June 22, 2011

Urban Biking 101

On Sunday, I embarked upon a new adventure of fitness in the city: urban biking.

A Groupon-like deal came up a few weeks ago, offering $20 for one class with GreenCyclists. Unlike most bike classes, which go back to basics and teach you how to ride a bike (though I think GreenCyclists offers those as well), this particular class was aimed at those who knew how to ride a bike but didn’t know how to deal with riding on the mean streets of New York. For those of you not from New York City, all those rumors you’ve heard about crazy cab drivers that makes you scared to even drive in New York? Yeah… imagine riding a bike in that.

On Friday, I dug my dusty bike out of the bike room in my building where it’s been stored for about four years… only to discover that the tires were flat. At first, I wondered if someone had popped them to get me back for inadvertently storing my bike in such a way that it was blocking one of the other bikes from being removed (though in fairness, that one was so dusty it looked like it had been there even longer than mine; plus, all bikes are labeled with our apartment number so they could have found me if it was a real problem). The tires were seriously so flat that I worried about damaging the wheels just be wheeling it out of there! Luckily, I happen to have a great bike/triathlon shop literally across the street from my apartment, so I didn’t have too far to go. The nice guy at the store pumped air into my tires (for free!) and taught me one of my first rules of New York City biking: it is illegal to ride on the sidewalks. I was shocked, having seen many, many deliverypeople careening down sidewalks with no regard for the law, and it was my first taste of the law-breaking counterculture that is biking in New York City.

However, the “no biking on sidewalks” meant that in order to get to my biking class on Sunday morning, I’d have to ride in traffic. Yikes! Again, I was really grateful for living where I do (it was only about 1/2 mile and a straight shot over to Tavern on the Green, where the class was meeting), but this still meant I was going to have to ride in traffic before I really knew how. I was grateful at least that I had done that bike tour of Copenhagen a few months earlier, so I had a decent sense of balance and ability to ride. When I “warmed up” by circling the low traffic cul de sac near my apartment, I found that I was in good shape. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as I thought!

Then I got out onto the streets. I tried to take side streets as much as possible (though of course I had to cross some main roads), but “side streets” in New York still get plenty of traffic. I was fortunate that weekend mornings are quieter than other times, but still, anytime a car passed me, I cringed and prayed. Biking was scary stuff! How on earth was I going to do in real traffic, even with a class?

I arrived at our meeting point at Tavern on the Green, and was surprised to find it had taken me less than 5 minutes to get there from my apartment. Biking is FAST! I started to feel the slightest bit optimistic – this would be awesome to be able to zip around Manhattan quickly, and it might encourage me to branch out of my own neighborhood a bit more.

Because I got to the park early, I had time to chat with the instructors before the class began. I explained to them that I had just taken my bike out of storage and was riding for essentially the first time in years, and their first reaction was positive: “you are exactly why we have this class! We’re excited for you.” Unfortunately, when I started delving into questions about gear, the response was a bit less positive. To be more specific: when I asked whether my regular old bike lock was sufficient for New York City (where I see most bikes locked up with massive 20 pound chains), the answer was: “No, not at all. But in your case, it might be okay, because your bike isn’t one that anyone would really want to steal.” Ouch! I thought my bike was pretty fancy and expensive… at least back in 1995 when my Dad bought it for my 10 year old self 🙂

A few more students showed up, and they announced that the class was set to begin. Really? I was surprised to see that there were only 4 of us, but it turns out that they intentionally keep the class size small so you get better attention. Awesome! We walked from Tavern on the Green to “Dead Road” (bit of a scary sounding name, but it’s called that because it’s a dead end) in the middle of the 72nd Street transverse. I thought it was very odd that we were walking our bikes there instead of riding… but I later learned that bike riding was only counterclockwise in the park (and the path to get to Dead Road was taking us clockwise). I have always wondered which was the “correct” way to run in the park, and while admittedly it doesn’t make that much difference for running, it definitely does for cycling. I was already learning so much! 🙂

When we got to Dead Road, our first test was to bike around a big oval there so the two instructors could figure out what level each of us were at. I was nervous, being a total perfectionist who always wants to please… but I did just fine. The instructors called us in and then gave us a one question oral test: “what is the difference between the right and left brakes? Which controls which wheel?” I answered honestly: “I didn’t know that the left and right brakes did anything different! Oops.” So much for impressing the instructors! (Though I suppose that went out the window when they told me I had a “beater bike”).

