I was in way over my head. After I declared in January that I would buy a bike, learn to ride it, and captain a team for the 40-mile TD Five Boro Bike Tour (route map) in the span of 4 months, I did what any panic-stricken Chinese American would do: homework. While some cyclists said they didn’t need to train, I had no bank of experience to draw on and instincts (closing my eyes, for one; braking with my feet, for another) that were the opposite of what was called for. Plus, my natural anxiety was in overdrive at the thought of riding with 31,999 other cyclists. So I took Bike New York classes and did training rides and workouts through the endless winter (Team #SomeNerve training recap: “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” ). With 3 days to go I’d built up to 24 miles. I was hoping to do one more ride before the big day – 30+ miles to feel really ready – but then this happened:
I fell off my bike. In my own driveway. I’ve always been afraid of going downhill and crashing, perhaps because I did that once in my twenties on the way to a booze cruise. I stayed away from bikes -but not booze cruises – after that. I never considered the dangers of going uphill with no speed into one’s own driveway. “If the bike is no longer moving, your feet should no longer be on the pedals,” an experienced cyclist shared, a day late. So I wouldn’t get a final practice in – I’d have to leap from 24 to 40 miles and now I was worried about all the bridge on ramps as well as the offs. I spent the night before praying.
May 4, Tour Day, we got up at 5 am and drove into the quiet of Manhattan on an early Sunday morning. The only other people out were heading to the Tour Start wearing matching helmet covers. “I feel like we’re members of some secret society,” I told my husband, Kent. An extremely large secret society:
Seeing the smiling faces wearing our bright yellow “I’ve Got Some Nerve” T shirts and bike jerseys filled me with happiness. Our team – over 30 friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, book/blog readers and people we met on the internet (!) – was there to support Bike New York’s free education programs and to promote the idea of becoming our best, bravest selves. We ranged in age from 20s – 70s, from experienced cyclists to beginners, hailing from as far as Costa Rica, IL and MD. Over half of us were doing the Five Boro for the first time.
We were all a little excited:
I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous, or as thrilled, as the moment we pushed off into a huge, cascading wave of bicycles fanning up Church Street to the sound of music and cheers. “The moment we pushed off brought tears to my eyes,” said Becky Saletan, my editor and a seasoned NYC cyclist who had never experienced the Tour before. We slid though a canyon of buildings until reaching Central Park, and then it was spring, flowering trees, the MET, the Guggenheim, and Harlem. When Sam Slaton, the Communications Director of Bike New York first told me details of the Tour, we were looking at the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn. “Manhattan is a very long island!” I’d said, more than a little daunted. “You’re going to bike the length of it,” he’d replied with utter confidence. “It’s going to be amazing.” It was.
We took bridges in and out of the Bronx that I’ve driven countless times – I wish we’d stayed in my home borough for longer –
and then we were on the FDR drive, going, I daresay, faster than traffic usually does. The Queensboro Bridge loomed above and was the one everyone had warned would be a bit steep and curvy getting on and off. The sight of cyclists moving across the bridge and the highway as far as the eye could see was amazing. In all the times that we took the Roosevelt Island tram to Kent’s home growing up or the subway to Queens, I never thought I’d bike across the East River.
Queens and Brooklyn were a blur of music (live bands played every few miles), potholes, rest areas (I have never in my life seen so many bananas), meeting up with teammates, and incredible views:
The best of which was the sight of my family at Brooklyn Bridge Park, around Mile 30. Thirty miles was farther than I’d ever gone. I was happy but also scared. What lay ahead was what everyone who’s ever ridden the Tour would say in a voice of doom: the B.Q.E. (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) and the Verrazano Bridge. Cindy P, who’d done a 10 Mile/2 Bridges training ride with me, had said this was what she was most worried about: “I don’t know how I’ll handle a 2 mile bridge after riding 38 miles.” People who’ve done the ride before said things like ‘Beware of sunburn,” “Beware of dehydration,” “Beware of wind,” “Beware of tired cyclists,” “Beware of broken glass,” “Beware of the long incline” and “Just be careful.”
