Confessions of a Cyclist

Traversing New York City on two wheels can be both life-affirming and perilous

Sandra Baker/ Alamy
Sandra Baker/ Alamy

Sixth Avenue, also known as Avenue of the Americas, starts in Lower Manhattan as a modest offshoot of the busier Church Street. Within a few blocks, the three-lane artery quickly fills with taxis and trucks that come piping through SoHo, roaring into Greenwich Village, and racing uptown as fast as the streetlights allow. Amid this frenetic speedway you’ll sometimes spot a lone figure on two wheels. Head down, torso bent low over the handlebars, he slips between cars like a nimble fish among a school of sharks. Meet the bicycle mes-senger. His disregard for traffic is so absolute that he either rides around with a death wish or has somehow discovered the secret to invulnerability.

Countless times I have ridden a bicycle up Sixth Avenue, but never once have I braved its central rapids. Even when pedaling alongside traffic, the sense of being expendable is never far from one’s mind. Such awareness was lodged in me many years ago and has stuck with me ever since. I’d been riding along the left-hand side and was nearing the intersection with Greenwich Avenue when a snub-nose delivery truck shot past me on my right—and then darted left like a bull out of its chute. If I hadn’t pumped the brakes right then, the vehicle would’ve sheared me off my bicycle and pulled me under.

Afterward, watching from the curb, I felt a quivering in my arms and legs. It was the kind of feeling you’d ex-pect from a near-collision with a multi-ton steel object. The truck itself hadn’t missed a beat. It drove along Greenwich Avenue for another block, until the light at West 10th brought it to a halt. A second wave of adrenaline washed over me. My hands retook the handlebars, my feet shoved off the curb, and suddenly I was pedaling at top speed to catch up.

I reached him on the other side of 10th Street, where my hand gave a loud—and not unpainful—smack against the rear cabin. The truck stopped cold. Out popped this burly fellow with a shaved head, shoulders like bedposts, and a Jesus tattoo covering his enormous right bicep.

“What the fuck’s your problem?”

I dismounted my bicycle and parked it on the sidewalk. “You almost ran me over,” I said. “I could’ve been killed.”

Even if my voice hadn’t cracked, why did I think such information would chasten the guy? No doubt he was already well acquainted with his own recklessness. He came a step closer, whereupon he promised that if I ever touched his truck again, he would kill me.

“Oh, really,” I said, and gestured at his arm. “Is that what your friend Jesus would do?”

Ripples of attention fanned down the block. Lunchtime patrons filled the outdoor tables on both sides of Greenwich Avenue, and what was it—other than toxic stupidity—that held me in place? The man’s arms clenched at his sides. His biceps swelled into grapefruits, and as he edged closer, my stubborn feet refused to work in reverse. A sudden hand startled me from behind. I turned around just as some stranger corralled me by the shoulders. “Come on,” he said, and began towing me away. “It’s not worth it.” I was too stunned to do or say anything. So was the truck driver, apparently, for he made no move to follow. I completely forgot about my bicycle as the guy marched me down the sidewalk and out of harm’s way. Then this stranger—this guard-ian angel of a man—released me. With a pat on the shoulder and a friendly nod, he said, “Just let it go.” The man disappeared as quickly as he’d arrived, though in the years to come I would continue to think about his parting words. Just let it go. Could there have been any advice more urgent, more farsighted, or more challenging to an embattled cyclist?

In New York City, cyclists often feel like scapegoats. Taxis and buses regard you as pests. Parked cars open their doors in your path like booby traps. Pedestrians converge in front of you just as soon as the last car has driven through an intersection. To non-cyclists, I often joke that riding a bicycle in New York is a lot like play-ing a video game. The surrounding scenery keeps shifting, obstacles appear willy-nilly, persistent mayhem rears its head. The main distinction, of course, is that a quarter will buy you multiple lives in a video game, whereas the street affords you but one.

Other people hold a contrary view. Allan Ripp, writing in The New York Observer, argues that cyclists themselves are the true nemesis. In a colorful rendition of his own demise, he de-scribes the scenario in which he is “laid out by a bicycle, likely one delivering dinner to one of my neighbors on the Upper West Side. There will be just enough time to register the breath-stealing collision that pounds me head-first into the street, with the smell of Teriyaki beef hitting my nostrils.”

Is it wrong for me to feel hungry after this description?

