Think you want to do the Five Boro Bike Tour? Be prepared for the Three Boro Walk BORE instead

Here's the part where you have to walk instead of bike. Via Flickr user Marc van Woudenberg.

Here’s the part where you have to walk instead of bike. Via Flickr user Marc van Woudenberg.

May, the amuse-bouche of summer, is soon approaching and with it comes the annual TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour. For 39 years running, the 40-mile tour through all New York’s boroughs has billed itself as “the largest charitable bike ride in the U.S.” On May 1, a stampede of 37,000 riders will shut down the automobopolis (I’m trademarking this) that is our city for half the day as they ride freely in the middle of streets, across bridges, and even on some highways. I’ve done it five years consecutively, and this year, I cannot wait to skip it.

Sure, on the surface the Five Boro sounds great: you get to tour New York on a bicycle alongside thousands of other cyclists (evincing varying degrees of enthusiasm), and go where no bicycles ever get to venture on any other day: the FDR Drive and the BQE. You’re biking 40 miles, so it feels healthy and you get to have a sore ass at the end. There’s even a festival in Staten Island at the finish line, in Fort Wadsworth, just at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge. And all of that would be great! Except you’re actually walking a lot of the time, and you only really ride through three of the boroughs, and it will cost you $94. 

Here’s what happens instead: you wake up super early in the morning, get to the starting line in the Financial District, and bike through the city until you hit the first of many traffic backups. It’s around mile nine that the bike tour becomes more like a guided walk through the city while holding your bike and wearing a helmet (safety first!). And much like that other form of green transportation, the subway, you get moving again only to find yourself stopped again half a mile later.

Sometimes this is on the FDR Drive, so while you get more time to appreciate the wonderful joy of walking a bike on a street while cars are driving on the other side, you’re not exactly getting the bike experience. In other spots, you are literally walking your bike uphill to enter a bridge — something that you might have considered doing while you were grinding up that hill regardless, but it’s no fun when the decision has already been made for you.

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2015's 5 Boro Bike Tour starting line. Via Flickr user smiling_stingray.

2015’s 5 Boro Bike Tour starting line. Via Flickr user smiling_stingray.

At this point you may be wondering if the spandex was even necessary. I guess 39 opportunities to figure out the logistics of traffic flow for tens of thousands of riders just isn’t enough to work out the kinks.

And not to blow up Five Boro’s spot, but let’s be honest: it’s not actually five boroughs. The tour starts in Manhattan, dips into the Bronx for less than a mile, jumps right back into Manhattan, goes through Queens and Brooklyn, and ends as soon as you cross the Verrazano into Staten Island. Maybe that’s why it’s called “Five Boro” and not “Five Borough.” It’s like how Breyers has to say “frozen dairy dessert” instead of “ice cream” now, because they don’t have enough milk content.

The tour isn’t even a true 40 miles either, as the official tour route in Queens is only available for a limited time — organizers close off an entire four-mile loop through Astoria Park after the 59th Street Bridge a few hours into the tour (the site only mentions this in a PDF of the brochure, saying, “Riders at the back of the pack may be directed to take a shortcut that bypasses the Astoria Park Rest Area and leads directly to the Con Ed Learning Center Rest Area, trimming four miles off the route”) — and mile 35 is at the Finish Festival.

What are the remaining five miles? Oh, they’re the ones you ride to the Staten Island Ferry terminal from the Finish Festival. Clearly, Bike New York, the organization behind the event, is tapped into the world of cycling, where you do a distance ride, celebrate at the finish line, and then bike to the ferry for another five miles on sore cheeks. Of course, if you don’t have a friend with a car and a bike rack parked in S.I., and decide to take the ferry back at the end of the day, you’ll have company with the other 37,000 people. By now the waiting in a crush of people to get anywhere has become the theme of the day, so what’s another two hours waiting on a blocks-long line for a boat, without even the promise of gold-paved streets in America?

Oh, and that Finish Festival? It’s pretty similar to all the rest stops along the way, filled with free bananas and apples and the best #brands, trying to interest you in everything from Yoo-Hoo to whatever new type of Kind bar they made from the gatherings on the floor of a birdhouse, mixed with molasses. Sure, there’s a stage with live music, and people sitting around in the sun, and you do feel a sense of accomplishment (who wouldn’t, trying to bike the Verrazano Bridge??), but “festival” might be somewhat of an overstatement. What’s the word for “thousands of tired, sweaty people trying to find space for their bikes and lining up for expensive BBQ at a tent”?

So what’s the alternative to the Five Boro if you still want to explore New York on two wheels? Well, it might sound crazy, but you can actually plan your own long bike rides. Every summer my friends have at least one trip to the Rockaways to ride along the Belt Parkway and then pass out on the beach. You can spend the $94 Five Boro registration fee (seriously, NINETY FOUR DOLLARS) on some dope snacks.

If you want to know what I’m doing, the idea came to me last year, as my friends and I were walking our bikes through Dumbo, waiting for the traffic to dissipate.

I turned to my friend and said, “You know what we should do next year?” He responded, “Come down here and sit outside drinking and watching this mess?” He was exactly right. I’ll even bust out my bike shorts and a helmet, and for just one bike tour I’ll get exactly what I was promised.

Lead, get out of the way or follow Eric: @PrimeSilver.

7 Comment

  • I did the tour twice and both times i started in the early group. Never had the problem of needing to walk, besides on the bridges where the novice/unprepared riders had to get off and walk so they hold everyone else up.

    So maybe thats the secret, try to get into the early start time.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard that before, but of course with four start times, only a quarter of the people get that experience. And then there’s the guarantee of being in the first wave if you’re willing to pay $325 to register, which I think speaks for itself.

