Rather Caught Dead: Tour du Brooklyn

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I have a problem: I am impulsively positive and agreeable to most ideas when first presented to me.  Sure, I’ll go with you to that naked circus out in New Jersey!  Okay, I’ll go on a date with you, old man!  Yeah, I’ll help you move out of your five-story walkup in the middle of August!  Why not?!

Then the thinking sets in, the deliberating.  Nothing good happens with too much thought, at least if you want to get things done.  If you want to get things done, you stop thinking and just fucking do them, that’s what I’ve learned.  When it comes to invitations, however, I waffle on the merits of blindly jumping into whatever’s on the table or thinking about what I really love doing with my time.  Or, more importantly, what I hate.

When Bill Burns asked me if I wanted to join him on a 21-mile bike ride through Brooklyn this Sunday, he presented me with two problems.  One: I like doing things I ordinarily would not pursue on my own.  Two: I fucking hate riding bikes, at least for long distances.

Something happened between childhood and adulthood that made me loathe all forms of time-consuming, “pleasant” physical activities.  That means boating is out.  Hiking – unless in short, violent spurts or long, grueling, life-threatening journeys of the Mt. Everest variety – are a no go.  And it should go without saying that golf is out.  If my brain is shutting off to any degree for more than 45-minutes, I can be sure that boredom sets in like stubborn concrete, and when that happens I am not a very fun person to be around. 

And so, torn between the two diametrically opposed pieces of myself, I tell Bill I’ll go on this bike ride.  Even when he gives me an out the night before, I express my undying commitment to the plan: “I’m in if you’re in!”

Liar.

This enthusiasm wanes when I wake up the next morning at 7:30, after barely five hours of sleep.  Did I mention this plan involves waking up at 7:30 on a Sunday?  Here are the events as they unfold.

7:30 a.m. – Wake up on my own, realizing that I set my alarm an hour too late.  Thankfully (or regrettably, I can’t decide), I’ve had so much caffeine the last 24 hours that it’s prevented me from properly sleeping.  In fact, when I wake up this morning, I am fairly certain I haven’t slept at all.  My mouth has that dry, cottony feeling like I’ve been boozing all night, and my eyeballs feel like grapes on the precipice of raisin-dom.

7:32 a.m. – Realize I’ve spent three days of energy reserves on said caffeine consumption and there is no way in hell I can do this ride.

7:35 a.m. – Challenge myself to get out of bed and eat breakfast. 

7:45 a.m. – Still not seeing the positives of having to leave my apartment this early.  I send Bill an over exaggerated, passive aggressive text message: Ugggghhhhhh.  I’m so tired.  Think I’m dying. L

7:49 a.m. – Bill responds: Nothing a coffee and a 21-mile bike ride can’t cure!  Not the response I was hoping for, nor the enthusiasm level I generally deem appropriate before I can see the sun peeking over apartment buildings and/or I’ve had a pot of said coffee.

7:50 a.m. – I respond: I will buy you a coffee if we just meet in the park for an hour like civilized people.  I spend the next thirty seconds debating my flakey tendencies and my overall lameness considering my age and send, unprovoked: Okay, okay.  I’ll go.

Welcome to my brain.  It’s annoying in here.

***

Bill and I meet at the corner of Kent and N. 10th.  He’s got a new, matte black bicycle with nice gears and proper tires.  My own bike is looking a little worse for the wear.  It’s rusting in places on account of spending all of winter locked to a pole outside and I haven’t bothered to wipe away the cobwebs the local spider (who lives on the aforementioned pole) has decorated my bike with.  I look grossly underprepared for the journey ahead, with the exception of the 1.5 liter bottle of water in my patent leather backpack.

As we ride Kent towards a park where registration for Tour du Brooklyn will take place, I secretly hope that we will be too late and that all of the available 2,000 spaces will have been filled.  That way, I can say at least I tried.

Unfortunately, Tour du Brooklyn is still eager to take my $10 riding fee when I arrive.  The $10 fee seems to me a bit steep considering we will be traveling through public streets and, if I were cagey, cheap, or principled enough, I could easily follow behind them as an “unregistered” rider.  Instead, I sign some waiver stating I will not sue anyone if I am flattened into a pancake while on this journey.  In exchange, some woman hands me a massive sticker to place on my person.

Music plays from big loudspeakers while a man makes indecipherable, enthusiastic commentary over the noise.  The whole scene reminds me of college orientation, minus all of the doting, nervous parents and colored balloons.

The master of ceremonies makes some announcement that I imagine means we are to flood the street below and prepare for the starting bell because everyone has begun to make their way out of the park.  Bill and I decide that our strategy will be to stay back and right.  “Like Coachella,” Bill says.

The Tour du Brooklyn has attracted an incredibly intense crowd of people.  This is not surprising considering everyone here was willing to forgo their Saturday rage-fests for a sensible night of sleep and an early wakeup the following morning.  Bill and I look around for likeminded people as ourselves (read: Brooklyn pseudo hipsters who spend most of their expendable income on oysters at Marlow & Sons), only to realize we are greatly in the minority, if not the entire minority ourselves.    

“Are we the assholes who don’t wear helmets?” I ask, noticing that every other person here is decked out in aerodynamic spandex and protective gear.  We are two idiots in a sea of nerds.

Bill looks around.  “Am I underestimating the difficulty of riding 21 miles?” he asks.

Yes, I think.  I’m a little nervous about the voracious consumption of carbohydrates going on around me.  Older men gnawing on fist-sized bagels, women passing around breakfast sandwiches.  This is the shit I used to do when I was ten years old and getting ready for a cross-country meet.

“Well,” I start, “we can always, you know…”

“Peel off,” Bill finishes.

“Exactly.”