In all fairness to Ripp, he is not entirely off-target. Bicycle deliverymen are nearly as treacherous to the city as they are invaluable. Therein lies the rub. For as many New Yorkers who are appalled by these speed demons, there are just as many who couldn’t live without them. My own attitude lies somewhere in the middle. Whenever one of these guys (in my experience, they’re always men) whips past me in electric silence, I’m at first startled—then deeply annoyed. Their passing feels like a brush-back pitch in baseball. Other times, when I observe them from afar, it’s almost impossible not to admire them. Just look at everything they have to en-dure. In rainstorms they ride around in full-body slickers, like flying tarps racing down the street. In freezing weather they keep their hands in bulky mittens like giant space gloves cinched to the handlebars. Part of me sees these guys and thinks: “Damn them!” Another part of me thinks: “Damn, look at them.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, that sense of appreciation has only grown. When New York was the epicen-ter and the city locked itself down, most of us curtailed our contact with the outside world. These deliverymen were pressed into even greater service. They became—like grocery store and pharmacy workers—part of the vital circulatory system that kept the city fed and supplied. In those early days, I asked some of them, from six feet away and with a mask on, whether Covid made them afraid for their health. Each one responded with a similar kind of shrug: not quite indifferent, not exactly heroic. They were immigrants, after all, and they all seemed resigned to their fate.

Pedestrians hate cyclists. Cyclists hate careless jaywalkers. Both groups despise the bullying behavior of trucks. Most of us are at least mildly disturbed by the erratic habits of taxi drivers—except when we’re in the back seat, that is, and we quietly applaud their performance. We’re grateful—are we not?—for at least one other person who understands the importance of reaching our destination. Given such shifting allegiances, the notion of any objective right of way seems as open to debate as where to get the best pizza or find the best coffee.

My survival as a cyclist reflects what I was taught in driver’s ed: always anticipate the worst thing another driver might do, and be prepared to react. Part of the bargain as a city cyclist is that I don’t go very fast.

Evan Friss, in his book On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City, describes the enormous scale on which these negotiations play out each day. According to Friss, a cyclist himself, nearly “one quarter of the earth on which New York City sits is a street, roughly equal to fifty-eight Central Parks.” Those streets, he argues, “reveal as much of the soul of the city as any place.” He puts in concrete terms (if you’ll pardon the expression) the vast terrain on which getting from point A to point B either intersects with, or bumps up against, the beliefs and values of other city dwellers. The question may be put as follows: if we sympathize with Allan Ripp’s fears of getting splattered, yet we demand our takeout food posthaste, and if we curse the unruly behavior of taxi drivers, except when we’re the ones behind the plexiglass, what does that tell us about the nature of our souls?

It tells us that we’re conflicted, of course.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Though I try to peacefully coexist with my fellow New Yorkers, I still carry the selfish attitude of one person living among millions. I appreciate the complex tapestry that defines city plan-ning, but I’m frustrated when that planning confounds my most immediate interests. I’m respectful of those who respect me back, but I’m more than willing to disregard those who’ve chosen to disregard me first.

My survival as a cyclist reflects what I was taught in driver’s ed: always anticipate the worst thing another driver might do, and be prepared to react. Defensive driving, in other words. Part of the bargain as a city cy-clist is that I don’t go very fast. Other riders pass me far more often than the reverse. Yet I’ll admit to certain behaviors that test the limits, if not the letter, of the law. For example, there’s the rolling stop at a quiet in-tersection; the blown-off traffic light when no one’s around; the “misdirection”—as I like to call it—down a one-way street. Imagine the following: you see your destination just down the block, but the only way to bike there is by making almost a full lap around. It’s hard not to shake your head, sigh with exasperation, and steer your handlebars into oncoming traffic. That said, I’m mindful of swimming against the current, so I’ll go even slower and give a wide berth to oncoming cars. Oftentimes I wave in gratitude—a humble cyclist who doesn’t think he owns the road. I’ll even wave to police officers, who’ve surprised me on occasion by waving in return. Thus far (knock on wood) my only ticket has come from riding on the sidewalk. This happened many years ago, during a crackdown after a cyclist badly injured an elderly woman in that same location. Even then, the policeman ticketed me for riding against traffic, versus riding on the sidewalk, which he said would’ve in-curred a much steeper penalty.

