Sunday 28 April 2013

Boston, bikelessness and how cycling makes me feel at home

The policeman stood in the middle of Arsenal Street, the main road through Watertown, Massachusetts, and screamed at any vehicle that didn’t belong to some arm of law enforcement or the emergency services: “Turn round! You need to get turned round!” Either side of him in the 1am dark sped, flashed and wailed a procession of emergency vehicles of a variety and quantity that, even in a career where I’ve covered a reasonable amount of terrorism and other trouble, I had never before seen.

A little up the road, I now know, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the presumed bombers of the Boston Marathon, already lay dead. Somewhere else in the nearby suburban streets, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his brother, was hiding, trying to evade the arrest that would come around 18 hours later. And my attention, for at least a few seconds, was focused on a bicycle.
Practicalities: a board in a Boston hotel gives
post-bombing advice
It was one of the themes of the week I spent in the Boston area, starting a week ago last Monday, covering the aftermath of the bombings at the annual marathon, that I often found myself staring longingly at bicycles. I missed my wife and children very much. I was moved at some of the expressions of shock and grief I encountered. But the sight of people on bicycles provided a persistent, nagging reminder of what I was missing about my everyday life. Those people, for that moment, could experience the uncomplicated feeling of freedom that so often comes from riding on a bicycle – and I couldn’t.

The whole episode started, however, with an unusually frantic bike ride – from my office in Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge home to Brooklyn, to pick up my laptop, a change of clothes and washbag. A little over two hours before, two bombs had gone off near the finish line for the Boston marathon. My bosses wanted someone to get up there and, after some discussion, it was decided the person would be I. I pedalled as fast a I could in the warm early evening sunshine, fretting all the while about whether I would have enough time to get back to Pennsylvania Station for my train. Then, having transferred a few notebooks, a rain jacket and some other essentials out of my pannier bags into my overnight case, I headed out for the subway station – and into what turned out to be a week of that sad state known as bikelessness.

I didn’t, of course, worry too much about my transit status in my initial panic as I rode north. I had been to Boston only once before, in 1999, and would, I knew, have to find a way to file some kind of story about the scene there immediately after I arrived at midnight. I scoured maps to work out where I’d be arriving and where the bombs had gone off. I arrived in a city still festooned with signs and portable toilets put out for the marathon. The discarded runners’ heat sheets, the heavy police and national guard presence and the chaotic pile of wheelchairs outside a medical tent testified to the chaos in which the event had ended.
Grief: how Boston's people marked the bombings
Even as I took in the scene for my first piece, however, I found my gaze wandering. Two cyclists stopped at the junction of Arlington and Boylston streets to look in the darkness towards where the bombs had gone off. “Fixed wheel,” I thought to myself. “I wonder if they’re more popular in Boston than in New York.” They pedalled slowly off, their lights pin pricks in the darkness. I took a taxi to a distant, expensive hotel, filed a short piece about the scene, had a few hours’ sleep and woke up again, launching myself into several frantic days of rushing around the city on the tail of the latest overheated rumour about what was going on.

I got about a lot over the next couple of days by public transport. In my tired and over-emotional state, I felt a particular pang about not being able to discuss Boston’s subway – the T – with my late father, who worked on metros all his life. He would, it occurred to me, have enjoyed discussing the vagaries of the US’s oldest subway. I took the T on Wednesday to Boston’s federal court house, as a crowd gathered outside on false reports that two arrested suspects were about to arrive there.

I had spotted by this time the Hubway bikeshare station outside my new, downtown hotel. But it seemed a stretch to use it to reach Thursday’s post-bombing Service of Healing. I had no idea where the vast police cordon around Holy Cross Cathedral designed to protect the visiting President Obama would spread. So I walked that and many other trips over the week – peering at the cyclists, trying to work out how their journeys to work compared with mine, what the cyclists were making of the events in the city and whether Boston’s drivers were any more friendly to bikes than New York’s. I looked out, too, for Boston’s most celebrated cycle blogger – Bikeyface – but saw no-one who looked like a pen-and-ink drawing and gave up.
Satellite trucks outside the Service of Healing:
reporters kept finding something in their eyes
I reported on the service – inwardly noting how many fellow reporters, struggling with their feelings much as I was, were wiping something out of their eyes. Some even joined in the applause and standing ovation for the president. I prepared to write a long, considered piece for the weekend about the bombings’ impact on Boston. I made a mental note that, as interest in the attacks waned, some time over the next couple of days I would get out one of those Hubway bikes and take it for an explore of the city.

It wasn’t to work out like that. On Thursday evening, as I worked on my long, considered piece, an email from a colleague alerted me to an apparent disturbance over the Charles River on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Exhausted and preoccupied with the piece I was trying to write, I nevertheless caught a taxi to a site that turned out to be swarming with police. I started writing a story on my BlackBerry and talking to a news editor in Hong Kong. Then, seeing scores of police vehicles speeding away from MIT, I caught another taxi, with a French TV reporter, to Watertown, where I encountered the screaming, panicky policeman.

