Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A frightened old man, an angry taxi driver - and why one big thing I fear is fearlessness

It was a rare moment when I felt sorry for a New York motorist. The elderly man, clearly confused about where to go, had got out of his car to assess where he was meant to turn at the Manhattan end of the Manhattan Bridge. But it was 11.30pm on a Friday; other drivers were impatient and he was blocking the left turn from Chrystie St into Canal St in Chinatown. “Honk!” “Hoooonk!” “Haaawnk!” His face expressed an emotion that’s all too familiar to me – fear of aggressively-driven cars. “What if one of these cars just slams into me?” he seemed to be thinking. “How can I most easily escape all this honking?”

New York City traffic: it certainly looks intimidating
The scene resonated with me. I’d not long before had an online conversation with someone who’d expressed regret that, although there was a new Citibike bikeshare station outside her house, she was too fearful to cycle in New York City. It just felt like far too great a risk, far too great a worry, she told me.

The exchange had heightened my awareness of the fundamental scariness of New York’s fast-moving traffic – and my own reaction to it. I feel concern when I hear a car speeding down a narrow, one-way street behind me. “Is it going to slow down when it reaches me?” I ask myself. “Will it tailgate me to intimidate me?” I worry when I ride through downtown Brooklyn in the mornings about anticipating the unpredictable behaviour of the drivers. The click in a car door that someone’s about to open sets off a spike of panic. People in other circumstances must feel something similar at hearing the cocking of an unseen gun. I used to feel similar alarm about cutting across the lanes of traffic around the Oval cricket ground in London during my commute to work there. “Get me out of here,” I’d think. “Any moment now, some idiot will come speeding round the blind corner.”

But my awareness of fear has also made me realise how year after year of daily cycle commuting in multiple different cities has changed my experience of the emotion. I’ve learned, I think, to manage my fear, to train it to push me towards the right decisions. I wish cycle commuting weren’t as stressful as it sometimes is and I know that riding a bike in a city isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sometimes feels. I also recognise that the health benefits from cycling on average outweigh the risks.

For the moment, however, I’m embracing the way my worries set off ancient fight-or-flight responses. I treasure how they keep me focused on riding as safely as I can amid what sometimes seems an almost unmanageably chaotic environment.

Smith St: challenging even on days without freezing rain.
That doesn't mean I wouldn't like a better cycling route to work, just as I yearned for improvements when I lived in South London. I head off each morning down Smith St in Brooklyn navigating round long lines of vehicles whose drivers clearly aren’t paying enough attention. They’ll lurch suddenly in or out of parking spaces. They’ll open doors unexpectedly. Drivers spot the side street they want and turn into it, oblivious to the idea they might be crossing someone else’s path.

The short – and generally less busy - section in Cobble Hill is still worse. Drivers floor their accelerators, speeding up like greyhounds released from traps. There, I look warily over my shoulder, knowing that, if I have to pull out of the narrow bike lane to avoid a car door, a pothole or a delivery truck, the cars could be moving too fast to avoid me. Then it’s back to a chaos of illegally double-parked cars, stray pedestrians and inattentive drivers. My stress levels and emotions swing wildly between the sections where I’m cut off from cars and can concentrate on riding – the Manhattan Bridge bike lane and Allen St in Manhattan – and the rest.
Allen St, Manhattan: believe it or not, this is one of the
least stressful spots on my daily commute
When I’m riding among motor vehicles, I enter a state that sometimes feels like hyper-consciousness. My attention has to dart from checking a set of traffic lights and the openness of the road ahead to focusing suddenly on the state of an individual car’s wheels. It’s badly parked and the driver’s just got in. Is it about to pull out in front of me? Oh, and just how deep is that new pothole? There’s no denying it’s so intense as sometimes to be invigorating.

I can't remember when the fear started pushing me towards safer, more sensible riding options. Once upon a time, I’d have let drivers scare me into riding right by the roadside even in the narrowest sections, where a passing car posed a serious danger. I’d let a car on my tail harass me into being uncertain about my line on the road, exasperating the impatient motorist more. I’d move back to the side of the road after swinging round a parked car as quickly as possible, without checking for obstacles in the bike lane or other riders. I’d ride in the door zone – the area where opening car doors are the biggest risk.

