“Biking in New York City is like facing down a black bear. You want to get big.”
I’m standing outside Blue Sky Bakery in Park Slope with my friend Glynnis MacNicol. We just shared a muffin because Glynnis insisted that before biking into Manhattan for the first time ever, I needed carbs. Now she’s telling me her guiding metaphor for urban cycling.
“Wait a second,” I ask, as I unlock my bike. “Is it different with a grizzly bear?”
“Yeah,” says Glynnis. “With a black bear you want to get big. But with a grizzly bear you want to play dead.”
I had played dead once before on a bicycle. I was biking on a trip in the south of France in May when, in a sudden and stupid move, I stopped with my front brakes only. The bike pitched forward. I pitched forward. I came to a stop on the road using my chin. A concussion and a few fractured ribs later, I wasn’t doing much biking in France or anywhere else for quite sometime.
But before all that, I had this idea that I would come back from my France vacation transformed (in a good way) and become an urban bike commuter. This seemed simultaneously daring and romantic and a great way to get in shape while going about my day. I promptly forgot about this idea (I forgot about a lot of things—I had a concussion). But when fall came, as did a midriff I’d steadily grown all summer, bike commuting seemed like a genius idea.
Still, the idea of biking in Manhattan didn’t ease my nerves. I think of bike commuting as something for people tougher than me, people who have lots of tattoos and actual leg muscles and can yell “Fuck off!” at a pedestrian without feeling guilty. I’m a 38-year-old mom with a bad back. Also, I work as a talking head on CNN, so the idea of pedaling 10 miles next to a garbage truck on a 90 degree day just doesn’t seem workable.
All of these are rationalizations for a more instinctual fear that biking in New York City is dangerous, and if I try to do it, I’ll die. In 2014, 20 New Yorkers died in bicycle crashes—almost double the year prior. The white painted bikes next to signposts hammer the point home: I want to be a vibrant, fit, facile, urban bike commuter. I don’t want to be a statistic.
Me, in the middle of the Manhattan Bridge, trying to not look like I'm panting. 📷 (and motivation!) by @glynnismacnicol
A photo posted by Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) on
I followed Glynnis down Bergen Street toward Carroll Gardens. We made a right on Smith Street and then zig-zagged our way through the crowded downtown Brooklyn streets. It was midday on a Thursday in October but there was still plenty of traffic.
“There’s a better way to go than this,” Glynnis explained, but for some reason we were going this way. I watched with awe as Glynnis slid gracefully in between stopped cars and stopped buses, fearless and un-wobbling. I had to put both feet on the ground and inch along, looking like a toddler on one of those balance bikes except that I wasn’t balanced. At one point, I stopped myself from falling over by semi-hugging a parked car.
“I didn’t die!” I shouted out as we finally approached Tillary. Glynnis stopped at the light ahead of a line of cars. “Wrong attitude,” she chided, since I’d said some version of this maybe 10 times in the 15 minute ride. We waited for the light as a delivery bike pulled ahead of us.
“There’s a hierarchy out here,” Glynnis explained. “The delivery guys and bike messengers come first, then us, and then the CitiBike people who can go fuck themselves.”
Just then a CitiBike person pulled up behind us. I didn’t think he’d heard our conversation, but he looked cowed nonetheless. He knew his place.
I was lucky enough to have been outfitted with the coolest commuting bike I've ever seen, thanks to the fantastic folks at Van Moof in Brooklyn—it’s a semi-upright ride style, which just makes me feel more in control.
In investigating New York bike commuting, I quickly learned that the Brooklyn Bridge is only a good idea if you enjoy dodging and shouting at pedestrians. So we took the Manhattan Bridge. The ascent was uneventful and perhaps the most peaceful part of my entire ride, especially because I was going so slowly up the hill that Glynnis was a good half-mile ahead of me and everyone else could pass me pretty quickly. I loved my heavy Van Moof Dutch bike in traffic, because I felt safe and, since I was upright and could easily put my feet on the ground, the stop-and-go parts were manageable.
Going up the hill to the Manhattan Bridge I wished my bike were lighter, or that my legs were stronger, or maybe both. But I made it. I didn’t die then either.
Glynnis waited for me at the apex of the Manhattan Bridge and applauded. I stuck a toe in Manhattan, said goodbye and biked back. Mission accomplished, however teeny and manageable my initial mission might have been. I survived. I was on my way to becoming a New York bike commuter.
Disclosure: The bikes that Sally uses are provided by their makers. She's keeping them.
This is part one of a three-part series.
Sally Kohn is a columnist and CNN political commentator. You can find her online at sallykohn.com.