Of all the ghosts they whisper about in the bike shops across the city, the most terrifying is the Headless Cyclist of the Hudson Greenway.
They say that the Headless Cyclist was a racer, killed in a crash uptown in the 70’s, and that he cycles nightly in search of first aid and revenge. Those who have claimed to see him say that he is silent, looming, fast as the blink of a taillight. They say he rides a vintage drop tube shifter Colnago with Campagnolo derailleurs.
But let me start from the beginning, before the sun has set.
The Hudson Greenway by day is a busy, happy path. On weekend afternoons the path is crowded: tourists ride Bike and Roll rentals, puzzled pedestrians look for the Intrepid. The traffic rushes alongside. You can only see the river through cement park plazas, garbage truck depots, and mysterious wire-fenced construction.
But keep going. At 81st Street or so, the path will start to run right along the river. Here, New Jersey’s buildings are square and low across the Hudson, cushioned by the green-and-gold trees.
Gear up. Pass the cruisers. You’re around 110th. The path is changing, winding, reaching under trees. The pavement is bumpy with roots beneath. In the late afternoon light, uptown is dreamier than prosaic midtown, seems more given to ghosts.
Soon the sun lowers over New Jersey, dipping the silver buildings in other paint. Here, in the monolithic shadow of the George Washington bridge, if you dropped your bike on some grass and climbed down, you could have your ankles in the frigid water. But don’t. Dusk is almost upon you, and you have to make it before dark.
Past some asphalt volleyball courts, make a hard turn. Gnarled trees shadow this path. To your right are train tracks, grown with moss, dipped in gloomy green. Here is where the Headless Cyclist has been seen.
The terrifying part: he keeps his head, not on his neck, but in a frontpack at his handlebars. He races the shadowy sections of the Parkway on cold nights. He uses no lights. Some nighttime cyclists have claimed nothing more than a rush of wind pass them on an open stretch, a shiver, a sense of presence.
But there is the case of one Bernie Glassman, who liked to commute on his bike from Juilliard up to his comfortable Washington Heights apartment. His weeknights sometimes kept him late in the city, and he often found himself cycling home in the city dark.
Bernie was not what you’d call an intelligent man. He’d read the backs of many books, and spoke with authority on all of them. He was notorious for stealing the compositions of his students and selling them as his own to advertising agencies. He gave private piano lessons and overcharged the parents. I think he was involved in a love triangle with a college roommate. If he was, he was sure to have acted dishonorably.
One night, after a particularly raucous party with some friends, Glassman was coming home along the Hudson. Something he’d had, food or drink or other substance, made him more paranoid than usual. Nervously he biked up the busier lower Greenway. The conversation at the party had turned to things that no one could confirm but everyone believed: that the internet was actually a government intelligence system, storing your credit card numbers and shameful late-night Googles; that Lasik would ultimately cause blindness; that some apartment buildings were in fact totally and completely haunted.
Glassman’s natural credulity, combined with the darkness of the late hour, made him swerve, trembling, at every bicycle light that approached. He picked up speed as he hit the lonely rocky section of the path, in view of the George Washington Bridge. And when he sucked in his breath and took the turn into the deep shadows of the winding tree-lined path just a couple of miles from home, he heard the unmistakable whir of gears just a few feet behind.
Glassman’s heart pounded, and he was too frightened to turn around. He geared higher and pushed his legs. The whirring stayed close behind him, no matter how fast he went, but he heard no breathing except his own. Through the trees he raced, bent over his handlebars, the cyclist behind him shifting gears when he shifted, leaning when he leaned. They were in a nighttime race, with Glassman in the lead by a length, and his heart leaping out of his chest with effort and fear.
He finally glimpsed the Lighthouse through the trees, and the stars and the river opened up to him. Here the path forked briefly and then rejoined itself. Glassman yelled: “WHO ARE YOU?” as he took the right fork of the path, while his pursuer took the left fork. The cyclist was still, inexplicably, in the shadow of trees, tall, on a slender black road bike, WITH NO HEAD WHATSOEVER. Glassman saw that the rider’s frontpack bulged and he felt cold fingers of fear down his spine.
Suddenly the ghoulish cyclist reached into his pack and pulled his own head from the depths. He turned to Glassman, as they raced side by side, separated by a bit of grass, and threw the head with nightmare force. Glassman took the impact on his helmet and swerved off the path into the trees. The goblin rider passed by like a whirlwind.
In the morning, Glassman did not show up for class. Friends found him cowering in his apartment, eating ramen with shaking hands. Soon after, he moved to a much smaller apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where he claimed the Devil could not reach him. He never rode again.
You can believe in the Headless Cyclist, or don’t: as you wish. But cyclists still warn each other about the dangers of the upper Hudson Greenway, and my advice is: if dusk is falling, and you’re still at 96th, turn back. Turn back! And wait for daylight.