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I travelled to 52 places. Then I discovered New York on my bike

  • >> Sebastian Modak, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-04 12:50:13 BdST

A photo provided by Megan Lui shows the writer Sebastian Modak and his partner, Maggie, celebrating their arrival in the Catskills in upstate New York with cold beers. The hills might not look like much from a car, but on a bike, the Catskills are definitely a climb. (Megan Lui via The New York Times)

I was one of the lucky ones. I already had a bicycle when the coronavirus paralysed New York City and my world shrunk to the size of a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem. As I dusted off my 3-year-old bike, I heard countless stories from friends trying, and failing, to find bikes of their own. One went to Philadelphia to buy one that fit him. Another cobbled together a Frankenbike from three rusty carcasses in her parents’ garage.

The mad rush for pedal power happened all over the world, but it was manic in New York. Most of us don’t have cars, and we were desperate for some way, any way, to get from one place to another safely.

When restrictions around lockdown loosened in early summer, I made my initial, tentative forays: loops of Central Park, night rides down the Hudson River Greenway to Battery Park and back. Compared with Amsterdam; Copenhagen, Denmark; or even Beijing, New York is not a bike-friendly city. Protected bike lanes disappear in the middle of intersections or switch sides of the road abruptly. Elsewhere, those “bike lanes” double as loading bays for FedEx trucks and rest stops for NYPD vans.

As I became more comfortable in the city, I also became more ambitious. I put aside entire afternoons to explore the boroughs. Then, entire days, leaving after breakfast, returning in time for the 7 pm cheer to health care workers. Over the course of repeated rides to the beach at Fort Tilden in Queens, I got to know the gyro seller at the western terminus of Brooklyn’s Shore Parkway, who would have an ice-cold Gatorade ready for me before I asked for it. Nearby at Floyd Bennett Field, the decommissioned airfield, I watched cars slowly and nervously do laps up and down the derelict runway: parents teaching their teenagers to drive, I realised.

I rolled past three-story houses with manicured yards in Canarsie, where it was quiet as the suburbs. Then, minutes later I was in Brownsville, where life played out loudly on the sidewalks. I rode past socially distanced birthday parties on street corners in the Bronx and Friday night bachata ragers in Washington Heights.

And, still, I craved more. Where could I go from New York City, with panniers packed and nothing to do for multiple days but pedal? My urge to go — it didn’t matter where — was to be expected.

I had an unconventional 2019. As the 52 Places Traveller for The New York Times, I was in a different part of the world every week for an entire year. It was a constant avalanche of the new and the unexpected. Every day was different. I made friends on six continents, shared meals with strangers, got lost at least once a week, filled a passport and a half. I knew 2020 was going to be different — but the abrupt transition from perpetual movement to total stasis was beyond anything I could have imagined.

My bicycle — a decent gravel bike, which can handle both city streets and country paths — became not only an antidote to claustrophobia but also a way to tap into what I missed emotionally. What I didn’t know, as I took my first rides and felt unused muscles creak back into gear, was how it would make me fall in love with New York, in a way that had eluded me for half a decade.

Venturing Out

As my urge to travel grew, I started looking farther afield. Suddenly, strangely, New Jersey beckoned, and the George Washington Bridge was my gateway. Like many hardy city cyclists, I started with Route 9W, the stretch of roadway that runs above the Hudson’s western banks. Roadies, clad in Lycra and riding shiny carbon fibre bikes, flock there en masse, attracted by generous road shoulders and rolling hills.

There was no chance I’d keep up with the pelotons that went shooting by me every few miles. But as I quickly realised, there was nothing to be intimidated about either. At the Filling Station, an open-air burger joint on 9W popular with weekending families and cyclists, I learned maintenance tips from riders with legs so muscled they looked like bundles of firewood.

In those moments it hit me with such force: I miss strangers. Profound conversations in dimly lit dive bars and impromptu invitations to dinner at a stranger’s house can be the most rewarding souvenirs of a trip — they certainly were for me last year. But my relative isolation this year has made what few interactions I have had, no matter how fleeting, stick with me.

A Real Vacation

Eventually, I started dreaming bigger. I somehow persuaded my partner, Maggie, that after nine months exclusively in each other’s company, a multiday bike trip was just what we needed.

