A busy work schedule and travel logistics issues meant I’d spend Christmas Day in New York City away from family. Intent on continuing to log base miles for the coming season and take my focus off of being waylaid in the city on an important holiday, I decided to spend Christmas riding from Manhattan to Montauk. Cold be damned. Rain be damned. It’s a ride I’ve done before, but only in the height of summer. I was curious to see what it would be like now with what I imagined to be quiet roads, an eerily vacant Hamptons, bare trees and the haunt of the ocean in wintertime. There are about 130 miles between my apartment in the East Village and Montauk, and the route itself is almost elegant in its simplicity—the profile is nearly pancake flat, the number of turns limited to as few as four.
Turn 1: Onto the Manhattan Bridge and Atlantic Avenue
The busy and adventurous feel of New York City was still packed away from the night before when I left my apartment on 7th Street at 6:00am. It was raining and still dark out. The hulking delivery trucks and frantic taxi cabs that normally join me down Second Avenue as I make my way to Brooklyn were gone. Swinging onto the Manhattan Bridge, the benign, stable gradient kicks-in immediately. I always opt for an injection of pace on the bridge, although it’s early in the ride, as the effort to reach the apex of its arch only lasts about 90 seconds. It’s possible to take this stretch in the big ring and feel fast, even this early in the season when true form is still a long ways off. Stamping hard on the pedals, to my left the Lower East Side flickered through the bridge’s suspension cables and DUMBO rose up to greet me. In my mind, my legs marked time to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow”, which always struck me as the perfect song for any newly embarked-upon adventure. Sweeping through the curve of the off-ramp, I crossed under the BQE, and snuck through Downtown Brooklyn’s side streets to Atlantic Avenue.
Turn 2: Onto Rockaway Boulevard
An early portion of Atlantic Avenue is traced by the M Train’s elevated tracks. On this day, perhaps reaching for anything vaguely reminiscent of home, I interpreted them as a minor architectural homage to my native Chicago’s “L” as I rode past. I noticed the road had been re-paved since the summer, and under the cover of twilight the urban edges of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick softened. The wash of tires over the rain-soaked road signaled the nearing of vehicles from behind, and I’d instinctually drift closer to the parked cars that lined the Avenue like fans along the barriers at a town center crit. Further on, I entered Atlantic Avenue’s commercial strip in Woodhaven, which bears the mark of the community’s predominantly Latino population. I remembered this past summer how the merengues and bachatas served as my siren songs along this stretch, still audible even at six o’clock in the morning from out-of-view clubs. The terminal point of Atlantic Avenue for the purposes of my route is marked by an enormous, brilliantly-lit coin-operated Laundromat that dominates the southwest corner of the intersection. Making the right-hand-turn onto Rockaway Boulevard I passed briefly through its ecstatic light.
Turn 3: Onto Merrick Boulevard
Morning’s inky darkness soon parted, giving way to a grey pall that the rain and clouds combined to cast over everything. Rockaway Boulevard was more subdued than Atlantic Avenue, and traffic from behind concerned me less. Along this stretch, the road slopes down slightly, and I could push a bigger gear at the same cadence. A series of uninterrupted green lights ushered me along through the first vestiges of suburbia—global franchises, golden arches, and grocery stores that give out onto parking lots rather than the mouths of subway stations. The amount of signage touting martial arts classes seemed remarkable at first, but I quickly remembered being eight years-old once, too, and wanting desperately that Mom sign me up for Karate. Conveniently, rational urban planners had mostly numbered the cross streets that bi-sect Rockaway Boulevard, so I simply had to remember to bear left when I reached 150th Street. Past the park with a serenely still pond, and a mile further on the ride would begin in earnest. A sharp, right-turn as if I were on a wire put me on Merrick Boulevard. This is the road I’d follow for more than 100 miles, all the way to the lighthouse that stands like a dutiful cadet at Long Island’s eastern-most point.
Turn 4: Onto Old Montauk Highway
A good portion of Merrick Boulevard and Highway trace a line through non-descript places that struggled to hold my attention. Unmemorable towns blended together. But, what the road lacks in majesty it more than makes up for in terms of consistency. The surface is smooth, and the flat to slightly negative grade allows for the settling into a tempo that approximates the perpetual motion of a pursuit rider. I rode in near perfect silence thanks to a constant tailwind and a recently cleaned drive-train. For the next four hours, life was reduced to this simple equation. Nearing Southampton, and with more than 85 miles covered in just four hours, I stopped at a roadside shop to refill bottles. Faced with the threat of contracting an unshakable chill if I idled for too long, I didn’t linger. Back on the road, the sweep of the landscape evolved gradually into something more rural—see-through woods spotted with houses, fields cleared of their bounty, and diminished vineyards left forgotten until the winter thaws. The intervals between towns grew progressively shorter, creating in me the counterfeit impression of progress. The miles nevertheless seemed to tick by more quickly, and nearing East Hampton’s eastern limit, only a 12-mile stretch of straight, exposed road separated me from Montauk. Into a block headwind, those 12 miles can seem interminable. But, by some merciful alchemy, the tailwind that had given me wings all day had transformed into something almost Herculean. Aided by this naturally-occurring performance enhancement, I blazed the last five miles before the fork that splits Montauk Highway into Old and New. Swept up in a flush of feeling, I dared to imagine what it would be like to actually be so fit for real. Banking right onto Old Montauk Highway, just a few miles of undulating remained. With the blunt ache of 5hr30min of riding embedded in my legs, and on the verge of cresting the road’s final rise, an unexpected clearing to the right lured my gaze. The ocean with its glinting, shifting riot of light burst into view for the first time all ride. Arrested by the stunning vista, I pulled off the road and into a sandy area that doubled as a lookout point and car-park. Down below, the beach and horizon framed the figure of a lone man. He faced the ocean, his feet fixed securely to the sand. His hands were sunk deeply into his pockets, drawing his coat tight across his back. He stood there motionless, like Gatsby carefully considering what share of this heaven belonged to him.