It was a slippery day to be on two wheels. A light drizzle had been falling most of the day and the streets were slick as ice. I was taking my usual route south on Chrystie Street through Chinatown towards the Manhattan Bridge – Shanghai Calling in Strava terms – a route people know is most dangerous in the bike lane due to its many potholes, double parked cars, and careless pedestrians. It was a dreary afternoon and the constant mist made visibility less than ideal. In my typical “rather safe than sorry” fashion, I was decked out in my reflective raincoat with both my front and rear lights flashing. I know how unpredictable people can be in New York City, not only while riding a bicycle, but while walking or even standing in one spot – more than once I’ve been run into while patiently waiting for a train by someone more concerned with their phone than with the hundreds of people around them. If age has taught me anything, it’s that I have gotten away with far more than I should have, and as I get older, the consequences of not being careful are often clear before the prospective risky situation rather than in hindsight.
On this particular day I was following a biker that has become the archetype of the New York cyclist. He dressed all in black, wore no helmet, and was riding a bike with no brakes. His bike was also black which made him nearly invisible given the conditions. None of this seemed to matter to him as we approached the intersection of Canal and Chrystie. I am not one to stop at every traffic light; if no cars are coming and the light is red, I will continue through. I have never thought that bikes should be required to obey the exact rules of cars, seeing that they are a very different mode of transport, but when traffic is heavy – especially when crossing Canal Street – I will always put on the brakes. My cyclist friend whom I was following did not seem to have the same concern for safety that I possess and decided to ride through the intersection without a single care. He passed unscathed through the westbound lane, causing only one car to brake mildly through the green light. His crossing of the eastbound lane was a bit more problematic. Several cars were traveling at a high speed typical of Canal Street, which caused the unnamed cyclist to execute a skid stop, a method used by bikes with fixed gears and no brakes, but given the conditions, he had a hard time staying in the median out of traffic. The cars skidded to a stop on the wet pavement, narrowly missing him. As I eventually caught up to him while crossing the bridge into Brooklyn and followed him down Jay Street, he was living the life of Riley as he stood on the top tube and surfed his bike through downtown Brooklyn amidst the heavy traffic.
I’ve been riding in New York City for over three years and have seen many cyclists like him. His riding style is carefree in a city where anything can, and will, kill you – a characteristic I simultaneously admire and scoff at, possibly due to my heightened awareness of my own mortality. There is something to be said about coming very close to death and brushing it off by performing a stunt that again brings you very close to death. When I was in my teens and early twenties I could understand this thought process much easier than I can now. Today, when I leave the house on my bike I know very well that I may become another statistic local advocacy groups will use to make an argument for safer cycling.
Life is too precious to assume that anybody cares about your environmentally friendly mode of transportation. I’ve learned that simply making eye contact with a motorist, pedestrian, or even another cyclist doesn’t mean they are going to acknowledge your right to be on the street. Many times (and I mean many) I have made direct eye contact with whomever I was attempting to pass or maneuver around and met with complete disregard to my safety. I’ve thankfully never been struck by a vehicle, but have come very close. One day, I was on my way home from work in the early afternoon. I took my usual route to Bay Ridge which takes me along a nasty stretch of 3rd Avenue directly under the BQE – a section of city riding that would have most Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Park Slope residents rethinking just how wonderful cycling in Brooklyn is due to the three lanes of heavy traffic whizzing by at 60 mph. In order to avoid a portion of this, I usually hop onto 2nd Avenue right around 39th Street, since 2nd Avenue has a more industrial, less of a highway type of traffic pattern. I made my usual left onto 2nd at the Playpen, Sunset Park’s most luxurious cabaret, when a vehicle wandered out of its lane and aimed directly towards me. I emptied the contents of my Air Zound at around 115 ear-piercing decibels. This got the discourteous driver’s attention – or at least I think it did since he looked directly at me – but his car continued towards my bike. I continued to move further and further towards the edge of the street, as did he, until I hit the curb and fell onto the sidewalk. His car stopped inches from my fallen bike as I now realized his intention – to park his car on the wrong side of the street precisely in the exact spot where I was riding. He held the same oblivious attitude as the irresponsible biker I followed home that day, except with disregard for others lives rather than his own.
While I am still terrified each time I leave my house on my bicycle, that fear has yet to stop me completely from cycling. I have given it up in short spurts – generally after near-death experiences such as the one previously mentioned – but those are only small speed bumps in my journey on two wheels. The freedom I experience when riding is unmatchable. After Superstorm Sandy struck New York, there was a citywide gas shortage that had drivers lining up at stations for hours or siphoning their unsuspecting neighbors’ tanks in an attempt to keep going. I felt joy, pride, and even a small amount of superiority knowing that my method of travel did not require the prized commodity that we as a society are so dependent on. The safety of cyclists depends not only on courteous drivers, but also rule-following pedal pushers. I get equally upset when I see a stupid biker as I did the day a car almost parked on top of me. Just the other night, I yelled at a cyclist in Union Square as he blew through a red light and nearly hit my wife’s car. He was riding east on 14th Street in the dark dressed completely in black. “Get a light! They’re not that expensive!” I yelled. His headphones likely drowned out my suggestion.