The Sublime Pleasure of Racing Floyd Bennett Field

The first time was jarring. Gritty seems to be the nicest way to characterize my first impression. Floyd Bennett Field felt old, grimy, and broken down. Decrepit. Abandoned. I don’t think I had ever raced on runways before.  I certainly hadn’t raced on a road so wide.  I felt small, the race felt small, in a location that engulfed people.  It was almost otherworldly; pan flat, with wide runways, some 300 feet wide, which dwarfed the vegetation and buildings.  It was hard to believe there was so much wide-open space within New York City.  The racing felt slow and draggy thanks to the blocks of concrete and chip that made up the runway surface, and wind coming from odd angles. The course is a not quite parallelogram.  And it was hard.  Brutally hard.  On one section, we were strung out, fighting along the weeds at the very edge of the cement and on the other side, we were splayed out wide.  Too hard for a “training race” when I had come to
expect quick, tight, office park criteriums as the preferred venue for weeknight training races.

I didn’t do well.

Abandoned Hangars.

For those not familiar, FBF is a national park, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, at the far end of Brooklyn, alongside  Jamaica Bay.  It was the first commercial airport in New York, and became a Navy base during World War II, and became a national park in 1972.  The airfield once boasted the longest paved runways in the United States.

It wasn’t just the race itself.  It was ride out on Flatbush Avenue.  It was the end of a long, hot day.  A patina of sweat and exhaust seemed to coat everything, including the air. Flatbush from Tillary to Ocean Avenue was a raceway when the lights were green. Once past Ocean, it was a different kind of battle.  Cars, buses, cabs, dollar vans were competing for holes while shoppers and commuters crowded the intersections; everyone jockeying for position.  While it can be seen as pack skill practice, as I usually do, it was a bit more focus than I wanted.  I imagined I’d have a long, slow, steady roll through Brooklyn.  And the venue, while windy, had heat emanating off the runways.

And the ride back, into dusk and darkness, was a bit slower, a bit less crowded than the trip out, but it still took focus, almost too much for the dulled legs and mind I possessed for the task.  Though the views found while riding over the Brooklyn Bridge were enough to accept the squirrelly pedestrians themselves fighting for position with other walkers.

Mastery is baked in to the endless task that addles the mind of a racer.  And I wanted that feeling for Floyd.  Though I didn’t want to ride out there again—I’ve never lived closer than 20 miles from the course.

But Floyd was more-or-less forced onto my scene when John Eustice decided to have qualifiers for his invitational Univest bike race.  He ran the FBF qualifier at road race length—I seem to remember one year it was in the neighborhood of 90 miles (it’s a 2.3 –mile lap).  Maybe it was all the years.   One year I remember as a hot, sunny spring day, and there were crosswinds, as there always are, and at some point, on the widest runway, it seemed we had echelons from edge-to-edge, all 300 feet of width, and just about everyone who finished, finished with a sunburn.  Another year, it was raining and cold.

No matter the weather, the racing was always epic.  Because I used to think that hills were the only thing that made races hard, it took a little while to grok how to race when wind makes races hard.  The sector when the wind was most in your face became the hill and the most dangerous, the sector where the wind was most at your back was the descent and the least dangerous, and the other two sectors were crosswinds were where you had to watch for position.

Finishing up at dusk.

With repetition, I got the hang of giving everything for the headwind, maintaining hyper focus in the crosswinds, and almost relaxing in a few places.  Despite the lack of elevation, I came to see it as a great place to improve race climbing, as the effort needed into the wind felt as all-encompassing as any stiff hill when racing.  I came to love the edge-of-the earth feeling I got from riding there, the sweeping turn onto runway 12-30, the blind turn alongside the Culvert Marsh, the tight turn onto runway Old 6-24, and the way conditions always dramatically changed when you did the big turn onto the ultra-wide runway New 6-24.  So, too the noise that the insects sang and the occasional roar of the Concorde, and the almost tropical greenery in summer months. Every time I arrive, I am impressed by the size, every time I leave, I savor one last look around.

As Floyd grew on me, so, too, did the ride there.  It took focus, but it became fun.  A different sort of video game than the broad avenues of Manhattan, but a skill all the same. I’d link up with random racers on the way out to add a bit of speed, and then, talking with friends on the way back, savoring the combination of lactic acid and evening haze.  The 40-plus miles of commuting wasn’t short. Especially for a 30-mile race, but I didn’t notice the time until I got home and realized it was after 9pm, if I hung out a bit after the race, it could be ten.

I started to finally feel I was getting a hang for the course when I broke away at the start of a Sunday race there and rode a three-up break for an hour.  It wasn’t easy, but the riders I got away with were strong and smart, with a good sense of how long to pull and how to set up for the wind.

The next year, I rode a five-up break for an entire race.  The winds were strong, but we railed it in the tailwind at 35mph, slugged it out into the cross-headwind at about 17mph, and echeloned everywhere we could.

For a long spell, the now-departed Spring Series always put a race or two at Floyd.  They were long affairs, like 60 miles. I usually had a meal before going home, though the times I didn’t, the bonk found me before reaching Prospect Park.

There was a several-year period when there were 50-mile Saturday races at Floyd in March.  Patches of ice were on the course, but generally they were in spots where the course was wide enough to go around.  One year, the first six riders in the race came across solo, each separated by 10 seconds or thereabouts.  And the rest of the remaining riders, seven or eight out of 40 or 50 starters, pretty much rolled in, happy it was over.  The headwind section was interminable and steep (seeming).

Tuesday nights are shorter, more explosive, and more convivial.  More people seem to ride out together, and more seem to ride back together. The camaraderie of sharing a race and then riding back through an unsuspecting Brooklyn was always a treat for a school night.

Throughout it all, I assumed Floyd was with us for the ages.  It felt that the runways were stuck in time, with the original 1942 road surface competing with cockroaches to see who can better survive the apocalypse. While there were the few remote control vehicle enthusiasts and the occasional camper, I never saw a crowd, ever.

It’s big and open and green. By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Aiding in its longevity seemed to be the fact that Floyd was largely unknown and unseen.  On the far edge of Brooklyn, with only Flatbush avenue going by it, it was out of sight and thus out of mind to most New Yorkers.

I certainly didn’t think Aviator Sports, which seemed to be working out of a single hangar along Flatbush, and a single soccer field, would be the existential threat that seems poised to kill off racing at Floyd for good.  Their people and their interests always seemed to be limited to what was along Flatbush. None of their target market seems to make it past the parking lot outside their facilities.

I’m missing it already—Tuesday night racing traditionally starts the first Tuesday in May–feeling the loss, even though I know that even if it were going on, I can’t put it in my schedule until mid-June at the earliest.

I don’t know how the Floyd problem can be resolved, but if we lose it, New York City bike racing will be in an even more precarious position than its already in. And the private takeover of public spaces will have claimed another victim.


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