text by Matt Seaton
photos by Phil Penman
This article first appeared in our print version: Chalet Magazine 001 New York - New York
To ride to Floyd Bennett Field more or less is to go to the beach. The former airfield, crisscrossed with vast intersecting runways of cracking concrete and crumbling blacktop, is the last stop at the southernmost end of Brooklyn before the Rockaway peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean. Bike racing is a Cinderella sport: aside from rare velodromes, nobody builds facilities for a sport in which only a tiny minority of initiates participate and that no one pays to watch. So we make our racing where we can – on quiet country roads, on park loops at antisocial hours, around old auto-testing circuits and at disused aerodromes. And that is why we ride to Floyd Bennett Field.
The Field, New York City’s first municipal airport, opened in 1931 and was doomed just eight short years later by the inauguration of LaGuardia, on the north shore of Long Island in Queens. Named for an early American aviator and Brooklyn resident who died in 1928, Floyd Bennett Field was built on reclaimed land: the marshes standing in the western end of Jamaica Bay around Barren Island.
To develop the rough landing strip that was the original Field, a 1,400-acre artificial peninsula was created. Six million cubic yards of sand were dredged from the bay and pumped over the site, finally raising the entire area to a uniform sixteen-feet above sea level. It’s as flat as you like and with so much sky that it’s hard to believe you’re just fifteen miles from Manhattan’s heroic skyline. And when it rains, or when the wind blows, you’re reminded that it is all made of sand. And ever so slowly, it is in the process of returning to nature.
The wind, it does blow. This you discover before you even reach Floyd Bennett. There is only one way to “FBF”: you can try to dodge it, get around some back way, go parallel … but in the end, you have to ride some of Flatbush Avenue. If you’ve made karmic peace with Flatbush, which is a higher state of consciousness few ever achieve, then you can ride off Manhattan Bridge and follow this old Indian trail as it makes its grid-busting diagonal south-easterly slash across Brooklyn, and never stop, all the way to the Field. But many will take all kinds of diversions, to and from FBF, to circumnavigate Flatbush: Atlantic, Bedford, Nostrand, Ocean, Kings Highway, East 36th Street, Avenue U … anything but Flatbush. Until you have no choice, which is when Flatbush Avenue finally ceases to be an endless strip of hair salons, bakeries and dime stores, tax advisors and charismatic Christian chapels, double-parking and dollar vans, and becomes a broad boulevard with no final destination other than a flying bridge to Rockaway and the ocean.
As you head seaward, the air changes. Instead of the city street smells of food, garbage and hot cement, there’s a breeze in your face. The humidity of a hot summer day in the city imperceptibly mutates, as you roll south, into the airborne salinity of the ocean. Ditmas Park, Midwood and Flatlands give way to Marine Park, Mill Basin, and finally, after dodging the merging traffic on the ramps of the Belt Parkway, the open space and looming aircraft hangers of Floyd Bennett Field itself on your left, and on your right, unseen across an apron of grassland and scrub, Dead Horse Bay.
If you were not to stop, then you would pass over the narrow neck of Jamaica Bay to the isthmus of Rockaway: Jacob Riis Park, Roxbury, Fort Tilden and Breezy Point. Aside from the giant hangers of Floyd Bennett Field, flanking Flatbush Avenue, there is no windbreak in the expanse of the runways’ huge cracked slabs of concrete paving. Weeds grow up through the cracks. In places on the racing circuit, it may be only the constant passage of our bikes in the summer months that keep the grass down. If a crosswind makes the bunch scatter sideways in a scrappy echelon, then racers hunting for shelter “in the gutter” find themselves dodging clumps of vegetation or ducking under the branches of stunted trees that grow up in the “wilderness” north end of the Field. Sometimes, I’ve had to pull partially shredded vegetation out of my derailleur before setting off home from a Floyd race.
“One day, when the wind was particularly strong,” recalls Italian-born racer and coach Alessandro Matteucci, “I had [in front of me] Ricky Lowe charging with his body a big branch that was eventually released against me following a bike length behind. I was barely able to stay up on my wheels.”
Another hazard is that the cracked and buckled cement of the runways no longer drains, but catches and holds great ponds of rainwater, as if trying to return to its native marshland state. A summer thunderstorm that will have dried off New York streets in a matter of hours will leave vast puddles for days at Floyd Bennett Field. The snaking peloton of riders hiding from the wind also dodges these mini-lakes. When they eventually do dry out, they leave a dustbowl of caked dirt. And then that dust and sand gets kicked up by our wheels, sticking to our shins and working into the crook of an elbow, the corner of an eye, streaked through the vents on a helmet. It’s like what Paris-Roubaix would be if it were a one-hour circuit race, but with broken concrete slabs in place of cobbled sectors and none of the glamour. Racing at Floyd Bennett Field is, in every sense, gritty.
