New York City is easy to love and easier to hate, especially for New York City based cyclists. We are blessed with a plethora of local racing opportunities that may be unmatched anywhere in the country, but also cursed with too much traffic and far too many miles on the usual routes.
At some point it becomes vital to escape the concrete jungle, be it a day trip to the back roads and reservoirs North of the city or an afternoon spent on the mountain bike trails just across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Hell, drive for two hours nearly any direction from NYC and there is usually decent riding to be found, from the Catskills to the Hamptons.
But there is something to be said about the sublime ease in packing up a bike, riding past New York City rush hour and hitting open roads en route to a perfect hidden camp spot, just a few miles from New York City. The story of two such escapes, and some of the lessons learned and gear used follows in this new series “Bikepacking NYC.”
THE WEEKEND ESCAPE
It started simply enough: a small crew, mostly from Team Health Warrior and CityMD Women’s Racing, leaving the City immediately after the conclusion of the workweek, our race bikes weighed down with packs loaded for a weekend of camping and riding. On the first day our goal was simple: beat the setting sun to Harriman State Park, the second largest state park in New York.
From those humble beginnings our numbers swelled and of course the weather chose not to cooperate, with isolated severe thunderstorms predicted precisely for our scheduled Friday afternoon departure. We nervously watched the radar, emailing back and forth as consensus gradually formed around the mantra of “f-it, let’s ride.”
Our decision looked wise at first but before we even reached the George Washington Bridge we were swallowed by an absolute and total downpour. At times it felt like we were riding through a swimming pool as we charted our path through traffic. Perhaps all of those media fluff pieces were right and we should have heeded the warnings signs about the “Thunderstorm of the Summer.”
Due to this (not unexpected) rainstorm we were absolutely drenched just a few miles into our ride. And thanks to the absence of drybags some of our camping gear was likewise soaked. But “f-it, let’s ride” was the philosophy of the day and so onward we continued. We carved a path north on 9W, mindful of the setting sun – though we did find time for a brief snack stop along the way.
Thankfully the weather took a turn for the cooperative, if not outright delightful. Before long the sun was poking out and our kit was drying in the warm summer breeze as we rode along Hudson River trails left empty by the preceding summer storm.
It was close but we just barely met our goal of beating the encroaching darkness to our intended campsite. Relief briefly turned to disappointment as we hiked our bikes through the woods and were disheartened to hear voices, suggesting our planned home for the evening was already occupied. However, it turned out to be none other than Don and Seth, embarking on their own weekend adventure via bike, further solidifying our well timed fortune.
We quickly consolidated our campsites and before long a roaring campfire was started, dinner was getting grilled and adult refreshments were being passed around. From there the evening become a blur of storytelling broken only by a late night ascent of a nearby abandoned fire tower. From the top the lights of Manhattan flickered in the distance, while to the West brilliant flashes of lightning signaled an impending storm.
Somehow in the jovial atmosphere of late night storytelling the clock ticked past 2AM before we finally called it a night. This led to a decidedly late start the following morning. While waiting for the rest of our compatriots to finally emerge from their sleeping bags I took the opportunity to return to the fire tower under the blaze of the morning sun, New York City distant on the horizon.
At some point a new campfire was raised, sausage hit the frying pan and something vaguely resembling coffee was brewed (Mat apparently forget every single one of his “Outdoor Coffee Essentials”). As futile attempts were made to dry out clothing and shoes someone pulled up the Tour on their iPhone. Soon our screams were reverberating through the woods as we cheered for Cav on his opening stage win and his first yellow jersey.
No one was eager to call an end to a lazy morning in the woods but shortly after the stage ended we begrudgingly packed up the campsite and started the hike back down to the road. It was officially time to ride bikes.
We had an ambitious seventy plus mile ride with some of our favorite dirt roads on both sides of the Hudson planned for day two of our excursion. With our late start and slow progress on some of the early dirt sections it wasn’t long before we were noticeably scaling back our ambitions.
As our initial miles ticked by the conversation focused on where to trim sections from our ride in order to hasten our arrival at our planned mid-ride swim stop.
After crossing back over to the East banks of the Hudson River we paused at a deli for hydration and nutrition (ice cream bars). As we took in much needed nourishment we settled on a shorter loop through Westchester County that would still feature more than enough backroads and dirt trails to satisfy our tastes. And so against the midday sun we set off in the general direction of the Croton Reservoir.
Eventually we reached the Croton Dam and took a few minutes to take in the sights before turning our focus to that much anticipated mid-ride swim. It took some searching to find an appropriate downstream location to go for a dip, and by the time we arrived cloud cover had set in. This made the cold waters ever more frigid when first getting in, but before long everyone was happily resting tired legs in the water.
From there it was a short spin to a nearby brewery for cold beverages and burgers before catching a train back to the concrete jungle – though not before a quick stop at a local ice cream shop for one last treat before calling it a wrap on a terrific two days on the bike.
FAST AND LIGHT
At the opposite end of the bikepacking spectrum from our well planned two day journey up the banks of the Hudson River to Bear Mountain is the fast and light overnight trip from the City, with a lone partner in crime joining in an impromptu ‘fast and light’ journey to a campsite just a few miles out of the city – close enough to grab coffee and breakfast and be back in time for work the next morning.
For this particular journey we once again loaded our race bikes, backs and pockets to the brim before setting out through gridlocked New York City traffic in the direction of the George Washington Bridge. Thankfully unlike our prior bikepacking adventure the weather was cooperative, if slightly warm, during these opening miles.
In the interest of weight savings we left our tent in the city and instead brought our camping hammocks (more on them soon in our gear overview). This turned out to be a blessing given our route called for a long hike down to the banks of the Hudson where we planned to stay for the evening. As usual we were racing the setting sun but managed to reach our destination in time to watch the last remnants of daylight dip below the horizon perched on an old swing by the river.
Then as day gave way to night we assumed the easy rhythm of camping – gathering sticks, starting the campfire, hanging hammocks and relaxing to the sounds of waves in the river and the trickle of the waterfall just behind our campsite. We were just a few short miles from New York City’s bustle and bright lights but had the entire night to ourselves.
At first light we woke as the sun rose over the far side of the Hudson. Eventually I dragged myself from the comfort of my hammock to prepare a pot of pre-coffee. For those not well versed in the notion of pre-coffee, it’s the coffee you enjoy prior to riding to the coffee shop for a proper cup of joe. But since our return to civilization required a steep hike out of our campsite – eating a couple of sausages and veggies sadly didn’t cut much weight – we took a decidedly leisurely pace to the morning on the banks of the Hudson.
Eventually it was time to tackle the inevitable. We loaded our packs, shouldered our bikes, all the while muttering to ourselves it would be good cyclocross training, and began our climb away from the Hudson. Along the way we passed several hikers headed in the opposite direction, mystified by why we would be carrying bikes early in the morning on a hiking trail quite a bit away from any paved roads.
Once we exited the woods we were quickly back on some of our usual trails. We immediately plotted a path to a nearby market for breakfast and more coffee, this time of the iced variety, before we made the return trip back to the concrete jungle of New York City. Despite being weighed down with all manner of camping gear, we couldn’t help but enjoy some spirited sections of the ride as we breezed past cyclists out for an early morning spin with nary a saddle bag to weigh them down.
Thankfully this particular journey concluded on a Saturday morning, meaning we didn’t have to immediately race to the office. Instead, we took our time pacing our way through City traffic, marveling at how easily we were able to escape the sound and fury of New York City for peace and quiet on the banks of the Hudson River.