If you have ever met me as a friend, stranger, or co-worker, you have probably seen me wearing a t-shirt that I got for free from Transportation Alternatives. I just counted, I have 12 of them. Most of them from my favorite event of the year on the NYC cycling calendar, the NYC Century. Yesterday, I rode it for the last time. Good riddance.
At first, I was pretty disappointed when I heard that TransAlt decided to discontinue the annual 100-mile ride through Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. I’ve done the ride seven times now. It takes place in early September, one of the few weeks that NYC has truly blessed weather. It’s been something that I’ve looked forward to for a good chunk of my life.
I feel like the century made me the cyclist that I am today, each year a progression on my way from being a person on a bike to a cyclist. On my first in 2012, I found out about it from a flyer in Fulton Bikes. I took my 80s road bike that I got for $200, put on some jeans (the horror!), and amazed myself with what I could do, and how small New York City is.
A 100 mile trek through the city gets you out of your comfort zone. There are parts of the city that are kind of boring, suburban, not really destinations at all, but there are people there that I share a city with who live their whole lives right there. Even if I’m never coming back, just having an event that brings you through hundreds of cultures and enclaves at human speed is a gift. I will probably never take the subway to Forest Hills or Throgs Neck. On a bike, you can get to know the place just a little bit. See stuff you don’t see on purpose.
I had a great time on this ride but there was one moment that stuck out and made me more glad that this chapter is closing. On the way out of the Bronx (ahem sorry, the Marble Hill section of Manhattan) we were directed over the Broadway Bridge. I take this bridge all the time, it sucks. Nothing like the High Bridge, the best way into the Bronx, and the mainland of North America. The bridge is made of metal grating, and it’s always dicey sharing the bridge with cars. If its a little wet, a tiny slip could end you. I suppose that is why the riders where directed to use the sidewalk, I really don’t know why for sure.
The yellow paint on the road pointed us onto the sidewalk for the crossing, and another one directed us off, down a curb cut, just after the metal part of the bridge. I was in a little big of a cluster of riders that I don’t know, about third from the front of the pack. The guy at the front turned off of the sidewalk, and a woman ahead of him lost her shit. She started screaming “FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU” and the guy in front didn’t do anything to de-escalate the situation. He said a few things in response, mostly along the lines of “Fuck me? No, FUCK YOU!” or something equally stupid and unproductive.
I stopped to try to apologize and explain the situation to this screaming woman and her screaming companion. I tried to get across the idea that we don’t want to be on the sidewalk at all, we would never do so by choice, and hey, how cool would it be if infrastructure such as the Broadway Bridge had some space for us so we don’t have to risk our necks in traffic or bother pedestrians.
I could barely hear myself or them over the traffic and elevated train. I eventually just rode off.
I should stress that this woman wasn’t wrong, but all the same, had absolutely nothing to complain about. The rude guy in front of the pack didn’t pass her, didn’t cross paths. Nobody was hurt or even annoyed for a good reason. Still, if I put myself in the shoes of a pedestrian, as I do every day, I can see where this apoplectic woman is coming from. She was there, minding her own business, and this alien invasion just whooshed past her and frightened her. This hurts our cause.
Cyclists are painfully aware of themselves as a class of people in ways that pedestrians in this city are not. Those outside of our community feel the same way. It’s us and them. Our culture makes the most selfish, anti-social use of our streets as normal. We have been conditioned to think that it is normal and correct to cram our bodies onto narrow sidewalks that we share with piles of trash while half of our streets are devoted to the free storage of personal property for a small minority. We cyclists already seem like others, outsiders. This is why the optics of a bunch of speed demon roadies suddenly speeding through your neighborhood isn’t helpful.
The city needs more cycling infrastructure and drivers need to start seeing themselves as the interlopers. The chicken and egg problem here is that if you build it, they will come, but without a visible constituency to build for, we will be stuck in community board meetings pleading for our lives. Soon enough, we will hit an inflection point where New Yorkers think of cyclists as a part of the community, not outsiders.
The final NYC Century route was itself a sign that we are getting there. I felt so much safer than before, enjoying some fairly new protected lanes and calmer streets. I hope that more New Yorkers start to see cycling as a normal and safe thing to do on our streets, and driving a personal car as insane. There will be more old ladies pedaling helmetless, more dads carting a toddler or two to pre-school. We need more people on bikes, fewer cyclists.