After some practice with “feathering” our brakes and getting a feel for how differently the brakes reacted depending on the timing of each hand, we divided into two groups to do figure 8s. I was proud of myself for making it into the “advanced” group, and even more proud of myself when I turned out to be the fearless leader of that group. Some of the other students were scared to jump into the figure 8 (where we practiced making eye contact with the others and being aggressive when we could take a turn to cross), but I led the way and proved to be pretty good at the (admittedly basic) exercise.

Next, we took a square court (with lines drawn for volleyball), and practiced riding on the lines and staying perfectly straight while turning around to look behind us as we rode. You would think that would be hard enough, but after getting through that exercise, we then repeated it so that we were looking behind us and taking one hand off the wheel to signal turns as we rode. That’s right, the equivalent of “look, Ma, no hands,” except this was fully sanctioned by the instructors! I thought for sure I’d fall flat on my face, but even though we were riding on a slight slope AND adding in all the aforementioned obstacles, I didn’t even have a very significant wobble. I was getting good at this biking stuff!

Before we progressed to the streets, we started by just doing half a loop around the park. We took the 72nd Street transverse over to the east side to start our ride, which meant that almost immediately we encountered Cat Hill. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hill was totally insignificant while on a bike compared to running! I didn’t even get winded going up it, and I was to the top in basically no time at all. Biking is so easy and fast! It made me feel very superior to the runners huffing and puffing their way up the hill on their own two feet. We invented the wheel thousands of years ago – let’s use it! 🙂

After crossing at the 102nd Street transverse and heading down the West side of the park, we regrouped at Columbus Circle and got ready to venture outside the park. Scary! We walked our bikes on the sidewalk to the edge of Columbus Circle, then crossed the street, still walking, to pause in the bike lane on Broadway. As the lucky people munching on Grom gelato on the sidewalk listened, we learned about how bike lanes are called bike lanes, but that in reality, they were free-for-alls with all the ignorant people using them for whatever they wanted. As we listened, we watched a pedicab go through, groups of people congregating to chit chat, and even a biker going the wrong way (yes, bike lanes are one way just like regular traffic lanes). I understood the frustration of the instructors, but for me, this was where the course kind of evolved into “how dare the rest of the city get in the way of bikers.”

Already, I had heard a lot of complaints in the park, from both the instructors and one of the students who was already a decent biker. The complaints were about the NYPD and how they give tickets to bikers for doing things like… not stopping at red lights. Being an advocate for all things unpopular (see: airlines), I tried to defend the police. Honestly, if people want to complain about the rules being unfair to bikers, I think that’s fine and they should try to get them changed; however, I have no sympathy for bikers who simply ignore the law and then are upset that they get punished for it. In general, part of my reluctance to join the biking community is because how (at least in NYC) it has so many rebels and rulebreakers and generally rude people, and none of that is my style.

Anyway! Rant done (though the poor instructor had to listen to me going on and on about that for the next few miles). We headed down Broadway, heeding the traffic lights at every stop, and ringing the bells on our bikes when we found pedestrians blithely wandering down the bike lane. Correction: the other rang their bells, but my bike didn’t have one (it’s on my shopping list!). My preferred technique: steer slowly straight toward them while staring unwaveringly, making it clear that I had the right of way. It’s really the passive-aggressive approach: without fail, the pedestrian would realize they were in the bike lane and quickly move to the sidewalk. Education!