“My first impression was much the same as it is today: it is a desolate misery pit,” says Brian Breach, who rides for Mengoni and is one of the most successful amateur racers in the City. “It is the worst stretch of pavement in New York and has wreaked havoc on hundreds of dollars of my equipment. And it is perpetually the windiest place on earth. Basically, I love it.”
Scott Savory is a sprint specialist. Soon after he arrived in the city, he was winning lower-category races and quickly moved up the rankings; he’s now a contender for the Tuesday night series overall leader’s jersey for the P/1/2/3 field. He enthuses about the loyalty Floyd inspires: “Floyd Bennett was the very first race course I raced on in NYC and loved it, as the scene was amazing. I loved that the course was so open and you had room to sprint and ride freely.”
One night this past summer, after the race had finished and fireflies were appearing out over the long grass as dusk settled, Savory took a turn on the powerful motorcycle belonging to the moto outrider. Heads snapped as Savory, still in his Lycra skinsuit and a bike helmet, ripped up the finishing straight as if it were a drag strip, smashing 90 in a percussive roar of acceleration. When they saw who it was, people said to each other, “It’s Scott.” Just riding freely.
Floyd Bennett Field was built for speed. Its early years saw it play host to successive records set by the aviators of the 1930s. Wiley Post, Laura Ingalls, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes were among the pioneering flyers who used Floyd as the start or end point for transatlantic flights or circumnavigations of the globe. As late as 1957, long after the Field had ceased to be a commercial airport and become a naval station, then Major John Glenn – a Marine Corps test pilot and later astronaut celebrated by Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff – made history by completing the first supersonic transcontinental flight. He landed at Floyd three hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds after taking off from Los Alamitos, California.
The US Navy, which had first leased, then bought, Floyd Bennett Field during the war, ran reconnaissance and minesweeping flights from the Field, engaging German U-boats in the Atlantic. The naval station eventually shut down in 1971, and aside from a Coast Guard facility, the field was turned over to the National Parks Service as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The Brooklyn Coast Guard station was decommissioned in 1998, but a lease on the buildings has been taken over by the NYPD, which uses it as a center for its helicopter operations. According to the master plan for the Gateway NRA, most of the old runways would be ripped up and “recycled”, and the vast flats restored to nature and even perhaps, in time, to marshland.
That, of course, would spell the end of bike racing at Floyd. But for the time being, the Field stays as it is, a post-industrial no-man’s-land, while its shabby monuments to the golden age of aviation, those crumbling runways, are used for all manner of purposes: one evening this summer, the race organizer warned the field to watch out for rogue road-sweeping vehicles. The City’s Sanitation Department had been using the runways for training, and convoys of street-cleaning trucks had swept the course. It was a little less dusty than usual.
A part of you always expects the unexpected at Floyd. In its decaying, neglected way, Floyd projects a powerful psycho-geographical presence: it has an air of mystery and the surreal. With its secrets and its ghosts, it could be New York’s own Area 51. Brian Breach recalls: “One time, several seasons ago, they were filming a movie at Floyd and had set up a replica of the North Korean DMZ on the finishing straight, complete with barbed wire and machine gun turrets. It certainly added an extra Mad Max feel to the race.”
The “Mad Max feel” to racing at Floyd Bennett Field starts well before the race: Flatbush Avenue. Flatbush is an intrinsic part of the experience of racing at Floyd – and a whole order of experience unto itself. Everyone who races FBF learns to love and hate Flatbush. Most say they fear and loathe it and like to bitch about it. Secretly, though, we all know Floyd wouldn’t be the same if you could reach it by a safely sequestered bike path. (In fact, you can – if you’re willing to add about ten miles to your journey and trace the coastline of Brooklyn all the way round from Red Hook to Coney Island.)
The first couple of miles from the bridge, Flatbush Avenue is a two- or three-lane urban highway, running from the ramps of Manhattan Bridge, across Atlantic Avenue, past the slowly cohering shape of the new Barclays Center stadium, up Park Slope and around Grand Army Plaza. The fast sweep down past the eastern perimeter of Prospect Park is a last brief moment of calm before the chaos that starts with the Ditmas Park section of Flatbush Avenue. Suddenly, it becomes a narrow shopping street, with two lanes of traffic often forced into one by left-only turn lanes, a busy bus route, a great deal of imaginative double-parking, and a complete absence of observation or enforcement of city traffic laws and ordinances.
