Most consider New York’s most dangerous districts to be the Bronx, East Harlem and Midtown, the most frequented place by tourists. But the true street fights take place between 59th and 110th before the sun has even risen.
Amongst the greenery in the very heart of New York City there’s a hidden, unsanctioned racetrack. It’s 10.5 km in length with a total of 32 metres of elevation. In those moments when most of the city’s skyscrapers are still bathed in darkness, this narrow stretch of pristine tarmac is where you’ll find the city’s big players, the CEOs and the Wall Street bankers amongst others. This is where the day’s first street fight takes place. The first of many for that day. But this one isn’t about financial gain, dividends or maximizing returns; there are no medals involved either. The motivation for those gathered in the pre-dawn gloom is rooted in two things: fitness or ego. Some ride bikes that surpass UCI standards for speed. Others argue that some rely on doping in a bid to boost their performance and that same ego.
The roadies in Central Park are a reflection of the city and sometimes riding around can be like swimming in a shark tank, but it’s also where you may meet the scene’s kindest and most inclusive riders. Omar Tejada, a GFNY ambassador, is one such rider. I shoot him a message: “Hey Omar, I’d love to check out the city, can we meet up for a ride?” His response comes rapidly and with genuine warmth: “Let’s meet up at 5:00am on Friday.”
Yet there’s a warning: “Dude, believe me, at this time Central Park is already damn busy!” I am a bit dubious about his claim until we turn up, agape at the number of alpha animals with their TT set-ups, aero frames and full carbon exotica. In a pack they hunt each other before the break of dawn like vampires; never satiated. But once the sun rises there’s little trace left. The tarmac becomes the domain of the tourist, descending on the park and eliminating any opportunity for new personal Strava records.
There’s a real sense of competition in Central Park, but it isn’t all power metres and performance; the contrast between a no one and a someone is much closer than people realize while out on the road. You have Wall Street bankers lined up next to bike mechanics, all ready to race. At that point who you are off the bike no longer matters. It’s who makes it to the finish first. But there’s also warm smiles amid the bared teeth. For some, in those precious moments before the sun rises, the park is a place of tranquility and a fresh morning breeze; getting the morning started in the right way. Riders nod and greet each other, prioritizing humanity over the egoistic act of measuring up. These are riders who don’t give a damn about categories, perhaps ironically making their own: category 6. It’s reserved for those who’re content with themselves and their abilities; they don’t need digital trophies for confirmation. #JRA* *just ride along
Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Noah Haxel