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"Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Rock"

Me, angry, waiting for the ferry in a line thousands-long.

Our Town downtown

May 14, 2007

How Staten Island became a virtual prison for tens of thousands of cyclists and sort of ruined the 5-borough bike tour

I laid my bike down and flopped onto an unoccupied rectangle of grass in swarming Fort Wadsworth Park in Staten Island. The park marked the end of the 42-mile bike tour, a massive affair that traversed all five boroughs and involved more than 30,000 riders, officially (and probably about 60,000 altogether. As I discovered last year, there is no need to register, or pay).
After having raced a friend across the Verrazano Bridge (“It’s not a race!” old men yelled after us. Oh, but it is. Get out of the left lane!), I was winded and happy to be done peddling.
I was not as proud of myself as the fortyish-year-old woman talking on her cell phone a few feet from where I was lying: “Oh my God I am [ital] so [end ital] proud of myself. I’m going to take the day off work tomorrow and get a massage!”
But I was content, and… suddenly… despite having wolfed down free energy bars and orange slices at every rest stop – very hungry.
When the other two riders in our group finally located us among thousands of bikers and dozens of unmarked tents, we began to wander. There was a pet food display, bike demonstrations, a first aid tent and things of that nature.
But we weren’t browsing. One obsessively punctual member of our contingent had gotten up at 5:45 a.m. that morning, and it was now past four in the afternoon. We were in search of two things and two things only: food and exit.
En route to the food tent, we came across a very long line of people pushing their bikes. I have poor estimating skills, but I would venture to guess that this line, which was five thick and wove out of the park gate and down a service road, contained something like a thousand cyclists.
They were not on the burger line, they were not hanging out. Some even had their helmets on. This seemed to be the line to [ital] exit [end ital] the park.
“Are you in line to leave?” I asked a woman in white sneakers, white helmet, and jean shorts, pushing a mountain bike. She bobbed her helmet. I scoffed silently. Tourists and families could wait in line to exit a public park. We, however, would not be penned. The thought made me antsy, despite the mild spring weather and a brain saturated in endorphins.
Suddenly, finding food was second on the to-do list, behind finding a way out.
We were pretty sure that the rules could be circumvented with a bit of ingenuity. Security so far that day had been limited to some police officers and volunteer “marshals” with bullhorns who coordinated traffic and occasionally told riders to slow down, and a few intimidating-looking men in suits who “guarded” the entrance to the Verrazano, but did nothing as hordes of un-registered riders rode by.
We carried our bikes overhead and wove our way toward the fence marking the park’s periphery. I placed my bike over the chest-high fence, then started to climb over. Two security guards appeared from behind a thicket of trees, shaking their heads.
“Wait a minute,” my friend said to one of the guards. “I recognize your face.”
Good call!, I thought. But she wasn’t playing the charm card; the two of them really used to work in the same building. A little impromptu reunion and lots of smiling occurred, but the goodwill didn’t advance our cause any.
“If we let you through, they’d just chase you down and arrest you on the other side.” I can’t remember if they actually mentioned the possibility we’d get shot or if I made that up afterward.
What we hadn’t realized was that Fort Wadsworth, which had been decommissioned in 1994, had again become an active military base. There were men in fatigues moving around on the other side of the fence, even a mounted guard. According to the National Parks website, the base is currently in use by the Coast Guard.
We gave up on that escape route and attempted to leave the way we had come in, via the Verrazano. We were stopped and yelled at by police officers.
We had reached the equivalent of a dead-end in a maze, and would have to backtrack to the one and only correct exit. It was a situation you will never encounter in Manhattan.
Dejected, we made our way back to that massive line and walked our bikes along with the tourists and little kids for about half an hour, until the crowd was sparse enough that we were all able to ride – slowly – with the occasional domino-effect dismount, toward the ferry.
When we were finally within sight of the St. George Ferry Terminal, the spectacle was horrifying: there was a backlog of bikers maybe half a mile long. The sun was going down and it was getting cold. People were elbowing for room in strips of sunlight. Muscles were stiffening. The line wasn’t moving, because ferries weren’t coming, and there was no explanation as to why. A rig attached to the back of a teenage boy’s bike carrying a huge boom box blasting “Shake Your Laffy Taffy” and a stop-off at a pizza place made the wait only slightly more bearable.
Two hours later – long after many private vows had been made never to do the bike tour again, or at least to skip the last leg to Staten Island – a roar erupted: three ferries had shown up at once. We bought overpriced beer at the snack bar onboard and cheered to the end of the ordeal. We had escaped from Alcatraz, er, Staten Island.