Thursday, July 24, 2008


The theme this summer with my friends has been bicycles. It seems like everyone has either bought one or is talking about how much they need to get one.

One of my roommates is a cycling fanatic. I’ve never seen first-hand anyone with such passion or expertise for them. He owns at least 3 that I know of. And they’re not your Wal-Mart brand bikes either. His most recent purchase is a fold-up bicycle that was hand-made in England with customized features.

So I’ll admit that the constant enthusiasm for bicycles has rubbed off on me and I started to consider the idea of cruising around the city. While I’m perfectly happy using the subway and not really looking to be a serious cyclist, I figured it would be a great way to explore the boroughs of NYC. It’d be perfect for getting to places that aren’t easily accessible by train and as I’d travel to those destinations, I’d be above ground soaking in the environments. The alternating grimy, white tiled stations and black, soot-ridden tunnels of the MTA can get monotonous.

Also it would be a great way to get around quickly. On the first decent summer day, my friend and I walked from my Park Slope apartment to and over the Brooklyn Bridge, which while perfectly enjoyable, took about 4 hours. Fast forward a few months to when my roommate and I cruised the same path via bicycles in about 30 minutes. I was amazed at how the surroundings looked so different from this perspective.

Convinced that it’d be a good investment, I set out to a bike shop with my expert roommate. I recall having plans with a friend later that day and texting her that I was shopping for a bike but should be able to meet her in an hour or two. It should be a breeze to find a decent bike with the approval of my roommate, I thought.

How naïve that seems now. I ended up spending a good 3 to 4 hours in that store, test riding at least 6 bikes. And I didn’t even walk away with one of them. I had no idea how similar the experience was to buying a car. It’s a serious purchase and finding the right one was a nuanced affair. After all, if I was committed to dropping the amount of cash for this, shouldn’t I find one that’s just perfect?

The bike shop employee was great and helpful and I was surprised at how she nonchalantly suggested that I should take any of their bikes out for a test ride. So I hopped on the first one and was about 2 blocks away before I realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

Now, everyone knows the cliché “You never forget how to ride a bike” and it’s true, but after 15 years of not being on a bicycle, I was pretty damn shaky. A few blocks further, my body had recalled some of the motor functions necessary to propel me in a somewhat normal fashion, which allowed me to realize that I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF FUCKING SOHO. Could there be any worse location to try to re-acclimate myself to riding? Between the narrow, cobbled streets, the psychotically aggressive cab drivers, and the gawking, meandering hordes of tourists, I felt every thing around me was a potential death trap.

It was then that I also realized I hadn’t been provided a helmet.

Things weren’t really working out for me here. I thought back to my last bicycle. I was 12. It was a Huffy or some equivalent kids brand. Fixed pedal, no brakes and no gears. I hadn’t been on a bike since then. So I was in essence, really learning to ride an adult bike for the first time. On the streets of Manhattan.

My Huffy was much lower to the ground, where I was in more of a sitting position and could extend my leg down to the ground for balance. But on these test bikes which were positioned higher, I had no idea at first how to start and stop on a bike without getting off.

And I don’t recall ever having to dodge heavy traffic or pedestrians in my youth. Being so close to speeding cars was a bit unnerving at first. I fully realized how scary riding around in the city could be. I had a flashback of riding my Huffy on my street. I literally only rode it on the sidewalk of my street. My parents forbade me to wander out of my neighborhood so I would ride from one end of the street, turn around, ride to the other end, and then repeat. I’m kind of mystified now as to what kind of entertainment that provided me. I wonder if any neighbors observed this behavior from their windows and thought to themselves “What a poor kid. Can’t even leave the street.” Either that or “Why is this idiot just going back and forth endlessly??”

Cut to the present, I’ve finally purchased a bike. A used one. Decent, not great, but perfect for what I need it to do. I have much more respect for cyclists in the city. When I first moved to New York I was driving a bit and had such animosity for walkers. Then as a walker hated drivers so intensely. And in both scenarios, loathed bicyclists. They were reckless and you never saw them coming. But now I see it from their side more clearly. It takes a bit of courage to throw themselves into such a hazardous situation, and at such speeds.

It’s all still very new to me. Dallas wasn’t exactly a bike-able town, what with the expansive suburban sprawl and the crippling heat. So I don’t feel I was adequately trained to deal with potholes, car doors, jaywalkers, double parked cars in the bike lane, squeezing between tight gaps at stop lights, construction zones, and basically being hated by every living being I come across. I’ve already hit a car and been thrown completely off my bike. That was by week 2 with a bike.

Despite all this, I’m loving it. It’s also great to hear how the city is working to support the cycling community. Bike lanes are being added constantly and there’s even rumors of some sort of shared bicycle system. Not sure if that will lead to anything significant but the sentiment is appreciated.

It’s another reason to love New York. With the increasingly alarming oil situation and everyone’s obsession with going green, the city allows me to feel like I’m doing what I can to make myself less damaging to my surroundings. I take the trains everywhere, I recycle, I use a cloth shopping bag, my bookbag is even made from 100% recycled materials, and I grow my own food. Okay, that last one was a lie. It’s probably the one thing that I’d like to do that I can’t in New York.

In the end, I’m glad I made the bicycle purchase. It helps me feel that I’m doing more right in the world than wrong. Although I’m not really getting rewarded with that bike seat, because my ass kills.

UPDATE: I guess I spoke too soon about a NY/bike love-fest. Gothamist points to a video of a NY cop decking a cyclist for what looks like no apparent reason. Ouch.

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