For a cyclist new to Flatbush, it is like suddenly reaching a new level in a video game, where the rules have changed and you’re faced with a whole array of previously unknown existential threats. No one will signal for a turn. A parked car pulling out is just as likely to execute a U-turn as go straight on. Oncoming cars making a left won’t wait for a clear gap; they’ll just make one and force traffic coming the other way to brake or swerve. The blacktop is ragged and rutted in places, but you learn to bunny-hop the worst of it rather than veer round it because the default driving style of Flatbush drivers is to graze your hip with their wing mirrors.
And always the constant honking of the “dollar cabs,” the unlicensed passenger vans that ply a trade picking up passengers every other block all the way up and down Flatbush Avenue. You learn to ignore their horns: it’s not about you. The drivers use the klaxon to drum up custom – announce their arrival, make a potential passenger catch the driver’s eye. They’re forever cutting in and pulling out, yet their drivers are skilled – the ultimate Flatbush video game players – that they are the least of Flatbush’s many menaces to a cyclist. The greatest threat comes from the sheer unpredictability of Flatbush Avenue’s street culture. You are no longer in Manhattan where the pushy impatience of drivers, for whom you can plan. What Flatbush driving lacks in overt aggression, it more than makes up for with wild-style laissez-faire. Anything goes, and most everything does, on Flatbush, and you have to learn its ways.
The patchwork of nationalities and ethnicities is bewildering: a couple of blocks to the west, you’re in a bourgeois orthodox Jewish suburb, but on Flatbush itself, an African diaspora mingles with Caribbean immigrants from all over. And this is where the Flatbush-Floyd nexus becomes not just an accident of geography, but of living human connection. Every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer, racers pass a Caribbean restaurant, the Mangoseed, on their way to the Field. Mangoseed is the business venture of four brothers (Johann, Horace, Jermaine and Paul) originally from Guyana, who settled in Brooklyn, where their mother worked as a schoolteacher.
The restaurant business is only three years old, but it’s “getting there”, says Horace Burrowes. If you go to eat there, you’ll see a bicycle wheel as a logo on the menu above the jerk chicken and goat curry: the restaurant is the lead sponsor of the racing team Horace and Jermaine started in 2005, WS United. The black jerseys of the Burrowes brothers and their teammates are always the last to arrive, just seconds before the 7pm race starts: they know to the minute how long the ride down Flatbush takes. That brinkmanship is like the exercise of some seigneurial right over the Field.
The Thursday night series is their promotion. The Tuesday night series belongs to Charlie Issendorf, a mild, affable former pro, who runs a series of races in the City, mostly in Prospect Park, sponsored by law firm Lucarelli & Castaldi. Charlie runs a tight ship and his Tuesday night series is prestigious enough to attract serious competition from the big local teams like Mengoni and BH. The WS United-Mangoseed Thursday series has a different ethos. Horace, the most ebullient brother and a formidable cat 1 racer, stays off his bike for the most part and provides commentary over a PA system. He likes to mix up the format of the racing: sometimes, seemingly on a whim, he’ll turn it practically into a points race – as you’d get at a velodrome – offering primes of $10, $15 or $20 on every lap. He delights in creating an even more manic tempo to the already aggressive cut-and-thrust racing which is Floyd’s hallmark: his exclamations and laughter, amplified across the pitiless cement, punctuate the evening races.“You cannot hide from the wind,” he says. “If you can race at Floyd, you can race anywhere.”
“I’ve never figured out why,” says Brian Breach, “but FBF inspires some of the most aggressive racing on the planet. There are attacks from the gun and people will ride you straight into the gutter to advance one wheel.”
Horace Burrowes has been racing at the Field since 1997, which was already five years after evening racing was first established there. George Hincapie raced at Floyd as a kid, before turning pro. James Carney, too. In those days, it cost $10 to enter a race, with riders adding an extra $1 to a cup to make a pool for the winner. Horace keeps it cheap and cheerful: it still costs only $20, and he pays out plenty in primes and places.“It’s not about the money for promotion,” he says. “It’s about the love of the sport. It’s a really, really great thing we have. We have to cherish it.”
On the hottest nights, after the races are done, Horace’s helpers break open a cooler full of watermelons and people hang out, sucking on slices, before riding home, back towards the pink sky that follows a summer sunset over Manhattan. The city’s majestic ziggurats are fifteen miles away, back down Flatbush, but above the trees that line Floyd Bennett Field the towers of concrete, steel and glass are not even visible. Here, on the very edge of New York City, you have been given a passport to visit another world.
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