March 28, 2010

Urban biking 101: A primer

Quite simply, I love bicycling. The fresh air, the breeze in my face, the views from the bridge, the ability to dart nimbly through lumbering traffic... Even in the biting cold, even among aggressive New York drivers, even with potholes multiplying in winter's aftermath, each ride is a pleasure difficult to convey to the non-bicycling public. The usual reaction I get when people see me toting my helmet is a concerned "You biked here?" often followed by a wistful, "I wish I biked more." So for all of the friends and strangers who wish they had the nerve to ride in city traffic, I've put together a little guide.

1) Get a bike that works for you. There's no point in buying a bike you won't ride, no matter how cheap it is. Sleek, minimal fixed-gear bikes have gone from cult trend to mass-market saturation now that Urban Outfitters has gotten in on the game, but they're best for serious riders. If you'd prefer to be able to take it easyish on uphills and speed up on flat terrain, look for a bike with multiple gears. If you'll have to tote it up and down stairs, buy a lightweight racing or folding bike. If you're concerned about getting your clothes dirty, you'll want fenders. If you often have to leave your bike parked outside, pick out a beater that won't attract thieves. A good lock is crucial, but it won't stop a determined thief if the bike looks valuable.

And don't cheap out: there are no decent bikes for under $100 in New York, period. There are some deals to be had on Craigslist, but if you aren't a bike expert, you may not notice a bent frame or other defects. Paying more for a nice bike that runs smoothly will be well worth it over time.

2) Buy a helmet and lights. I'm always shocked at how many riders I see without these necessities. No, they're not mandated by law in New York, but even the most cautious riders will eventually have run-ins with cars. You'll want the lights to help prevent incidents, and the helmet once they happen. Even if you don't plan to ride at night, sometimes you'll end up staying out later than expected.

My favorite lights right now are by Knog — the ingenious wrap-around construction means you can attach them to any bar, and pull them off easily when they're not in use. As helmets go, I get loads of compliments on my Bern Baker with its visor, and they've just come out with some neat carbon-fiber styles that, unlike mine, are ventilated for all-weather use.

3) Pick up a free bike map. All New York bike stores keep copies of the bike map, which shows the expanding number of bike paths in the city. Google Maps also offers a new biking directions feature, but it's far less reliable, and harder to carry with you.

4) Start out easy. Now that you've got your bike, helmet, lights, and map, you're ready to ride! Riding in daylight along the paths is a great way to start biking in the city. The Hudson River bike path in Manhattan is a pleasant, scenic ride, as are the paths in Central Park and Prospect Park. Just a ferry ride away, Governor's Island is a beautiful, quiet place to ride around and check out the frequent art exhibitions and shows that pop up there.

The weekend is the best time to try new routes, when you're in no hurry, and there's less traffic. Commuting by bike is great, but you don't want the pressure of figuring out a new route on your way to work — it's easy to miss a turn on the first run-through, or you may discover that a certain street is cobblestoned, or the bridge is a tougher climb than expected.

5) Ride defensively. It won't help to panic about cars, but do be conscious of them. A good guideline is to allow 3 feet between your handlebars and passing cars, whenever possible. Keep an eye on parked cars in case any of them decide to pull out suddenly, and don't get into situations where you're sandwiched between a truck and a parked car without room to maneuver, or between a bus and anything. At stoplights, be aware that drivers may be planning to turn even though they haven't put on their signal, so make sure you'll be out of their way if they do. Ambulances and taxis are the most erratic vehicles I usually encounter; give both a wide berth.

Similarly, in order to help drivers get around you safely, try to let them know what you're doing by signaling your turns and stops. Ride in the direction of traffic, preferably on the right-hand side if there's no bike lane, or right down the middle of the driving lane where it's too narrow for cars to pass you safely. You'll want to avoid potholes, which can be treacherous, and which pop up unexpectedly even in bike lanes; but otherwise, try to avoid weaving, which makes it difficult for drivers to predict where you'll go next.

6) Two's company. Biking isn't just for commuting; it can also be a fun social activity. Why not plan out an easy day trip with a friend? Visibility is key for safety, and two bikers are more visible than one. Also, it's a great learning experience to ride with a more experienced friend who can show you how to navigate traffic, potholes, and other bikers.

That's enough for now... please let me know if I've missed anything, or if you've got better suggestions for anything I've mentioned. Happy trails, and ride safe!

Photo taken from my SS10 collection video.

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