Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘Urban Cycling

The mathematics of living is invisible, ghosted like dry erase marker on my father’s whiteboard. The mathematics of bicycling, however, is about to be much, much clearer. Bike academia is back!

When I was a kid, my mathematician father had his office in our basement. One wall was dominated by a whiteboard, which had not yet appeared in “regular” schools, and thus considered by my friends to be military grade. On it he wrote incomprehensible codes in the slanted writing of a scientist. That whiteboard was mysterious as nuclear engineering (for all I know, it may have been nuclear engineering), and I never fully believed that it related to the times tables or other actual math.

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bike is the new black

[Today we’re thrilled to have a guest cycling post by Jeff Wilser, acclaimed author and syndicated columnist, expert on the art of modern manhood, and perhaps the only ex-Marine with a Master’s degree in Creative Writing.]

A year ago I switched to biking. It seemed like the thing to do: better for the planet, better for my butt. (Confession: I care more about my butt than the planet. If bikes emitted more carbon than Hummers, I would still commute via bike.) My real motivation: fun. Biking unshackles you from the subway. It injects variety. It lets you whip through the city and explore new neighborhoods. For example, there are entire streets in Brooklyn that are not in Williamsburg. Who knew?

As a guy who lives by rules and maxims, I was inspired to distill my experience into 10 maxims of biking:

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The Dahon (Folded)

For the aspiring cyclist Mark Twain has this solitary piece of advice: tackle “one villainy…at a time.”Although I am a knowledgeable rider, Twain’s counsel resonates as an apt description of my cycling experience in New York: I’m an Englishman who has lately been forced onto the pot-holed roads by escalating subway costs (and an expanding midriff), but my bicycle commute – to the upper west side from Harlem – has a tendency to throw various villainies at me simultaneously. Let me give you a virtual backie (Brit informal: a ride on the back of someone’s bicycle) through some of my commute’s highlights.

The Dahon (Unfolded) on 125th Street

Metro-North’s rush hour trains from White Plains – my current town – permit only folding bikes, so my bike journey formally begins beneath a darkened bridge that carries the railroad over 125th street in Harlem. If you happen to be in the area at 7:30am, you’ll find me hastily reassembling a red Dahon P8 folding bike. Though casual construction can take only 17 seconds, it takes 30 seconds when I’m feeling finicky. Once the bike is built, I push off into the traffic on Park Ave, a minnow amongst sharks. This early in the morning, the eyes in the back of my head don’t work too well, and are obscured by the obligatory helmet, so I have to be keenly aware of hazards, including:

  1. Black limousines that go from 60 to 0 MPH in less than five seconds in order to collect that fare on the pavement
  2. Yellow cabs driven by teenage Mario Kart veterans
  3. Drivers accelerating to beat red lights on cross-streets

Villainy indeed. It’s a wonder I don’t just push my bike on the sidewalk. The newly bike-savvy Twain nervously describes his life astride the crossbar. “I started out alone to seek adventures. You don’t really have to seek them…they come to you.” True to Twain’s words, my bike adventures always come to me.

On 110th street, a young person’s correctional facility offers the New York City driver a place to double-park. This situation affords me the opportunity to cycle into oncoming traffic as I pedal strenuously (usually against the wind) toward the Lenox Ave entrance to Central Park. As a result, the flared Biologic grips on my handlebar are somewhat compressed these days. I squeeze them tightly as I pull out to maneuver around station wagons and mini-vans, only to be confronted by the M2 bus.

Central Park - Cyclist's Haven

Central Park is a cyclist’s haven, especially before 8am. On warm late summer mornings I crossed east to west on Central Park Driveway.  When fall rain necessitated, the 97th street traverse made for swift progress toward my journey’s end. Discovering the extended hill on West Drive put an end to these routes though, and allows me to say yes to that second helping of desert. Though it can sometimes feel like one long hill, there are in fact a series of three inclines that can leave one a little puffed when pedaling 20” wheels. However, a hill in Central Park can’t really be described as villainy. Over-indulging at dinner the night before is what causes my downfall here.

Having caught my breath, I explode out of the park and, if I’m lucky, catch a green light on to 90th and Central Park West. To reach my destination on 88th and CPW it’s a matter of avoiding school busses, Land Rovers performing pirouette-like U-turns, and doormen stretching to grab the attention of cabs.

