“You have to be crazy to bike in New York City!” a tourist exclaimed as a snaking line of bicyclists twisted its way through a jam-packed, Sunday-afternoon parking lot that was Second Ave. He didn’t realize that many in the group finishing a 90-mile bike ride heard his remark and let him have it with some choice comments and a flip of the finger or two.
We knew in one sense he was right: you take your life into your hands when you go two wheels against four. You have nothing but a plastic helmet for your noggin, and flesh and bone are pitted against tons of glass and steel hurtling by.
But the risks can be mitigated. Thousands of bicyclists navigate the concrete jungle every day with no harm done, except perhaps for a face full of bus exhaust. It just takes some gear and common sense.
First, don’t forget that helmet. Up to 80 percent of bicycling deaths result from head injuries. Wear gloves, good grip is important. And wear eye protection, nothing like getting a particle in the eye while you’re dodging cars, pedestrians and potholes. Avoid dark clothing, especially at night. A reflective vest and a couple of flashing red lights (available in any bike shop) attached to your backside can be a life saver.
Check your bike before you go out. The tires should be properly inflated, you don’t want a blowout, and the brakes in working order. Speaking of tires, get some Kevlar ones and you’ll never have to worry about flats again. Rely mainly on your back brakes. There’s nothing like hitting just your front brakes at high speed and your back wheel keeps going, flipping you over like a catapult.
When riding around, find the bike-friendly routes. In Manhattan, forget about most bike lanes, they’re often full of parked cars and trucks. But you can almost circumnavigate the island now that paths have been built along the Hudson and East Rivers. Just keep an eye out for the camera-wielding tourists veering into your path for a better shot.
One of the most vexing aspects of city cycling is the lights. They’re timed for cars, so who wants to stop every five blocks when they turn red? Like most cyclists, I blow through them, but I always look first for peds crossing the street and then a gap in traffic. I also steer to the opposite side of the street from where the traffic is entering, giving me more time to observe the traffic.
Always look ahead, keeping a clear line of sight and anticipating what drivers are going to do. Also, use the sidewalks. Almost every time I go out on a ride some dumb-ass in a car or truck puts the squeeze on, so I hop up on the sidewalk to extricate myself. If you do, go slow and give pedestrians a wide berth because most of them aren’t aware of you until you’re passing them.
Be especially careful when entering and exiting the bridges. Most of them have inviting bike paths, many with glorious views of the city, but the traffic is thickest at these chokepoints and the bike entrances are often across many lanes of traffic. The same goes with major intersections, like 14th or 42nd Street. This is where many accidents occur, so approach them cautiously.
I try to avoid midtown – too many cars, taxis, trucks, buses and potholes in too little space. Thoroughfares like Park Avenue are where you’re most likely to get doored because there’s no room to swerve around a clueless driver opening a door right in front of you. Leave plenty of room between yourself and parked cars, at least three feet.
It’s best to travel on the margins, like First Avenue or Ninth Avenue. They’re both wide and one-way with minimal traffic peeling off to the right-hand side. When traveling in the outer boroughs avoid the major parkways, many of them are like highways and are full of road rage cases.
Use your senses when riding in traffic. For one, try to catch the eyes of drivers. Just because you see them doesn’t mean they see you. Some cyclists carry a whistle to announce their presence. A good pair of pipes also suffices. A loud “heads up!” will catch most people’s attention. Use hand signals. I find it’s particularly useful for impatient drivers raring to pass you so they can get to that next red light five seconds quicker. An “easy does it” gesture gets most drivers settle down. And check over your shoulder regularly. You want to know what is coming up behind you.
Most of all, use your common sense. If something looks dangerous it probably is.