Maybe I'm in the wrong but I get annoyed whenever I'm walking in the park and I hear, at my back, a bicycle bell. The call of "On your left!" also gets on my nerves. My fight instinct kicks in, and I have to force myself not to punch the bicyclist soon to go by. A single jab would do it.
This is indefensible, not only because punching people is wrong, but also because the person on the bike, in such a case, seems to be making an effort to be considerate. (I said seems.) The law agrees: bicycles without warning devices are not street-legal in New York City. And yet the plink of metal-on-metal triggers a voice in my head that goes, "Just because you got a bell doesn't mean I'm moving."
Why can't I rise above my inner libertarian and persuade myself that the ringing of the bell (or the utterance of words of warning) is not only in the public interest but in mine as well? After considering the question at some length, I have figured out why I feel the way I do. It's because bicyclists in New York City are huge assholes.
I arrived at this conclusion mainly through my interactions with them on the "shared pathway" (which used to be known as "the ground") in Riverside Park. On Saturdays and Sundays, the men—usually it is men—atop their rolling steeds, in their garish skintight outfits, dart in and out of the strolling hordes, issuing commands with the arrogance of Prussian military officers until one has no choice but to mutter private oaths against them as they swoosh past.
I recall from my days as a non-bicyclist—this story has a twist—a minor victory I had at the expense of those who wear the helmet. It took place near the New York University campus on a mild day in 1998. I stepped down from a curb and looked left, toward the oncoming cars on a one-way street. That's when a bicyclist slammed into me. He had come at me from my right side, meaning he had been riding against the traffic. He was not a messenger or a delivery guy, and he was not a casual rider, either—he belonged to the ranks of the grimly dedicated riders who wear spandex.
I must have had especially good balance at that moment; instead of my going down to the pavement like a sack of potatoes, the cyclist went down to the pavement like a sack of potatoes. I was unaffected. I was a wall. It was as if I had popped onto the scene like the Scott Bakula character on Quantum Leap and was momentarily exempt from natural law.
The guy got up after a few long seconds. He was all right. So was his bike. I said sorry to him (stupidly), he apologized to me (he was forcing it), and we went our separate ways. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Two years ago I got bikes on the brain. Then my wife gave me a road bicycle for our wedding anniversary. She had found it on Craigslist—a used red Cannondale. As we walked the bike home, on that July evening, from the apartment of the guy who had given it up, I entertained sugarplum visions of taking it out every day and finally getting in shape.
I went on five or six rides in the next few weeks. Then I rolled the Cannondale into a dusty basement chamber of tangled metal, busted air pumps, and flat tires common to thousands of apartment buildings citywide—"the bike room," where good intentions go to die.
The Cannondale would have remained there but for two things: I injured my Achilles on a run and found I couldn't will it back to normal, which meant running—OK, jogging—was out; and I developed a curmudgeon's interest in New York City history that threw me into books such as 722 Miles when I wasn't gazing at vintage New York postcards and wondering things like, "Why did Robert Moses knock down that sweet little yacht club?" and "What is City Island, exactly, and why must I now see it up close?"
I liberated the bicycle from the basement room and began to ride again, exploring the city with the demented intensity of Richard Dreyfus in search of a grand equivalent to the mashed-potato mound on his plate in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I found that bicycling is more fun when your purpose is to see things, rather than to exercise. The bike becomes what it should be: a means, rather than an end. I looked up at the glass face of One World Trade; rode in the shadow of the Hell Gate Bridge and realized its usefulness and beauty, rather than viewing it as a sad relic, as I had during childhood car rides to LaGuardia or J.F.K., and stopped for a smoothie or two. (Alright, they were milk shakes.)
After having popped a tire in smashed glass, and having suffered the indignity of walking the bike 30 blocks only to stand idly at a counter as a put-upon bike shop guy changed the inner tube and talked me into buying another tire, I sat down at my desk and watched instructional videos on how to fix a flat. I ended up drawing on my newly gained knowledge a few days later after slamming into an unseen pothole. I was glad not to return to the bike shop as supplicant and sap.
But I refused to become a full convert to the tribe. I looked—and still look—askance at those who costume themselves as if they're taking part in some neverending tour de New York, clipping along in full kit from stoplight to stoplight. I vowed never to don the spandex, but to pedal onward, in floppy, absorbent cotton.
Further, I did not buy in enough to overlook what can only be called the dick-moves of my now-fellow bicyclists, who, in a nether region between the road versions of fish (automobile drivers) and fowl (pedestrians), abide by a cockeyed set of improvised rules to navigate the complexities of New York traffic. It is maddening to find your Bloomberg-obedient self pushing forward between the faded white lines marking a bike lane only to see, on the other side of the street, a yahoo rolling along in a lane of his or her own invention, much to the annoyance of drivers now burdened with the job of threading between us both while squashing neither.
