When riding a bike isn’t like riding a bike
There’s been an explosion of interest in bike riding among New Yorkers and other city dwellers in recent months, yet I’ve talked to countless people who aren’t comfortable riding a bike in urban settings or on long distance rides. I wanted to share my story of going from forgetting how to ride a bike to riding 100+ miles in a day over the course of a couple years in my mid-30s.
I was embarrassed to admit that contrary to the old saying, I’d forgotten how to ride in the many years since I’d biked the suburban neighborhood where I grew up. When New York City first started the Citibike program, I felt a lot of FOMO over not being able to ride from neighborhood to neighborhood whenever I wanted. I wondered if someone in their 30s could relearn to ride a bike.
At first I tried just grabbing a Citibike, but relearning to ride on the NYC streets was just too intimidating (for those interested in starting to ride now, NYC’s closed streets and car-free bike paths offer an excellent opportunity). Luckily I was scheduled to be in LA for a week for work. I was staying near Venice Beach which has a bike path along the ocean beach. Seemed like a great place to relearn to bike since I could fall into sand rather than traffic. I got up very early and rented a cheap beach cruiser from one of the shops on the boardwalk. I spent about half an hour looking totally ridiculous regaining my balance and learning to use the brakes, and then I just started to ride for about an hour. It felt amazing. I was nervous as cyclists passed me on the path, but I didn’t hit anyone. Afraid that I would forget all that I learned, I got up the next morning and rode again.
When I got back to New York I was excited to ride but still terrified of being near cars, so I bought a helmet and undocked a Citibike near the Hudson River bike path (which is closed off to traffic) and rode there. After a dozen or so rides on that path gave me confidence, I tried streets with bike lanes or little traffic, and eventually even took a ride over the Williamsburg Bridge. (I’m proud that now Muck Rack and Shorty Awards offer free Citibike memberships to all employees.)
After about a year of using Citibike, I decided to buy one of my own from a guy who sold used bikes in front of a church in SoHo. For $200, I got a steel Mongoose hybrid bike that’s about 20 years old.
I felt like I was flying on that Mongoose. Since I had no point of comparison, I hadn’t realized that riding a Citibike up an incline is much harder than on pretty much any other bike due to its weight and few gears. After many rides around the city, I decided to venture over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. Figuring I’d go just a little bit further, I ended up making it to Nyack, a town in Rockland County along the Hudson about 35 miles north of my apartment in Manhattan. After discovering that there was no train back to the city in that town, I resigned myself to riding back, making for a 70 mile ride. I was pretty dead at the end of it, but proud that I made it. I was never into running or spinning, and I had no aspirations in endurance sports, so I was surprised I even did it.
Cycling culture was foreign to me. Riding around in tight Lycra outfits and special shoes seemed ridiculous. I didn’t see the need and had no desire to end up looking that way.
Then I saw a free class on the web for learning to ride in a peloton taking place in Central Park. I joined, but was surprised to see everyone else had a carbon fiber road bike, Lycra outfit and bike shoes that attached to their pedals. I was wearing cargo shorts and sneakers. Somehow I managed to keep up with them on the ride. Afterwards, the instructor took me aside and told me she thought I had promise as a cyclist but that I needed a proper road bike.
This was the permission I needed to go to a bike shop. I was pretty shocked at the prices. I ended up buying the entry level option for a carbon fiber bike which was a little over $1,500. As a New Yorker who hadn’t owned a car or a home in his adult life, it was one of my most expensive purchases. I justified it to myself as a new vehicle, but was still worried I wouldn’t use it enough.
Still determined not to wear Lycra, I took my first ride and discovered that the seat posts on road bikes are a lot harder and narrower than the one on my hybrid — and I felt it. In less than a week, I understood the virtues of padded bike shorts and bike shoes. Another trip to the bike store and spending more money than I ever thought possible on bike clothes, I became what I hated. At least I’m not yet old enough to be a Mamil.
Since buying the road bike a couple years ago I’ve traveled over 5,000 miles on it. It’s been an amazing way to explore New York City — and escape it. Many people don’t realize how many beautiful rides you can take in just a couple hours from NYC, such as up the Palisades or down to the Rockaways. It’s eliminated any desire I had to own a car to get out of the city and provides an unexpected form of exercise. While I don’t think I’ll be winning any races, it’s had the side effect of making me fitter in my 30s than I’d ever been in my life.
Learn (or relearn!) to ride. You never know where it will take you.