  • Ridiculous. A comparable ride in Chicago is about $40 and at that price you feel like you’re helping contribute but not getting gouged or expecting too much.

    Besides, the ride is full? wtf, Can I somehow ride (walk) along? or this is off limits to someone who JUST moved to NYC??

    • You can try. I know of some people who break in for at least parts of the tour, but if you don’t have a bib, you risk getting kicked out at one of the checkpoints. You can also look online and see if anyone is selling a bib that they’re not using. Craigslist/Facebook is full of people getting rid of them last minute. OR you can ask around (maybe even in the comments) about rides you can plan out without dealing with all the BS. Riis Park and Fort Tilden are great and a pretty healthy distance (depending on where you are). There are also other bike tours that are not as publicized but also less expensive and less crowded. Brooklyn has its own bike tour that I’ve heard some good things about.

      • Mr. Silver,

        We appreciate your having ridden the Tour for five (!) years, as the proceeds from your participation went directly toward helping folks like your colleague Scott Steinhardt, who learned how to ride at one of Bike New York’s bike ed centers (an experience he chronicled in a recent article on this very same website: http://brokelyn.com/learned-ride-bike-first-time-age-27/). Proceeds from the Tour fund Bike New York’s free bike education program, which is the largest of its kind in the world. 17,000 people learn bike skills from us for free every year.

        I wanted to point out that while we can’t deny that some riders might experience the occasional bottleneck along the Tour (it IS one of the largest bike rides in the world and it takes place in the middle of a major city), thanks to the implementation of start waves and other logistical changes, there are far fewer bottlenecks than in years past.

        Also:
        There are 32,000 riders, not 37,000.
        It’s two miles to the Ferry from Fort Wadsworth, not five.
        A small percentage of riders miss the cutoff in Queens, not 3/4 of riders, as you indicated in a comment above.

        For folks who are unfamiliar, here’s a video shot during the last two Tours: https://vimeo.com/149170017

        Sorry you had a negative experience! We hope you’ll give us another chance. And don’t forget to swing by Bike Expo New York on Friday and Saturday—it’s FREE!

        Kind regards,
        Sam Polcer
        Director of Communications, Bike New York

        • Hi Sam,

          Thanks for reading! I apologize for the misquoted information you cite. I thought I had seen the number 37,000 but going back to the site to check, your number is the right one. As for the correction that it’s 2 miles from Fort Wadsworth to the Ferry, I gathered that info from looking at your tour map, which had mile 35 on the Verrazano and mile 40 at the Ferry. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the map or the route. As for the small percentage, my experience has been that in 5 years of riding, I didn’t miss the cutoff only once, and that was when I made sure to get the earliest start I could. My comment about 3/4 was in response to another commenter telling me it’s fine if you go in the early group. Absent a set time as to when the tour decides to enforce the cutoff, or a verifiable percentage other than “small”, I’ll stick with my fuzzy math.

          And yes, I’m glad a percentage of the money ($22 out of $94) goes to bicycle education programs! That’s great, and I look forward to finding other opportunities to contribute without actually participating in the tour.

  • You know, not for anything, but I have to agree with the article writer, but at the same time, I get the allure. I am an avid cyclist and I have to be honest and say that this ride has gotten so huge and overblown that unless you are willing to sneak onto it a mile up (say at 6th Avenue) with your bib and rider number, or you are lucky enough to be in the first wave, you are looking at a great deal of bike-walking and insane bottlenecks.

    Every time I have done this ride, I cycled to the city for the extra miles (I live in South Brooklyn) and I snuck on with my kit a few blocks or a mile or so into the ride, making certain I was near the front at the very beginning of the ride times. If you do that or are in the first wave, you should be able to ride the entirety, only stopping if you feel like it.

    But this is a hugely overhyped, overpriced, mess of a ride that comes with a great deal of dangers and pitfalls in the form of people who are NOT experienced at riding, and either ride once a year (for this ride) or not very much the rest of the year, and are wholly unprepared for a ride like this. I can’t tell you how many times I did this 5 Boro Bike Tour and ended up behind some seemingly newbie cyclist who looked more like a wobbling Weeble than a bike rider. I have seen people getting their bicycles tangled into one another and falling, and seen people injured, who luckily enough were going slow so they didn’t get too badly hurt.

    This is not a great ride for experienced cyclists, as I said, unless you are lucky enough to be in the first wave OR you force the issue by sneaking in at one of the many intersections a mile or more north of Battery Park.

    One huge problem with this ride is that at the finish line, getting back to Manhattan so you can take the train (I usually cycle back to Brooklyn, so that round trip for me the ride is more like 60 miles) is an absolute nightmare! Seriously, its like renewing your license at the DMV, only WORSE because everyone is sweaty, smelly, slimy, and crammed together waiting for and on the ferry like sardines.

    Insult to injury is that you have to PAY just short of $100.00 for the privilege of riding. Its ridiculous in my opinion to pay the price of a steak dinner and drinks at Peter Luger’s just to pedal your bike! I routinely ride more than 40 miles, at least once a week, and I don’t pay squat other than for food and other stops. I guess if this is your “one big ride” every year because you are afraid of cycling on the streets, or you just have a jones to cycle over the Verazzano Bridge, then this may be a great Sunday. But for me, in the past, I have usually turned this into a 60 mile ride (to and from Brooklyn) and more often than not, I don’t even go to the finish line. I just leave the ride in Bay Ridge and cycle the 10 miles or so home from there, so as to avoid the INSANITY of that finish line and the carnage of spending HOURS trying to get back to Battery Park via the SI Ferry.