The first bicycle I ever owned was a navy-blue Schwinn: a starter bike with one speed and a white S printed on the seat. This was in the suburbs of Chicago; I might’ve been seven or eight years old. A few years later, I graduated to a black 10-speed (another Schwinn), with thin tires and handlebars that curled down like a pair of ram’s horns. In those days, almost everyone owned a 10-speed. Sometimes you rode with your hands over the top crossbar, sometimes you palmed the hand brakes mounted on the sides. Sometimes, unbeknownst to your parents, you rode with no hands at all. No one gave it a second thought back then. On quiet side streets you sat back casually, your arms at your sides or your hands folded loosely in your lap. Whenever a car ap-proached, you simply leaned forward and retook the steering again—no big deal. Only while coasting down a steep hill, or if a friend challenged you to a race, would you flatten your torso and drop your grip to the han-dlebars’ lower curvature, like Greg LeMond in the Tour de France.

I was a rebellious kid in many ways. I mouthed off, took stupid risks, and stuck my nose in plenty of places it didn’t belong. But even at my most rambunctious, I would never have thought myself bold enough to ride a bike in New York City. All these years later, it’s just the opposite. I have zero qualms about biking in New York, but I would just as soon skateboard down a flight of stairs as steer my bicycle without hands.

When I moved here in 1998, cycling was more of a fringe activity: something reserved for riders in Central Park, for those daredevil messengers, and for deliverymen. The only cyclist I knew was a fellow grad student who wore his waist-length black hair in a ponytail, and who sported spandex shorts around the department. A nice fellow, but widely regarded as an eccentric. New York was still in a rollerblading craze, and I quickly joined the movement. Living in Greenwich Village, I explored the city’s downtown neighborhoods, visited my favorite cafés, rollerbladed to East River Park to play tennis or pickup soccer. The inconveniences were many. Rollerblades were seasonal, for starters. Secondly, few establishments allowed them indoors, so you had to bring extra shoes in a backpack and lug your blades around afterward. In the heat of summer, the exertion from skating left you overheated and sweaty, especially when toting a laptop. Ultimately, rollerblades made for great fun on recreational jaunts, but they were unsuited to everyday commuting.

Starting in the early 2000s, a steady rise in cycling began. The development and beautification of riverfront parks drew riders to miles and miles of scenic bike paths, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg saw two-wheeled commuters as part of a larger strategy to make the city greener. His campaign to create bike lanes and install bike racks by office buildings was amplified by the 2007 appointment of Janette Sadik-Khan to transportation commissioner. Her zeal for more bike lanes, and eventually protected bike lanes, led to citywide tensions with motorists, local politicians, and neighborhood leaders. The term bikelash made the cover of New York magazine, and resistance spanned from whiter, wealthier areas like Park Slope, Brook-lyn, to more racially diverse and working-class neighborhoods like East Harlem. In the South Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, home to a sizable ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, the growth in bike lanes coincided with new condos and increasing gentrification. New York magazine’s Michael Idov described it as the “Hasid-hipster standoff”—between longstanding community members, who dressed in black and behaved conservatively, and an influx of riders who wore scantier outfits and conducted themselves far more immod-estly.

Jeremiah Moss, who writes the Vanishing New York blog and published a book of the same title, insists that city initiatives like bike lanes “are not friendly to a diverse, affordable, and equitable urban environment.” It’s debatable, however, at least in New York, whether bike lanes create unwelcome changes to an area or simply respond to changes already underway. The scrutiny of such initiatives goes on. When New York’s bike-sharing program began in 2013, residents decried the loss of street parking due to all the docking stations. Others fretted over the rise of congestion and increased danger from the armada of oversize, royal-blue bicycles, and the oblivious tourists who might use them. Such concerns have paled in comparison with the program’s great success and wide acceptance by New Yorkers themselves. From 2013 to 2018, the fleet of Citibikes (so named for their corporate sponsor) doubled from 6,000 to 12,000, membership grew from 5,000 to 143,000, and the number of docking stations reached farther and farther into the outer boroughs.

Long before Citibike hit the streets, I purchased my first New York bicycle on Craigslist: a five-speed BMX with a white frame. At a bike shop I had plastic fenders attached, so that I could ride in wet weather. A bike room in my building made for easy storage, and since theft was widely talked about, I dropped $75 for a chain lock that made a fat coil around the seat post, and which doubled the weight of the bicycle. I’ve gone through sev-eral more bikes over the years. Some were stolen outright, others were knuckleheaded giveaways when I left them unlocked. I joined Citibike after moving to Brooklyn—a great convenience whenever I’m in Manhattan. My current bike is a 1960s-era Raleigh Sprite cruiser. Picture the ugliest dirt-brown color, score the frame with missing paint, pock the fenders with scabs of rust, and you’ll get the idea. I should mention, in full dis-closure, that it’s a ladies’ bicycle. It’s the type of bike that would’ve brought endless torment and a few extra fistfights back in school. In New York City, a place where I’m perhaps too mindful of how people dress, or what style their glasses are, I’m not the least bit self-conscious about my bicycle. That includes the wire bas-ket, which is one of my most essential possessions. The finicky derailleur is something I’ve learned to put up with, just as I can manage with only five of 10 working gears. But the loss of that basket would be as great a hardship as losing the bike itself.

