New York is in the middle of its annual weather sweet spot. The dog days of August are behind us, the leaves haven’t started to fall yet and most urban dwellers are feeling the pull toward outdoor activities, mostly because in the back of our collective unconscious memories are the frozen days of January and February, when “going out” is relegated to the few hundred yards between your front door and the nearest subway entrance. With that in mind, it’s up to us to make the most of the next few weeks.
Some downtowners are out there right now, jogging, cycling, playing in softball leagues—but that may be a little too pedestrian for hardcore holdouts who need a bit more to get them off the couch or away from their laptops. Fortunately, Downtown is rife with exciting, offbeat social sports that many of us never heard of. Once you know of them, you will have to try them—at least once. So for those of you waiting for an invitation, this is it! Take this chance to check out some of Downtown’s most offbeat sports and the people who are currently rocking them.
Dirt Track Racing
This year marks Sixth Street Specials’ 25th anniversary, though most New Yorkers have never heard of it or its friendly, informal racing team. The shop was recently featured in the Lee Klancher book Motorcycle Dream Garages and was the focus of a recent episode of Discovery HD’s Café Racer TV show. Despite the press coverage, people aren’t flocking to join the Sixth Street racers. Flat tracking is dirty and dangerous, and the fellows who are drawn to this sport wouldn’t want it any other way.
They race vintage motorcycles—mostly British iron—at three local race tracks. The circuits themselves are mostly simple circles or ovals of dirt or chewed-up blacktop. On the weekends, racers lean vintage bikes into turns while they skid their left feet along the track at 80 mph. Most of the week is spent “wrenching,” working on the old bikes, fixing crash damage or tuning up the motor for the next race. Sixth Street Racing is currently gearing up for the Oakland Valley Speedway on Long Island, site of the upcoming AMA Vintage Dirt National Sept. 18.
One team member with grease up to his elbows is Fumi Matsueda, a 32-year-old Japanese ex-pat currently ranked No. 2 on the national circuit. He’s been winding out a vintage Triumph in the 500cc brakeless division all season.
“This is my third year racing and the first time I followed this national circuit. I think it’s a once in a lifetime thing—it’s so much time and money. Last year I beat Nickboy [Nick Weimer] and won the vintage class at Oakland, but he was younger then. He’s 16 now and getting faster—my whole American racing career has been trying to beat him,” Fumi said.
Mini Golf Tourneys
There is a new mini golf course at the end of Pier 25 run by Manhattan Youth, who, along with the New York City Social Sports Club, is bringing a new twist to hitting the little links. New York City residents now have access to mini golf tournaments in Downtown Manhattan.
There are 21 teams in the inaugural league, four members to a team. The league’s best dressed team is “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” who, undeterred by a recent patch of bad weather, paired off for one of the rainiest rounds of mini golf ever.
The team’s captain, 28-year-old Vanessa Brown, works in Union Square as a packaging production artist. She was inspired to start the team after watching a news report on another offbeat sport covered by the television channel NY1.
“They were covering water polo a long time ago, and when I looked up the organization behind it I found that they were planning a mini golf league. I said, ‘That is ridiculous! I need to do this! And I need three friends to come with me,’” Brown recalled, to laughter from her teammates. “It’s a perfect activity because it’s competitive enough that you want to win, but not so much that you get pissed when you lose—we’re not very good. Hitting the bar after is also a big part. It’s important to get off the computer and meet people in 3-D.”
At first, I was going to do a story on kayaking. Don’t get me wrong, kayaking is cool, and the program at Pier 40 has been successfully getting people out on the water for a while now, but it’s limited. Kayakers have to stay in what they call the “embayment,” the square of water between two piers that is also where the river’s debris tends to collect. But at the same Downtown Boathouse, just one door down, another group is offering a chance to get out on the water and row, row, row yourself to the Statue of Liberty, to Jersey or around the island of Manhattan!
The boats offered by Village Community Boathouse, free of charge, are 25-foot Whitehall gigs based on the traditional New York Harbor boats. The gigs are built by students during the winter and made available to the public from April to November, Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sundays at noon.
I caught one of the organization’s volunteers, Rob Buchanan, a 53-year-old professor at the New School, rowing up in a small dingy and asked him why he spends his free time rowing in the harbor:
“I grew up around boats—when I came from the San Francisco Bay area, I was amazed at how few boats were in the harbor here. So I started volunteering with a guy who was starting a project called ‘Floating the Apple,’ which did almost the same thing we’re now doing with the Community Boathouse,” he explained. “This is one of the great harbors of the world—so protected, with so many exit points, temperate climate, sandy beaches and enough room for everybody. More people should have access.”
Last year they booked more than 3,000 “community rowers,” though Buchanan pointed out that there were only 1,200 waivers signed, so more than half of them were return rowers. Two nifty things about rowing these beautiful wooden boats are that there only needs to be one volunteer from the boathouse onboard, a coxswain, so the whole boat can be filled with you and your friends, and that if and when you get tired, you can just raise the mast and sail back home.
At the very top of Pier 40—even higher, really—Marcie Beigel, a 32-year-old doctor, soars through the air and calls her favorite pastime “flying.” Her instructors told us that half the people attending the Trapeze School are one-timers, just wanting to cross it off their bucket list, but there is a hardy crew of regulars and Beigel is one of the best.
“I’ve been flying since 2004 at TSNY [Trapeze School of New York] and it’s the most fun workout there is. I have a lot more strength now—trapeze strengthens muscles you didn’t even know you had!” she said. “My parents are both clowns, so this makes perfect sense for me. My sister’s a balloon twister, and I guess this is my circus trait. My parents aren’t circus clowns, they do hospital clowning, parties, parades…They’re so psyched that I do this, they come to the shows and brag to their friends that I fly on the trapeze.
“I used to fly once a week, spend two hours on the outdoor rig with great people and feel like I got an amazing workout. Now it’s more like once a month. ”
A few blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge, diehard fans gather on Thursdays and Sundays around a sunken court in Roosevelt Park, on the corner of Chrystie and Broome streets in the Lower East Side, to witness the urban appropriation of the traditional sport of kings. If you have above average bicycling skills, phenomenal hand-eye coordination and aren’t afraid of a full contact sport with little to no padding, feel free to make yourself a mallet and join in the fun—there are no snobs in this bunch.
Thomas Callahan, a 31-year-old Brooklynite, has been coming across the bridge to play hard court bike polo for the last six months. He recently took a break from building bicycle frames at his shop, Horse Cycles, to explain the finer points of the game and why he’s so passionate about this sport:
“It’s a three-on-three format played with a street hockey ball and homemade mallets—usually ski poles with 3-inch diameter plastic tubing attached at one end—and the matches range from absurd to very competitive.
“The way a match works is there will be five to seven games, 10 minutes apiece, and you sit and watch. When a game ends, everyone throws their sticks in the center and we pull six for the next match.
“The last time I played, last Sunday, about 25 people showed and I knew all of them—even the visiting player from France. Everybody is getting ready for the World Championships in Seattle, Washington, next week, so there’s a bit of a fever pitch right now.
“The guys are mostly 19 to 40 years old, some bike messengers, a guy from the Blue Man group, computer programmers—too diverse to label them. Just a really solid, good bunch of dudes. I used to go to the gym, but since I’m getting older and I need to cope with more stress from my job and my life, I needed functional activities that are more fun and easier to keep going with, like bike polo. And the social aspect—whether it’s drinks afterwards, traveling for tournaments—it’s become a big part of my life.”
Top photo by Caitlyn Bierman.
Fumi Matsueda, right, the No. 2 dirt track racer in the country with his mentor Hugh Machie.
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