The Matterhorn Comes To Hampton Bays

Written By: Laurence Stuart Warshaw

The Ponquoque bridge is a 2,812 foot taffy span stretching and arching doggie down over the Shinnecock Bay connecting Hampton Bays with the east end of Westhampton Island. It was built in 1986 in order to replace an older wooden one built in the 1930s that fell into disrepair. The remnants of the old bridge are now a fishing pier east of  the span of the new bridge. The Ponquogue is mountainous  like the Matterhorn  and like the Matterhorn is supreme in its majesty. It beckons you to come close once it is seen from a distance. You cannot look away. As the wind blows over the bridge, I hear it taunt me like Kevin Costner to “go the distance.”  It waves and it whispers. Did I just see it wink. What can it mean? What am I supposed to do so as not to offend the cosmos? I’ve seen people jog and ride bicycles over the bridge. But if the wind knows anything about me, there is no chance  that jogging will be involved with my going any distance. Yet the wind is wise so there must be a reason it summons me. Eureka, maybe I can take a shot and ride my bike over it. That must be what is happening.

No one told me that biking and the Hamptons go together like salt and pepper. Age doesn’t usually matter, except when it does. If you look, you will see riders of all age group, Boomers like me to millenials. This was a surprise since I hadn’t ridden a bike in decades. Not to worry. As they say, riding a bicycle is just like riding a bicycle and there is no better playground to ride in than the Hamptons. The towns sport bike lanes and terrain to satisfy the novice or experienced rider. A helmet is a must.  So are shorts that fit. I’ve been honked at by cars passing from behind. At first I thought it was respect for my athleticism, then it was pointed out by one in my group that I had been flashing motorists along Montauk Highway for three miles into Quogue. A thrill for some no doubt, but not good.

As for getting a bike, I found there are now all prices and types of bicycles with seats and handlebar configurations to choose from. Adjustments can be made to accommodate an individual’s comfort level. Call me old fashioned, but I will never understand how someone could ride a bike with a hard seat. The constant intrusion of the seat into my small intestine is bothersome and totally joyless. A real buzzkill. I don’t get it. So, my wife Jill bought me a relatively inexpensive bike with upright handle bars to accommodate a spine that doesn’t bend or reset as easily as it used to and an optional softer and wider seat in order to accommodate my own softer and wider seat which has sadly proven over time to be standard equipment and permanent in nature no matter what I do. But, with bike in hand and a seat I can sit on, I hear the bridge calling. It  baits me. “Go the distance.” “Make my day, punk.” “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Who knew that the Ponqougue could be so aggressive. Isn’t the fact that it is there enough of a reason to want to conquer it?

I have heard stories from the locals of many a rider who tried and failed to make it over the summit much to the Ponquogue’s apparent amusement. They get near the top of the arc when exhaustion from fighting the wind and a severe incline that feels like it’s close to an 80 degree grade overtakes the rider and like a rewound video they are sucked backwards down the incline at 60 mph to Tully’s or Dune Road depending on the direction taken for the ascent. Dangerous stuff indeed. Yet, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. I plan my assault .

First, I need to get in shape. Only a fool would try to ascend the Matterhorn without preparation. There are practice rides to South or Westhampton along Montauk Highway and weight training at Planet Fitness. Looking good. My wife, the nurse practitioner insists on many trips to the second floor bar at CowFish for essential altitude acclimation. I am advised with a reasonable degree of medical certainty this is necessary. Besides, their brussel sprout salad is off the charts. I don’t need no stinking sherpa because I have a red bike shirt with a pocket in the back and shorts with cargo pockets in the front. Plenty of storage space for trail mix and tootsie rolls. The day arrives. Weather reports are clear and sunny.