I picked a destination — the house of some friends in the Catskills’ southern reaches I had long been promising to visit — and started planning our route. It would be 220 miles round trip, split into four days of riding, with two days in our friends’ converted RV behind their house. I had no idea whether this is something that people did on bicycles. It surely wasn’t something I would have considered before 2020.

As the trip approached, I pored over online maps, recreating our route through Google Street View. I obsessed over the weather forecast. I washed the bicycles. When the day arrived, we packed everything up, strapped the bags to our bikes, and we were off. I had no illusions that this would be a carefree jaunt through Europe, where transcontinental bike trails stretch from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. It would not even be like some of the more popular touring routes out West, where extensive infrastructure is built around cycling. But it was not nearly as harrowing as I secretly feared it might be.

We rode 9W until Nyack, New York, where we turned off onto a gravel track that wrapped the edge of Hook Mountain State Park, taking us along the riverbank and up steep inclines into thick forests. I was concerned that stretches like this might prove difficult for Maggie, who rides a skinny-tired road bike.

Though I had been training all summer, Maggie had never cycled more than 50 miles in one stretch — but she did so every day for four days without ever running out of steam. It is a testament to what good shape she is in (and how out of shape I was after a year spent in hotels and rental cars). She flew by me on tricky, gravelly descents. When she got stung in the leg by a wasp, she tucked an ice pack under the edge of her bike shorts and kept riding.

Past the park, we continued through the town of Haverstraw, in Rockland County, where we wished we could have stopped for lunch, shocked by the sheer concentration of Mexican restaurants and bakeries. But intent on avoiding riding after dark, we continued on. Eventually, after crossing to the eastern side of the Hudson via the Bear Mountain Bridge, we finished the day in Cold Spring, where we rewarded our day’s efforts with beer and pizza. We had covered 51 miles. The next day, after a luxurious in-room breakfast (perfect for social distancing) at the quaint Pig Hill Inn, we were back on the road.

Every new stretch felt like its own destination — and that continued as we neared the Catskills. Off the trails, we hit mostly empty mountain roads, where our pace slowed as we crawled up steep, winding inclines. There were many, and we groaned at each new climb. Then, realising there was no one around to judge us, we yelled instead, our cries punctuated by laughter. Once at our friend’s house, on top of a mountain near the town of Olivebridge, we encountered more of the elements of travel I missed so dearly.

There was meandering conversation, outdoors and relatively virus-safe. There was spontaneity: a morning trip to an ice-cold swimming hole. There were magical moments, too, the kind that you can hardly believe yourself when you recount them later. In this case, it was a night shooting off fireworks with our friends’ neighbour, a Grammy-nominated musician I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager. I kept it together.

Making our way back toward the city, we took a different route to keep it interesting. It pays to check elevation gains, I learned, when our route took us up and over the Mohonk Preserve. Every climbing turn revealed another one on the horizon. For the views of the valley — red barns glowing in green fields — and for the winding descent, it was worth it. We passed through New Paltz and laughed at how shocked we were by the Labor Day crowds. Just a few days in the country were enough to make these residents of New York City anxious at the sight of packed sidewalks. We spent the night at an Airbnb in Beacon, one we chose for its proximity to town and, it being a studio-style cottage behind someone’s house, the ability to check in and out without interacting with anyone.

For the final stretch, we found ourselves on car-free rail trails again — this time the North and South County Trailways. The two connecting trails make up a 35-mile tree-lined, paved path stretching from the Bronx up to Baldwin Place, where the Putnam Trailway takes over. As we passed colourful birdhouses nailed onto the branches of towering trees, the rusty remains of the railway running alongside asphalt, I realised that it was the ride itself that I would remember most. Over and over again, I had uninterrupted minutes to relish every scene with every sense: scenes that, on a road trip, I would zoom right past, blasting music and the air conditioner.

But there was something else. While the Catskills had, in my imagination, always been a place I could go to — an escape so separate from the city I call home — now I knew what the in-between felt like, and I loved it as much as I did the destination. Having had my world contract so suddenly in the first months of 2020, I felt it expanding again — slowly, gradually, mindfully, at the speed of my bicycle.


© 2020 The New York Times Company