Before NYC Marathon, Cyclists Rode the Course – US 247 News


It was well before dawn on Sunday when the cyclists first began to congregate — a handful at first, then a few dozen, then hundreds.

Not far away, the white lights of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge — the iconic starting point of the New York City Marathon — shimmered like a constellation in the dark sky. But these athletes were happy bathing in the fluorescent glow of a humble 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

In the past two decades, for a growing number of cyclists, the store’s parking lot has become an iconic starting point in its own right for one irresistible annual challenge: to ride the marathon course in the sliver of time after the roads are closed to traffic and before any official races begin.

“No traffic lights, no stop signs, no cars,” said Keith Taylor, 60, to a cyclist who left his home in Hoboken, NJ, in the middle of the night in order to set off on the marathon route around 6:30, as the sun began to rise.

With such dreamlike conditions, more and more riders are participating each year in this morning escapade, lured by a sense of adventure, an affection for their city and a philosophy widely shared among cyclists that no good stretch of open road should be taken for granted.

“It’s become one of these New York bucket list things,” said Chris Jones, 52, a ride leader for Rapha Cycling Club, which brought close to 150 members to the Dunkin’ Donuts. “You can do the marathon, but you don’t have to run the marathon.”

There was no official organizer, so cyclists set off at their will. For the next couple of hours, they swept through the streets in small packs, glimpsing vignettes of a city springing to life on one of its most exuberant days of the year. It wasn’t a race, but they were effectively racing the clock, trying to reach Central Park before the first wheelchair racers left Staten Island at 8 am

All along the marathon route, volunteers scuttled around curbside tables. Tow trucks hauled away delinquent cars. Musicians encamped on street corners, warming up for merriment ahead.

“It’s a very New York thing, taking advantage of a little space within a hectic city,” said Mike Schnapp, 61, also known as DJ Mike, who ate yogurt and nodded appreciatively toward the cyclists as he set up his gear in Bay Ridge .

Some of the excitement each year stems from the sense that the event, despite its growing size, still feels something like a secret. Information about the ride travels largely by word of mouth, and all participants understand that they can be kicked off the course at any time.

At the same time, the riders said, police officers and marathon workers tend to be accommodating, directing traffic and at times even cheering them on.

“It’s one of these things where you ask for forgiveness, not permission,” said Basil Ashmore, 68, who has completed the ride a half-dozen times.

Clubs from around the city rode in packs, wearing Lycra shirts in their distinct colors, with drop-handlebar road bikes. But other modes of transport were represented, too, including in-line skates, scooters and electric skateboards.

Kaushik Srinivasan and John Spanos — roommates in Hell’s Kitchen, both 25, both appearing to have just recently rolled out of bed — rode the entire course on electric Citi Bikes.

“We don’t own bikes,” Srinivasan said, somewhat sheepishly, as they pedaled through Park Slope. “But we do Citi Bike a lot.”

Tara Pham, 34, of Crown Heights, differentiated herself from the pack on a Dutch-style cruiser, with raised handlebars and a milk crate above her back fender.

“Some high schoolers heckled me,” she said as she pedaled toward Fort Greene. “It’s OK, I’ve gotten over it.”

The riders’ presence inevitably caused a few headaches along the course. One volunteer, Jasmine Hines, 50, of Canarsie, laughed as she engaged in a life-size game of Frogger, trying to carry supplies across Bedford Avenue in South Williamsburg.

“It’s just been hard, because we don’t want to get run over,” she said. Just then, a cyclist in a red jersey swerved across her path. “See what I mean?”

Later, in Greenpoint, a herd of riders was forced to stop behind two workers in reflective vests erecting a mile marker near the base of the Pulaski Bridge. As the riders tapped their feet impatiently, one of the workers glared back.

“We’re working,” she said. “We’re working, and you guys are getting in our way.”

Although the origins of the cycling tradition have been somewhat obscured by the fog of time, riders tend to invoke the same milestones and characters in recounting its history.

In the 1990s, a local cyclist named Richard Rosenthal began volunteering as an unofficial escort for wheelchair racers, helping clear the road of heedless cars and pedestrians. (Escort cyclists became an official part of the marathon in the early 2000s.)

Soon after that, cyclists realized they could take advantage of the open roads even before the wheelchair competitors took off. One of them was Peter O’Reilly, 53, who recalled being virtually alone on the streets when he completed the route with a couple of his friends in 1999.

O’Reilly picked the Dunkin’ Donuts back then as a meeting point because it was a close to where his wife once lived. The next year, he organized the New York Cycle Club’s first pre-marathon ride. He said the number of participants — as well as unaffiliated riders coming on their own — seemed to double every year.

“I was always encouraging people to ride more slowly: ‘You’re going too fast. Take in the sights a bit more!’ ” said O’Reilly, who now lives in Sandy Hook, NJ, and no longer participates on marathon day.

But many do go fast — to record strong times on their Strava profiles, to practice racing maneuvers on wide open roads, to get onto roadways before they are closed by the police.

Around 8 am, for instance, the police were herding participants away from one stretch of First Avenue, where some riders reported seeing a pedestrian receiving medical attention after apparently being struck by a cyclist.

Given the gray area in which the event exists, riders fear — and accept, perhaps — that someone at some point might try to shut them down.

Jones, the Rapha ride leader, recalled seeing a huge surge in participants in 2021, one he attributed in part to the increase in bicycle sales during the pandemic, and feeling a momentary sense of dread.

“I thought, ‘This is the last year we’re riding this,’ ” he said.

Understanding that negative attention could spell an end to the tradition, Alfredo Garcia, 65, a ride leader for the New York Cycle Club who first rode the course in 2003, tells groups the same thing every year: “Whatever the police say, cooperate with them, not ifs, ands or buts.”

As one might expect with a guerrilla-style ride, this one does not have a triumphant finish. Instead, people look around, wonder if it is possible to ride further and eventually — usually right around 59th Street and Fifth Avenue — determine that it is not.

On Sunday, some headed to brunch. Others peeled off to keep riding elsewhere.

Zoé Albert, 32, an artist from Brooklyn Heights, lingered in her in-line skates, puffing on a vape, revealing in the fact that she had stolen a glimpse of what it might be like for a runner to finish a marathon: the camaraderie , the good vibes. She was eager to keep it going.

“I’m going to take the subway to Coney Island and jump in,” she said. “Why not? It’s already an extreme day. Why not have a cold plunge?”