I’m hoping this “peeling off” happens around mile two, after which we can go enjoy some eggs benny at Five Leaves with the rest of the hungover twenty-somethings.

“Let’s hear some bike bells!” announces our MC over the loudspeakers.  Nearly two thousand bike bells tinker in unison.  Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  These people are adults.  This is so beyond weird.

A starting alarm rings.  “And you’re off!  Let’s go Tour du Brooklyn!”

Only we’re not off.  Apparently, it takes a very long time for the effects of movement to be felt when you’re behind 2,000 people on bicycles.  With a great naïve hopefulness, Bill and I mount our respective bicycles and wait for our turn.  But when traffic does start breaking up, it’s not enough to warrant full-speed peddling, so we are forced to simply walk our bikes within the massive crowd for about a quarter mile.

Bill’s already talking about breaking away from the group, throwing around suggestions like looping around Prospect Park, another 20-mile ride.

“Are there hills?” I ask.

Bill thinks about it.  “Yes.”

“Let’s just give this a go and see what happens.”

Riding with this many people proves to be fairly annoying.  It’s as though I’ve just paid $10 to join the bike riding equivalent of the 405 during rush hour.  Corners prove to be disastrous to the overall speed of the ride: people slow down, veer dangerously close to one another, cluster like a bunch of bumper cars.  In fact, I’ve never felt more in need of a helmet.  Riding with these idiots makes even speeding taxis feel benign.  I’ve already seen two people collide in front of me on a straightaway and have narrowly escaped my own accidents with multiple bicycles.

“This route needs an enema.”

The efficiency of our ride ranks somewhere between zero and one.  There are volunteers and cops blocking car traffic, which is about as close as I will ever come to feeling like I’m the president of the United States, worthy of the frustration and ire of many.  But occasionally, and for no real good reason, our 2k mass grinds to a halt for a great many minutes.  Everyone stands there, patiently or impatiently, as a real-life testament to the damaging apathy of Groupthink.

After two hours and ten miles later, we’ve reached our halfway point, as indicated by the tables filled with orange wedges, Cliff Bars, and bananas cut into thirds.  Bill and I discuss the merits of staying on course (there actually aren’t any merits). 

Over the first leg of our journey, my back tire has refused to keep any helpful amount of air, making the whole experience feel as though I’ve been riding in sand.  I don’t have much more left in me.  Bill wants to go see the beach.  I want to get in a train and head back to my side of town.  I meet him halfway.  “Okay, we’ll go to the beach and then I’ll head back home on the F.”

Even though I am sunburned, grumpy, and tired, this is where our journey begins to really pick up speed, literally and figuratively.  Separated from the group, we are free to make our way quickly down the boardwalk, flying past ancient Russian woman hobbling under nylon umbrellas and old shirtless men.  The concrete roads give way to weathered, wooden slats that rattle dangerously under the weight of our wheels.

Bill convinces me to stop in Coney Island and tells me, since we’re here, we’re going to have to go on one of the rides.  I’ve wanted to go to Coney Island for quite some time, admittedly a desire stoked by the more depressing sequences in The Wrestler.  Bill tells me something about the good old days, back when people used to come here and shoot heroin.

We affix our bikes to a fence and I walk away very much convinced it will not be there when I return.  The whole scene reminds me of the beach in Romeo and Juliet, with the apple-shaped old ladies holding colored umbrellas and the collective male testosterone bakes in the sun, coating everything like a layer of sand.

Luna Park, the source of Coney Island’s “entertainment,” is a weird little ghost town filled with more hot air than bodies.  It’s like the Detroit of amusement parks. One hundred years ago, this place was boomtown, filled with chubby kids in bathing suits and lights that worked. In the 1940s, a series of fires put a damper on the beachside rabblerousing and the place has never recovered. Not really. The only people who come here are a small percentage of tourists who are really mad they’ve given up a day in Manhattan for “this,” locals with no air conditioning in their apartment, and people like me and Bill – pseudo hipsters who live for irony. 

 Bill and I debate a ride that basically slingshots you into the air at some shocking speed and then lets you freefall like an aimless yoyo.  The fact that the four people a month that come here and ride this thing does not likely cover the cost of routine maintenance and safety checks pushes us towards a more traditional ride (though no more safe, I imagine): Deno’s Wonder Wheel.

The Wonder Wheel was built nearly one hundred years ago – I’m pretty sure everything here is one hundred years old, including the people – and supposedly has not stopped more than once (a 1997 summertime blackout, yippee!). In my estimation, the Wonder Wheel is either a well-oiled machine or an old farm horse just needing a goddamn break.

Some weirdo pulls closed two grated doors, locking us in a cage that will “swing” while we take the circle tour; the sound it makes brings to mind PETA videos of cows being led through the metal corridors of some Ukrainian chop shop to, you know, come one step closer to hamburger glory.

I assess the visible rust that has gnawed away at the metalwork and laugh uncomfortably. 

After we procure some vintage joy from this ancient relic – this homage to life before iPads, iPhones, frequent flier miles, and birth control – we head out, making sure to check out the fat Russian oligarchs who have beached themselves Stateside, finding home in a little beachside café called Tatiana’s, eating chilled soups with prostitutes.

Before I leave Bill – and I will leave Bill – we accidentally partake in a Jewish pride parade, riding alongside a pickup truck festooned with glitter and paper things, a keyboardist playing typically Jewish tunes, and a man chanting “Put your hands up in the air!  Hands UP in the air! Jewish prrrriiiiddddddeeeee!!”

With that, my work here is done.  I wave goodbye to Bill, drag my sorry ass and my bike with the flat tire up to the elevated subway platform, making sure, for good measure, to take a nice chunky bit of flesh out of my shin with a wayward peddle. Because what better way to end the bike ride from hell with a little bit of self-made bloodshed.

 

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