When my mother asked what I wanted for my 16th birthday, I said, “A new bicycle.” From her response — “How much longer are you going to be riding a bicycle?” — I knew I wasn’t going to get one. I muddled through on my aging Schwinn (bought secondhand when I was 10) for two more years, and then for my 18th birthday I bought myself a new bike.
I am now 70, and I’ve never gone a year without a bike — not one that collects dust or serves as a clothes hanger, but a bike that is ridden nearly every day. I use my bike for daily exercise and transport to class, work, shopping, tennis, swimming — most everywhere I need to go, as long as the weather, distance and dress code do not make riding impractical.
I wish, however, that the push to get more people to use pedal power were accompanied by an equally aggressive effort to teach drivers to be more cognizant and respectful of those on two wheels who share their streets.
Yes, I’ve been hit by a car (the driver nose-dived into a parking space and cut me off), luckily escaping with only a torn tendon. And I’m often forced to stop short by a driver who suddenly turns in front of me, often without signaling.
City pedestrians, who tend to look out only for cars and trucks when crossing against the light, might also learn to be more attentive to two-wheeled vehicles, just as cyclists should pay more attention to pedestrians’ right to navigate streets and sidewalks safely.
On a recent bike trip on the Dalmatian Islands in Croatia, I was amazed by the courtesy of drivers. Not once on the islands’ narrow roads did drivers honk or attempt to pass too close to me or my cycling companions, instead waiting patiently until it was safe to scoot around us. And when I was struggling up a long, steep hill, a bus approaching on the narrow downhill lane stopped and waited for me to pass.
No way would I expect this to happen in my hometown. New York City drivers could use a tutorial in Croatian cycling manners.
What a Safe Cyclist Should Have
First, choose a sensible bike for your needs. Will you be using the bike for recreational trips, racing or shopping? Unless you’re an amateur or professional racer, or plan to take long road trips, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to get a perfectly suitable, practical bike.
Neither do you need 27 gears to ride in most cities; three gears will do just fine. But if hills are in your riding plans, look for a bike with at least 21 gears so you can downshift easily when necessary. Riding in a gear too high for the terrain puts too much pressure on your knees and quads.
Get fitted for a bike by a well-trained bike store employee. An ill-fitting bike will put undue stress on joints and muscles. If others may occasionally use your bike, know how to adjust the seat and handlebars to their needs. Quick-release seats are great but easily stolen if the bike is parked on the street; you may need to take the seat with you.
Consider weight if you must carry the bike upstairs at home or work. No sense in risking a back injury.
As I use my city bike for transportation and errands, I have an inexpensive hybrid fitted with a handlebar basket to carry groceries. Other storage choices include handlebar bags, behind-the-seat bags and panniers that fit over a rack behind the seat. Consider balance when choosing and packing the carrying bags, or use a backpack.
If you’d like to keep your clothes clean, pick a bike with fenders or have them installed over the wheels. Use a bell (not a whistle) or a horn; in New York City, a bell is required by law. The newest ones require only a flick of a finger to alert others to your approach.
Essential safety features include reflector lights, front and back. If you sometimes ride in the dark or at dusk, get a reflector vest and a light for the bike or your helmet. Helmets are essential, even though New York City law does not require them for people over age 13.
Be sure the helmet is certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and fits properly; a helmet that is too loose or sits too far back on the head or is not buckled will not protect your brain.
If your bike may be parked outdoors, even for a little while, get a heavy lock that is not easily clipped. Mine is a U-shaped Krypton lock that can be stored on the bike frame or carried in a pack. If you have quick-release wheels, you may need a locking chain to protect them from theft.
It Takes More Than the Right Gear
Obey all traffic rules — stop signs, lights, pedestrian crossings, etc. — and signal your turns. I know this is hard to do when you’re in a hurry, the light is red and you can see that there are no cars coming or pedestrians crossing in front of you. But get used to it, because more summonses for cyclists are likely in the near future. And stay off sidewalks unless you are 12 or younger and your bicycle wheels are smaller than 26 inches in diameter.
Although there may be no laws yet banning use of handheld phones while cycling, there should be. Distracted cycling is just as dangerous as distracted driving. Keep your mind on the road. Watch out for cars making right turns; you may not be seen if you come up on the right after a car has stopped for a light or waited for pedestrians to cross. And stay alert for cars pulling out of a parking spot or driveway or a car door about to open in front of you.
Ride in the direction of vehicular traffic, not against it, and wherever possible use designated bicycle lanes, riding with the traffic unless the lane is bidirectional. Further tips for city cyclists can be found at www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/biketips.shtml.