Jul/Aug 2000 Nonfiction

Cycling in the City

by Jeremy Simon

At the bottom of the saddle bag on my bicycle, beneath the PowerBar, phone card and MetroCard, lies a note on which I've printed my name, address, phone number, and the sentence, "I thought it might end this way."

The cops will read it and, perhaps, they will chuckle at the gallows humor as they clean what's left of me off the grille of a waste-disposal truck or the inside of the car door of a sport-utility limousine. Perhaps they will say, without smirking, "Looks like another one bit the dust. Serves him right." At the least, they will think: This guy knew what he was getting into.

It would be a messy way to die. I've accepted that. Every time I clip into my pedals and point my bicycle down Broadway, I recognize that I could as easily get my exercise hitting a ball at a wall or running on a conveyor belt. I'm not doing this to get from Point A to Point B. I don't even know which direction I'll take in until a subconscious combination of whim and circumstance pushes me somewhere. Why do I do this?

I bike because bikes have no seatbelts and they do what I want them to do, rapidly. No other mode of transport in New York is so freeing, exhilarating or threatening. I ride a $1,500 Specialized Allez Pro 16-speed that weighs not much more than a bowling ball. On this sleek sliver of a machine, I wear Spandex—the fabric of superheroes and supermodels—an 8-ounce helmet and dark sunglasses. I'm surrounded by men and women chained to rolling anvils that drag mufflers and bumpers. I bluster by them as if they were standing still, which they often are. When I am pedaling good and hard, with the help of a slight tailwind and a touch of downhill, I will hit 30 miles per hour, which in most of New York City is the speed limit.

Cycling in New York City is an act of absolute egotism. When the city sky is, well, not gray, and I've gone through 10 green lights in a row and can savor the rare, rhythmic spin of the pedals, I am able momentarily to forget the reality of the situation: that at all times I'm a sitting duck. I deny the cast around me, any of which could be a buzzard setting dinner in its sights.

Every day, about 100,000 people hop on a bike somewhere in New York City's five boroughs. Two or three times a week, I am one of them. I do almost all my riding in Manhattan, the fiercest of the five boroughs for cyclists.

If you see me on my bike, feel free to wave, but forgive me if I do not slow down to say hello.


Always be ready to stop: that's the second most important thing about biking in New York. The first is, always be ready to go.

If I've waited until a red light turns green to get a jump on the cars behind me, I've waited too long. I need a head start because cars boast scores of horsepower and on a good day, I'm happy to muster one humanpower. So I jump when the opposing traffic light turns yellow. What am I doing, sticking myself directly in front of cars to begin with? Being noticed. That is the third most important thing. If I am not noticed at this red light, I will be when I am picked up off the pavement. No matter where I situate myself in the street, I am always in someone's way.

Some city cyclists have a single fixed gear and no brakes; they stop by pedaling backward. I tried to follow one of these guys for a few blocks. By his running sneakers and his chiseled calves, I pegged him as a messenger. I could handle his speed on the open avenue for several blocks. The few yards I lost, I was poised to make up at a red light. Then he slipped through a 24-inch gap between a bus and the front fender of a sleeping cab. I was caught on the right side of the bus in what had suddenly become a box canyon, and the rubber band broke. He was gone.

I could not tell what brand of bike this messenger used. In Colorado, where I spent four years, designer labels and sharp paint jobs broadcast whose bike is baddest, in sharp contrast to New Yorkers, who fashion as inconspicuous a ride as possible. Masking tape and black rubber obscure the names of the frames and rebut the lashes from heavy chains and heavy rains.

These chains, which could choke a bear, nestle in baskets or are wrapped around riders' necks like snakes around the necks of charmers. Any bike left anywhere in New York, even for 30 seconds, needs a lock. There are bike-lock companies that offer users a $1,000 refund for a stolen bike, if it is stolen anywhere but from New York City.

I don't even have a lock. I don't stop. I try to resist finding a reason to. As I ride, smells from left and right pepper me. When I am a pedestrian zig-zagging between curbs, I can fight off the temptations one by one. At 20 miles per hour, the montage of temptation whirs at Broadway-revival pace... donuts!pizza!shishkebab!burntpretzel! If I bought a lock, I would never get home.


