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‘Surreal’: What It’s Like to Ride a Motorcycle Through New York Right Now

When Giorgio Milella, a graphic designer, started working from home in mid-March, he figured out how to break up the tedium: by leaving his Harlem apartment and hitting the newly empty streets on his motorcycle.

“The first week, I was like, This is amazing. Going down Fifth Avenue and there are no cars,” recalled Mr. Milella, 33, who was once able to catch a wave of green lights all the way from the West Village to 135th Street.

But gradually the experience, which he called “surreal,” started to change for him. “I’ve been like, There’s something wrong with this whole scenario,” he said. “Why am I not staying home?”

Since the pandemic has largely cleared the New York’s streets, few motorcyclists have been able to ignore the singular, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: speeding through the city free of the annoyances that can make riding here such a frustrating and dangerous experience: distracted drivers, swerving taxi cabs, sclerotic traffic. All that, and it’s spring, too.

“Thank God for quarantine,” said Mateo Pagan, 27, who joined a huge pack of stunt riders on motorcycles, ATVs and dirt bikes over Easter weekend to ride his Honda dirt bike. “Manhattan was like our playground,” he said.

But many other motorcyclists feel conflicted. “This should be nirvana for us right now,” said Cheryl Stewart, 57, a founding member of the Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club, “but a pleasure ride feels selfish.”

With hospitals and medical workers overburdened, a crash not only means drawing on resources desperately needed elsewhere, but also potentially life-threatening treatment delays, in addition to exposure to the virus. For many motorcyclists, keenly aware that it’s always a matter of when, not if they crash, that’s an unreasonable risk to add to an already risky activity.

“We access the risk/rewards equation every time we throw a leg over a bike,” Ms. Stewart said. “Now the risks are much higher.”

Both motorcycle crashes and moving violations have declined since the pandemic hit the city. Between March 15 and May 15, there were 161 motorcycle crashes, down from 329 during the same period last year, a decrease of 51.4 percent, according to an analysis of police data by the nonprofit OpenTheBooks.com.

Some riders have curbed their habits. Vassili Shishkin, a financial manager, usually rides his Ducati every day. “And I take pride in that,” he said. “It’s my biggest passion. I rode all winter, in the rain, cold, freezing weather.” At the start of the pandemic, he continued to ride, calling it “a guilty pleasure.”

But after listening to news reports, the gravity of the situation started to sink in and Mr. Shishkin, 40, “got spooked,” he said. Now he only rides once a week — reluctantly — to gather material for his Ducati vlog.

Other motorcyclists, however, are happy to have a legitimate excuse to be riding. Jan Eggers, 45, who is considered to be an essential worker because he is a doorman, commutes to Manhattan from Montvale, N.J., on his BMW F850GS, an adventure bike.

“It’s been blissful. Instead of being ultra-defensive, you can actually enjoy your time,” Mr. Eggers said.

“Last week on Friday, I was heading home and it was windy but crystal clear. I got on the West Side Highway and you could see the Hudson River, the GW Bridge and beyond that the Palisades on one side and Yonkers on the other,” he said. “I was struck by the sheer beauty. On a normal day, I’d be worried about this guy three cars ahead looking over his shoulder.”

Although many motorcycle groups have not been as showy since the Easter ride, the city recently intervened in a crowding situation at Shore Boulevard in Astoria, Queens, a popular gathering place for motorcyclists.

“The local precinct decided to place barricades at each end of the Boulevard to completely restrict vehicle access,” said Anthony Liberatoscioli, chairman of the Astoria Park Alliance. “But the revving continues.”

On a weekend in late April, Brandon Garcia, 22, was among the bikers hanging out by the new barricades. “Most of the people I know are still riding,” Mr. Garcia said. “We’re in a group chat and everyone is like, ‘Who’s riding, who’s riding?’ People are ecstatic. It’s like a New York State racetrack, for free.”

Even so, Mr. Garcia said he was riding more cautiously these days. “The hospitals are crowded and ambulances busy,” he said. “They probably won’t even care if they hear ‘motorcycle crash’ on the radio.”

Other motorcyclists are taking advantage of the empty roads to help their fellow New Yorkers. Kirsten Midura, 34, decided to organize riders into a volunteer delivery network, bringing P.P.E., food and other supplies to essential workers.

“I recognize people are going to be on their bikes anyway,” Ms. Midura said. “It’s a great form of therapy and social distancing.”

Mathew Adreini, a manager at Jane Motorcycles, said that his commutes certainly help him to de-stress these days. But his experience of the city has been altered, and not necessarily in a good way.

“You see the expanse of the virus,” Mr. Adreini, 32, said. “When you ride down Fifth Avenue sometimes all you see is the National Guard, cops and the homeless.”

The novelty wears off quickly, Mr. Adreini added. “I didn’t move to New York City to ride a motorcycle. It’s everything else that makes New York New York.”

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