Making it in New York

They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Like a lot of life’s larger truths this one is especially evident on the bike.

I found this out riding a Citi Bike in Manhattan this winter.

I’ve seen some tricky times on the bike. Sliding along the wet Colorado asphalt at 30 m.p.h. during the opening miles of the collegiate nationals road race in Durango. Being chased off my bike by a Corsican bull enraged by the sight of a Bridgestone with panniers. Feeling my front wheel wash out in an icy West Philadelphia intersection, and then trying to scramble out of traffic with one foot covered only by a sock.

In those cases, catastrophe came unannounced. When you ride a Citi Bike in New York you know within a minute of pedaling the unwieldy machine into traffic what can do you in. Everything.

My route began on Lexington Ave, near the southern end of Central Park. I had a few hours between two appointments, and for the second one I needed to be energized and clear headed. What better way than a bike ride to get ready? It seemed like the right time to try out the Citi Bike system, helmet or not.

My second visit of the day was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to write a book, so I really did not want to die before meeting my editor for the first time. I would have to count on the storied qualities of my trench coat to keep me safe.

Then I found that going crosstown in Manhattan on a Citi Bike is no different than inching crosstown in a car. It’s soul crushing. The bike is too heavy and too wide to zip in and out of traffic, leaving a rider at something slower than walking pace. At least it’s not that cold. When you go slow enough, the engines and exhaust of the delivery trucks and taxis go a long way toward creating a pack-like warmth. Just know where you stand lest you find yourself fighting for the same stretch of street with a panel truck creeping to the left with the same care an elephant shows before it unloads its breakfast.

Visitors once saw New York as a really dangerous place, rife with sharp knives and a serrated demeanor that has largely been purged from Manhattan. It’s been years since you could smoke in a bar. Bottles are feared not for their utility as a street fighter’s weapon but for their caloric payload. Yet there is still a way to taste the perils of the past. The Citi Bike is your time machine. Just head southbound in traffic on the West Side as I did on the next leg of my trip.

Spartan rites of passage must have had fewer deadly pitfalls and traps. There was the taxi driver who made eye contact in the mirror and then opened his door into my path. Potholes that could stun a Boston driver into silence. Gleaming Town Cars driven with the post-apocalyptic abandon that comes from being chased by a sprinting horde of decaying flesh. Pedestrians using thumbs and not brains when they cross the street with a New Yorker’s indifference.

There was a better option: I headed to the river and stuck to the deserted Hudson River Greenway. I glimpsed how great New York could be with more bikes and far fewer cars.

Any worthwhile journey has its moment of respite, and mine came at the Rapha store in the Meatpacking district. I parked my Citi Bike nearby, trying to avoid being charged for taking too long because I was doing the great things commuting by bike enables you to do. I may have been slow because I stopped for photos and notes, but if riding a bike interferes with pictures and words, what good is it?

Rapha spelled relief. The retail outpost of the British brand has the cordial sense of purpose of a small consulate. One of the interesting things about really effective lifestyle brands is that it is hard to discern just what is for sale and the ultimate value of what you are considering buying. So much so that after eating a sandwich, gorging on free but expensive magazine,s and departing with an on-target caffeine buzz and no intention of ever owning anything from the company, I took a few paces out the door and then froze. I returned and bought a pair of plain black bib shorts that cost more than the new wheels on my bike. Just as every pro cyclist loses a battle with the desert tray from time to time, the recreational rider also inevitably slips and overspends when they least should.

As anyone trying to write fiction can tell you, that time is all the time.

The irony of the stop was that my riding was effectively done for the day before I even walked in. It was only a mile or so to my last appointment and I had decided to finish the trip on foot before I even shoved the Citi Bike into its rack with an indelicate, industrial move akin to train cars coupling. On the walk, I occasionally passed racks of the blue bikes and could not help but think, “there waits a machine wholly indifferent to whether it is being ridden.” It is a perfect bike for somebody who does not care about cycling.

When I left the Rapha store, they cheerily told me to bring my bike next visit for the midweek “Freelancer’s Ride.” Next time I am in New York, I might just do that. If you’re going to make it in New York, especially as a cyclist, there’s only one bike for you.

Your own.

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  1. Andrew

    1) I grew up about 40 mins north of NYC. Spent a lot of time there when I was young. Very comfortable walking, taking the subway wherever I need to go. Driving there sucks, but I’ve done it without much problem.

    2) I’ve spent years bike commuting, in a variety of other cities and parts of the country.

    3) You couldn’t pay me enough money to bike in NYC, let alone ride a CitiBike there.

    No way, no how. You are asking to get killed.

  2. Mike

    Spent a week in NYC getting around via nothing more than a CitiBike. Was a great experience. Never felt less safe than riding around any other large city. Highly recommended.

