My Bicycle Commute
On the secret adventures of the (surprising) distance between Ossining and NYC
The secret to a good adventure, I have long believed, is not to plan too much. (I realize others may see the matter differently). At this I am, at risk of sounding immodest, skilled. So when my smirking wife unloaded me and my sleek 21-speed somewhere near the intersection of Routes 117 and 9A at 9:18 am, I injected my feet into the pedal straps with the assurance that I didn’t really have a clue how I was going to propel myself from there to my place of employment in Greenwich Village.
A quick inventory of what I did know: Greenwich Village is due south of Ossining, where I have lived for some months. Something called, at one point, the North County Trailway and, at another, the South County Trailway seems to run in that direction as far as Yonkers. Yonkers is rather urban and, consequently, likely to be not that far from Manhattan.
I also had the advantage of being a veteran bicycle commuter. This was not always the case. Before the year 2003, I was just another child of the sixties, ensconced in a soulless suburb and lamenting the fact that I didn’t have a job to which I could commute by bike.
It was only after I met someone (a child of the eighties, to be sure) who lived near me, and worked not too far uptown from me, and managed to ride his bike to work approximately all the time, that I realized I already had such a job. So I became one of those middle-aged individuals—in a too-bright, too-tight costume—who occasionally swerves in front of your car or squeezes a two-wheeler into your crowded Manhattan elevator. My colleagues were impressed or said they were impressed (unless we shared an elevator, in which case they mostly said nothing). My wife occasionally verged on tolerant. My knees got tan.
This was when our brood was settled in Alpine, New Jersey—on the other side of the Hudson, just seven miles north of the George Washington Bridge. I hadn’t been living in Ossining, literally a stone’s throw from Sing Sing, too long before I realized that it was, like, far—much farther from Manhattan. But colleagues kept asking, with a chuckle, “Did you ride your bike in today?” And fearful of losing my image as a stand-out-from-the-crowd, tip-top-shape kind of guy, I Googled “bike Westchester trail,” saw those two County Trailways, had my not entirely supportive wife drop me at a trailhead and set off— heading, as best I could determine, south.
It was a sunny, early spring day. The path ran smooth and fast, and I, infused with the spirit of adventure, felt strong. This was important because—while I have a job with, as they say, “flexible hours”—before leaving home, I chanced to look at my schedule and noticed a meeting, with a couple of fellows in from Norway, lurking there at noon. Now noon and 9:18 am may seem, at first glance, to occupy different universes, but I had had in mind leaving myself four or so hours to wend my way to the Village—allowing proper time for appreciating the complex suburban-then-urban tableau, figuring out where the heck I was going, and huffing and puffing. Now I had a meager two hours and forty-two minutes.
Fortunately, the trees, then clothed only in a pastel fuzz, rapidly began whizzing by. The winds, demonstrating their usual fondness for the unmoored, were blowing from the north. Twenty minutes passed, and I zipped under a highway, quickly identifying it as 287. If I could be in Yonkers by 10:30, I might have a shot.
There comes a point in every great bike ride when thoughts turn to Lance Armstrong. It had arrived. Lacking only a motorcycle escort, a cheering crowd, and allegations of drug use, I flew ahead. Not a soul, of either sex, passed me. (True, I didn’t pass anyone either; indeed, that day I can’t say I spotted many—or any—other Westchester-Manhattan bicycle commuters.) My legs pumped piston-like. My eyes stared resolutely ahead. Nothing hurt excessively. I’m not generally known for speed; however I raced—that’s the only word for it—under another highway. Could it be the Cross County already? Time? Why only about ten o’clock!
Then the bike path ended, without explanation. Yonkers? I hit a cul de sac. I asked directions (not recommended for a truly first-rate adventure but I did have that meeting). I was told the bike path could be re-entered off a certain Route 119. I have had only a handful of months to master Westchester’s thoroughfares; however, there was something about the number of that road that sounded dangerously familiar and dangerously close to the number of the road at which I had started my journey. I looked around me and read some signs. This was not Yonkers. That last road I had just passed under must have been 287. I was still somewhere in the vicinity of Tarrytown—no further south than the Tappen Zee.