Mark Twain still had some way to go before cementing his love for travel in the saddle when he called his new bike a “cobweb.” Like Twain’s fledgling devotion, my homeward bound commute islike the phases of a love affair. After the euphoria of early success (the morning’s journey), one must labor on to find true satisfaction through commitment. And patience. So, when basketball-bouncing teenagers goad me from the side-walk, when grown men lingering in the road growl at me, and when limousine drivers overtake me in order to turn right, causing me to slam on my brakes to avoid going over their bonnet, I just smile to myself and take satisfaction – no, pleasure from the simple fact that it’s just me and my Dahon.

Ultimately my commute with the folding bike reconnects me with the fascination for cycling and bike technology I had as a child. Whether bombing around the block on a Raleigh 3-speed racer, or attempting bunny-hops on a BMX with yellow Skyway spokes, I cultivated a fearless obsession with the relationship between effort and movement. As a seven year old I reveled in the attempt at watching my back wheel go round as I pedaled. The act of building and deconstructing the Dahon offers me a visceral connection with the art of riding that my other bike (a Marin Larkspur hybrid) doesn’t. I take the same sense of safety and versatility from the Dahon’s compactness (think Ford Fiesta versus Cadillac) that I took from the bikes I owned as a kid in England, when the only hazards I faced as I pedaled around my village were in the shape of farm animals loose on the country lanes and stray shots fired from spud-guns, those potato-based weapons of choice. So thank you, Dahon! You’ve transformed a jaded commuter into a fanatical cyclist in search of adventure (outside business hours, of course).

Jay is a high school English teacher in Manhattan. While he often tells people that he followed Lloyd Cole from England to New York, he actually came for the love of a good woman.

Red Hook

When two or more cyclists take one ride, there’s negotiation involved. How you keep up, nudge faster, double back, move in tandem—your feelings come out when you bike with someone else.

1. Pacing on a Date, or: How to Take it Slow and Not Lose Momentum

D. and I biked to Red Hook together on our second date. Bikes are perfect for dates, but also risky. Like bringing your parents on a blind date, your relationship with your bicycle exposes a lot. But the two of us seemed perfectly matched. We rode fast and then noodled along the water, locking up and climbing a fence to get a better view. So far, so good.

Then, on the way home, he called: “Race you!” I laughed and started to speed up. Suddenly he took off up the hill and I was left behind, puffing on my heavy hybrid. It was impossible not to worry: if we didn’t ride the same, were we compatible?

I got a faster bike and our bike dates got less tense. But I’ll admit, on a long ride, when I get distracted by thoughts, I do slow to a crawl. Sometimes he patiently slows down with me. Sometimes he notes, innocently, “We’re getting passed a lot.” It’s my cue to speed up. He (almost) never leaves me behind.

2. The Bicycle Built for Two

Once, in Prospect Heights, I stopped to talk to an arty-looking couple on a Schwinn Twin, a bicycle built for two. This seemed like the perfect solution. Eliminate the mismatch by riding the same bike! I asked them: is this the way they always ride? “It’s mine,” announced the man, pushing his glasses up. The woman looked bashful and admitted, “I’m just visiting.”

It left me feeling a little creeped out. Was the visitor a date, and if so, how did she feel about her gentleman friend riding his bicycle-built-for-two god-knows-where with god-knows-who? Did it make her feel cheap to be the replaceable back legs of this animal? I didn’t ask. The bike was rusty and sort of sad-looking, anyway.

But then I asked Jess, who owns the Brooklyn bike shop Ride Brooklyn with her husband Pete, how they bike together. He races and she doesn’t: did he always jump ahead? She showed me their tandem bicycle, a gorgeous,  fast-looking Cannondale. Far less creepy than Bluebeard’s Schwinn.

[N.B.: I don’t believe it’s always the ladies getting left behind. I have several girlfriends who frankly leave their men in the dust. The men know it. I long to be one of them, those sleek-shorted long-legged girls, all business and leaning over their handlebars.]

The Prospect Park Bike Pack

3. The Boys’ Club

Then there are those racing packs that whip through Prospect Park on Saturday mornings, calling to each other about renovating bathrooms and college tuition. They are the bicycling equivalent of a suburban guy’s night, the poker chips replaced with carbon forks. These guys have a competitive comraderie I envy: they keep each other honest, tightly packed in best-friend formation.