My anxiousness, I find now, makes me more resistant to shifting over to the side with a car on my tail, keeps me firmer in my line and makes me more cautious about making sudden changes of direction. My fear has become far better trained. It impels me constantly towards behaviour that every manual suggests is more likely to keep me safe than my former nervous, scared responses.
Hudson St, lower Manhattan: sure, you see
a magnificent urban thoroughfare. I see a
cycle lane I know is constantly blocked
by deliveries, food trucks and taxi drivers
So far from being a regrettable instinct in an urban cyclist, it strikes me, a well-trained fear is actually vital. It pushes me to go faster when the best way to avoid a motorist behind is to outrun him or her. It prompts me to go more slowly – with a better chance of stopping safely in an emergency – when in close proximity to seriously dangerous behaviour. It sometimes prompts me to pull over and let an aggressive motorist past on a narrow road – but only when I can safely do so.

My well-trained fear may even, it’s no exaggeration to say, have saved my life one morning in February. I was riding fast down Smith St’s cycle lane but scanning the cars. My gut instinct for when stupid behaviour is most likely had warned me of potential trouble. Sure enough, as I was almost upon it, the driver of a Ford Ranger pick-up truck pulled into my path, fast, without looking. Thanks to my inherent suspicion, I was already on my guard, aware of my surroundings and prepared to swerve left to get out of the way. I screamed “Stooooop!” at the top of my very loud voice. But I still felt a moment of certainty that I would land in the road. A mixture of my brakes, my screams and the driver’s belated response brought both of us to a halt only inches apart.

This well-trained fear, of course, isn’t going to keep me safe indefinitely. I already had it in 2009, when a car came from behind me in London, turned across my path and knocked me off. Most bike/car crashes are the motorist’s fault and there will be many circumstances where the cyclist can do nothing to avoid a motorist’s stupid behaviour.

Nor is there going to be mass cycling in rich world cities as long as things remain this intimidating. I’ve learnt how to train my fear because I have an itch to cycle. I might not have developed the itch to cycle if I’d known how scary it might sometimes feel.

But the most immediate downside to being hyper-aware of the risks one’s running is that it can produce a rather obsessive focus. That led me last Thursday into a position almost as dangerous as the ones I spend so much time avoiding.

Downtown Brooklyn, from afar. Not pictured:
homicidally negligent double parkers, furious limo drivers
Tired and frustrated as I rode home, I spotted a limousine parked blocking the bike lane at the corner of Smith and Fulton Streets. Since the driver was lounging on the vehicle, which he could easily have parked somewhere less dangerous, and since I was tired of pulling out round illegally-parked cars into traffic, I pulled up behind him and asked him to move.

Meeting a volley of abuse, including assertions that the United States was a “free country” and that I should “back the f*** off,” I decided to take a picture of the driver and licence plate, send it to the Taxi and Limousine Commission and leave it at that. I quickly found myself confronting a still angrier driver, who made grabs for both my camera and my bike.

Aware now of my misjudgement, I rode off to collect my thoughts. “You’re a white devil!” I could hear him shouting as I pulled out my phone to email myself his registration number. I was no longer feeling the constructive, focused, well-trained fear I experience when navigating the streets. I was undergoing the humiliating fear of someone who’s run away from a fight. My hands were shaking.

It was partly because of that experience I felt such fellow-feeling the following evening at seeing the frightened motorist. I wish big, western cities' traffic conditions weren't so apt to frighten people.

But somehow I still feel more dread in the pit of my stomach at the idea of a day when snow will stop me riding than at a repetition of the row with the Angry Limo Driver of Downtown Brooklyn. I even accept with some kind of resignation that I might, in future, not avoid a badly-driven car and might suffer another injury.