Back on the Trailway—tires still firm but sense of prowess deflated. How exactly to explain being late to a noon meeting in my office to gentlemen who had made it there from Norway? I was peddling hard, running on heavy fuel: panic. The path continued, paralleling, mostly at a pleasant distance, the Saw Mill River Parkway.
Brief historical note: these County Trailways follow the right-of-way of the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad, once known as the “Old Put.” This line was shut down in 1958, before we realized how important it is to preserve such mass-transit systems even if you charge so much to ride them that it’s cheaper to ride solo in a gas guzzler. Bike riding, I note, is cheaper than going by car. But it is undeniably slower. It was 10:30. Then it was 10:45.
The path ended again. And there it was: a sign on some sort of enterprise that undeniably contained the word, “Yonkers.” That was cheering, but now I had to navigate city streets. My strategy—not formed with the benefit of a map, not followed with the benefit of a map—was to turn right until I found a street that runs parallel to the river and then turn left on that street. The only problem—unanticipated, need I note—was that looking to the right, presumably toward the river, meant looking up.
It is, I realize, bad form for a newcomer to a locale to level a criticism at that locale. Nonetheless, I can’t help noting that, compared to other New York-area suburbs, this Westchester of ours has many, many steep hills. There I was, although Yonkers would not seem a particularly rural or rugged municipality, staring at a hefty one. And by this point my legs were tuckered; I was tuckered. But, intrepidly, I turned right and began to climb. And climb. I started thinking of myself as “Old Put.” I wondered whether I should be shut down.
Then, near the top of this ascent, I ran out of road. Dead ends here, there, everywhere. Nothing is worse for an adventure than retracing your path—especially when your path was steep. Once again I was reduced to asking for help and was directed, by a kind native, to some steps that took me around a school and to a new, non-dead-end road.
Downhill. Uphill. Downhill. And I found a street, Riverdale Avenue, that did, indeed, parallel the river. Soon we were joined by the Henry Hudson Parkway, with which I was familiar. The Bronx passed by in a blur.
Since Manhattan is an island, I was alert to the fact that soon, likely enough, there would be a river to cross. And I was of the definite opinion that the bridge that carried the Henry Hudson Parkway over the Harlem River did not allow bicycles (a misconception, I later learned). So I hung a left, found another bridge—the Broadway Bridge—and made my triumphant entry into Manhattan. Time: 11: 16 am Broadway led to Dyckman Street, and all I had to do was follow the cute little green sign with a picture of a bicycle onto the path that runs down along the Hudson River (by the Little Red Lighthouse).
This part was easy and familiar. That tailwind held, and two-thirds of an hour later I was below 14th Street. Then a left—heading east across the West Village, making most of the lights—and I landed in my office at 12:14, clammy but overflowing with endorphins. By 12:27, I was rehydrated, pit-stopped, and changed into something vaguely resembling business attire. The Norwegian guys proved gracious.
But the Norwegian guys, not having a sure sense of where Westchester sat in relation to our current position, could not supply what, at that moment, I most required: a big, fat “Wow!” It was difficult to imagine my wife mouthing such a word without sarcasm, and I couldn’t bring my great accomplishment up in conversation with all that many others without appearing to do what I was, in fact, doing: bragging. I was left, consequently, to rely on that often elusive reward: self-satisfaction. It came.
The moral? There are so many. One could wax poetic on the virtues of cluelessness. One could insist upon the benefits to society if more of us became self propelled (despite New York City’s unsatisfactory experiment with that in December 2005): Indeed, by my calculations if just 60 percent of those who motor from Westchester to Manhattan on weekdays instead pedaled, the air (outside, not in meeting rooms) might become sweeter and the Milky Way might once again be visible over White Plains. But I choose to focus—if you’ll forgive a little pontificating—on the glories of dogged (if not rip-snorting), exuberant (if not full-throttle) adventure. We don’t—especially as we get older—do enough that is spontaneous, challenging and, most important, wacky.
Nonetheless, I took Metro-North home.
Mitchell Stephens is a professor of journalism at New York University and the sort of bike rider who gets passed by a lot of people whose tires are thicker than his.