As a veteran New Yorker (and a veteran female), I had visions on the subway of only one cyclist showing up ("Wayne Lurks" as my friend Mikey would say), trying to lure me into the Park at night (forget the fact that I'm now eligible for Medicare, these illusions die hard). Growing up in NYC, Central Park was never a place you went by yourself during the day - let alone at night. I needn't have worried. There were 90 riders. Yes, 90. Of all bicycle denominations (and some Bromptons too). Even a sort of improvised "food truck" bike with a bunsen burner, for roasting marshmallows.
We took off into the Park in silence, red lights flashing, like a swarm of ticking fireflies headed out of the hive. We rode on the bike paths. We rode on the pedestrian paths. We rode to places I'd never seen. But that's not saying much, because between the dark and the pedestrian paths, I was completely lost! It was truly like biking in a dream, the landscape totally unfamiliar. The only place I distinctly recognized was the Boat Pond (though I have no idea how we got there). A moving sight nonetheless as we circled, our lights reflected in the water (next time I'm bringing a real camera).
And now something about groups. You know how in any given group, there's always someone who has to have all the attention? Or someone who is invariably disruptive? This was no different - but in a "Bikey" sort of way. There were racers who wanted to race (and they were good!), there were hot doggers who used the group as an excuse to execute their dare devil skills, cutting in and out for no particular reason - and scaring the bejesus out of me; and of course one kid with a digital boom box playing rap, who seemed to be everywhere whether I pedaled fast or slow.
Yes, this was in the end, an urban experience. I tried to keep my distance from all of these, but was never quite successful; was driven off the path once (very slow speed, no danger), nearly wiped out on my own (scary but not dangerous).
Ultimately, this was a group of people who love biking, but probably for very different reasons than I do: for the rush, for the convenience. But they know more about it than I do certainly, and I can learn a lot from them.
I also learned just how many people are in the Park after dark! Couples, groups, single pedestrians, dog walkers - and even the occasional raccoon (we saw two). As we got towards the top of the Park, we passed a group of people joyfully playing Latin percussion. They gave us all a big cheer; we responded with our chorus of little bells.
From the moment this ride started of course, I feared we might be tackling Fiend's Hill. The ride was billed as comfortable and easy, but you never know. So as we rode north, I was relieved to hear we were only circling the Harlem Meer - something I've never seen, since it is accessible only by pedestrian path. It was beautiful and calm, the water seemingly like glass - until I noticed someone fishing there! What kind of fish can you catch in Harlem Meer?! Is it stocked? No time to find out, as we headed out - straight up Fiend's Hill.
There was a joke going around in the 80s about a tribe of wild men who captured two explorers. They gave them two options: death, or Oogie Oogie. The first one naturally chose Oogie Oogie over death, and was buggered in every oriface by the entire tribe as his companion looked on in horror - this was clearly a fate worse than death - so when he was given the option, he simply chose death. "Great!" said the chief wild man. "Death! But first -Oogie Oogie!".
Humiliation has probably been the biggest fear throughout my life. Bigger than zits, bigger than a flat tire, bigger than a date with Wayne Lurks. This was not a crowd that was going to be walking their bikes, and I didn't want to be the first. But just like every other adventure Lucille and I have had, I took it on because in the moment there was no choice. And was surprised to find Fiend's Hill has actually lost its fiendishness for me now. Somewhere in my riding, it has become just another hill, nothing more. A great opportunity to breathe.
And breathing is everything. More than anything since I've begun cycling, I've become addicted to breathing.