Motor vehicles are not allowed in Central Park at certain times of the day and on weekends, unless they're official vehicles, marked or unmarked, and at other certain times, certain kinds of motor vehicles are only allowed in certain parts of the park, and who remembers when and where? On my first day in Central Park, my path was clean for the first several minutes until I was pushed to the sidewalk not by cars but by the barricades and bagpipers of a union demonstration.

When I moved here in September, I imagined Central Park would be where I'd do all my city cycling. The main Central Park loop is six miles and it includes a clearly marked bike lane. There are enough hills to keep me from getting bored, too few to seriously tire me.

I soon noticed that a loop around Central Park would consistently stress me out more than a shot up an avenue. In the park, I must deal with Rollerbladers, runners, dogs, walkers, horse carriages, baby carriages, wandering babies, police carts, and skateboarders. When motor vehicles are permitted in the park, it is clear that they regard the drive as a "shortcut."

In the park, I constantly calculate vectors and angles of incidence. I run crude quadratic equations in my head to chart the sloppy sine waves carved out by Rollerbladers (who are the single worst thing about cycling in Central Park, because bladers push off and often skid to the side, often taking up an entire car lane to do so, and also because most bladers are about as predictable as a drunk guy throwing darts).

We can do these calculations, by the way, and we do do them. The mention of vectors and quadratics may induce memories of 10th-grade geometry. But life is sprinkled with geometry and physics lessons. Pool sharks deal with these problems. So does the paperboy, and so do you. At least you'd better, if you bike in the Park. On a sunny day, there are so many people who come to engage in this multiplicity of motion that you will eventually conclude that some of them act as if they are actually out to get you.


It takes me 38 minutes during rush hour to get from the Battery to 127th Street. This is twice as quickly as a bus can make the trip, and it would have been quicker if not for Wall Street, where the Masters of the Universe extend their empire into the crosswalks.

The other day I hit a green light at Exchange Plaza. Though the pedestrians on the sidewalk faced a red light, there were no cars or buses beside me to underline the signficance of the traffic signal for them, so they swarmed across the street to form a fluid wall in front of me.

Usually, I can usually spot the ever-shifting holes in these walls and exploit the gaps during their split-second lifespan. But this wall was tough.

I pulled forward to test the wall. At about 25 feet away, I put my head down and accelerated for 10 feet right at it. In any other part of the country, this would have opened a fissure because a few pedestrians would freeze in fear, based on our evolutionary predisposition against getting hit by large moving objects. This scare tactic didn't faze anyone on Wall Street.

I grabbed my brakes and drew to a standing halt. I stood precariously on my pedals, alert and inert. This is a New York skill. I can chill my bike without moving the wheel forward for about five seconds before I lose my balance and have to resume motion. Seeing no further breaks, I busted right into the crowd, slowly but with clear intent. At about five feet away, a few of the walkers flinched and I massaged the opening, wiggling my wheel back and forth to fan myself some space, stroking the pedal first a few inches, then another few. I almost got through cleanly. I struck a bag one lady was carrying.

As hard as I try to calculate which paths lead to daylight and which to someone's back bumper, there sometimes is no way through, and I must get off the bike and wait. This is more of a humiliation than it should be because I've ratcheted up my ego to get out there in the first place. When I first got to New York, I howled at traffic puzzles I could not solve. But I saw a cop with sirens blazing try to cross Fifth Avenue at 34th Street. For 30 seconds, the force of law could not, even at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, break the traffic stream. The streets are equal-opportunity frustrators.


More people are dying on bikes in the city than ever; 35 cyclists were killed in accidents with cars last year, more than in any other year in the city's history. The ones who survive are angry. The "e-bikes" Internet mailing list for New York City cyclists boils daily with complaints from victims of accidents and traffic tickets. One rider was given four tickets (totaling $1,500) for running four consecutive red lights. Bike messengers have been ticketed for otherwise-legal cycling outside a bike lane.

When I talked to messengers one morning at Breakaway Courier Services, they said they were more afraid of being ticketed than anything else. Messengers have already sublimated their fear of getting hit by a car or a bus. Those with years behind them have filed this possibility in the "que sera sera" file. Getting collared by a cop, on the other hand, is not only ostensibly avoidable, it is a shameful submission to an authority that enforces what messengers consider to be flawed laws. At $100, a ticket can negate a pretty good day of 20 deliveries and 40 miles of riding.

