Like riding a bike10 March, 2013 0 comments
Like Riding a Bicycle: Learning to ride again in New York City
Most people learn to ride bikes with a gentle push from their parents, a short ride, and a quick spill, but many stop riding as adulthood commences. With the sharp rise of adults commuting and leisure biking around the world, many are realizing that they must refresh and expand their biking skills in order to ride safely. Our friend Nolan let us in on his experience learning to bike again as an adult in one of the most complex and dangerous bike metropolises, New York City.
Nolan, when did you first learn to ride a bike?
My dad did the typical thing where he bought me a tiny single-speed with no training wheels for Christmas when I was 5-6 or so, and took me to a flat street near our house. He pushed me along, I pedaled, I squealed with glee, he let go without telling me, the glee ceased when I realized he wasn’t behind me and I ran straight into a lamppost. My father, laughing, helped me up, and we gave it another shot until I could ride figure 8’s around the street – not bad for a first time out.
But you later gave up riding bikes?
Yeah, it just wasn’t part of my life. In high school everyone wanted a muscle car, not a silly bike. So I saved through several summer jobs, bought a Camaro, and everything was chill until I crashed that into a lamppost as well. Ha, it was fate, in a way. I was so traumatized that I moved to New York to start a new life without cars.
So New York has some of the densest car traffic in the world…
Right, so I got there to refashion my life, committed to riding the subway, buses, and walking, but quickly realized that my friends were riding their bikes very quickly through town and I was taking twice as long as them to get places. I’m not going to lie, just thinking about weaving in and out of all those taxis, buses, jerks in Audi’s – it was terrifying. But a friend serendipitously offered me an old road bike he found in his parent’s garage and I accepted.
How did it feel to get back on the bike?
It felt exhilarating at first in the parks and bike paths, but when I made my way onto the street, that’s when it got scary as hell. I wasn’t used to looking for all the obstacles, especially pedestrians. In a car you just follow the laws, pay attention to the lights, pedestrians, other cars, but on a bike you can get away with a lot of shenanigans, and sometimes that can spell trouble. I remember when I first started, I almost ran over an old woman who was crossing the street with a shopping bag full of groceries. She dropped the groceries, milk bottles exploded, eggs cracked, and I had to buy her all new groceries. It was funny, she ended up being a friend of my friend’s grandmother….small world. I would never have stopped to help her if I had been in a car. In fact, I may not have even realized that I had startled her so. I still feel guilty though…
Obviously the cars are scary, but how did you overcome the fear?
I knew I needed a plan to deal with the new world of dangers I was beginning to encounter. So I developed a conscious, systematic strategy to develop the skills I needed to cultivate to ride safely. I began practicing looking over both shoulders when making a lane change, learning hand turn signals, always carrying my front and back light with me, bought a really good helmet that made me feel a lot more confident on the road, and gradually tackled more complex, more dangerous routes. Of course, sometimes I would accidentally turn down the wrong way of a one-way street, riding headfirst into traffic – that is a not cool situation. But every time I would make a mistake, the safety precautions I had taken would kick in and make the danger manageable enough to learn from, and not get killed.
Nolan, you’re quite involved with a number of NYC cycling organizations now, tell why you volunteer.
Well, it really goes back to how I felt when I first started riding in the city. I was freaked out, like a deer in the headlights, like a nervous rabbit about to be roadkill. The more I talked to fellow cyclists and we shared our experiences on the road, I realized that the answer to making cycling safer in this crazy city, or any other, is simply for more people to bike. When more people bike, they care more about the fate of cyclists. If your brother is a cyclist and he tells you about how a Beemer just ran him over, maybe you’ll be a little more cautious on the road the next time you’re driving. It’s about stakeholders, making more people involved in the safety of cycling, and working together to achieve it. In addition to just knowing people who cycle, cyclists themselves are responsible for advocating for their rights on the road. Work with fellow cyclists to improve conditions, demand more bike lanes, assert yourselves on the road, if a car acts aggressively, confront them on their behavior in a diplomatic, but firm way – this is easier said than done in New York, by the way. The point is that the more people like me learn to ride, the safer we all become, and the world looks a little brighter.