The city was theirs

THE echoes of the village church tolling four had just died away in the pre-dawn darkness as the last bikes were bolted onto the roof racks. And then the two-car convoy, setting out under a sky spangled with more stars than the average city dweller can make sense of, left the ``staging area'' in Connecticut and headed into the Big Apple. The occasion was the Five-Boro Bike Tour, sponsored by the American Youth Hostels and Citibank and held this past weekend. We aren't sure just how many cyclists in all participated in the course of some 36 miles through all five boroughs of New York City. Tens of thousands, surely.

Suffice it to say it was more bicycles all at once than most people ever see in their lifetimes, unless they live in Peking.

In their helmets and their red-orange safety vests, the cyclists set forth in force - though not, because of numbers, at great speed - from lower Manhattan around 8 o'clock, heading up the Avenue of the Americas. With streets closed to motor traffic, they bravely pedaled where usually only buses dare roar.

Along the way they heard the sound of six dozen bikes simultaneously downshifting - ker-chonk! - to deal with a rise in the road in Central Park. And they got whiffs of the fragrance of chestnuts from the pushcart vendors, and the hot rubber smell of dozens of bikes braking simultaneously on the descent from the Queensboro Bridge.

There was music along the way - boom boxes downtown and in Harlem, a live bugler cheering the cyclists along Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn.

Then at last came the long, slow ride across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island; the rendezvous point at Ft. Wadsworth, where they claimed their victory T-shirts; and the ferry ride back to Battery Park.

For one splendiferous Sunday they had the opportunity to get to know the city as few New Yorkers and fewer visitors ever do. It might have been more fun with only half the people. But without a crowd, would it have been New York?

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