To look at my junky old Raleigh, you’d consider it the furthest thing from a status symbol. But the bike carries a certain status nonetheless. I’m reminded of this every so often, when a seemingly innocent encounter takes on an unexpected friction. Such was the case a couple of years ago, in my neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, during a Saturday afternoon bike ride. It was a pleasant summer day, I was riding down Court Street past the Cadman Plaza farmers market, and as I approached the intersection with Montague Street, the traffic light decided to turn red. I still had a good 20 feet to go, but that didn’t stop the pedestrian in front of me from getting upset.

“You cyclists think you own the road!” she yelled.

The woman had good reason to be jumpy. She’d entered Court Street not by the clearly marked crosswalk, but on a diagonal line that put her right in my path.

I quickly drew to a stop. “The intersection’s up there,” I said, indicating behind her. Soon enough we were talking over each other, turning a deaf ear to the other’s arguments. A newly arrived pedestrian took up her cause. Though I doubted the man had even seen the event, he was no less vigorous in his anticycling crusade. I threw out a last, desperate jab—Try using the crosswalk next time—before I turned down Mon-tague and escaped their twin flogging.

These entanglements have a cumulative effect. Divisions harden along party lines; righteous anger morphs into a preexisting condition. Populated streets provide easy kindling for such passions, and the flames, once ignited, become that much harder to put out. In my childhood, I never saw cycling as anything more than a means of transportation. In adulthood, my bike has become an extension of who I am, whether I like it or not. Cycling fixes your identity in New York in the same way as being a dog owner, belonging to the Park Slope Food Coop, or rooting for the Mets.

And yet I understand how cycling, in and of itself, is perceived by certain people as a statement. It’s a form of expression that determines how others see you, as well as what kind of treatment you’re liable to receive.

In One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, Zack Furness discusses how daily rid-ing exerts an inevitable change on you. He references a cyclist-turned-activist in Portland, Oregon, who ex-plains: “At first bicycling is utilitarian, it’s just how you choose to get around … but it becomes political really quickly because it’s hard to get around. There are difficulties at every turn, and there seem to be injustices at every turn.” In my 20 years in New York, I have demonstrated against the Iraq War, participated in the Peo-ple’s Climate March, attended rallies to protect historic buildings, but never once have I taken part in any kind of bicycle activism. And yet I understand how cycling, in and of itself, is perceived by certain people as a statement. It’s a form of expression that determines how others see you, as well as what kind of treatment you’re liable to receive.

In September 2019, on a sunny morning in my childhood home of Wilmette, Illinois, I found myself inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’d always been curious about this weathered limestone building, with its lone steeple standing to the side like a watchtower, its curved front wing protruding onto the front lawn like a beached whale. My visit to my parents coincided with Rosh Hashanah, and because their syna-gogue couldn’t accommodate the High Holiday surge, their temple had made arrangements with the Mor-mons across town.

Thankfully, the rabbi proceeded through the service at a good pace. As the sermon got underway, my thoughts drifted toward the corned beef and half-sour pickles waiting in my parents’ fridge. Then the rabbi got my at-tention again. He mentioned the tragic death of a young woman, just 29 years old, who had recently lost her life to a cement truck. The daughter of a congregation member, she was riding her bicycle in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when the truck plowed into her at a major intersection. A terrible pall fell over the congregation. The rabbi said this was the 16th bicycle death in New York that year (it was actually the 15th), and from way back among the folding chairs, I stared directly in front of me and studiously avoided looking at my parents. I avoided my mother, in particular, who in recent years had cut down on—but never fully given up—her warn-ings to her middle-age son. Every so often she would chide me for not wearing a helmet, and she would ad-monish me, above all, to be … careful.

