Laura Byrne Paquet saddles up and competes in the Big Apple's famed Five Boro Bike Tour

I was 51, out of shape and more than a little lazy. So I signed up to do a 64-kilometre bike ride through New York City. There’s nothing like a challenge to re-ignite one’s enthusiasm for the gym, right?

On the first Sunday each May, some 30,000 people pedal through Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island on the Five Boro Bike Tour. As soon as I learned about it, I wanted to do it. I’d visited New York City countless times before, but I’d stayed mainly in Manhattan, and I suspected I was missing much of what America’s biggest city has to offer. So I registered, went to the gym regularly all winter, then packed my bike into my car and drove eight hours to New York.
Around 6am on ride day, I hauled my touring bike onto the subway for the short trip from my hotel to lower Manhattan. As I followed packs of Lycra-clad cyclists to the starting line, I reminded myself this wasn’t a race. Everyone rides at their own pace. I glimpsed a few pre-teens and seniors among the throng, and felt a bit less nervous.

New York five boro

Riders leave in a series of “waves” staggered to keep a steady stream of cyclists flowing along the route’s roads and bridges, which are closed to vehicles for the event. At 7am, my wave surged forward. Within minutes, I was pedalling north on Sixth Avenue.
The sunny, 10 degrees celcius morning was perfect for cycling. At stages along the route, bands played rousing tunes. The road was relatively flat, the breeze light.
I’ve got this, I thought.
As I glided into Central Park, under canopies of blooming cherry trees, my mood soared—especially after I passed the 8km marker near 86th Street.
North of the park, I headed into Harlem, passing landmarks such as the Apollo Theatre, before taking the Madison Avenue Bridge across the Harlem River. After a brief ride through the Bronx, I crossed the Third Avenue Bridge and re-entered Harlem, just before the 16km marker.

I’d done a quarter of the route, including two bridges, and I still felt good. The wind at my back, I pedalled 70 blocks south to reach the Queensboro Bridge. Unlike the first two easy bridges, this one was a five-span slog. My thighs began to complain. Fortunately, the bridge wasn’t steep, and soon I was rolling into Queens, where two rest stops and the 24km marker awaited me.

The tour was as a perfect way to explore the vastness of New York City. First, I was travelling at a speed that let me see a good swath of the city while still noticing telling details, such as the man bowing a cello in an otherwise-empty schoolyard. Second, since I wasn’t enclosed in a vehicle, I could listen to the city. New York City vibrates with sound, from the hum of subway trains below the pavement to laughter spilling from apartment windows above. It was a graffiti-plastered, asphalt-scented, 24-hour symphony. I adored it.

New York City vibrates with sound, from the hum of subway trains below the pavement to laughter spilling from apartment windows above
However, much as I loved the noise, I was aware of my aching joints as I rode across the Pulaski Bridge into Brooklyn. There, blow-out salons, organic grocery stores and heritage synagogues crowded the streets. Hasidic Jewish men in long black coats waited at crosswalks alongside millennials in ironic T-shirts. Young families carried home bags of bagels, and sleek women walked tiny dogs. Fascinated, I managed to ignore my growing fatigue, until I stopped for a breather at kilometre 41. I still had a third of the ride to go.

You’ve told everyone you’re doing this, I reminded myself. You can’t bail now. Through sheer force of will, I got back on the bike.

Eventually, the route led onto Interstate 278, a wide highway stretching through blocks of aging office buildings and fast-food outlets. The once-sunny sky had turned grey. Now, the ride felt like a marathon and I felt 51. Well, to be honest, I felt 81. And the route’s most famous challenge was still to come.

Eventually, I saw it: the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the longest bridge in the Americas, stretching 4.2 kilometres between Brooklyn and Staten Island. It is high. It is steep. And the grey clouds had begun to spit rain.

Five Boro Bike

I was starting to wish I’d simply signed up for a 10km fundraising walk, like any sensible woman experiencing a mid-life fitness crisis. I took a deep breath, pedalled onto the bridge and began to climb.

The tour organizers had been out before us, chalking messages of encouragement on the pavement. “You can do it,” I read as I wheezed. Weirdly, the slogans helped. I refused to dismount, instead switching my bike to the lowest of its 21 gears, standing up and pumping grimly until I reached the top.

Even though the organizers discourage riders from stopping, I couldn’t resist trundling over to the side of the bridge to admire the view of New York Harbor and the towers of lower Manhattan, tiny in the distance.

Back on the bike, I was as elated as a child as I coasted downhill and into the “Finish Festival” in a Staten Island park. An official looped a ride medal around my neck. Music blared as hordes of tired, sweaty cyclists took selfies and lined up at food trucks. I texted family members to let them know I was done.

However, I wasn’t quite “done.” To reach the official end of the tour, the dock for the free ferry back to Manhattan, I had to ride four more miles.

Four. More. Miles. My mind quailed.

However, I hadn’t spent all those winter nights at the gym and cycled through New York for five hours to quit now. I heaved myself back into the saddle, wobbled out of the park and made it, somehow, to the dock. Dismounting felt a bit anti-climactic. I wanted brass bands, fireworks, a congratulatory telegram from the mayor. However, all I got was an immense feeling of accomplishment, laced with liberal lashings of smug satisfaction.

That, in the end, was enough.

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