Empire State Bike Tour
One year ago, Stephen and I finished our Colorado High Country Bike Tour.
For 2022, Stephen wanted to sign up for the NYC triathlon and asked if I’d be interested. Of course I said yes. And given that they just opened the Empire State Trail, we decided to tack on a week long bike tour and make it our ride for 2022.
Our tours in the past have had unique challenges, but for this trip we decided to keep our bikes light and comfortable, staying in motels the whole way instead of camping. The trail itself was logistically simple, with many lodging and dining options, and lots of bail-out points with an Amtrak line running parallel, regular towns along the way.
To plan the route and itinerary, all we had to do was follow the Empire State Trail and modify it to fit our criteria:
- a 5-day trip excluding travel days
- 60 miles a day
- motels only
Here is the RideWithGPS route that I created for the trip:
And the itinerary:
|Day||Date||End At||Mileage / Elevation||Accommodations|
|0||Monday, July 25,||Amsterdam||train ride from NYC||Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham Amsterdam|
|1||Tuesday, July 26,||Utica||64mi||Best Western Gateway Adirondack Inn|
|2||Wednesday, July 27,||Syracuse||66mi||Jefferson Clinton Suites|
|3||Thursday, July 28,||Newark||64mi||Newark Garden Hotel|
|4||Friday, July 29,||Brockport||59mi||Best Western Brockport Inn & Suites|
|5||Saturday, July 30,||Amherst||56mi||Sleep Inn|
|6||Sunday, July 31,||Amherst||sightseeing day||Sleep Inn|
|7||Monday, August 1,||Travel Home||fly home||Home|
Day -1: NYC Triathlon
This isn’t a post about triathlons, but I’d be missing a big part of this trip if I didn’t at least jot down a few notes about it.
- This was my first triathlon
- My favorite part of this experience was learning to swim in the open water and practicing in San Francisco’s aquatic park
- Triathlons are so much more complex than something like a marathon. There’s a lot of extra gear, transitioning between events, and complex pathways to navigate.
- The bonus is that it’s like an exercise sampler and feels less grind-y
So the night before I wasn’t able to get any sleep, thinking about how little sleep I would be getting leading to not getting any sleep at all.
But a second wind of energy arrives as time comes to get ready to leave, 3am. In the Uber ride to the staging area, Monica and I watch with surprise all of the folks out and about in the streets. Post-midnight revelry spilling out, as clearly drunk groups of people in their 20’s stumble to their rides.
A lot of nervous energy as we make our way to the beginning of the event. Monica’s not allowed through the security checkpoint, so we split up at the fence and I make my way to where I’ve set up all of my gear.
Event coordinators make a last-minute announcement that they are going to make two major changes to the race due to the ongoing heat wave: no wetsuits for the swim, and the bike and run will be cut short (turning this from an olympic event into a sprint). Bummer, but better than being cancelled outright.
The swim through the Hudson is 1 mile, right off the shore of the Hudson River Waterfront Greenway. There’s a pier that juts out that enables gender and age segregated waves to enter in intervals, like a salmon run behind a stoplight.
I feel a moderate amount of panic in the first 10 minutes. Jumping into the water with a crowd of people, all jockeying for position, stressing out about keeping up and not falling too far behind. Luckily, I’m able to get into a rhythm and a slow hour and a few gulps of riverwater later, I’m out and jogging to the transition area to switch to bike gear.
The shorter bike and run are both scenic and much more comfortable/familiar compared to the swim.
Finishing is a relief, Monica and Fiona are awesome and meet us at the finish line, and just like that, we’re ready for our tour.
Day 0: Train to Amsterdam, NY
Feels great to get a full night’s rest after not being able to sleep the night before. In the morning Monica and I were greeted with Kobe (Stephen’s cat) meowing for breakfast.
After going through packing checklists twice, we drag the bikes down a narrow Brooklyn staircase to take the subway to REI. Stephen’s inner tubes have been popping on the regular (his mechanic blamed the tire, Covid era manufacturing defects) so we get the tire replaced and I last-minute shop for a replacement to the stock bottle cage that takes too much force to shove a bottle into.
On the way to the station, we have a literal shakeout ride. Generally, a shakeout ride is a ride you take before a longer bike tour to figure out what gear you need to bring and what you can leave behind. In this case it’s a newly not-fully-resurfaced 6th Ave which shakes my bike with such intensity that one of my panniers nicks a spoke with a twang and makes me realize that I need to mount my bags differently. Crisis averted.
At Penn Station I grab a Penn Sushi (yes this is the real name of the real old school train station sushi counter) and we board the train. It’s chaotic, but the conductors know what they’re doing.
It’s nice that the trains accommodate bikes but it’s harder to figure out than what I’m used to on Caltrain. Securing the bikes is not intuitive and requires the removal of the front wheel, hanging the frame by the rear wheel, and using a few supplied Velcro straps. There is a spot where the frame can be locked but then I realize that I brought a heavy U-lock but left the keys in Brooklyn. Regrets. But on a bike tour regrets are relative, and as long as it doesn’t end a trip, they are small.
