of the Brooklyn Bridge, as I’d hoped, instead of the slightly less picturesque views of the electric power substations and abandoned docks of Brooklyn. Oh, well. At least there weren’t too many people on the walkway, although it would’ve been nice to have that low gear on the climb up to the middle of the bridge. We were able to pass the lady in the pink jogging outfit when we first got on the bridge but quickly got so tired and sweaty that she easily passed us halfway up the climb and we didn’t catch her again until we were coasting down the other side.
After we reached Brooklyn – chaos! We had only the dimmest notion about how to get to the Brooklyn Bridge. The map they’d given us was little help; not all the streets were labeled, and they’d intended for us to go from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Manhattan Bridge, not the other way around, so we had to find our own way through the back streets. Again, it’s a blur to me now, although I do remember that the traffic wasn’t too bad and that, once we’d made our way through the business district to a park at the base of the bridge, we were able to go slow and look around. Didn’t help, though. We looked at every map we had but couldn’t figure out how to bicycle up to the entrance to the bridge. Eventually we found a pedestrian stairway and carried the bike up. Several other bicyclists were doing it, and we were at our wit’s end, so B grabbed the back end of the bike and I grabbed the front and up we went.
When I thought of biking across the Brooklyn Bridge, I had a picture in my mind of a wide lane that we would easily go sailing along, without a care in the world, looking this way, looking that at the sights of the New York skyline. In actual fact, there’s a photo on the vendor’s web site showing two people doing exactly that. BUT: Bicyclists share a boardwalk with pedestrians that runs down the middle of the bridge above the traffic lanes and appears to be about ten or twelve feet wide. There’s a white line painted down the middle of the boardwalk, and on one side of the line there’s the classic stick figure of a walking man to indicate the pedestrian lane, while on the other side of the line there’s a stick figure on a bike to indicate the bike lane.
The pedestrians pay no attention whatever to the line. They only shy away from the bike lane when bikers whizzing by nearly run them down. And the New Yorkers making their way on bike across the bridge, as they probably do every day of the week, were flying fearlessly through the crowds of people, and around the dorky old slowpoke tourists like us, as effortlessly as you would sidestep a telephone pole. I don’t know how, but they did.
As for us, I don’t know how we crossed the bridge without hitting someone. It was difficult enough to pick our way through the people on the uphill side where there was a little room for error, but on the downhill side it was terrifying – or, as My Darling B put it, “exhilarating!” The bridge was in the middle of a multi-billion dollar refurbishment, so the walkway on the downhill side was a gauntlet of steel shutters that narrowed the walkway even more. B started yelling “On Your Right!” when a woman stopped, looked up to admire the view and began to step back into the bike lane in front of us. I had already put all our momentum behind zigging out of the way of another biker and really thought she was going down under the wheels of our bike until B yelled and the woman jumped out of the way.
When we finally got to the Manhattan side I pulled off into a park to regain some sense of composure and powow with B to plan for the next stage of our ride. We had been thinking about riding back down the East River bike path to Battery Park and, if we felt we could keep going, north along the Hudson River to visit the parks there, then double back to the pier to turn in our bike. B was still up for it, so off we went.
We had to ride past the South Street Seaport, which is where tourists buses stop and throngs of tourists off-load, gathering in the bike lane before marching off, in the bike lane, to whatever sights they’ve stopped to see along the river front. We had to dismount in order to cross through the streams of people, but once we were through we got back on the bike and shaved past them by yelling “On Your Right!” over and over while picking up speed. It worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, and it worked there, too. They jumped out of our way like scared mice.
Just past the pier there was a lot of construction that narrowed the bike lane to about three feet, and it was choked with pedestrians. No amount of yelling would make them jump out of our way – there was no place for them to jump to. We had to get off the bike again and walk it between the orange plastic fences, excusing ourselves as we poked each passing tourist with the handlebars. After walking maybe 50 yards there was room to one side to pull off the path. The construction and the narrowed path went on as far as we could see, so I proposed to B that we turn around while we were still close enough to the rental place and return the bikes now. That way we would have the rest of the afternoon to walk wherever we wanted without having to drag a tandem bicycle with us wherever we went. She agreed, and back we went.
To wrap up: A fun tour, an exhilarating ride across the Brooklyn Bridge, but riding a bike to Battery Park is not the way to go while all that construction is going on, and make sure your bike works before you leave.