Our day was cold and cloudy so sunburn was not going to be a problem. The wind, on the other hand…
“When I hit the 20+ mph headwinds on the Gowanus Expressway I had two thoughts,” said teammate C. Feng after the ride. “1) Patty’s gonna weep when she realizes there’s five miles of this before getting to the bridge. 2) She’ll gut it out and grind it out because she’s not going to give up”
The process of gutting it out and grinding it out was not a pretty one. I pedaled and pedaled against the wind, feeling no forward progress whatsoever. My friend Ken biked alongside and put a hand on my lower back and pushed me for a stretch. More and more cyclists were dropping to the side to walk their bikes.
By the time we got to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest bridge span in America, I was spent. “Are you bonking?” Ken asked. Bonking is the biking term for hitting a wall, the point where you can’t physically go any farther without rest, water and calories. I didn’t know if I was bonking – I’ve never bonked before! Yes, I was crying and whimpering – but after 5 hours of cycling my legs were still moving, and I did not want to get off the bike. After all the things in my life I have quit or never started for fear I would quit, this I wanted to finish. “I’m okay!” I said. Except I can’t see. Crying as a coping mechanism was not helping. How many times before, when I’ve started crying, have I stopped doing the activity? This time, I stopped the crying and kept pedaling. U2’s “Beautiful Day” was blasting from the top of the bridge, spray painted arrows on the pavement said “Keep Cranking” and “4 Down 1 to Go.” People on megaphones shouted “ALMOST THERE! THE FINISH IS AT THE BOTTOM!”
Here’s Katie (who also just learned to bike this past winter) at the top of the Verrazano, with her roommate Diana who did the entire course on a single speed while cheering her on:
“I had just burst into tears I was so exhausted! But proud, too, and grateful for Diana,” Katie said afterward of the picture.
There was no way I was getting off my bike for a picture, because then I’d never get back on. So I cruised what felt like the sweetest, shortest downhill of all time into Staten Island, the 5th borough and finish line:
And a Finish Festival to remember:
Pictured here is about half of Team #SomeNerve (many teammates finished before or after) Everyone on the team but one (who stopped as planned for a work commitment) finished, including Cindy P! New friendships were formed, new ways of seeing the city were revealed, old limitations in thinking were shed. I, who have always viewed myself as non-athletic, klutzy and too often a quitter, felt for the first time in my life like a champion. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.
There are so many more stories to tell, which I will tell in time. Because every member of the team was, in his or her own way, on a quest. Like Big Joe, for example. His story deserves its own post (or chapter) – you can get to know him at his blog Big Joe’s Soapbox.
When you’re on a quest, if you’re lucky, you meet extraordinary people, see unforgettable things, do what you never dreamed you could do. You get in way over your head, weep, gut it out, smile at the end knowing you gave it everything you had and it was enough, and go home seeing yourself and the world through new eyes. I started my quest because I wanted to confront my many fears around physical challenges and so I could share an activity my husband loves with our family for decades to come. I finished with a completely new sense of self and new adventures to look forward to. I can’t wait for us to bike with G & R.
What will your #SomeNerve Challenge be?
** Check out this great video by Kate Semizorova, a film student who biked the Tour with Team #SomeNerve on Vimeo here **
What a ride it has been!
“From O to 5 Boros in 4 Months: Team #SomeNerve Takes on the Tour” Closing Credits:
Endless thanks to
– Everyone at Bike New York who taught me to ride and helped our team (it definitely takes a village) including: Sam & Sam, Anne, Rich, Marilyn, Barry, Dan, Clyde, Ross, Tim, Robert, Jenny, Patrick.
– TEAM #SOMENERVE – you rock, roll & plank with the best of them: The Bravest People in Publishing: Becky, Katie, Darren, Deb, Diana, Steph, Holly, Rachel R.; Blog readers/Guys I met on Twitter/radio listeners/book club-ers: Joe, Brian, LaRah, Gerry, Gary, Kevin, Nicole, Kate M, Cindy P., Cindy W., David, Kate, Natasha, Rachel S.; Margaret who started it all; Neighbors: Lewis, Rhiannon, Penny, C.Feng; Family/friends: Kent, Ken, Matt, Michael, Yolanda, Bernadette, Glen; Kate, the college journalism student who rode everything we did while balancing a camera. Sidelined this year but back next time: Sarah W, Crystal, Julio, Dan, Esther, AmyLynn, Rachel T.
P.S. For a great 5 Boro preview read Brian Stephens’ blog: IWearSpandex
P.S.S. Mark your calendars for next year’s Tour: May 3, 2015