What about the whole warning thing, whether by bicycle bell or traditional cry of "On your left!"? I decided never to sink that low. Even after months of riding, I found it still got on my nerves, to hear a bicyclist playing at the role of concerned citizen while in fact (I would submit to the jury) taking sick pleasure in the act of ordering other people around. You got a bell on your handlebars? Blow me, Lance Armstrong.
Given my distaste for my sore-bottomed fellows, I decided to be the nicest, least annoying bicyclist in the five boroughs. Whenever I approached pedestrians enjoying a pitiful scrap of pastorality, I would not disturb them. I would slow way the fuck down. I would find a gentle away around them. I would not be a dick. After all—so went my internal monologue—the "shared pathway" is not the place for speed; it belongs slightly more to pedestrians than to bicyclists. (The same thinking guided me in my dealings with automobiles, although for a reason rooted in my recognition of their superior firepower against the flyweight Cannondale.)
My policy, honed, was this: Yield. At all times yield. Whenever you are among others, be they walkers or drivers, ride as if you are in the wrong.
As the miles built up, my policy was working. I figuratively doffed my helmet to the pedestrians. I dismounted at snarled intersections and walked the bike across streets rather than add to car-traffic shenanigans.
Then came the Mosholu-Pelham Greenway.
If you ride out of Manhattan, beyond the stores up by 207th Street that sell live ducks and chickens, and cross the Broadway Bridge at the top of the island's rim, and head northwest along the neat houses that punctuate the roads to Van Cortlandt Park; and go through the park and hang a crucial looey at West Gun Hill Road (if you go right here, you will inevitably wedge yourself into fuming Bronx street traffic—a lesson I learned the hard way one 90-degree morning); I say, if you follow this route, you will attain the Mosholu-Pelham Greenway, which would be a glorious bike path, if not for the pointed bumps that crop up in the weather-wracked pavement and threaten to bite through delicate tires and into an inner tube that you definitely do not want to go through the ordeal of changing again, no matter how manly it made you feel that time.
So there I was, following this route on a ride to City Island, and, there, up ahead, 20 yards off (this took place on a breezy Tuesday morning), I spied a grandmotherly woman walking side by side with a man who looked to be 19 years old. They occupied the space meant for pedestrians as well as the lane of equal size marked for bicyclists. Scrupulously sticking with my always-in-the-wrong policy, I refused to bother them with the call of, "On your left!" I could not ring a hated bicycle bell because I did not have a hated bicycle bell.
My plan was to maneuver briefly into the grass. On their left. I would slip past. It even struck me that the grandmotherly woman might say to herself something like, "Ah, what a kind bicyclist that man was, so unlike the cheap assholes who act as if they own the road."
So I was thinking highly of myself as I exited the paved pathway at 10 or 12 miles per hour. But hidden in the weeds was a dip. More than a dip. Call it a hole. About two feet deep. The front tire went in and something scientific happened that I still cannot piece together but I believe the Cannondale and I went into the air, six or seven feet above the stringy green blades, and we were upside down as we sailed in silence. After completing the kind of full flip that I have never been able to talk my body into pulling off even after jumping off a high-dive, I saw ground coming at me.
My thoughts were clear in those not unpleasant milliseconds as I searched out a course of action. But there was no time to do anything to avoid the crash. It seemed to be my hands themselves, rather than my brain, that decided to release the bike as we began our descent.
I met the ground with my hands, my knees, my chin, and, most of all, or so it seemed, my forehead—all at the same instant, as if to pound into my brain the chapter on gravity that I had skipped in high school physics. I was wearing a bike helmet but my head hit the ground in places where the helmet did not come into play (my forehead and chin—looking back, I think I probably didn't have the chinstrap pulled tight enough).
The bike was now a few yards away from my body. I stayed down.
My first thought, or feeling, upon getting up off the ground, was anger at myself and my idiotic policy, seasoned with a dash of pissed-offness at the dopes who had been hogging the lumpy pathway. I heard the whooshing Blue Velvet sound effect as I tried to shake off the crash, there along the Mosholu.
"You all right?"
I turned around. Next to the grandmotherly lady and the 19-year-old man I saw a woman who held a leash connected to a teacup poodle. Where had she come from?
"Do you need us to call someone?"
She meant an ambulance. Still I did not, would not, speak. And that's what's wrong with people like me, who imagine they are doing others a service by holding their tongues or scorning the bicycle bell in their—futile! misguided!—attempt to opt out of the urban scrum of talk and noise and annoyance. New York is not a quiet town. You have to ring the bell. You have to say something.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
I picked my bike out of the grass. Chain still in place. I unzipped the back pocket of my baggy Champion shorts. Checked the time. Later than I had supposed. I pointed the front tire back to Manhattan, away from the mysteries of City Island, and rode the woozy homeward miles with the flaws in my policy exposed. (I did not yet sense my concussed brain pushing against the insides my skull, as I would the next morning.)
With each turn of the pedals, I found myself further from the tribes of pedestrians and drivers and nearer to the gang of "on-your-left" assholes. I was becoming one of them. But please kill me if you see me in spandex.
Jim Windolf is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and a columnist for Capital New York.
Art by Jim Cooke