I shrink from some of the individual battles, it seems. But in the long run, in the war to keep riding, I don’t want to surrender.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A snowy park, a wintry spin - and the joys of no longer being a flabby teenager

It’s not the kind of issue that normally preoccupies me while I’m cycling. But, glancing down at my bike computer, I could see my pace had dropped. Where shortly before the average speed figure had been showing 16.5mph, it was now showing 15.1. The dip gave me fresh determination. “Speed up!” I ordered myself. “Reach the top of the hill without dipping below 15!” A few seconds later, I crested the hill in Prospect Park, near my house in Brooklyn, with my computer still showing a 15mph average speed. Slipping my chain onto the biggest chainring, I sped up off down the hill towards Grand Army Plaza.
Prospect Park in the snow: however badly I ride round it,
it's a breathtaking backdrop for my humiliation

This wasn’t my normal kind of bike riding, however. I’d seen earlier in the day the forecast for yet more snow for New York City – it’s already the city’s seventh-snowiest winter on record – and I thought my chances of commuting by bike in the next few days were limited. I consequently decided, although I didn't have anywhere to go, to use a break in the weather to get some exercise. Checking that I had no immediate domestic responsibilities, I slipped off after church for a very brief bout of cycling purely for the physical activity.

I’ve found myself, when I’ve been undertaking these rides, involved in an activity that’s both entirely familiar to me and rather alien. I’m used, of course, to riding my bicycle (even if this winter has made that hard-going at times). I’m accustomed, however, to focusing on getting where I’m going in one piece – which can be demanding in a city full of angry drivers and bad road surfaces. I’m not used to focusing on the cycling – or its effect on my body – for its own sake.
A clear road amid deep snow: how Prospect Park has looked
for much of this miserable, long winter
I’ve been interested to discover how negative many of the associations in my mind of taking pure exercise are. As my pulse rises and my breath grows wheezier, I’m back amid the humiliations of a secondary school playing field. I feel the scorn of the teachers and my fellow, marginally less inept pupils for my uselessness at playing rugby union. As steely-faced weekend road warriors pass me, their wheels making the distinctive rumble of expensive carbon-fibre, I feel fat, lethargic and more than a little silly.

And, yet, I have to remind myself, it is this alien activity – rather than my daily transport cycling – that many people regard as the most authentic way to ride a bicycle.

This isn’t to say I’ve never cycled just for the sake of it before. My love for cycling developed substantially during my years at St Andrews University, when I’d ride off some Saturdays or Sundays towards Crail, Anstruther or one of the other nearby fishing villages. The whipping coastal winds would propel me one way. Then, after I started heading back, I’d have to dip my head down into the wind and speed along the quiet, undulating country roads across the moors.

That early, carefree exploration culminated in the summer of 1990, when I alternated between working at clearing out my recently-deceased grandfather’s house and spending days exploring Scotland. I’d head off in the morning for a ride that took me up the shore of the Gareloch – a ride made spookier by the area’s hosting the tightly-secured base for the UK’s nuclear missile submarines. I’d head back to Glasgow via the shores of Loch Lomond. I’d ride, pushed by the prevailing winds, from Glasgow to Dunfermline in the morning. Then I’d push down hard on the pedals and hunch down for a long ride back – via the Forth Road Bridge and into the wind - west.
"It's nice out here," remarks my bike during a rare trip outside
New York. "Why don't we do this more often?"
I didn’t find things too complicated back then. I wore no helmet, carried no supplies, rode a very basic Raleigh bike and worried about pretty much nothing. Caught in a tropical-style West-of-Scotland summer downpour? Dry yourself off under the hand dryers in the lavatories at lunchtime. Bit off more than you could chew with this 100-mile ride? Stop in every other village for a pint of milk to glug down.