The city generally and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani specifically are seen by most cyclists as a bunch of jerks with a particular grudge against messengers that stems back to the killing of an elderly pedestrian by an overzealous delivery cyclist in 1997. A movement called Critical Mass convenes monthly to block automobile traffic at high-density locations during rush-hour. Central Park is the Alamo for cyclists trying to ban cars from the park.

I took a tour of Brooklyn with Transportation Alternatives members. Politics loomed at rest stops and at intersections. Within the first mile, I heard a loud "thump" behind me. "Oh my God! Someone's been hit!" But the sound had been a cyclist's fist, punching the hood of a station wagon that was trying to ease through the clump of 60 cyclists, riding five or six across to effectively block the narrow street. "You've got a lot of nerve!" the cyclist yelled. A few others took up the yell before ride leaders reined them in. The driver behind the windshield was resignedly passive, dealing with this minority group bent on righting the wrongs of the past.

A mile farther, we cruised south on Henry Street. I stopped at a red light, but I heard a woman's cry of "Go!" Startled, I mounted and rode through the intersection, past several cars seething behind this woman's palm. "Why are you stopping them?" I asked. "They have a green light." She began to answer "Because... well..." before she realized I was probably one of them. A closet car-sympathizer.


One day, I didn't have the energy for the fight, so I took an hour-long vacation. The days were brisker and shorter, and I put on a neon-orange jacket, in case dusk decided to sneak up on me. After three miles of coasting north along Riverside Drive and a mile on the six-foot sliver of the George Washington Bridge allotted to bikes, I was in Fort Lee. From there, I made a right and headed north up Route 9W, through the Palisades of New Jersey.

Within a half mile, the road gifted me a shoulder to ride on; I had forgotten that roads even had shoulders. Englewood Cliffs was the next town up, and with it, the eradication of any resemblance to Manhattan as the apartment buildings and concrete blocks were replaced with trees, grass, and a less breathless brand of building. Corporate campuses spread their arms along the edges of the west side of the road in magnanimous gestures toward their tightly shrugged brothers across the Hudson. This stretch of Bergen County avenges New Jersey's inferiority complex.

As I biked further north, nature took broader strokes. The landscape that had been married to industry for the previous three miles in Englewood had divorced it by Tenafly. The smooth road beyond the "Welcome to Tenafly" sign—the sign was the only indication that I was in something that was organized as a settlement—rolled up and down like a carpet with its dirt being shaken out. To my left, an unpaved road through the trees. To the right, the Palisades Parkway, surreptitiously snaking north toward the New York state border with a civility that belied its arterial status. I looked at the trees. The leaves were red and brown, the strong following the weak to the dirt. For the first time, I realized it was autumn and that it had been for weeks.

Another two miles north I crossed into Alpine, where the average house sells for more than $500,000. CEOs and VPs live in Alpine, in subdivisions carved from forest, driveways headed with petting zoos of white stone. I let my guard down. I pedaled with shoulders relaxed, the clicking gears hypnotizing my hazy mind into a dull trance.

I retraced my tracks and returned home. By the time I reached my apartment, I had logged 21 miles. It didn't seem like that many. My pulse wasn't elevated. So I set my sights south on Riverside Drive and put in four more miles. I rode the wrong way on a one-way street for two blocks, and I nearly struck a mother with a baby carriage. When I got back, my legs were shaking, and only then did I feel like I had earned my dinner.


I am not a man of God, yet I feel I have faith. I have faith in the order of this city, and that when I am on a bike and have plotted a path that is ideal and reasonable, it would be cosmically wrong for me to get hit, even when I cut in front of cabs, pass buses on their right and perform other maneuvers that could charitably be described as really stupid.

I see how horribly naive this theory is as I sit at my computer typing this. Russian Roulette players who fire empty chambers at their skulls are none the smarter for it. But while New York lights a hyperactive charge into so many of its residents, its streets anesthetize me. It simply doesn't occur to me to back off. The sensory overload gives me nothing to latch onto and the threats cancel each other out in my brain, as if the buses and taxicabs were a double negative.

My bicycle gives me a cocoon of calm that puts the millions of people in this city over there. As I joyride through Times Square, bisecting the pedestrians that crane their necks on the sidewalks and the neon marquees that line the skies, diving and dashing away from one and then another potential crashpoint, I have never before felt the sweetness of such solitude.


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