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.