New York's Five Boro Bike Tour celebrates 35th anniversary

New York City event plans for 30,000 riders

On the first Sunday every May cyclists from near and far come to ride through New York City’s five boroughs. The riders take over expressways and bridges normally closed to bikes, and do so with 30,000 of their closest friends. It’s called the Five Boro Bike Tour, and while New York has become a more bicycle friendly city, this event has become simply massive.

2012 is also a special year for the tour, in that it marks the event’s 35th anniversary. “It’s amazing how the Tour has grown over the years,” Ken Podziba, president and CEO of Bike New York told BikeRadar. “The TD Five Boro Bike Tour registration was so popular last year that it sold out in less than 24 hours, leaving many people without the opportunity to register.”

The popularity of the Five Boro Bike Tour has inspired similar events in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The ride tours the whole of New York City, which is far more than the highlights of Broadway, Wall Street and Central Park.

True to the tour’s name, the nation’s best-known city is made up of five boroughs – or boros – spread over three islands and even the ‘mainland’ of New York State. These include the island of Manhattan of course, which is what everyone thinks of as the “de facto” New York City, but also includes Brooklyn and Queens on the tip of Long Island, all of Staten Island and to the north of Manhattan the Bronx.

To accommodate everyone who wants to take part in Big Apple’s version, a lottery system has been introduced for 2012 and Podziba told BikeRadar that this “ensures that anyone who wants to ride has a more fair and equitable chance of participating in the event.”  

This is quite a change from the first “Five Boro Challenge,” which was held 35 years ago and attracted just 250 participants. In fact, the original event was just meant to be a one-time 50 mile ride that started and ended in Queens, but returned the following year and was embraced by New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who reportedly encouraged the idea of a city-wide bike tour.

The 2012 Tour will accommodate 32,000 riders

The name was challenged from “challenge” to “tour” as a way to further encourage riders, but still only attracted some 300 riders in the early days. Now the event sold out quickly, the organizers have come up with new ways to think of ways to accommodate more riders.

“When the Tour sold out in 24 hours last year, many people were unable to register, including some long time participants,” said Podziba, who defended the use of the lottery. “I think all our new riders and devoted veterans appreciated having a fair and equitable chance of getting in this year.”

Podziba further noted that there is still a way to ride in the Tour, either as a VIP or with one of our 41 “Ride for a Reason” charity partners. “Additionally, anyone who volunteers for the Tour or Bike Expo New York this year gets a guaranteed Tour entry for 2013,” he added.

Yet despite all this, the event may have peaked with the some 30,000 riders simply because New York’s concrete canyons can only swallow up so many riders. And this has already caused a bit of a backlash. “I did it several times,” said Scott, a New York City resident and avid cyclist. “It got busier every year to the point where you were forced off your bike to walk at different locations along the way.”

Scott also told BikeRadar that this in turn made the ride a bit dangerous at times. “Imagine 2,000 people walking their bikes up the road ramp onto the 59th street bridge,” said Scott. “You could literally get your ankle sheered clear through by people who have no idea how to walk a half mile with their bikes. You can imagine the scene! Obviously, it’s gotten too big for the route.”

To some extent even the organizers have struggled with the event’s popularity. “It is incredible how 250 New Yorkers riding in the first Five Boro Bike Tour 35 years ago exploded into today’s 32,000 from across the globe,” said Podziba. “We limit the Tour to 32,000 participants due to the route capacity. While we don’t currently have plans to increase the number of riders in the Tour, we continue to explore and evaluate ways to meet the ever-growing demand.” 

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