  3. Doug M.

    I too grew up just north of NYC, so the shine was always off the [big] apple for me. Cycled there on a few occasions 2009 to present, and man what a difference a few years makes! Compared to my current rust-belt upstate city, NYC has so much infrastructure and is turning steadily into a welcoming city for cycling. Gotta keep your head on a swivel, listen carefully, stay off the major avenues if you can, especially in midtown Manhattan.

  4. bigwagon

    “departing with an on-target caffeine buzz and no intention of ever owning anything from the company, I took a few paces out the door and then froze. I returned and bought a pair of plain black bib shorts that cost more than the new wheels on my bike.”

    Reading this sentence reminded me of this scene from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Take them to the Iron Maiden.” Happy face. “And execute them.” Sad face.

  5. Alex TC

    I’m with Mike on this one. Always going to NY with my wife and last November we spent over 10 days enjoying it on CitiBikes only. It was one of the best times we had there in years. Going places, shopping, wandering around – much faster than walking, much funnier than taking the sub, much cheaper than taking cabs. I’m a seasoned competitive road, city and mountain biker so you’ d expect me to get around ok, even on such heavy, under-geared and weird-sitting beasts. But my wife’s an occasional commuter (if much) yet she too felt safe and had great fun biking in the whole of Manhattan. The weather was great, lots of people riding bikes everywhere, the traffic was heavy as usual yeah but nothing, absolutely nothing, that could detract from an otherwise pleasant and fun experience.

  6. Pingback: No helmet required | August Cole

  7. Author
    August Cole

    Cycling certainly can work in New York as many regular, all-weather riders can attest. I can only imagine how wonderful daily life might be if there were more bikes, of all kinds. I see a sort of Dutch dream state with some of Milan’s well-wheeled flair. Citi Bike serves a purpose, but it’s going to take much more time and much more willpower, to make it live up to its potential, and my overly high expectations.

  8. Noah_Deuce

    Having lived there for two years, I can at that cycling wasn’t bad at all. I’d regularly ride up and down the east side avenues to get to Astoria from Manhattan, take the Brooklyn Bridge to work in the morning (don’t ride it at night – too crowded; take the Manhattan Bridge instead), and pedaled the George Washington Bridge into Jersey on weekends to get in some rides without traffic lights. It wasn’t any more dangerous than riding in traffic usually is, and it was always fun.

  9. Michael Levine

    It’s interesting to read all the various impressions of riding the bike in NYC. I was born and raised in NYC, but lived for about 10 years solid in Vermont (best riding anywhere), with countless shorter stays up there. Lived in L.A. for about 4 years too. (not so great riding.)
    Well, I’ve been riding since I’m a little kid, going for it seriously since 1969 and I’ll be 65 in a few months. Touring , racing, commuting, and lately lots of gravel (we call’em dirt roads in Vt.)
    Riding in NYC, like a lot of places has changed drastically. More cars, bigger cars, more bicycles, many of them ridden by reckless arrogant folks, more cell phones,ipods, runners, pedicabs, horse drawn carriages, and every other manner of public conveyance. Often operated by crazed, over caffeinated, over worked, underpaid citizens trying to earn a buck, have fun, or to out-do some one else. Oh, I left out all the different types of taxis, of which there maybe 15-20 thousand.
    Throw in a few thousand citibikes and you have what all us veteran New Yorkers call “just another day in the Big Apple.”
    Back in the day, believe it or not, this big city had a much more provincial feel, and riding around was a lot less dangerous than it is now. Road rage does certainly exist and more and more people vie for the same small space as the days go by. The bike-way along the west side does help some, but as a long time road rider, I find it as cramped and as hazardous as the bike lanes newly designated on the avenues.
    Like all public concerns, it’s my opinion that education is the key. The population, and not just motorists, need to be flooded with constant information about how to get along, including the bike riders.
    I guess we’ll just deal with the random and chaotic nature of it all in our own creative and unique ways, adding to the incredible tapestry that is particular to NY.
    I used to ride all over the city at all times of the day, to get to work, to visit friends, and for the sheer beautiful insanity that this carnival atmosphere provides. I have limited my street riding of late due to the aggressive nature that the street environment has become in my experience.(Once I got lifted off the road by my handlebars as I tried to pass between two buses that came too close together for a few really scary seconds.) (And fuggeddabout the numerous crashes in Prospect and Central Park bike races.)
    But if you ride up Riverside to the George Washington Bridge and over to New Jersey, you can be in rolling hills and green country side in just a few minutes. Watch out for the deer and SUV’s as you glide through many towns incorporated in the late 1600’s and where battles were fought by George Washington himself.
    When you come to NY to ride a bike, just do what we NYer’s do, yell “YO” a lot to let everyone know you’re coming.
    “I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps….” and go ride my bike!

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