A Bicycle Built for Two

4. Do You Love Me? (Do I WHAT?)

My parents, meanwhile, have been married for 41 years and bicycling together for almost that long. My mom likes her granny gear. My father admits he sometimes has to double back to make sure she isn’t lost. They move at their own paces.

While they haven’t given up cycling together, they recently found an alternative: spin class. No one gets ahead of anyone, and the speed is personal. They still take their bikes out, of course. But it can be a viable alternative, in the cold season, to pedal side by side, listening to oldies.

The Triplets of Belleville

5. Nous sommes famille… j’ai tous mes soeurs et moi…

Have you seen “Triplets of Belleville?” See it. This French animation from 2006 concerns a sad champion cyclist and his small, determined grandmother (along with his dog Bruno). It’s a beautiful, almost-wordless movie about bicycles and love. I don’t want to spoil it, but it also, in my opinion, takes a violent stance against spin classes.

One of the most affecting images in the movie is of the champion’s grandmother, pedalling furiously on a tricycle behind him as he puffs up a hill, blowing her whistle to set his pace. She’s devoted, in a matter-of-fact way. It’s another way to see pacing, as family love: the tireless maternal push up a French hill.

Micaela Blei writes about urban cycling in both poetry and prose. Her recent pieces for Frontier Cyclist include meditations on Bike Theft and the ‘Hapless’ Female in Bike Shops. She lives in Brooklyn and rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar.

Bike Theft

If you ride a lot, you certainly identify with your bike. You might feel silly admitting it, or you might have named your bike and given it a comforter to sleep under at night. Either way, that thing is part of you. So how can we possibly lock up a little piece of ourselves on the mean streets whenever we go inside for a bagel?

I know, I know: you shouldn’t lock up a bike outside in New York City without knowing that somewhere, someday, it will probably be stolen. I can’t leave my bike on the sidewalk without imagining, just for a second, that when I return it will be gone, and silently accepting this idea. But still, my first time locking up my new bike this summer was a singularly neurotic experience. I was like a new mother with my baby at day care; my hands practically shook.

Below, a few case studies illustrate the range of emotions, besides swearing and helpless depression, which are the most common symptoms after a bike theft.

1. I deserved that.

This is how I felt when I stupidly left my bike locked with a slender cable, OVERNIGHT, in an ABANDONED PARK in New Haven when I was 22. (I got a ride home after a few drinks and totally forgot about it.) What did I expect? I would have been more surprised if I’d found it there. I didn’t replace it for several months, mostly because I was too ashamed to admit what had happened to my original ride.

2. Finally!

If you have a bike that has not treated you well, you’re secretly waiting for it to leave, to free you for the shiny new one you’ve been eyeing. (This happens with cars and cats, too, by the way.) You feel too guilty to actually get rid of it—it’s perfectly good. But if it were stolen, you’d happily be back in your bike shop within the hour.

3.  I’m getting it back.

Justice, of course, is the most satisfying end to a bike theft story. First, my favorite, the absolute best get-your-bike-back sting I’ve heard of: this girl lived out the fantasy of everyone who’s ever come out of the hardware store to a heart-stoppingly empty space where their bike used to be. It’s a real Christmas story of hope and righteousness.

There is also a legend in my family. In 1970, my Uncle Dennis, a freshman in college, came over for dinner with his sister and her new husband (my parents). He told them his bike had been stolen, and that he saw the bike with some guy he knew. The guy had said he’d found it.

My dad, who at the time had wicked sideburns and probably a pretty thick Israeli accent (this is unconfirmed), asked Dennis: “Do you know where he lives?” This might have sounded extremely dangerous and capable, in an Israeli accent. Dennis did know. They drove over.

There was Uncle Dennis’s bike, on the porch. My dad hefted it over the railing and tucked it in the trunk. Vigilante justice! (Of course, that poor guy might have paid good money for a stolen bike, but that’s not part of the legend.)

My dad in the 1970s (more or less)

4. My bike will come home.

My friend Gina’s bike theft is the kind of wound that takes a long time to heal. She got her turquoise Mongoose 625 from her father for graduation from eight grade. It was a great bike, and was even more precious weeks later when her father passed away After many years, she rescued the bike from an ex-boyfriend’s basement and rode the city on the ten-speed of her childhood.  A few months after she lost her mother, too, her bike was stolen in Williamsburg.

