Bicylists in New York City enjoy a gift from on high—Central Park, that great green horizontal oasis in a gray vertical landscape. Cycling in winter in New York is sustained by that gift; it's just colder out there. Which is why I could use a valet these days.
In order to catch an hour's ride in the park three to four mornings a week. I rise at 6:30, brew a cup of instant coffee, dress and clunk down two narrow flights of stairs in my East Side apartment building, taking care not to trip and pitch headlong down the steps, or to bruise the bike, which I carry on a shoulder, against the wall. (I have pitched up the stairs a couple of times, with slight damage.)
But it's the "dress" part that's tough. When the temperature drops below 30° I go into my knight-meets-day routine. I put on, in order: Jockey shorts; long Johns; a fishnet T shirt; a heavy turtleneck; a wool sweater; wool bike shorts; heavy ski socks; wool leg warmers; biking shoes (with some of the Swiss-cheesing, nice for hot-weather ventilation but drafty in winter, taped over and thermal insoles inserted); another pair of ski socks, with cutouts for the cleats, over the shoes; windbreaking nylon bootees over all that; a down vest; a light outer parka; a watch cap; a Bell helmet, which perches ludicrously above the watch cap; a pair of wool glove liners; and, finally, heavy rag wool gloves with leather palms.
Once on the street, climbing onto the bike with all the grace of a knight in rusty armor, I long for one of those hoists that knights used, just as, upstairs, I had wished for assistance in layering up. Not for the putting on, mind you, but for being sure to get the sequence straight. When you think you're ready and look down and see long Johns instead of leg warmers, you know you have to take off bootees, shoes and outer socks and put on leg warmers, etc., etc.
If any item is forgotten, incipient frostbite is the penalty. This is especially grievous if it occurs in the form of "frozen crotch." Omit the undershorts on a 21° morning, as I did the other day, and after 10 miles or so one has the winter equivalent of what males with cheap bike saddles often get regardless of the weather—a feeling that something down there has said sayonara. Only in winter the condition is more painful, if no more jarring psychologically.
The streets leading to the park tend to be minefields of broken glass. The automatic streetsweepers the city uses, which tend to redistribute trash rather than pick it up, occasionally arrange the shards in neat six-inch strips six feet out from the curb. Cost so far this winter: one irreparable flat tire. But there are sights to be seen—for example, the guy who bivouacked from Christmas to mid-January with a three-speed, a sleeping bag, an umbrella and a tarp against what I take to be a ventilation duct of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And the park at dawn is the antithesis of big-city clangor: the roads are smooth, the dogs, praise be, do not chase bikes (to my shame, I ran into a dog in the park. "Got to watch out for those damn bikes," he must have thought), and there can be moments of splendor—as when the sun climbs between the towers of the Pierre and Sherry Netherland hotels like an immense celestial searchlight.