We soon came to Times Square, where we had to take a left around the TKTS booth in order to continue along the bike lane on 7th Ave. One the way, we took pictures in the middle of Times Square to prove just how baller we were. Check me out! (And please ignore the lack of makeup on my face… what can I say, I was just trying to get the “hippie biker” look. Also please ignore the fact that I am standing on the sidewalk and rest assured that our biking was legitimately in Times Square traffic).

We continued all the way down to 34th Street, with me being amazed at how quick the trip was, and then headed over to 8th Ave for practice with an “unprotected” bike lane (meaning no gap between the sidewalk, the bike lane, and the car lanes) – where I again rocked it out. I am good at being aggressive but careful! As we headed back through Columbus Circle, I also set the example as the conscientious biker who stopped at every red light instead of self-importantly blazing through the stopped cars… take that!

We finished at Tavern on the Green, back where we started, and I was jazzed. Despite the fact that the roads were now packed with cars while they had been empty in the morning, I had no problem at all getting home from there, and did it in record time. (Though not if you include the pitstop I made at Toga Bikes to get new tires installed). I’m a biker, y’all!

Now, can some of you experienced riders tell me what essential gear I need (I already have bell, basket, waterbottle holder, and lights on my list), or offer any tips?


11 thoughts on “Urban Biking 101”

  1. What a great course! I’m not at all good at urban biking – the only time I’ve really tried was in amsterdam, which ended in a broken rib for me! OOPS!

  2. Essential gear for me. Visibility is THE most important thing for urban biking.
    1) white front light and red, blinking rear light. I use lights even during the day, especially if it’s a drizzly darkish day, and obviously at night.
    2) Really annoyingly neon yellow/green/ shirt or jacket.

    Beyond that, the rest is optional. Looks like you’ve already got a helmet and a bike store where you can ask their advice. Have someone give you a lesson on proper shifting, changing a flat, chain maintenance, etc.

    Get a little hand-pump for re-inflating tires, and a spare inner tube.

    The second best “gear” you can have for urban biking is all in your brain! Know this: Cars CANNOT see you. Always assume this as a fact, unless you have made eye contact with the person inside. When biking next to parked cars, the people inside CANNOT see you, or are too stupid to look in their side windows before opening their doors. Getting doored SUCKS. Ride slowly if you must ride next to parked cars.

    FWIW, I think you have a nice bike! Also, I would be amazed for bike tires not to be flat after sitting around for 4 months, never mind 4 years. The tubes are under pressure. Even a microscopic hole will leak air very very slowly over time.

    Happy trails!!

  3. Nice!! I’m spoiled because Phoenix has bike lanes EVERYWHERE (and not much traffic….or urban…or anything to worry about).

    The one thing that I couldn’t help but notice is that your bike like is the exact same one htat I have 🙂

  4. Great story, and I hope you catch the bug! When I don’t use my bike for 2 months it loses its air, so after 4 years, of course it will be totally flat!

    In my “I don’t know what I’m doing” days with my bike, when my tire was out of air I insisted the bike shop replace the tube, costing me unnecessary $$$.

    Then I took a bike class from Bike NY and learned how to repair a flat myself, and now I have a much better understanding. Their classes are great and highly recommended.


  5. Pentalith: do I need all the maintenance lesson stuff if I live right next to a bike store, AND I am really good at batting my eyelashes to hail guys to help me in an emergency out on the road?

    Adam: do you have a girl’s bike, or do I have a boy’s bike?

  6. Wow, I’m so impressed Laura! I took a bike workshop here in Cali where we did some similar drills but I was still pretty wobbly. And I’m still totally scared to ride in traffic in the burbs… I’d be TERRIFIED to do that in Manhattan. But props to you, fearless girl! 😀

  7. LOL. I did the eyelash batting thing when I started out too. After a while you’ll get sick of having to wait around for someone else to fix things.

  8. Wow, what a great idea for them to have this course. And I won’t ride in Columbus traffic at all, so you’re way braver than I am.

    And I too hate the bicyclists who take advantage of the rules and break them. Drives me crazy.

    Angela/Pretty in Orange.

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