Spokes and the city

When Tom Hall announced he was going on a cycling holiday to New York, his friends thought he was mad. But pedalling the city's streets proved the perfect way to find the Apple's core

"Just watch out for taxis. Make eye contact with the driver - they're more likely to stop that way." There you have it - I was to cycle safely in New York armed with a steely stare. It was the same everywhere. From friends at home to sceptical strangers with whom I shared my plans, I was left in no doubt: if I got on my bike in New York I'd see the worst of the place and risk my life in the process. I was volunteering for a head-on meeting with those yellow cabs, and a flattening beside the Flatiron Building. However, it's best not to question the invincibility of a cyclist - especially when he's only got one day to see the Big Apple.

Happily, cyclists get a better deal in New York now than at any time for decades. Dedicated paths, well-signed cycle lanes and improved access to bridges and subways show how the city has woken up to the needs of cyclists, and tourists can take advantage. With a free, pocket-sized cycling map covering the five boroughs, navigation is easy.

Despite my bullishness (I was already thinking like a New Yorker) it was a relief to meet experts who didn't think I was committing suicide by urban adventure. Nate Ethington of Metro Bicycles on Sixth Avenue kitted me out with a tough hybrid bike and helmet and sent me on my way with the words of wisdom on making eye-contact with cabbies.

First stop was the best-kept secret of the city. Manhattan is ringed by a traffic-free path for walkers, bikers and in-line skaters. It hugs the edge of the island for almost its entire perimeter. In a matter of minutes I was heading north, facing the New Jersey shore surrounded by grassy peace and quiet. The only reminder that I was in New York was an unfortunate encounter with recent arrivals from a cruise ship that had just docked at Chelsea Pier. A fellow cyclist, none too pleased at a baggage-laden family straying into her lane, barked them back onto the right side of the path. I cruised by, unnoticed and careful to keep out of her way. But for that, it could have been a Sunday ride in the country rather than rush hour on a Thursday morning in the seething metropolis.

While pedalling to the northern tip of Manhattan, I found myself seeing parts of everyday life I'd otherwise have missed. In Harlem, it was high school graduation day and the streets were filled with happy kids wearing gowns and mortar boards. In riverside parks, games of little league baseball were being played out. The city's grid means you can't get lost, and even if you do the big landmarks, from the rivers to the famous buildings, mean it's easy to right yourself by looking up or around you.

On a bike the highlights and symbols of the city change. Unless you're armed with a heavy-duty lock, the place you rent your bike will try to talk you out of leaving it unattended. While that means extended rambles round the Metropolitan Museum may have to wait for another day, it does mean that you're free of the tourist check list. And all the better for it - the day was my own.

One by one the bridges and miles rolled by, and in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge I took a right turn and headed for Central Park, where lunchtime softball games were in full swing. The park itself is arguably the best place for two wheels in the city. Its six-mile, six-lane loop road is closed to motorised traffic during the day, creating a raceway for bikes. The views of familiar buildings, from John Lennon's last home in the Dakota building to Sigourney Weaver's apartment block in Ghostbusters, warrant a slow ride to take the scenery in, but the rolling gradient and speed-demon cyclists all round you encourage you to stage your own Tour de Manhattan.

As fun as it was, I knew bucolic riverside rides and sprints through Central Park weren't quite what the doom-sayers had in mind. It was time to brave a big ride in the Big Apple. Broadway curves its way down the length of Manhattan, cutting through its northern heights then snaking south-west crossing Sixth and Fifth Avenues before finishing at Battery Park at the base of Lower Manhattan. Below Central Park it offered a direct route south for me, along with the speeding motor vehicles of the city.

Deep breath, pedal to the floor, big surprise - no death. In fact, I spent the entire journey speeding past the taxis I was supposed to be living in fear of with plenty of room on either side. All the warnings had made me cautious, but in a couple of blocks I was staring down the most reckless of yellow cabs - remarkably, the advice worked and I avoided any mishaps with vehicles making fast turns.

The ride had beautiful moments. If you ever thought, as I did, that Times Square was just an overgrown Piccadilly Circus, try it on a bicycle. Approaching from the north, the looming buildings roll up, fill the horizon and take your breath away before you dart between them and speed away. You don't even have to pause to get the full effect - just cycle on through. Twice if you can.

From Midtown it's an easy half-hour ride to Battery Park, passing the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden and the edges of Greenwich Village, Tribeca and Chinatown. Occasionally, such as at the stark, gaping hole of the World Trade Centre site, I caught glimpses of other tourists in New York. Otherwise I felt like a local - ducking in and out of traffic, swapping banter and abuse with drivers and pedestrians. The only thing that gave me away was my use of two rather than one finger at appropriate moments.

When you go, size up the city. There's more to New York than Manhattan, and outlying boroughs are fast gaining a new identity as the neighbours move in, tempted by cheaper rents and good transport links. Brooklyn in particular is a treat. Williamsburg is the hottest property spot in town with happening boutiques and a very cool outlook, and further south the trendy bars and restaurants of DUMBO (as in Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) are an easy ride across the East River from Chinatown. Like most of the New York's crossings, Manhattan Bridge is bike-friendly. If you time it right, you can race - and beat - eastbound Subway trains to the other side. The magnificent icon of Brooklyn Bridge is a cyclist's dream, with a raised wooden boardwalk providing stunning views left, right and below. I freewheeled back into Manhattan grinning like a kid on a Coney Island roller-coaster.

At the end of the day and back on two legs I was grimy, sweaty and slightly sore after 40 miles - time for beer and celebrations. I hadn't ticked off museums or scaled the city's tallest buildings, but I had beaten the traffic and covered more of the city than most visitors ever get to see. If this is madness, let's hope the straitjacket has saddle padding.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

London Heathrow to New York JFK is the busiest intercontinental route in the world. The cheapest and most flexible tickets are likely to be on Air India or Kuwait Airways. Fares on United are running at about £370 return, with American Airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic rather more expensive.

From other UK airports, the widest range of non-stop connections are on Continental, from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester. The lowest fares, though, are likely to be on Air France via Paris, for around £400 return in early September.

Be warned that accommodation costs can be extremely high; a good way to cut hotel bills is to buy an inclusive package.

RED TAPE

British passport holders travelling on normal return air tickets to the United States do not require visas - so long as they have never been arrested for any offence, anywhere in the world. If you do not qualify, you must pay $100 (around £60) and attend an interview at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate-General in Belfast. For more information call the premium-rate number 09055 444 546 or visit www.usembassy.org.uk.

GETTING AROUND

Bikes can be hired from most bike shops in Manhattan: try Metro Bicycles at Sixth Avenue (001 212 255 5100; www.metrobicycles.com); the company has six other branches in the city. Rental costs $7 (£4) an hour or $35 (£20) a day. Cycling maps of New York City can be obtained free of charge from www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/bike/bm.html and in bike shops in New York.

Simon Calder

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