Base camp is established on Springville Road in Hampton Bays. It is from there that the team (Jill and I) assemble. Tire pressure. Check. Helmet tight. Check. Laces to the right. Check. Sun block. Check. Water. Check. Bell. Ring a ding-ding. My cell phone is loaded with the various apps one needs for this type of undertaking including GPS and graphs that display distance, speed and heart rate. However, I have no idea how to use any of them. But I’m ready and loaded for bear. Move ’em out. Yee ha. The ride for the two of us is uneventful and scenic. After the better part of half a mile we veer left at a fork along Springville that turns into  Shinnecock Road going easterly. By way of background, I’ve discovered that there is a lot of veering and forking going on in the Hamptons as many of the roads are long and winding. We pass a boatyard and slow down by a restaurant that has a yellow submarine in the parking lot. All of this occurs about a block from Penny Lane. I’m not kidding. It really is in your ears and in your eyes. Of course, we would yield the right of way to pedestrians or Blue Meanies if we saw any. After stopping at a stop sign, we reach Foster Avenue and turn right. It is Foster that leads to Tully’s and the bridge. Veering left and heading toward the Coast Guard station I approach the bridge. It’s a lot bigger when you’re that close to it. I see the entrance to the footbridge where I will ride. I rear up, pop a wheelie and take aim.

Suddenly, a gust of wind tries to knock me off my bike. It has begun. I dreamt this would occur. I steady my self and tell my bike “let’s go.” With about 200 feet to get some momentum before hitting the incline, I change gears to high. I can sense the bridge bracing for the onslaught. The incline gets steep quickly and I feel as if I’ve been slapped in the teeth and am riding in slow motion. I downshift so my resistance is less. I can’t help but notice the water below and wonder if anyone fell off and into the drink. Would I be the first. Then, out of nowhere, as if divinely ordained and he is watching, I conjure my dad’s noises. I vocalize “oy” “oy” “aah.” All the while my feet are moving faster than I knew I could pedal. I inch forward with each rotation. Another strategic gust of wind hits me in the face as I press onward and upward. I can see the top of the bridge. My oys give way to grunts and then somehow break into a cadence of “I think I cans” just like the Little Engine That Could. Don’t ask where that came from. I was five when I read it. Suddenly, my wife lets out an “on your left” and readily passes me. I don’t care. I will not be denied. Cars pass me. Are they laughing too. I know it’s not the shorts. I steal a glimpse of the bay and realize I am high above it and can almost touch the clouds. What if I really am the one to be blown off the bridge. What a story that would make. I think some artist would get a cover in Dan’s featuring a pastel colored rendering of my fall. The illusion ends as quickly as it began. Such is the way the Ponquogue can mess with your mind. I bear down when I swear, the next 100 feet of the bridge conspire against me to realign and raise the grade to be almost vertical, or so it seems. “I think I can”, “Oy” “Mother …” .

My grunts and shortness of breath are unabated when suddenly as if a revelation, I can see the very apex of the bridge as if the sun shone its spotlight right there. Or is it a mirage that teases. If only I can keep moving. I press forward to the very spot where as far as I am concerned, lies the center of the universe. But I don’t have time to plant a prayer flag or take a selfie. I’m horizontal for a millisecond when I begin to descend. Wind in my face, gritting my teeth, heart a-pounding. I pick up speed and momentarily look to my right. Off in the distance I can see my wife riding somewhere along Dune Road probably heading toward Dockers. I am sure she is laughing. So much for riding together. As I go faster and faster down the slope I realize the descent can be more dangerous than the climb. This is where brakes can help. It’s a controlled descent tapping the brakes so that when I get to the foot of the bridge I don’t launch myself across the street into the parking lot at Ponquogue Beach like Evel Knievil at Caesar’s Palace. As I make it to Dune Road with the wind at my back the bridge begrudgingly nods its approval. Yes!

I continue to ride west along Dune Road to meet my beloved at Dockers for a bite and some very cold beer. But, as I ride I look back and see my Matterhorn glistening in the sun. The monkey off my back, and inspired to ride further, I head through Westhampton. I easily cross the Jessup Lane bridge with neither a huff nor a puff to make my way back to base camp on Springville empowered and secure in the knowledge that I went the distance and took the cannoli.