Stephen and I have a relaxing chat on the train about work, life. We travel along a wide river surrounded by thick forest. Visually, nature looks mostly undisturbed, and when it is, it’s obvious and novel. Like the small island holding a crumbling shell castle-like brick mansion or a gleaming white modern suspension bridge.
Amsterdam station is simple, marked with a single sign standing over a worn flower planter. It’s delightful how you can step on from the center of the heart of the densest city in america and then step off onto what basically amounts to a gravel path in a forest.
We start biking to the hotel and we encounter our first challenge, we discover both proposed routes by Google maps are unbikeable, but we find a detour that takes us over a beautiful new pedestrian bridge.
The motel is new, and we aren’t the only bike tourists. Lisa at the front desk recommends a local guy to taxi us to the strip malls that are just out of biking range for dinner. We take a risk and set out for a Chinese buffet with an intriguing mix of reviews which both warn of food poisoning and praise the selection.
The restaurant surpasses our expectations, which admittedly are low, but lands this place in solidly good memory territory. Garlic green beans are crisp, the rice isn’t too dry, and their sweet glazed fried proteins taste exactly like we wanted them to. They even had a hibachi station where you hand the chef a plate of raw ingredients to stir-fry-steam like at a Mongolian bbq. All for $16 per person including (soft) drinks. Surprising for a place nestled in the corner between a big lots and a dollar store.
Evening spent watching Sicario.
“I thought it was relaxing, I’m glad that I got to catch up with you” - Stephen.
Day 1: Amsterdam to Utica
Start the morning with four pancakes produced with an automatic pancake maker. It works by simultaneously cooking the pancake and transporting it to the plate with two heated silicone conveyor belts that roll the plop of batter into a perfect pancake. All you have to do is wave your hand over the touch-less sensor. Wild.
We roll out onto the Empire State trail, and share how different it feels to be on a tour where we can actually chat and not have to worry about passing cars or complex routes. It almost feels like we are back on the train, riding side-by-side but now we happen to be pedaling.
It’s sorta cloudy which is nice, and the big trees surrounding the trail further shield the light. We discover a fallen tree on the path that we lug our bikes over and then secondarily discover the many mosquitos who have made the forest their home. Glad I got the bug spray!
We start to see the Erie Canal, an engineering marvel even 200 years later. It’s hard to imagine that this entire stretch we are biking, hundreds of miles, is the same length as this artificial river that was dug up by people with only basic tools and mule-pulled carts.
We pass through our first small town, Canajoharie, and a sign says “tacos, left at light” and follow the directions. I am inspired by Stephen’s choice of Mountain Dew and get a can of grape Fanta for myself to accompany my taco salad, which does not come in a giant fried taco shell, which is what I would have preferred any other day besides this week when extra calories are to be celebrated.
We pass through an RV park and have a chat with an older couple who are from the area but moved to Florida and are just visiting. In general, folks are friendly, 9 out of 10 trail passersbys will return a wave.
About 15 miles from Utica, I start to bonk and luckily there’s a McDonald’s, 5 miles up ahead. I have a packet of electrolyte powder to tide me over. Gotta get more snacks for tomorrow.
We stumble on a local food truck gathering called “What The Truck!” and we stop for a soft serve cone. This is one of my favorite things about touring, is stumbling onto fun random things happening in remote places that you would never take the time to drive out to.
While watching the live music, we chat about small towns and how Stephen’s impressions of small towns differ from mine.
We are tired by the time we get to Utica, but not completely gassed and secretly homesick like in first days on previous bike tours. We celebrate by going to a nearby Italian restaurant and sharing a steak. I get a second dinner of a subway tuna sandwich (craving).
The TV doesn’t work at the Best Western but it’s probably for the best.
“Here’s what I would say. A lot easier than I thought. But I feel a lot more tired than I thought. Does that make sense?” - Stephen
Day 2: Utica to Syracuse
Start the morning with a half of a foot long subway sandwich that I hid in the fridge. Then, Hotcakes and McMuffins at McDonald’s across the street. A bus unloads a big group of military guys who join us for breakfast. Through the window we see an old lady feed a stray white cat peeking through the trees.
On the road, Stephen gets the first flat of the trip, thanks to a little thorn. It’s always a little stressful right after replacing a tube, its always possible that you missed the sharp thing or things that caused the puncture, which means another flat. Luckily we run into no issues, and even if we did, we each brought 3 tubes.
Today’s trail is more stone dust than asphalt. A stone dust trail is a trail of fine gravel, thinly layered and compacted on dirt. It is surprisingly rideable even on road tires and only increases resistance slightly. Everyday we pass by folks maintaining the trail. Cutting back the growth. Without constant maintenance the trail would disappear quickly.
On the trail today we see a small black kitten from afar. It runs into the bushes as we get closer and I wonder what kind of life it is living in the forest.
We go farther today before breaking for lunch, 40 miles instead of 20. Which means we eat lunch at around 2pm. We’re very ready for a break. On the corner is a Chinese restaurant with a faded picture menu above the counter. Afterward, Stephen asks that we stop going to Chinese restaurants for the rest of the trip.
