Overnight in New York City
When you look at the Brooklyn Bridge from a distance, you don’t quite realize the angle of the slope of the path that gets you up to the flat center span. It was something I hadn’t noticed that much on my earlier reconnaissance trip, either. But now that I was riding “the Truck,” complete with passenger and towing a trailer on a hot and humid day in July 2012, I felt like I was cycling up a ski jump!
There was no turning back, though, and I think that drove home the point of our first Bike Overnight: At some point you have to move beyond the planning and procrastination and just go for it.
For our first overnight, I wanted a trip where we could cycle from our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan without the complication of trains or cars. This narrowed us down to the only campground within New York City, located at Floyd Bennett Field (FBF) in Brooklyn on the edge of Jamaica Bay, 20 or so miles from our apartment. FBF is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a necklace of parks around New York Harbor maintained by the city and the National Park Service. It is used for a multitude of purposes, and they have established some rudimentary camping areas on some of the grassy areas that lie between the former runways and hangars. Our plan was to use FBF as our base, staying two nights and planning a trip to Jacob Riis Beach and Fort Tilden on the Rockaway Peninsula.
My daughter, Camilla, who was nine at the time, and I went to Eastern Mountain Sports and loaded up with tent, sleeping bags, cooking gear, and other stuff. This was her first camping trip as well as her first bike trip. I had camped sporadically as a child and with friends as an adult, but had never cycle-toured before. All my old camping gear had gone missing in the ten or fifteen years since I had last ventured into the great unknown.
Suitably equipped with all the necessary gear, we then turned to our bike. Camilla has special needs and cannot walk. Initially, she rode in a trailer with her older sister, but I wasn’t comfortable towing a trailer through the streets of New York, so I'd invested in a WorkCycles Fr8 utility bike, manufactured by Henry Cutler in Amsterdam, with a child seat rated for 75 pounds on a long rear rack (the bike can transport loads up to 550 pounds). I stripped the seats out of the Burley trailer and often tow her wheelchair in that. Obviously, this is not a svelte or fast bike, but it handles loads extremely well and is a stable, comfortable ride. We used it most weekends for trips down the Hudson River Greenway and for short trips in the city. We affectionately call it the Truck, because it weighs over 60 pounds unloaded.
Because of Camilla’s dietary restrictions, we carried our own food and water. Before long, our fully loaded bike and trailer (without wheelchair) was hurtling toward the Hudson River at a speed of about 5 mph. We trundled down the Hudson River Greenway and cut over toward the Brooklyn Bridge through City Hall Park. The bridge was our first real test, and it was a hard grind up the narrow, tourist-clogged path in our lowest gear (the Truck has eight-speed Shimano internal-hub gearing). After a celebratory rest and photo snap at the top it was a nice coast down the other side into downtown Brooklyn. This allowed my legs to recover slightly before we ground up through the busy streets of Park Slope (yes, it’s uphill!) to Prospect Park, where we stopped for a picnic lunch.
Prospect Park is the similar-sized sister of Manhattan’s Central Park, and for the most part we had long swooping downhills (they didn't swoop so well on the return journey!) until reaching the junction with Ocean Parkway. From then on the journey was mostly flat through the central section of Brooklyn on separated bike paths, until we reach Sheepshead Bay/Manhattan Beach. Here we took to streets along the harbor, lined with private yachts and dinner cruise boats; the streets have a beach-town feel to them. The last stretch took us alongside the Belt Parkway on the Marine Parkway bicycle path to the junction with Flatbush Avenue and the entrance to FBF.
It had taken us a total of about six hours, including 4.5 hours of riding time, and we had maintained our average speed of 5 mph! Impressively, about 75 percent of the journey was on dedicated bicycle paths.
At the old terminal building at FBF, we checked in with the ranger, who was perplexed because we didn’t have a car. We then made our way to our campsite by cycling down the old runway, pitched our tent, made dinner, fought off the mosquitos, and fell asleep as soon as it was dark. I wouldn’t claim that FBF is bucolic, being the home of the NYPD helicopter detachment and situated across the bay from JFK Airport. Yet there were periods in the day when it was amazingly quiet, and we could forget we were on the edge of New York City.
After breakfast the next morning, we rode down Flatbush Avenue and over the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which joins the western end of Rockaway to the mainland, headed for the beaches of Jacob Riis Park. It was a blustery and thundery day, so the beach wasn’t very busy. We abandoned it after a windblown lunch sheltered under a golf umbrella, and headed for the more protected environment of Fort Tilden, a former Nike missile base that's slowly being renovated by the National Park Service.
After a quick cruise around, we retraced our route to FBF. A quick thunderstorm gave way to a gorgeous early evening, and we ate dinner before exploring the edges of the bay.
Up early with the sun (and the departing flights from JFK) the next morning, we ate breakfast, packed up, and started the journey home. Although we were tired and weather-beaten, it was a memorable trip. I’m glad we didn’t put it off any longer, because in late October of that year (2012), Hurricane Sandy came through and caused extensive damage on the Rockaway Peninsula and along the coastline of Brooklyn. FBF became a staging area for recovery operations and was closed for much of the following year.
Tip for this adventure: Fort Tilden Beach, the wilder end of Jacob Riis Beach, is great for those who like their beaches ungroomed.