Bike theft is trauma. But getting this bike stolen almost ended Gina. It had been a physical connection to her parents; she’d put so much into that frame, so much of the people she loved, that losing it felt, she told me, like losing them again. She bought a new bike that she hates, whose make and model number she can never remember. (For her attitude toward that bike’s potential theft, see “Finally,” above) She fantasizes about finding her turquoise Mongoose on the street, recognizing it like a long-lost child or sibling. Gina’s holding out hope. And I find myself looking for it, too.

I know we’re supposed to let go of possessions, that everything is ephemeral, all of that. But given that we’re human, and humans assign meaning, do me a favor: get a really, really good lock, and follow some useful bike math, below:

Find the sum of the bike’s total price (frame plus components) times the number of positive memories associated with the bike. Is the figure greater than your monthly take-home income? Use the bike for park loops and leave it in your apartment. Is the figure smaller than the price of a plane ticket to your hometown (or to Hawaii, whichever is preferable)? Take it out and lock it up!

Micaela Blei writes about urban cycling in both poetry and prose. Her recent pieces for Frontier Cyclist include meditations on the ‘Hapless’ Female in Bike Shops and Biking in Winter. She lives in Brooklyn and rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar.

Have you ever felt patronized in a wine store? How about a record shop? Somehow the boys who sell records always seem to be judging your devotion to Rick Astley. If you’re not an expert in arcane roots music, it feels as though you’re trespassing on their time and space.

Bike shops can be worse.

Until last year, I rode sturdy hybrid bikes with the happy ignorance of the post-industrial age—this machine works, I know it works, and there is no need to know how it works. So when I inherited my mom’s road bike last spring, I knew next to nothing about components or maintenance.

My first stop was my closest bike shop—let’s call it Local Bike Shop #1. This is a sleek outfit that specializes in racing gear and deigns occasionally to sell hybrids to the locals. I was wearing street clothes and wheeling my new/old bike, a well-loved Trek.

ME: Hello, can I ask you a question?


ME: My mom gave me her old road bike and I think I want to get it fitted. How much would that be?

PERSON: (smirking) Why?

ME: Well, isn’t that what you do if you have a new bike? To make sure it fits you?

PERSON: I don’t know. Are you going to ride it more than, like, a few miles? Cause you really don’t need to get it fitted. That’s more for athletes.

ME: (annoyed) Well, I want to commute with it, 22 miles round trip.

PERSON (dismissive) Well, you don’t need a fitting. (Looks past me at a racer next in line)

I left, feeling like it was 1961 and I was a woman trying to break into copywriting on Madison Avenue. He practically called me “sweetheart.”

I went around the corner to a new bike shop—Local Bike Shop #2, for the sake of this column. It was a different world: people actually smiled. I asked timidly about a fitting. The shop’s owner admired my bike—he had a thing for old steel—and told me, matter-of-fact, that I should ride it awhile first. He was kind but not patronizing. He answered my questions but did not lecture. It was, in other words, an ideal LBS.

Over time, I came to LBS #2 with countless inexperienced questions—my gears are clicking! my spoke is popped! why am I getting flats every week?— and they treated me like a person, not an idiot. They taught me only as much as I wanted to know. When I admitted that I’d never actually filled my own tires, one of the guys sat patiently with me while I practiced on a store bike.

Later, I had to venture to a bike shop in Manhattan, where they apparently see inexperienced women as a chance for a large commission. I found myself at LBS #3 downtown, after a smash up on the West Side left my back wheel so bent I had to carry my bike. A grease-stained gentleman took a cursory look and assured me sweetly that I had to replace my “very rare wheel” for $120.

Suspicious, I put my bike in a cab instead. Sure enough, my own shop trued my wheel and charged me 12 dollars. How many accident-shaken young women had LBS #3 conned with that “rare wheel” line? Why are bike shops, like car dealerships, sometimes the kind of place you have to take your boyfriend to get a fair deal?

Women with bikes and no mechanical expertise: practice your confident stance. Don’t be intimidated. Ask the questions you need to ask! And learn to change a tire. Even if you never actually do it, knowing that you could will give you an air of bored sophistication that even the racers will have to respect. I haven’t changed one yet, myself, but here is a poem about when I do:


First loosen up the nuts that hold the wheel.

Remove the wheel and then deflate your tube.

You have a tire lever, I assume.

I’m chic and practical in sweats. I know

I’m set to take control of this bike’s fate.

I find the nuts—I think—and off they go.

No lever, but a nail file works as great.