As we wrap up riding, Stephen starts having some pain in his knee. Luckily we’re about to wrap up the day.
Syracuse is a bigger city so we decide to change it up and go see a movie.
On the way home, I make the unfortunate discovery that my seat in the Uber is soaked in piss. The driver is surprisingly nonchalant about this, and now this is one of my core memories about Syracuse. Stephen and I have a laugh about this later.
Thunderstorms are in the forecast for tomorrow, so we temper our expectations and get mentally ready to ride through some rain.
Day 3: Syracuse to Newark
In the morning we check the weather. There’s supposed to be a storm today. The continental breakfast is disappointing, but the weather schedule looks promising, we have at least 3 hours until the rain.
Heading out of Syracuse, we pass by large lake, then zig-zag our way over a freeway, through a fairgrounds, and finally make our way back onto a stone dust trail in the forest.
For lunch we make it to Weedsport and have hamburgers and hot dogs under a gazebo, anticipating the storm.
Soon it is raining cats and dogs. Luckily no thunder and lightning, and it passes in half an hour.
It’s humid now, and everything feels damp, but at least it’s a little cooler. I pop in my AirPods and tear a packet of pop tarts open with my teeth while rolling. It feels like a luxury.
We take a break at a gas station in Savannah. The sun is out and it’s hot now. We’re slowly getting worn out and by the last 10 miles we’re ready to finish the day.
While cooling down in the motel room, I see a taiyaki / ice cream place down the street. It is intriguing, especially given then town’s small population. We go and we each eat almost a pint of ice cream. We feel so good about it that we each write a 5 star Google review.
Dinner is prime rib at a local family restaurant and then we watch Total Recall. At dinner, we talk about our previous trips and how this one compares. We agree that this one might be lacking in epic vistas but it is better in the time we can spend catching up. On other trips we were too exhausted and focused on dodging traffic.
Total Recall on the TV before bed.
Day 4: Newark to Brockport
They have not one, or two, but three waffle makers at the motel breakfast and I make use of all of them. Stephen has a work call, but we are able to get on the road at a reasonable hour.
It’s cooler today and it’s all on-trail. No on-road sections.
We stop in Fairport for lunch at a Philly cheese steak spot after Stephen gets a new water bottle at a local bike shop. The menu is fun. In addition to cheesesteaks, they have cheesesteak hoagies and cheesesteak wraps. I get a cheesesteak salad.
Crossing the edge of Rochester, we start to share the path with groups of cyclists who are part of an organized tour along the Empire State trail. They are riding faster than we’re used to, which we use to our advantage by keeping pace with them. We end up keeping pace with a pontoon in the canal.
We stop at a gas station to take a break. They have cup noodle and hot water, so it becomes a noodle break.
Over KFC dinner, Stephen finds out that Amtrak cancelled his train back to NYC. A bit of scrambling, looking at car rental options, but there’s a flight back to the city with a reasonable price point which looks to be the best option.
We joke that it’s not an adventure until something unexpected happens, and even on this easy trip there’s a surprise that we have to plan around.
Top Gun Maverick on Stephen’s laptop before bed.
Day 5: Brockport to Buffalo
Our start today is later than usual because last night Stephen wanted to continue watching Tom Cruise movies so put on Collateral, which I fell asleep to.
Riding for multiple days means losing track of the day of the week, but it also means forgetting about all the other stressful stuff in work and life. On the road, it’s about time, mileage, food, water, weather, and your body. It’s life simplified, where progress is quantifiable and obstacles are physical.
That’s why the last day is bittersweet. Bitter because mentally, it’s a fantastic break from the norm, to reconnect with yourself and also rediscover novelty in the ordinary. Physically, it is demanding, but not beyond adaptation. Sweet because all of the comfortable parts of ordinary life are waiting at the end of the trip. Using your own bed and shower. Hanging out with your partner. Cooking a meal that you want to eat.
We eat lunch in a 50’s themed diner and get spaghetti and meatballs. The portions are small so we get a plate of ribs to share.
With just 20 miles to go for the day we stop at a Tim Hortons for a break.
Before getting to the hotel, we ride through a suburb that reminds Stephen of Monterrey Park where he grew up.
We finally get to the last hotel. Tired, but with enough energy to take a car to Niagara Falls before the sun sets. For the first time this trip we’re in a spot crowded with tourists.
Dinner at a hibachi restaurant.
The next day we do some sightseeing.
Learnings and Observations
Should have left the bike lock at home
I did not learn my lessons from my previous trip and brought my U-lock and cable “just in case”. I rediscovered a lock’s uselessness and was forced to haul it regretfully all the way to Buffalo.
Official empire state trail map is useless
The official map that New York State sends you for the empire state trail is more of a promotional brochure and was essentially useless compared to a typical ACA map. It lacks information on elevation, points of interest, distance, and road condition. For this trip, bring your own GPX file or Ride With GPS map.
Dedicated trails make it way easier to talk
This was the first trip where Stephen and I could ride side-by-side for long periods (without worrying about traffic). This was a game-changer for our ability to chat and make this trip a social experience on top of a typical bike adventure.