Allright- I did the NYC Century this weekend- here is a long writeup by me comparing this and the 5 Boro.
This Sunday, I completed the NYC Century yesterday provoked some comparisons with the 5- boro tour, and thought on biking in NYC in general.
The cycling season in New York is bracketed by two major events, starting in the second week of May with the 5-boro tour; and then ending in the NYC Century in the third week of September. This is of course arbitrary at least for more regular riders. In my case, I actually prefer March-June, and September-November for the cooler weather. July and August in New York are far too sweltering for a regular commute, but the two events do bracket a period for casual riders, with a large number of smaller events including individual boro tours, the Take Back The Streets campaign in Manhattan and the opening of Governor's Island.
The 5-Boro is the better known of the two events. It's a group ride of 15 to 20 thousand riders on a single route for a distance of 35 miles. Entire arteries of transportation become bike exclusive- so it's you and a huge posse taking over 6th Avenue, the Queensboro bridge, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) and as a finale, a striking ride over the usually no bike Verrazano Narrows Bridge- where it dumps you in Staten Island (more on that later).
The 5-boro's strength is that it's a group ride for 20,000 bicyclists. One fun memory was being stuck in a bike traffic jam on the BQE around Sunset Park with 1000 riders caught in the rain, looking miserable, until slowly but surely a mass shout-out broke out as we realized we were in striking distance of the finish line. It's also dramatic to see the horde of bikers progressing across New York's iconic bridges. Logistics are simpler, there are amble bike attendants with repair kits in case you brake a chain or hit a flat (for a fee), and the route is easy to follow and clear. Even if you manage to get lost- just follow the horde.
Unfortunately, the size of the crowd is also a negative. You spend a surprising amount of time on the 5-boro standing or walking your bike. For example, unless you arrive at the start line at 5am- you probably have a 45 minute to an hour wait just to get on the pedals. Almost every bridge and roadway will have a traffic jam of some sort, with frequent dismounts. Imagine doing this in the rain or in high heat. I really only remember three long stretches that were just riding- North up Flushing Avenue in Queens, South Down Kent Avenue in the Brooklyn stretch from Greenpoint to DUMBO, and the Bay Ridge Shoreline; the last of which was magnificent. But overall it was slog nonetheless. A neighbor of mine who is a 20-year veteran, actually wait's at a friend's house 1 mile north of the starting gate to avoid the delayed start and the backups. In the crush, you have to be on the watch-out for crashes, with people cutting you off and sudden stops.
The success of the event is also becoming an issue. People who aren't properly physically prepared are also riding. In the year I took it- I saw one woman with a broken bone down on the ground, and what looked like a fatality from a heart attack. This year the event was sold out in 48 hours- my veteran neighbor was locked out for the first time since the event began.
The Century is different. First it's a smaller event, but with more features. It has two start and finish lines, one in Brooklyn and Manhattan apiece, with a choice of 5 distances from 18 to 100 miles and accompanying routes. It accomplishes this diversity by some sacrifices on the features. The directions are less explicit, sometimes consisting of some marks on street pavement, and you are in New York street traffic almost all the time. No street or places are closed off specifically for the event. Because of this, a rider needs to be a little more experienced. There are less race attendants, so bring an extra inner tube and your own repair kit. It could be a long stretch before you get a fixed in some areas.
There are unique plusses and minuses to this as well. The Century is more fun for exploring the city. You see neighborhoods, their make-up, and stores. I found three interesting coffee shops in Fort Greene alone. You are tempted to stop and grab some food. Along my ride, I ended up with a fun cluster of people, including Mark from Binghamton, an expert road racer, and his wife. Some of the venues are beautiful. Crossing the Randall's Island Bridge on a cool September morning, with a view of the Manhattan skyline was great. On the other I do question some of the choices in routes, particularly in Manhattan. There is a stretch in Midtown from 72nd street to 30th that puts you right in the midst of midtown traffic, and another on Broadway from Bleeker to Worth Street. These are stretches I avoid in my daily commute as a regular New Yorker, and given that there is an excellent bikepath 1 block away from the Midtown route down the Hudson River, surprising. On one of these stretches, one of my group, female, and an experienced road-rider turned to me and said, slightly shocked " this is a little intense"- I just nodded, not having the heart to tell her it was only the weekend. The marketing literature writes that some of the route choices are to make a statement that bikes are here to share the road- but I question the value of this if it means someone like Mark and his wife gets killed by a speeding taxi.
Finally, the finish differentiates the two events. The 5-Boro tour ends in Staten Island, with a massive final party, filled with rides, vendors and other promotions. Getting out of Staten Island is your problem. This is not to be a classic New York 4-boro snob, you really do have to factor in getting out of the "lost borough" as part of your plan. If you live in New Jersey, or even lower Manhattan, this is probably no issue- but elsewhere, this could involve hauling your bike on the Staten Island Ferry, across some other form of Mass Transit and who knows where else. You might as well write the whole day off. I admit that I turn off at the Verrazano Narrows entrance, and bike 3 miles to my house in Brooklyn- completing the distance, but guaranteeing I am home at a reasonable hour.
The Century is much more low-key. It has combined starts and finish areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively. Both are located near subways to get home. In my case, home was a 1/2 mile bike ride away. I went back, changed, and picked up my son for his soccer game.
If I had to choose between the two events- the 5 Boro is the party ride. It's a celebration of biking in general- but not really of New York. I might take my children when they are older and can handle the distance. Or use it as a "take the whole family" ride when everyone is old enough. The Century is more intimate, it's a personal celebration and achievement, and an exploration of New York. That ride I would do by myself, or with my wife or girlfriend.
For me, the choice for next year is the Century, and up the mileage to 55 or 75.