I am not a natural athlete. Like most Catholic school students, I played C.Y.O. basketball, though I did little to distinguish myself on the hardwood. In high school I tried track and field, and then tennis, but I did not fall in love with either sport. My tennis racket sits unmolested in my garage, and though I still lace up my running shoes from time to time, I do not crave a daily run as many friends do.
So it is with some surprise that I now find myself, in my mid-30s, with a new love: cycling. I bought my first road bike last summer and have put over 2,000 miles on it so far. In the spring I trained with the New York Cycle Club, learning how to ride with a group and exploring routes in New Jersey and Westchester County. On our final ride we climbed the hills of Harriman State Park, crossed the Bear Mountain Bridge and cruised into Cold Spring, N.Y. Even on a foggy day it was, in more ways than one, a breathtaking experience.
Cycling is often described as addictive, and I suppose I display symptoms of the addict. I subscribe to Bicycling magazine, and I enjoy spending part of my weekend at a local bike shop, contemplating which gadget to purchase next. In July I followed Contador and Armstrong on the roads of France, and last month I tuned in for the rain-shortened Tour of Ireland.
If I had to name the reasons for my obsession, I would begin with the thrill of discovery. I have lived in New York for most of my life, but riding through it on a bike has introduced me to parts of the city I had never encountered before. My first ride down Manhattan’s West side bike path was revelatory. Along one stretch I passed the charred remains of the Hudson’s waterfront piers and then underneath the cathedral ceiling of the West Side Highway before emerging into sunlight again at West 57th Street. I had been at that spot many times before, but almost always in a car, and the idea that I could arrive there by my own means was indescribably exciting.
Riding alone allows for this kind of meditation. Riding with a group offers different rewards. On a physical level it is not as draining, since you can draft behind your companions and cruise at speeds that would be difficult to sustain on your own. Group riding also forces you to look out for one another, to make sure you do not drop a rider on a tough stretch of road. Of course, some cyclists enjoy breaking away from the pack, and group rides have taught me a little bit about what kind of rider I am. When a cyclist pushes ahead, my competitive streak kicks in, and I pedal furiously to keep up. Yet I also find myself checking behind me, to make sure the group is intact. That mixture of drive and empathy is a stark manifestation of my own personality traits—an insight that had not ripened in my mind until I took up the sport.
Fall is the cyclist’s favorite season. The cool weather and autumn leaves lure us out of bed and onto the roads, where legs are strong after a summer of training. Many riders leave the city for the countryside, and I too will find time to climb the Palisades and explore the farmland of central New Jersey. My favorite ride of the year, however, is only a few miles from my apartment.
The Tour de Bronx is a 40-mile circuit of my native borough. It starts in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, hugs Long Island Sound and traverses the hills of Riverdale before looping back to the New York Botanical Garden. New York cyclists like to describe the roads of the Bronx as junk miles because they are clogged with traffic and spotted with potholes. For me they pulse with music and life, and for a few hours in October I will find myself, once again, in communion with the place my family calls home.