City Portrait: Boston, Massachusetts

Text: Geoffrey Kula • Photography: Geoffrey Kula

Boston's biking community is a healthy, vibrant scene. Nary a summer weekend passes without a charity ride or rally to choose from, and although the seasons work against us, a little cold weather keeps but a few from a day in the saddle. Perhaps the blood of the hearty Yankees who settled the region still runs through the veins of its riders.

In Boston, with a riding season truncated by Old Man Winter, we're passionate about our bikes; it's the other drivers we're not so enthusiastic about.

Days before filing this story, I was in the back of a cab (my bike was in the shop) and we had just begun to overtake and pass a motorcyclist on our right when the cab driver immediately began to merge into said cyclist's lane.

I shouted to get the hack's attention, and, disaster avoided, the cyclist drove around on our left, honking his horn and giving us the one-finger salute.

"I didn't see him," the cabbie mewled in meager defense.

I wish this were the exception rather than the rule, but it seems most riders I know have horror stories about cars changing lanes in this city with reckless abandon - it must have something to do with the divine right bestowed upon them by the Law of Tonnage. And in this day and age of ever-increasingly large SUVs, we're fighting a losing battle. In two separate daytime occurrences riding down Commonwealth Avenue (one of the city's major throughways), I have been subjected to the overtake-and-merge myself. So, if you come to Boston, bring a defensive-driving mindset with you and your trip will go a whole lot smoother.

Puritans seeking religious freedom from the English Crown founded the capital of Massachusetts, Boston, in 1629. Oddly enough, some of that puritanism remained over the centuries until the recent repeal of "blue laws" that forbade shopkeepers from selling alcohol on Sundays, and the more significant fact that Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

Being the first at something is nothing new to the inhabitants of Boston, whose city hosts the world's oldest annual marathon, is home to both the oldest public school (Boston Latin School, established in 1635) and the oldest institution of higher learning in the nation (Harvard University, est.1636), as well as the oldest continuously operating tavern (The Bell in Hand, est. 1795) and restaurant (The Union Oyster House, est. 1826), the oldest baseball park in the country (Fenway Park, built in 1912), and the oldest commissioned warship in the Navy (the USS Constitution, or "Old Ironsides," which was launched in 1797 and is docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard).

In fact, history old and new is such an integral part of Boston's culture its presence is unavoidable. From the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence has been read every July 4th since its signing in 1776, to the nearby site of the Boston Massacre, to the Old North Church ("One if by land, two if by sea.") where Paul Revere so famously warned that "The British are coming!" to Bunker Hill monument, which commemorates the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, to the nation's largest and certainly most expensive - with a price tag of $ 15 billion - public works project, the freeway-submerging Big Dig, Boston is racing into the twenty-first century without losing touch with its significant past.

Visually, this is most evident by looking at the city's architecture, which is a mix of old world colonialism and futuristic whimsy, most keenly evidenced by the new Frank Gehry-designed buildings at the New England Aquarium and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose original campus was one location for the Oscar-winning film, "Good Will Hunting."

Taken with a grain of salt, the persistent rumor that Boston's streets were laid atop cow paths from the colonial era goes a long way in explaining the erratic layout of the haphazard, pell-mell maze of one-way streets we navigate here. And if not for the 2004 Democratic National Convention that Boston hosted in July, the formerly familiar moon surface, pothole-riddled roads would still be a reality and not a memory of days gone by.

Arts aficionados will be delighted by the number of public and private museums in the city (most notably the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art) as well as a multitude of concert halls and the opportunity to catch a free classical or pop music concert or movie screening at the Hatch Shell on the tree-lined Charles River Esplanade during summer evenings. To find a venue hosting pop, rock, jazz or blues music, your best bet is to walk several feet in any given direction, and if you don't hear something you like, keep moving along. There are so many bars and clubs that feature live music of one genre or another that it would be impossible to even scratch the surface here. For local listings, consult either one of the city's two dailies or its arts weekly.

For sports fans, Boston offers basketball's Celtics, hockey's Bruins, football's New England Patriots, and up until this "fan-tastic" October the most cursed team in baseball, the Red Sox, who hadn't won a world series since 1918. This heartbreaking record, some say, was due to "The Curse of The Bambino," which began in 1920 when the BoSox traded slugger Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Additionally, every April, thousands of runners from around the world converge on the city to partake in the Boston Marathon.

Boston's myriad neighborhoods include the predominantly ethnic enclaves of the North End (Italian), South Boston (Irish), Chinatown (Asian), Beacon Hill (bluebloods), Back Bay (Euro chic), Jamaica Plain and Somerville (funky artist neighborhoods) and Cambridge (liberals). While Back Bay's Newbury Street - Boston's big-budget shopping mecca and home to block after block of outdoor cafes - and its environs have monopolized the upscale market for years, the once-distressed South End has seen a rejuvenation of late, cultivating a restaurant/dining and arts scene along Tremont Street that would be the envy of many major metropolitan areas in and of itself. Unfortunately, the higher cost of living and the influx of young professionals are squeezing long-time blue-collar residents out, resulting in the gradual gentrification of some neighborhoods.

While cruising up and down Newbury Street will certainly turn heads, the place for motorcyclists to see and be seen locally is at the Hard Rock Café's monthly "Bike Nites." Located on Clarendon Street near Copley Square, this rock 'n' roll-themed restaurant caters Boston's own mini-Laconia on the third Wednesday of each month from June to October (as of press time: check the Hard Rock Café website to confirm). Hundreds of bikers converge at the Back Bay eatery to show off their custom rides, to get inspired by others' creations, or just to socialize. It's a great opportunity to meet fellow riders and share the camaraderie our bikes inspire. The ethnic diversity of the city is reflected in country of origin in the bikes as well: Italian, German, Japanese and purebred American machines crowd the streets.

On a smaller scale, but with more frequency, it is a safe bet that on any Thursday through Saturday night, and on weekend afternoons on Hanover Street in the North End, there will be rows of bikes parked by Caffe Vittoria or Mike's Pastry Shop. I'm not sure it has anything to do with the steaming cappuccinos in the neighborhood, but if you've ever sat for a spell and watched the scenery walk by on a warm summer night, you understand the appeal.

Granted, it seems unlikely that few would actually visit Boston to come cruise its congested city streets all day, but popular half-day destinations abound, including scenic coastal routes in beach towns such as Revere, Nahant, Marblehead and Gloucester (to the north), and (to the south) Hull, Cohasset, Scituate and Plymouth. To the west, Route 2 offers full-day cruises of rolling scenery all the way to the New York border. And every weekend, there's a variety of charity rides, rallies and other events to partake in if you want to roll in a group or meet new riders.

All in all, while it may be true that the riding season in Boston is shorter than most, we refuse to be bitter about it and look forward to our days on the road that much more. This attitude has helped us foster our healthy scene and we hope you come to experience it for yourself.