I have been more than a bit mum lately. I accepted a new job at the beginning of the year. My old team was awesome, and I keep in touch. My new job is where my passion really is, though: Information security research. While I feel like my old route was as bike-friendly as it could get out here in suburbia, by comparison my new route is a bit more daunting. You can clearly see how my bailiwick is sectioned into islands by highways, where crossings are few, far-between and often part of high-traffic interchanges riddled with frenetic and distracted motorists. The beta test of this route starts tomorrow!
I ride alone in the dark across the Manhattan Bridge at 7:03 AM on Monday morning, the last day of 2012.
From the frigid, commanding height it seems as though I’m flying in a small plane above the East River rather than pedaling my bike. The city ahead lies in shadows, save for lights from the apartment windows of a few early risers on a day when much of the city won’t be going to work. Below, car lights glide northbound and south along the FDR Drive.
I imagine a driver in one of those cars, huddled in a warm parka, pleading with the heater to heat up, his hands clutching a warm Thermos of coffee. He leans forward to wipe frost from the windshield, which falls in tiny snowflakes upon the dash. As the driver looks through the windscreen he happens to see me, a tiny point on two wheels way up high, moving slowly across the bridge.
“Is that guy freakin’ nuts?” the driver exclaims. “It’s freezing out, and that guy’s out riding his freakin’ bike!”
“Fair question,” I’d reply.
Actually, It’s the question that I’ve been quietly asking myself during the 20 minutes since I left home, during which I’ve seen exactly zero other cyclists (in this city of 8 to 12 million residents).
So, in an attempt to reassure myself that I am sane, I try to take rational stock of my situation. It’s really cold out, but I’m not cold at all. Maybe, then, this is a dream.
Oh, wait. I AM cold at the fringes. My nose is chilly and my cheeks feel a little stiff when I smile. My fingertips, particularly those of my pinky and ring fingers, are cold but not desperately so.
I feel cold at the extremities; Therefore I am (really here).
I’ve also had a good ride so far. Little traffic, no noxious clouds of truck exhaust to endure as I rode through downtown Brooklyn. I’ve even had a tailwind and, despite the fact that my body is only now waking up, I’ve been jammin’ a quick pace and enjoying a rare symbiotic groove with my bicycle, carving turns and gliding over the city’s rough and potholed streets like a mountain goat glides over boulders.
And, yes, I got up early. But the fact is one of the kids would have gotten me up soon anyway if I hadn’t escaped from the apartment, so no real opportunity cost there.
Now, back in the present, on the bridge, a Q train clatters by. Inside fellow commuters sit in somnolent trances under way-too-bright-for-this-early-in-the-morning fluorescent bulbs. Many mornings I’m one of them.
But this morning I’m in my Cessna above the city, breathing rare fresh air and catching the sunrise that the driver below is too preoccupied to notice, that the catatonic subway riders likely don’t see, and for sure won’t see once their train disappears into the city’s bowel. My legs are feeling good and no, I’m not cold.
New York is a truly vast city. The distance from Coney Island, at the southeastern tip of Brooklyn, to the northernmost point of Manhattan at Inwood is more than 25 miles. In between there are 8 million residents and literally thousands of congested roads in all states of repair.
For bicyclists, New York at its best is a welcoming place to ride and, at its worst, life endangering. The city welcomes riders more fully every year as new bike lanes are established, many of which are fully separated from motor traffic and even have their own bicycle traffic lights. As a result, and due to the pro-cycling advocacy of non-profits such as Transportation Alternatives, the number of New Yorkers who commute by bicycle to and from work has, per my observation, risen dramatically over the decade I’ve lived here. Where I was once one of a few lonely cycling pioneers on the city’s roads, today I often find myself caught in heavy bicycle traffic during rush hour, frequently becoming part of an ad hoc bicycle convoy as I ride southward on 2nd Avenue toward the Manhattan Bridge and my apartment in Brooklyn.
Commutes in New York can be long, the traffic can be frightening and fierce, and the potholes jarring. For bicyclists, all of this means that the choice of bicycle is very important to making a commute manageable and enjoyable (yes, even in NYC it can be fun to ride a bike – there’s no better way to quickly and intimately take in the city’s diverse neighborhoods, sights and smells than on two wheels).
My ride to work is 8.5 miles each way, or about 45 minutes in the saddle once traffic lights, congestion and detours are factored in. A classic road bike would be best under most circumstances for such a long ride, but not in New York. Here I need to have my environment in clear and easy view, and only an upright bicycle such as a mountain bike or hybrid allows for that. I ride a 6 year old Kona Dew Deluxe, which has a relaxed road geometry and flat handle bar along with skinny road tires, 24 speeds and disc brakes. The bike is the best compromise I’ve found for longer urban distances. The road geometry and skinny tires keep weight down, making it easy to maintain speed and keep up with traffic. The short wheelbase allows the bike to turn quickly while the disc brakes help me to stop very quickly and securely when an emergency looms. The brakes are a particular wonder, they have amazing power and are extremely durable. I’m still on my first pair of brake shoes even though I use the brakes heavily, and often.
The tradeoff for quickness and speed is a jarring ride. The skinny tires roll smoothly on the best pavement, but their high pressure tubes transmit jolts from every expansion joint, crack and undulation in the pavement. On certain days, when I’m tired or maybe haven’t spent much time on the bike of late and am a bit out of shape, I feel abused by the bike’s ride harshness. When I’m in my groove, strong and agile, the jolts that are transmitted through handlebar, seat and pedals feel, more positively, like just one more way that New York city is reaching up to challenge me to be faster, tougher and more resilient. On those days I get a rush out of dodging in and out of traffic, and appreciate the easy speed I can maintain while riding along the city’s smoother protected bike lanes. These are the times when I know that I’d never want to navigate the city by mountain bike. Too much work for too little velocity. The classic road racing bike would be too dangerous, I wouldn’t be able to easily look up and around to see what’s coming, at what I have to avoid, and I’d miss many of the sights that make riding through the city such a unique and exciting experience.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating buying a second bike for longer rides. The Kona is great for daily jaunts of up to 10 or 12 miles. But if the ride gets longer, the hybrid setup starts to become more of a burden than an enabler. It isn’t a bike that I’d be comfortable taking on the New York Century bike ride every September. After 25 miles, the shortest ride available that day, I’d have had enough.
Yesterday I happened by a local bike shop and stopped in for a look around. On the wall there was a Specialized Allez road racing bike, bottom-of-the-line model, for a price that I could conceivably afford. The shop hand said he’d make me a deal (no better time to buy a bike in New York than winter). I’m weighing the purchase. On one hand, with the new bike I’d be able to go for longer rides around Prospect Park and really get a chance to get my legs in shape. I also imagine taking the bike up to Westchester, or out to Pennsylvania from time to time for a true long distance country ride. Hey, I have a significant birthday coming up, why not live it up.
On the other hand, rational logic tells me that I’m the father of two young boys. When would I have time for said long rides? I live cramped in a single floor apartment where the entry hall is already clogged by two strollers, a tricycle, multiple mops, buckets, boxes of toys and, yes, the Kona. Where would I put a second bike? How would I get that past my wife? And, hey, shouldn’t I be putting aside my money for a mortgage down payment..... Ahh, oy, aargh.
One thing I do know. When the slush outside dries up, I’m going to stop by that bike shop for a test ride.