This Thursday, I packed up and biked the few miles to the Westport train station, where the bike and I boarded together and listened to nearby passengers discuss teaching in a CT private school on their commute home to Brooklyn.
“Every February all I want to do is move away, but if I can make it through that month, I’m fine again,” one said. I wished he could know that if he just gave into that urge to not outlast one more February, he could be a whole lot happier, if the accounts of my former NYC friends are any indication.
We disembarked at Grand Central, and for the first time since moving away on December 15, I was back in NY. Not really that long, but a psychological eon.
Within my first five minutes back, a taxi opened its door onto me, banging my backpack; I recognized a guy from high school Spanish class; I got catcalled (while riding my bicycle); a guy told a cop he should book me for riding the wrong direction (I had turned my bike sideways while I waited at a red light to take up less space) and the cop responded by complimenting my bike and telling me about his Cannondale; and I got that infuriating, familiar sense that this was the only place in the world that was real, that every other place was just playing at being a place.
I biked out to the West Side Highway, a protected bike and pedestrian lane on the west coast of Manhattan, to head to Matt and Brian’s apartment, where I stayed that night.
The next morning, I took my bike on a tour of bike stores across the city. We tried out Zen Bikes, which didn’t have much, and then the Chelsea branch of Bicycle Habitat. They measured my sitbones for a new saddle (they were on fire from my bike’s standard issue saddle), and sold me a set of clipless (confusing nomenclature, because “clipless” means you clip into them) pedals, then sent me to their Soho flagship for some serious purchasing.
After experiencing the joys? of riding a lightweight road bike on cobblestones, I made it to the store. It was a busy, jovial place, with women getting fitted with bike shoes, men selecting rain jackets, and the staff buzzing between clients, peaking in on each other’s charges to offer their own opinions or jokes.
I met up with Justine, who Chelsea’s Mario had called to tell her to get ready for me, whatever that meant (“I hate you,” he had deadpanned on the phone. “I hate you so much I’m sending over a customer.”)
She worked through my long list with me, showering me with spare tires and inner tubes, bike shoes with clips on the bottom, a bag for my bike’s front to stash easy access energy goos, a new saddle to fit my 143 width sit bones, the fancy emergency tire pump Bike and Build recommends (“really?” she asked, “that one’s expensive…” But they asked for it by name), 3 for the price of 2 bike shorts (she told me the ones I was wearing were too big), and water bottle cages. We negotiated with my shopping list, honed by all nighters spent reading the Bike and Build alumni Facebook group’s posts on past riders’ gear tips, and her and the rest of the staff’s favorite stuff. For example, I now have the same saddle as most of the female staff of Bicycle Habitat. The mechanic in the back, a guy who used to live in Venice Beach and looked it with his long, blond hair, installed my new pedals, seat, and pump, and they set up my bike on a stationary trainer for me to try everything out. Justine and another guy stood watch as I practiced clipping in and out, telling me I wasn’t allowed to leave until I had gotten the hang of it. I pedaled for so long that I began to get warm.
Justine gave me discounts, not a flat percentage like many of the bike shops I’ve been to seem to have on policy for people doing charity rides, but a nice tire for the price of a regular one here, a free tube there, and didn’t charge for the mechanic work. She tied a few plastic bags into one big totebag, and sent me on my way, watching to make sure I could get up on my new raised seat.
The following ride was harrowing and uncomfortable as they come. My newly raised seat was terrifying, and the big plastic shopping bag was hard to balance no matter where I put it. In the end, I ripped up both it when it fell, catching my spokes, and my knee, as the plastic ties they had used to secure my pump were sharp and positioned right at my inner right thigh.
But I made it to my sister Carly, who was visiting the city with her business frat, and who helped walk my bike back to Brian and Matt’s. I left it and the rest of my stuff until the next morning so I could spend time with Carly, before meeting Alexandra and Lauren for the evening. I slept in my old apartment, but in Alexandra’s bed.
Saturday, I took the subway back and met up with Matt for my first big ride with clipless shoes. They make riding a lot easier when you’re on a steady ride, but you have to clip out when you come to a stop or you’ll pitch over like you’ve been cowtipped.
Matt told me to come to a stop to the left of him so I could fall onto him instead of traffic. I took him up on that offer, but after that was pretty good about getting out of both clips and getting my feet on the ground, as far away as that now was. Matt lowered my seat halfway through the ride, reasoning that I’d be bound to fall if I couldn’t even get my feet on the ground. We biked the West Side highway, this time from 30th street to the GW bridge around 180th street in Harlem, which we crossed to get into New Jersey.
I had to recalibrate my understandings of distance– going from 30 to 180 sounds super far, so I had to remind myself how dense Manhattan is and try to figure out where I’d get with the equivalent amount of riding in LA.
Hills were much easier with clipless pedals– as long as I held on tight and kept my feet moving, I would get up the hill, as much as my thighs burned. Turning, meanwhile, was much more difficult than usual, so much that Matt thought I was using walls to stop, rather than simply crashing into them.
After we got off the bridge, Matt asked if I wanted to do pretty but hilly or flat but bordering the highway. I hate hills, so my choice was forced, but it turned out Matt just asked me that to keep me busy or something, as we did both anyway. We biked back to his apartment, doing sprints in less crowded spots.
Matt gave me pointers on how to proactively use gear shifting as an asset, rather than the last resort I normally view it as (but not how to make a not dumb face in photos, C’MON, MATT). Ideally, you should keep your pedaling at a standard cadence. If you notice it gets too hard to keep this up, shift your gears to give you less resistance. If it gets too easy, get more. In case it isn’t clear, MATT HAS BEEN A HUGE HELP. THANK YOU, MATT!!!!!
After this 27 or so mile ride, I practiced the equally valuable skill of staying awake and alert after a long day of riding and returned to Brooklyn to hang out with the dojo and Annie.
After months of people in LA whispering, “don’t jaywalk here– they’ll give you a ticket!” it was reassuring to be back in the land where people see a “don’t walk”light and a car coming toward them and think, “The hell you think you’re charging at? This is the perfect time for me to cross the street.”
The next day, I returned to Connecticut alongside lots of 5 Boro Bike Tour people and their bikes crowding Metro North and felt smug about my scary road bike to their nice and secure mountain bikes with their wide, nubby wheels.