Yet, amid that chaos, the detail that caught my eye was the Hubway bike. Somehow, amid the chaos and confusion of one of Boston’s most extraordinary nights, a fellow reporter had responded to the injunction to get out to Watertown as fast as he could by hiring a Hubway bike and pedalling more than five miles by the Charles River out to this suddenly world-famous patch of suburbia. I felt an instant sense of fellowship with the person involved – I recalled how I had cycled across London to get to the site of the 2005 Edgware Road bombing during the July 7 attacks on London. I respected, too, his extraordinary bravery – scores of screaming emergency vehicles must have made even worse road-fellows than the worst New York City-area drivers. Then, before I could make my fellow reporter’s acquaintance, my mobile ‘phone died. I was forced to hail an arriving reporter’s taxi back into central Boston.

That hotel whiteboard after Dzhokhar's arrest:
because sometimes crass triumphalism just feels right
I recognised, nevertheless, the sense of community I’d felt on spotting another cyclist and sought it out again. I chatted amiably on Friday to two young reporters who had cycled to Watertown’s media staging area as we awaited news of the eventually successful hunt for Dzhokhar. I looked over the shoulder of a photographer who had reached near the site of his eventual arrest by bike and grabbed unusually good pictures. On Saturday, seeking out the opinion of people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at having had two terrorists living in their midst, I went up to a woman practising in a park riding in clipless shoes. I felt an instant sense of warmth for each of these people – a knowledge that each of us knew the pleasure of getting about under one’s own power, the joy of speeding down a hill, the satisfaction of climbing one. Those moments of fellowship did a great deal to keep me going until the point last Sunday afternoon when I was finally able to return to Back Bay Station and put myself aboard a fast train bound for New York City.

That journey inevitably began a long unwinding process. I took the Monday off work, catching up with undone tasks and giving my bike an overdue degrease, clean and lubricate. A cycling neighbour chatted amiably as I worked at the task in our building’s back yard.

Come Tuesday morning, however, it came time to return to normal. Having dashed about for a week covering one of the world’s biggest news stories, I was back to the unforgiving schedule of writing up company results. The change of pace under such circumstances can be as wearing as the process of covering the big story itself.

But, for the first time in more than a week, I was swinging my leg over my Brooks saddle, pushing down on my pedals and rolling off onto New York City’s streets. There was a steady drizzle in the air and a blustery wind. It was far from an ideal day for cycling. A week away from it, however, had made me realise that this activity made me feel at home, regardless of where I undertook it.

This post is an entirely personal, private post and in no way reflects the views of my employer


  1. Lost in all the Boston coverage is that the explosion in West, Texas, is the second disaster that little town has seen. The first was a staged railroad collision that went bad and killed onlookers back when steam was king.

    1. Steve A,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I found the tragedy in West, TX shocking - and it's true that it's unfortunate its scale was lost amid the coverage of what was going on in Boston.

      On the other hand, many many things that go on every day in the United States dwarf what happened at the Boston marathon in death and injury. Nearly 300 people die every year on the streets of New York City alone at the hands of motor vehicles. And I won't even get into the whole other, thorny area of gun deaths.

      What I've said, however, to British people who thought the Boston bombings got too much attention is that they were the first successful terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001. So that was bound to bring some attention to them.

      Hope life as a former cycle commuter is treating you well,

      All the best,


  2. to stop your Blackberry battery from running out when you need it you could invest in a re-chargeable battery charger. Have a look on Amazon and for around $40 you could carry a cigarette packet sized battery charger to hook up to your Blackberry when it dies.

    and hello from the UK

    1. Pogo,

      Thanks for your comment - even if I initially feared it was one of those spam "hey guess what I found for just $40!" comments. The recharger thing probably is a good idea. I'll investigate.

      The piece of equipment I really missed, however, was a 3G stick (dongle, they call them in the UK - this seems not to be a recognised term in the US) so that I could get online sitting by the road in Watertown. I didn't, for various reasons, have one.

      The overall story is I was generally underprepared. As I discovered once when cycling across Scotland with no means of repairing punctures, it is never a good idea to be underprepared.

      All the best,


  3. How about a Brompton? You can take them wherever you go.

    You can charge phones from hub generators.

    1. Aedan,

      The Brompton thing had occurred to me. One concern is that, since I am nearly two metres tall, I risk looking a bit like a circus performing bear on a small folding bike. Dignity's never my strong point, however, so further loss of it is hardly a deal-breaker.

      I also rather fancy the idea that Bike Snob NYC used to use - although he's now given in and gone for a "clown bike," as he calls folders. He used to travel round the US with a Traveler's Check - a Surly with a folding frame. He claimed that was allowed on the Acela, the fast train to Washington. That satisfies a key test for me.

      Neither the Traveler's Check nor a Brompton, however, satisfies another basic test I have to set myself in my current financial circumstances when considering big capital acquisitions. Neither is, to use a technical term, free. Far from it, in fact, particularly for the Traveler's Check.

      The principle is excellent, however, and once my genius is finally recognised with the financial rewards it deserves, one of those options will be an early purchase.

      All the best,



Please feel free to leave civilised comments - positive or negative - here. I'll try to reply too.

Abusive comments will be moderated out and won't appear.