When I first began riding a bicycle as a serious means of transportation, I was living in New York City. It was 2001, and the World Trade Center had just collapsed after terrorists hijacked several airplanes and flew them into the buildings.
When it happened, I was a mile away, and could see the buildings burning, gashes of flame across them as if they’d been bitten by giant teeth.
My boyfriend had either ridden his bike to work or taken the subway, and I had no way of knowing which. If he’d taken the subway, he’d have been coming up through World Trade Center station right around the time of the attacks. I couldn’t reach him on the phone.
For two or three hours I couldn’t reach him on the phone. I remember standing on the street with tears running down my face with no awareness of how they got there, thinking, “This is how people on the news cry. They don’t know they’re doing it.”
Then he walked into my office, ghost-grey, with soot and ash covering him entirely, eyes, mouth, nose, body. He said nothing, just walked into the bathroom and stayed there for ten minutes. He came out still choking, having had to wash the grey powder out of his throat so he could speak. He grabbed me and we left.
Turns out he had ridden to work that day.
After that day, I began riding my bicycle in the city. Sixteen miles each way, from Queens where my boyfriend lived (he was too traumatized to let me out of his sight, so I gave up my Manhattan apartment) to my job in Soho. The long way, through Midtown and across to the Westside Highway, then down to Bleecker and back over. Mostly because I didn’t know any better; years later I learned how to cut through Long Island City into Brooklyn and thence to the East Village over the Williamsburg Bridge.
I learned the hard way how to manage intense city traffic. I learned fast, because it was do that, or don’t make it where you’re going. The first two weeks I iced my knees every night, and could barely move on weekends. After that it got easier. My body hardened up, my awareness sharpened, my reflexes – well, let’s just say one night at my sister’s house I grabbed a falling glass of water in my left hand, mid-air, without spilling a drop. Shocked, she started calling me Spidey.
I realize this sounds like bragging, and in a minor way it is, but I want you to know how I came to this biking life. I could spend a hundred years writing and probably never be able to fully describe what living on the bike means to me, but there’s a good reason stories begin at the beginning. And the beginning of this story is a terrorist attack, and a need to not risk getting trapped underground in the time of nightmarish uncertainty that followed.
I was out in the rain tonight, on a grocery trip that turned into a non-grocery trip because all I really wanted to do was get out and ride, and at some point I started having one of those imaginary conversations in which I’m trying out language to explain something that the other person is unlikely to grok. What I was saying to this non-specific, nonexistent other person was that I don’t just choose not to drive because I’m concerned about the environment (I am), or because I like riding everywhere I go (I do). I don’t wish I had a car when it’s raining, I don’t want a ride from someone when I’m tired, and it’s not stubbornness or trying to prove a point.
I actively dislike being in cars. During the rare times when I’m riding in or driving one, I feel awful. It feels like we’re going way too fast, even at speeds considered low by motor vehicle standards. I’m keenly aware of how little attention other people in the car, and in the other cars on the road, are paying to the complicated road environment. I feel trapped in an airless box, unable to react naturally. Unable to dive for the snowbank, unable to twitch and avoid the rabbit leaping into my wheel, unable to do any of the hundreds of subtle maneuvers my body knows how to do to keep me and the bike up and moving and unharmed.
Few things in life put you as intimately in touch with your physical being as riding a bicycle. On the bike, I inhabit all the corners of myself – muscle, flesh, bone, nerves, sight, sound, feel, balance, breath, beating heart. I know myself on the bike, and while I’m riding it, the bike is more part of me than a separate thing.
You want me to give that up to keep from getting rain on my face?