It's official - I declare the age of the 'hop-on, hop-off' double-decker city bus tour well and truly over. I took a long overdue tour of the city of Brooklyn, NY following a tip by @bikenewyork. They put me in touch with Felipe from www.getupandride.com, who showed me "the real New York - where real New Yorkers live", and I wasn't disappointed.
Felipe's vision is to get all visitors of New York to see the city by bike. "F**k the bus" were his words, and I totally agree! There is no better way to immerse yourself in a new city. You can cover much more ground than walking, stop as frequently or infrequently as you like - no need to worry about missing a stop, bike lanes go more places and ride to the door of your next destination. PLUS it absolutely appeals to my inner greenie :)
Leading up to my visit, I was super pumped to hit the road and find some great rides, great people and great coffee. Surprisingly, I was the only crazy guy that wanted to go riding while it was 4 degrees C (39 F) and raining (It actually snowed briefly the evening before the ride). Graciously, Felipe planned a route exclusively within Brooklyn, to proudly showcase his backyard, highlighting bike stores and the emerging hipster-lead trend of premium boutique coffee houses. He didn't complain about the weather once!
I met Felipe at his lock-up in Williamsburg around 10am. He began with a well-oiled spiel outlining our day ahead, which included a practical safety brief and some clever one-liners. I was then showed to my set of wheels - a city bike by Public, and given a radio headset and walky-talky. All the bikes at his Brooklyn lock-up are named after locally grown celebrities. I was riding Steve Buscemi - but despite this my radio callsign was not 'Mr Pink', but 'ghost rider 6'. I knew we would get along just fine.
Not too long ago, Brooklyn was known as being fairly rough - until around the mid 1990's when Mayor Rudi Giuliani made a name for himself by cleaning up the streets of New York. There are no signs of that rough town now - the only graffiti seen is art. In fact, there is a whole separate bike tour you can do with Felipe just focusing on local art. Quite discreet, one artist plies his trade in the pavement all about the place. Here is an example right by our first stop, Ovenly - one of my now favourite bakeries of all time, and the viewing pontoon at kent st. This one is apparently a self portrait. Wow!
I'm told Brooklyn is also a hotbed of entrepreneurship, with the highest per capita rate of entrepreneurs in the USA. Right by Ovenly was the HQ of tech giant Kickstarter. The Kickstarter building is very unassuming, and a prime example of the artsy urban business culture of the area. There is no sign out the front, and if it weren't for the expensive looking double entry door, it would look like an old factory building in ruin. Looking in through the windows, it looks like a completely different story inside. Very Impressive! I did not take any photos out of respect for their privacy, but here is a pic copied from brooklynlink.com . Just by Manhattan Bridge is Etsy, and hidden somewhere else is Hootsuite - plenty of big names.
I was quite blown away by how cool this place really was. It certainly helped that Felipe was passionate about the area, but it was really just a matter of getting around and learning what was there. Myriad bars, restaurants, underground nightspots, breweries, bakeries, chocolate makers and cafes were all hitting the top of my mental 'must do' list for my next visit. One in particular really stood out for me - a bar/restaurant with live music and Shuffleboard, called Royal Palms Shuffleboard. Apparently Shuffleboard is similar to the olympic sport of Curling, but is played without being on ice. Let me at it!
Back to our ride - we needed coffee, STAT! So stopped in the Polish district, Greenpoint, at 'Propeller'. They were using coffee from a local Brooklyn roaster, Parlor, and it was brilliant. The cafe was a haven from the buzz of the street, and the pride the staff took in their coffee was made obvious when the barrister hovered at the end of the bar for our approval. Plus, as a pilot by profession, the name had instant appeal!
Once we had recharged, our route took us through the Navy Yard (Felipe had arranged special access) to check out film production Studios and the testing grounds for many new concepts. There is a massive private facility there where they test and make military bullet proof vests and some other secret stuff - plus city share bikes (think Boris Bikes in London) are being tested before final production and release to the next big city. One of Bloomberg's initiatives is also being tested down the road - solar powered lamp posts, which are slated to replace all lamp posts in New York in the near future.
We then ambled through Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Central Park, but apparently favoured this one for its closer ties to its original natural state. Apart from being a completely traffic free environment and serene oasis, the park had some fascinating history. An iconic battle was fought here during the Civil war that the yanks always go on about, and occasionally they still find musket balls in the soil.
