Saturday, August 2, 2014

Alert But Not Thinking: What I Love About Bicycling In New York

1980s Strawberry Shortcake bike.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being on my bike, and being alone.

I rode a lot as a kid. I had a Strawberry Shortcake bike with a banana seat, then graduated to a purple dirt bike with matching purple grips around the handle bars.

I rode with my friends down the block, or sometimes just my sister. We'd meet at the dead-end court and race up the street. We'd try to build planks and jumps with the lumber left on the side of the road. We'd zip down to one of our friends' houses that had a pool, riding in bathing suits, towels trailing behind.

No one ever even owned a helmet.

We lived in a hilly neighborhood on a quiet street. Alone, I would ride around the block, pushing for speed on the downhill to see how far I could coast once the terrain leveled out. The houses were quiet with big lawns and driveways.

I remember trying not to skid out on piles of sand left along the side of the road after snow-plowing season. I remember the wind rushing by, whipping my ears. When I think back, I can hear birds, a lawn mower, the sound of a car crunching on gravel in the distance. But the gears and crank shaft and bicycle chair are all silent. I can hear the sound of my nine-year old brain in my head, talking to myself, figuring things out. Or not and just being quiet while I pedaled.

When I was 10 or 11, I decided I need a more serious bike, something with gears.

Huffy Capri.
I saved up and bought a pink and gray 10-speed Huffy Capri. It cost $100, plus tax. It was the biggest purchase I had ever made.

I still see that exact same Huffy Capri, the same color and everything, chained up in Union Square in New York. Sometimes I see it and I hate it. I have a lot of ugly memories of childhood, too, that coming flooding back at the sight of it. But I still think of it as my bicycle.

Five years ago, I started riding in New York City. Some urban cyclists say they like the thrill of danger that's inherent in riding the city streets. Inexperienced riders think taxis are the greatest threat (they're not). Cyclists get a bad reputation for being too risky and running pedestrians off the road, but I'd say, percentage wise, more cyclists obey the rules of the road than do pedestrians. I mean, who doesn't jay-walk?

Univega Gran Turismo touring bike, my current bicycle.
I ride 11 miles, round trip, most weekdays, to and from work. On the weekends, I might rack up another 30 miles. Eighty-five miles a week, give or take. I still mostly ride alone. It's what I like most about bicycling. Sure, I get to where I'm going. It's exercise. I get to be outdoors. But I'm addicted to the quiet time. Something blissful happens when the body must move mechanically, but the brain can't drift off and needs to pay attention. It's a zen-like state, alert but not thinking.

What I've learned from riding in the city streets is tolerance. Pedestrians jay-walk (which is supremely dangerous for cyclists). Cars making left turns jump red lights. Trucks change lanes without signaling. Teenagers joking around with one another push each other off the curbs. Cyclists weave erratically through traffic, blow red lights, and sometimes ride illegally on the sidewalk.

The key is figuring out how you fit into the big picture. When you're a driver, you realize how awful pedestrians are. When you're a pedestrian, it's easy to blame the terrible cyclists for making the roads dangerous. On a bike, my feeling is that you have to see the whole system at play and figure out where you fit in. Sometimes you have to break the law to be safer, for example, by getting in front of a line of cars at a red light. With time and experience, it's easy to tell which drivers haven't seen you and won't see you, unless you get directly in front of them. They need to be aware that you're on the road. So you squeeze between some cars at a red light and make sure everyone sees you doing it. Now they know you're there. Now they know to drive carefully. And hopefully while you were squeezing, you were watching the countdown clock for pedestrians walking perpendicular to where you are, to make sure you have a enough time to get to the front of the line.

I've learned to be tolerant of others, to see from their perspective as much as from my own. I have to assume that no one is trying to explicitly hurt one another. There's no sense in getting angry. A close call is still not an accident, and you have to shrug those moments off, sit your ass down, and keep pedaling.

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