One lever in; another slides around.

You take the tire and tube completely off.

Now patch your tube! Replace it if you like.

I try my fingernail, but it won’t fit.

I find a second file and slide it round.

The tire’s off, along with other bits.

The bike’s in shiny pieces on the ground.

Replace the tire, one side first, then ease

the tube inside, with nothing pinched by rim.

Use thumbs to work the tire’s other side.


I’m using thumbs and smoothing pinches! See?

I’m independent, capable and sleek.

My hands are greased, my pants ripped at the knee.

It’s as authentic as I’ve been all week.

Before inflating, use your thumbs again

to check the tire isn’t pinching. Now

Inflate it slowly, slowly, and you’re done!


The bike seat’s somehow lost. The chain is knotted.

I, joyful, pump the tire to one-ten.

Oh, thanks! I know my efforts are applauded,

And you know I’ll gladly change your tire again.

Micaela Blei writes about urban cycling in both poetry and prose. Her recent pieces include a meditation on  Biking in Winter and a review of the bike-friendly video for Sun Airway’s “Put the Days Away.”

It’s Thanksgiving. This means the end of fall and the beginning of winter. Here come the pale days of December and January, the 4 p.m. sunsets, and the first time I have to decide: am I a winter cyclist?

I’m relatively new to the world of cycling. This is my first cold season as a commuter. So am I for real, or was this a flash in the pan? Will cycling get dusty, go the way of ukulele, trapeze, and formal poetry? If I don’t keep it up when the going gets tough, can I call myself a commuter?

Here are some of the steps I am taking to become a winter rider.

STEP ONE: Talk to everyone you know.

This means non-cyclists and cyclists alike. Ask the cyclists when it gets too cold for them to ride. Grill them for strategies. They may say: “When the snow is 5 feet deep, I just change my tires.” Everyone has a different breaking point. My friend (we’ll call her Anabel) just stops after Thanksgiving, no matter what. But then there’s the three guys at the Co-op who insisted that they cycle through the deep, dark cold. (Were they lying to a cute girl? Possibly.)

If you are talking to a non-cyclist, of course, you say: “When the snow is 5 feet deep, I just change my tires.” You’re practicing.

STEP TWO: Get some layers.

Everyone I know who rides, really rides, in the winter, takes the layering very seriously. You need a wicking layer at your core (cotton gets sweaty) and lots of things you can zip and unzip. SmartWool socks, an ear-protector and full fingered gloves are also really good. You should start your ride a little cool—since you’re going to warm up quickly.

I tend to wear everything.

If you are riding in subzero temperatures you break out the face masks and head protectors. Also, if you are actually riding in subzero temperatures you don’t need an amateur like me to tell you what to wear.

STEP THREE: Know your breaking point.

I really don’t know that I’ll be getting out there in a snowstorm or on the frozen pavement. My tires are too slick, and besides, my dad reads this column. If you do ride in the storms, you know to have a mountain bike and a bunch of lights– like the kind they put on the roll bars of Jeeps.

These guys are adventure cyclists. They biked in Siberia. You could do that too, if you wanted.

Cycling the Road of Bones to the Pole of Cold

STEP FOUR: Get inspired.

Before you begin your romance with winter cycling, try reading “Ode to the West Wind” by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s nice and dramatic. I know it will help as you struggle nobly against the elements. Just memorize several stanzas and yell them like a battle cry as the dusk’s cold cuts you on the Manhattan Bridge. Alternately, here’s a sonnet I wrote in honor of the winter commute.

On summer rides, the wind would flirt and stare,

Admire my bike and compliment my gloves.

I liked its sass, the way it touched my hair.

On downhill coasts we breezed and called it love.

Then fall began to fall. The mornings paled.

I layered pants like pastry– flaky, bright.

The wind, so gentle once, was distant, cold

And in the mornings seemed to pick a fight.

I hoped he was distracted. “It’s a phase,”

I thought, “My SmartWool will inspire a different tune.”

But now I’m bundled, gloved and scarved, and dazed

By rage in him I never knew in June.

O pain! I’ll fight to bike through winter’s dread–

Or buy a monthly MetroCard instead.

Micaela Blei is a teacher, writer, and a regular contributor to Frontier Cyclist. Her last piece reviewed the bike-friendly video for Sun Airway’s “Put the Days Away.”  She rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar. Those who cycle in the cold are her heroes and her loves.

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