I’ve had occasional bouts of just-for-the-sake-of-it riding since then, albeit the time constraints and obligations of adult life have curtailed them. When I lived in London, I’d occasionally make it to Richmond Park – the vast royal park in south-west London - where rides are enlivened by the possibility of a collision with a big, wandering deer. Last summer, with the family absent, I took two long rides over New York City’s boundaries, over into New Jersey and up into Westchester.
Bored with just riding round the park in circles?
Why not ride round it on a tall bike, like this guy?
But there’s something about riding in circles in Prospect Park – Brooklyn’s smaller equivalent of Central Park, non-New Yorkers – that feels far more self-consciously like Exercise - or Training, as it's now been rebranded - than any long trip to the different scenery out of town. The other riders in Prospect Park mostly wear the set, grim expression of a person battling to wrest back top spot on some Strava segment. Most seem to form a spooky unity of body, bike and clothing. Shoes merge into pedals, gloves into handlebars. The helmet might as well be some final, elaborate cap on top of the whole bike, rider, clothes ensemble, rather than a separate piece of clothing.

No-one would make that mistake with me. I arrived in Prospect Park last Sunday wearing woollen trousers, a cotton shirt and leather shoes. My waterproof jacket, trouser straps, helmet and gloves were my only cycling-specific clothing. And, of course, I was not wearing my clothes over a body honed by constant training for some forthcoming triathlon. I carry about in my body the evidence of thousands of late nights at work, followed by dashes home and swallowings of hurried dinners with wine. My clothes and body were both as floppy and aerodynamically-inefficient as many other riders’ were taut and tight-fitting. I look what I am - like a cyclist whose rides are nearly all, in sports cyclists' dismissive term, "junk miles".

That self-consciousness only rose as I started to ride, heading down the hill towards Flatbush, and sped along the road between the lake and the parade grounds at the park’s lower end. It became clear as I started climbing the hill – the ridge over which British and American forces fought the battle of Brooklyn in 1776 – that I was making an effort. I started to breathe hard and wondered why I always seem to have a cold. I briefly felt myself once again 15 and on a mud-spattered, rain-soaked cross-country run.

But much of the reward of this exercise is that I’m avoiding not doing it. In weeks when it’s been hard or impossible to ride, I’ve built up a deep twitchiness at my lack of activity, the shortage of time spent outside, a feeling of being trapped when commuting, sedentary, on the subway. Even a short, fast ride starts to scratch that itch.
Me - and my body - in The Bronx. There are
no excuses for my beer belly,
so I'll make none.
And, as I powered up the hill, I remembered that I was no longer entirely the unfit, unco-ordinated teenager. While my flabby torso isn’t much of an advert for commuter cycling, it sits atop a pair of legs that have spent years propelling me to 4,000 miles or more a year of riding first through South London and, now, daily between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Even if some of the weekend warriors overtake me on a climb, I generally gain the occasional, minor victory, pumping my legs up the hill past one of them.

I started to feel the pleasure of how a bicycle magnifies one’s effort. Pumping my legs, I climbed the hill smoothly by my standards, at around a steady 14mph. Down the hill, my biggest gears propel me to close to the park’s 25mph limit and I felt the childish sense of joy that always comes with giving oneself over to gravity’s acceleration. I started to feel a deep sense of contentment - the result, I imagine, of the release of endorphins, the exercise-related high that people keener on exercise for its own sake chase so hard.

I realised after a while that that feeling of contentment wasn't unfamiliar. I recognised how much of the time when I’m riding I’m running late, pushing myself to reach the next lights before they turn red, powering up the Manhattan Bridge to avoid being late for a meeting, switching to the big chainring to get uptown faster, accelerating away from traffic lights to get out of the way of that badly-driven taxi.

There’s no immediate danger of commuter cycling’s turning me into a lean, efficient cycling machine like the ones whirling efficiently round Prospect Park each weekend. But, as I turned out of the park again and prepare once again to tackle the indifferent conditions of New York City’s streets, there was no doubting that I was feeling better.

I appreciate with my higher brain centres the many more and practical reasons why more and safer cycling would make the city a better place. But the deep satisfaction that I felt flooding through my body reminded me that, no matter how deep my embarrassment, I retain a childish joy at the simple act of riding a bicycle. The day it starts to fade will be the day I feel as old as I look.