The rabbi spoke about the preciousness of life. He mentioned God’s command to Abraham—that he sacrifice his only son, Isaac—as a reminder of the difficult, often inscrutable, tests of our faith. Or at least that’s what I thought he was saying. In truth, I was still rattled by the thought of that cement truck, plus the dead young woman, who’d been dragged through the street not four miles from where I lived. It occurred to me, as I sat near the back of the Mormon church, that maybe cycling itself was an act of faith. Aren’t we cyclists constant-ly being reminded of our own vulnerability? News reports, social media, nervous relatives—even the streets we ride on keep us apprised. From time to time, I’ll spot a forlorn, seemingly abandoned bicycle chained to a street sign, with its frame and tires painted entirely white. These “ghost bikes,” as they’re called, honor crash victims with a small plaque attached to the handlebars. Whenever I see one, I think of an animal carcass with its flesh picked clean. The original ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, in 2003, and by 2005 the first one had shown up in New York. According to the Street Memorial Project, an advocacy group for cyclists and pedestri-ans, the citywide number reached 242 by the end of 2020, and the shrines had spread to well over 200 loca-tions worldwide.

Even more than menacing or inattentive drivers, it is the parked car that frightens me most. To skirt past a long line of them, head to toe along the curb, is to imagine an unseen hand somewhere that at any moment might unleash a large flap of metal in your path. The door wings out perpendicularly—like a stop sign from a school bus—and leaves you but a split-second to cut your speed or swerve around it. Thankfully, in all my years of riding, this has happened to me only once. The collision occurred on 12th Street in the West Village as I was riding a Citibike to where I teach. An unusually steep line of cars backed up from the intersection with Sixth Avenue, and I was gliding past these unmoving vehicles when the taxi door presented itself, not more than one bike length away. The distinct, unforgettable thought flashed through my mind: “Well, I guess this is happening.”

What came next was more of a jumble. The physics of it, I mean. Somehow my torso folded over the door as the bicycle rammed into it. The bike fell sideways, my body slipped off the door, and—in the words of my skateboarding friend—I ate pavement. My left hand bore the brunt of my weight as I landed with my legs split awkwardly over the fallen bicycle. I recall noticing, from that semi-pushup position, that my messenger bag was slightly dislodged from the front rack, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.

The man emerging from the taxi offered a quick, effusive apology. Before I had time to unbottle my tirade, his show of concern put a cork in it. He was a cyclist too, he told me. He always looked first before he opened a car door. “I’m so sorry, I forgot—” he said shamefully.

I checked myself to make sure I was okay. My left hand was sore, but because I could rotate my wrist, I as-sumed nothing was broken. Then it occurred to me: Was I supposed to call the police? I asked the guy for his information. I told him I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, and he graciously accompanied me to the sidewalk, where I took out a pen and some scratch paper.

First name: X—. Last name: Y—.

I stopped writing and looked at him.

“Get out of here!” I said. “You’re kidding me.”

How could I have possibly recognized him? My only picture of the guy was from many years ago, when his hair had been a lot longer and he’d looked … well, a little bit younger.

Not only had I read his work, I’d used his stories in one of my courses. When I announced this, he quickly turned bashful and thanked me. He mentioned a new novel of his that was about to come out, and he won-dered if he could send me a copy. I jotted down his email, and as we proceeded along 12th Street, we had a nice chat about teaching and writing. At Sixth Avenue we parted company, and in a few days I would email to let him know my hand was feeling much better. (I didn’t bring up the cracked screen on my laptop.) Two weeks after that, his book arrived at my apartment. I began reading a humorous, racy, suspenseful novel that built toward an unexpectedly touching ending. Without giving away the story, or the identity of the author, I’ll say only that the main character is a man trying to work through a lingering point of contention in his life—someone who travels halfway around the world in an attempt to make things right, and who discovers, by the end, a spiritual side that might’ve been lurking inside him all along.

So the rabbi talks of troubled faith. So the novelist writes of faith renewed. Who, then, will speak to the cy-clist’s troubled soul?

From time to time, in moments teetering on distress, the words of my anonymous rescuer will float back to me. Just let it go. He gave this advice while steering me from an altercation I didn’t have the good sense to abandon on my own. His face may be lost to me now, but I’m still comforted, all these years later, simply by the thought of him. Just knowing that such people walk among us brings a certain measure of relief. For all of us who travel on foot, who get around by bicycle, or who sit behind the wheel, it’s extraordi-nary to imagine such rare individuals who always follow the rules of the road, even when they don’t have to.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jonathan Liebson teaches writing, literature, and culture at the Eugene Lang College of The New School and at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post Book World, Tablet Magazine, Time Out New York, The Georgia Review, and other publications.


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