I’m on my bike, hacking up the endless incline of Broadway in Hamilton Heights. It’s over 90 degrees and I’m slick with sweat, the heat baking off the moving engine blocks around me feels unbearable. My heart is beating faster than it has in years. There are people screaming across the Mall to each other, car alarms, horns and stereos are all blaring, lucky people are dancing in the spray of open fire hydrants. Groups of ripped, tough looking hispanic guys in brilliant white wife-beaters are hanging in front of the News&Smoke stores. Overdressed homeless dudes are staggering along raving to no one in particular. I reach a plateau and manage to pick up some speed. Suddenly there’s a huge Whamp sound to my left and one of those massive black Chrysler Escapades just kneels down in front of me like a felled Elk. Glass flies past my head in bullet time, wires and engine guts spill out on the street, behind me I hear something land, whatever hit the Chrysler hit it hard enough to spend some time in the air. People are yelling, “Oh shit!” I’ve stopped peddling, too shocked to feel any fear I roll quietly through the carnage untouched. Looking up I see a hundred heads turned in my direction. I don’t look back but I do start peddling again. Commuting on a bike certainly isn’t dull. This is the moment when I decide to give in and buy a helmet.
These days New Yorkers are deeply ambivalent about bicycles. In an era when we are striving to be green it makes sence to encourage the proliferation of two-wheeled engineless transport in Manhattan, more and more people are using bikes but the green lanes were a mistake, bad for traffic and deadly to ride on and the behaviour of some cyclists is causing consternation, tourists are alarmed and the police have started cracking down on those that violate the laws. I got a ticket, for riding my bike in the park. It seems I’m not responsible enough to slow down when pedestrians are present. I can’t be trusted to use good judgement and therefore I must adhere to the blanket rule. I must dismount. There are those cyclists out there who do not slow down, who do not exercise common sence and present a deadly threat to small children and the elderly. The same over zealous, selfish, speed demons that ignore all lights and zip past your nose on the cross walk, causing you to leap in the air with fright, drop your Fairway bag and shriek, “Maniac!” These are the people who have brought down the draconian laws and given cyclists a bad rep. Who are they?
I assumed my ticket was just a way to generate cash for the city, I figured I was simply getting fleeced. But no. No fine but a mandatory court date! All part of the Quality of Life measures instituted years ago to clean up Times Square. So I found myself, after many hours in the courthouse, a consultation with a court appointed attorney & time in front of the judge in a room with seven Public Urinators, taking a class on why it’s not cool to take a leak between two cars at 3AM on a Saturday night, or ride your bike in the park when there’s no human being within fifty feet of you, (apart from a cop on a bike). Such a colossal waste of time, money and resources it makes you want to weep, especially in light of all the education cuts going on in the city right now. Just fine me! For God’s sake and put the money to good use. Hello! How about a public restroom in Times Square?
There are several types of cyclist we see daily in Manhattan. You have, of course, the delivery guys. Middle aged Chinese dudes in button downs and soft pants, sitting side-saddle on those steam punk machines that whisper along under their own mysterious power, no peddling needed. These guys are chill. Smoking their Parliament 100s, floating along calmly like wax paper boats on the old Yangtze River. Then you have your Mexican delivery guy. You’ve made the call for food and soon you hear that THRAANG sound, he’s wrapping his massive chain around the traffic sign outside your building and you start to salivate. These chronically bemused young men ride heavy, poorly maintained mountain bikes, done up with tape, done up with rubber, black, filthy & often lightless & breakless as well. Don’t forget the bike messengers, those original fearless riders of NYC. These tattooed nihilists, with their separated shoulders and missing teeth don’t need breaks either, they favor track bikes, fixed gear/fixed wheel. They ride ergonomically perfect machines, like McLuhan said, simply an extension of the rider’s lean and grubby body, everything superfluous has been removed, even sometimes, the seat! Before e-signitures these danger junkies used to face down the very worst of midtown traffic. Where are they now?
Then you have the hipsters, twenty something guys with ironic facial hair that want to, or have already moved to Brooklyn – also on track bikes, ah but nothing grubby here, these are beautiful pieces of equipment, sleek and spare with one expensive logo of spectacular simplicity. I give you – The Moth, The Guvnor et al – bikes engineered for simplicity, elegance and fun. The faithful will tell you that this is the best way to zip downtown to catch a free concert (at speed) period.
And of course you have your regular people. Men and women from all walks of life who just like to get around on a bike. Any comfy old bike will do, “It has a basket for my groceries!” They live longer than most and save a fortune on cab fare. Sensible and no posturing here whatsoever.
Last on my list and on yours too I hope, are the ones I like to call Power Rangers, you’ve seen them, zooming past in packs of ten on a Saturday morning in their wonderfully tight, spandex, citrus fruit costumes. They yell out to each other in a special code worked out before hand, the ones in front can deploy one of these code words if they sence danger ahead. There are also specialized hand signals, the same kind that your little guy in Modern Warfare might use if he were sneaking up to a rebel occupied barn in Chechnya. I think they’re mostly guys in their early thirties who work in midtown. There’s usually a token girl too. Office life can be dull and its good to blow off some steam, get pumped and go for it on the weekends with your buds. If some entrepreneurial genius had opened a chain of spas offering classes in authentic Grecian wrestling, he could have attracted so many of these guys, all you need is some oil, a hessian loincloth and some good old american male aggression and you’re away. But cycling gives these young lions the chance to display their wealth and taste. These corporate Power Rangers have some serious equipment between their legs! A super light, beautifully engineered 24 speed, like a Pinarello or a Litespeed, can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the special fire-retardant costume, the tap shoes, butt pads, and your Even Flow, air slicing helmet.
Do I have an axe to grind here? Well I was tooling along on my bike, heading home through the park, going the ‘wrong’ way, doing about six mph, up yet another incline and suddenly at the top of the hill, high above me, exploding through spears of sunlight comes Team Gonad! They’re moving at incredible speed, their helmets are blinding, they seem possessed with a special demon energy, angry and in charge, they’re bearing down on me & I start to panic, my front tire wobbles, “STAY STRAIGHT! MOTHERFUCKER!! STAY STRAIGHT!!” I’m barely moving. “STAY STRAIGHT! MOTHERFUCKER!! STAY STRAIGHT!!” I’ve clearly violated this guy’s rules, I can see that he thinks he’s in real danger here, that my sick recklessness has brought him face-to-face with death, but that he’s faced death before and that he faced death down with courage and the loving fraternity of his crew. He flies past. “Asshole!” yells the token girl as she flies past, zip “Tool!’ Zip “Cock!” Zip “Weiner head!” Zip. I’m seeing a pattern here.
It’s probably not the power rangers that scare old people & knock down children. (It’s probably unsupervised children and other old people. Or tourists on their neon painted, white-walled, cruiser rentals.) But I’m guessing head on collisions are quite common and probably deadly at 30 MPH. Is it necessary, or even legal to go 30 MPH in the park? It seems that each cyclist has his or her own ideas on what rules should apply when you’re on your bike. Am I going to stop at a red light when I can see there’s nothing coming from any direction? No. Do I ride on the sidewalk? No? And it bugs me when others do it. Do I have lights? Of course! Do I dismount in the park when it says dismount? No, I think I’ll continue to use my good judgement there. Will I pee between two parked cars at 3AM in Times Square on a Saturday night? Well not if I can find two Pinarellos.
CODA: The “Cyclists Must Dismount!” sign has been taken down and replaced with a sign that reads; “Cyclist Must Use Sound Judgement!” Sweet vindication but I still have a one month probationary period left.