Towards the end of the day now, and we'd been chatting so much that we'd forgotten about food. It would have to wait however, as we had a very specific destination in mind, and there were two bike shops to visit first.
718 Bikes was the first. Felipe had pulled some strings to arrange a chat with store owner, Joe. Joe is an Architect by trade, who developed a passion for bikes later in life, and opened a bike store as a means to indulge his passion and allow him to step back a little from his (highly successful) career.
Joe teaches free bike maintenance classes every week, and encourages his customers to build their own bikes. Akin to teaching a man to fish (instead of handing him one already caught), Joe's philosophy is honourable and engaging. This results in a fiercely loyal customer base, and a proud group of employees. City bikes, mountain bikes and now Fat Bikes were the focus here and although not central to my interests, I really loved this bike store for its unique concepts and acute focus on customer service.
Second was R & A Cycles. The first word to come out of my mouth when I entered this store (after quite a pause) was 'wow'. Then I said it again, and maybe one more time. I was in road bike nirvana! There were dozens, or maybe hundreds of high end frames adorning the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Initially it was quite overwhelming, but after a few minutes I got my bearings and could really appreciate the work involved in creating such an ordered and OORRsome presentation of bike porn. Even the fussiest of roadies or triathletes could find their perfect machine in here. Stocking brands from Look and Kuota to Specialised and Pinarello they had most bases covered from entry level right up to your high end. I was told one of the bikes was valued at around $30k!
Store sales reps Tristan and Ed were great blokes who really knew their stuff, but I had to be dragged away by a hungry Felipe when the conversation turned to 'Mr Ed' and the 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air'. It took all my resolve to not bust out the fresh prince lyrics... Still love that show!
Finally got on our way to the best pizza in Brooklyn. We had originally intended to eat under the Brooklyn bridge at Julianas, which is the reincarnation of Grimaldis, established when the original Grimaldis was sold, and the 30yrs plus recipes were altered, incensing Grimaldi. In defence of his name, he reopened under Julianas just next door -in your face! It's quite an open dispute, with inflammatory signs posted in their windows. Read more about this here.
With lines out the doors of both restaurants, it's obvious they are both doing something right. Felipe and I didn't want to wait however, so he took me to the less touristy, locals only 'Best Pizza' in Brooklyn. Mouth wateringly good, and living up to its name, we seriously devoured that pizza. Although the pace was easy, 6hrs of riding will do that to you!
You can check out our route here:
That's all for this entry - I'll have some shorter blogs coming in the next few weeks.
- I'm headed down to Ballarat to watch the Mens national Crit Race on Wednesday 7th Jan with some mates and beers
- I have a long mountain climb planned in the next few weeks
- I will be turning my hand at some gear reviews - if you have anything specific you want me to look at, just let me know in the comments!
Addendum: I had originally included this text below about local politics, but it got pretty wordy. I found it pretty fascinating and inspiring, but decided to relegate in the interest of reducing the length of the blog entry.
Brooklyn is a fascinating place - with a population of around 2.6million, it would be the 3rd largest city in the US by population, behind Los Angeles and Chicago if it were a city in its own right. As it is, It is the second largest borough by area in New York, and the most populous. Originally settled by the Dutch, it is one of the oldest cities of the United States, which is evident to the trained eye (thanks Felipe), eventually becoming amalgamated with the four other boroughs in 1898 - ties being strengthened between Manhattan and Brooklyn after the iconic Brooklyn Bridge was completed just 15 years earlier.
Felipe explained to me that the Mayor who replaced Giuliani was Bloomberg - one of the world's richest men. Bloomberg has taken a whole new approach to New York, with an idealistic vision for the future. He has set about forcing new development through in previously dilapidated government zones, and demanding developers contribute a significant amount of the project cost to open public space and sustainability. As a result, there is a lot of major construction ongoing with urban re-gentrification nearby following suit like a ripple effect (particularly along the formerly unpopular waterfront), and the major benefactors are the public. There are free pools scattered everywhere, a massive new leisure centre where membership costs less than a coffee a week, playing fields and kids playgrounds on reclaimed land along the east river and a rapidly developing bike path network (yay!). You can see a great animation of the development of NYC city cycleways over the last 120 years here - http://mapstory.org/maps/1728/ - the oldest just happens to be in Brooklyn, down to Coney Island. Bloomberg also banned smoking in public places, trans fat and super sized fast food. Tip of the the hat to you, Bloomy!