New York City: Tours on two wheels

For a fresh perspective, Chris Coplans gears up to see the Big Apple under his own steam

I blame Premium Rush, the high-octane thriller released in the UK in September, where the hero (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a super-cool bike messenger dude pursued through the mean streets of Manhattan by a deranged psychotic cop. I saw it while in New York City. Immediately I imagined myself as that very bike messenger. And then, almost as quickly, I realised that this would be rather difficult, as I was bikeless in Manhattan.

New York's much-heralded Citi Bike scheme has been postponed by Mayor Bloomberg until March 2013, so in desperation I phoned my go-to New York cycle guy, Jesse at Bike the Big Apple. "Jesse," I begged, "I need to see New York from the saddle. I want to cycle somewhere cool and quirky." In a New York millisecond he shot back: "Sunday, 10am, 2nd Avenue at 69th. Don't be late."

So, come Sunday, I joined guide Johannes and a group of predominately British and American families for The Sensational Park and Soul Tour. We zigzagged our way through the refreshingly quiet Sunday-morning streets of the ritzy Upper East Side, with its extravagant brownstones and imperial mansions.

We cycled past one of Tom Wolfe's master-of-the-universe types as he jogged along in a Prada tracksuit. We observed starched matronly ladies walking perfect pooches. We witnessed ancient dowagers, smothered in cashmere, being wheeled round by diminutive maids.

Then we emerged on a section of Fifth Avenue where modern-day Gatsbys and Sherman McCoys relax on the terraces of multi-million dollar apartments overlooking Central Park. Beyond, we swapped the ordered calm of the Upper East Side for the frenetic intensity of the park, where we joined the boarders and bladers.

Pedalling our way uptown through the park, we stopped to watch an armada of radio-controlled boats dancing on the lake, before passing one of the largest collections of still-surviving elms in the western world. We reached the northern end of the park at 110th Street, the traditional boundary between Harlem and the rest of Manhattan.

Harlem is a rapidly changing place. Sugar Hill's leafy streets have long been home to Harlem's elite and now attract well-heeled downtown hipsters. Strivers' Row, where a sign reads "walk your horses" boasts brownstone homes that are a match for those on the Upper East Side and the Village.

We made our way through the leafy Harlem streets to the East Mt Olive Baptist Church on W 128th St, which proudly proclaims, "Where Everybody is Somebody". Here we gingerly entered the tiny church, free from the tour bus crowds that the bigger Harlem churches attract, and found the congregation in full flow.

Suitably revitalised, we left the church, saddled up once more and cycled to the legendary Apollo Theater on Harlem's pulsating main artery, 125th Street. Many of America's best-known black musicians and singers got their first break on Amateur Night at the Apollo, a competition which still runs today. After filling up on a soul-food lunch across the street, we set off again, continuing through Harlem before returning to Central Park, where we pay our respects at the John Lennon Memorial at Strawberry Fields in the shadow of the imposing Dakota Building where he was murdered in 1980.

On through the park and on the only downhill section, I broke from the peloton and in true Mark Cavendish style made my triumphant bid for the finish line in my very own Premium Rush moment. Mission accomplished.

Sights from the saddle 

Bike and Roll is another excellent tour, which starts at Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan and takes you through the financial district, followed by an exhilarating ride over Brooklyn Bridge and through a couple of local Brooklyn neighbourhoods. There are also stupendous views of the Lower Manhattan skyline on the Brooklyn Promenade. At the new Brooklyn Bridge Park you swap bike for boat, boarding a water taxi. The distinctive cab-yellow boat takes you out past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty before continuing up the Hudson River, before you get back on your bikes at Pier 44 in Midtown. You then ride south along the off-road West Side Greenway back to Battery Park. Bike and Roll ( bikeandroll.com) offers Guided Bike and Boat tours for $79 (£50).

Self-guided options

There are various self-biking options available. The Soho Grand in downtown New York offers complementary bikes to its guests, a growing trend among New York hotels. Downtown is a good option both for cycling and walking: the neighbourhoods are varied and the streets bike-friendly, particularly in the West Village. Bike and Roll has launched a "Hop On, Hop Off" service whereby you can return your bike to any one of its 11 locations.

Summer excursions

Every weekend during the summer, you can jump on a ferry close to Battery Park for the seven-minute trip to 172-acre Governor's Island, just 800- metres from the tip of southern Manhattan. Take a bike with you or rent one from the Bike and Roll station on the island. Ride round the perimeter of the island before enjoying drink and a hotdog on the man-made beach, which has spectacular views of Manhattan.

Travel Essentials

The writer travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk) which offers a three-night package staying at the Soho Grand from £799, including flights.

Visiting there

Bike the Big Apple ( bikethebigapple.com) offers a five-hour "Sensational Park and Soul Tour" for $85 (£53) per person on Sundays.

DiscoverAmerica.com

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