Bike Riding In NYC: Tips From One Who Knows


As someone who’s ridden a bicycle around NYC for decades and has ended up in every possible resulting mishap, let me assure you that I’m always anxious to pick myself up and get right back on my two-wheeler, even if I look like an older version of Steve Carell’s 40-year-old virgin. Bike riding is good exercise, it pumps your endorphins, and it’s a great way to view changes in the city up close. Best of all, everything feels 15 minutes away and I’m never late for an appointment. And, as they say, most accidents happen at home anyway. Besides, how else would you get around? As scary as bike riding can be in this city, it beats waiting for a subway to arrive while desperately holding onto a column so no one can push you onto the tracks. And I’m here to tell you how to make it less scary. Here are my helpful biking tips.

Don’t get a Citi Bike

Don’t be a sheeple. Buy your own bike. This way you’re not constantly searching for a station to pick up a bike, then finding an empty dock to return it to, followed by a walk home. What was the point of getting a bike in the first place? With your own bicycle, you can go everywhere door to door while experiencing the pride of ownership. And if you truly think bringing the thing home would upset your feng shui, many buildings have bike racks in the basement, and if not, leaving it chained up outside is not as big a problem as you might think. Or hang it on the wall and say it’s a Duchamp!

When riding, never assume anything

Never assume that a pedestrian can’t appear out of nowhere and start running across the street, in the middle of the block, without even looking. Never assume that a pedestrian will use a crosswalk or that they won’t brazenly stride through a bike lane, oblivious to what it’s designated for. Never assume that a bike rider might not come barreling at you from the wrong direction and aim right for you, for no apparent reason. And don’t assume that just because a bike rider has a helmet, lights, and a bell, they must be obsessively into safety; many times, they only care about their own. When you assume …  you know the rest.

Don’t do anything a car driver
wouldn’t do

Don’t speed. Don’t go through red lights. Don’t ride on the sidewalk. Don’t ride against traffic. Oh, you’ve seen car drivers do some of those things? Well, then don’t do anything they shouldn’t do. I’m still alive because, years ago, when I was riding westward, I couldn’t see oncoming traffic going south—it was whirring behind a wall—so I made a point of not taking my green light too literally. I waited a few extra beats before I went forward, and during that lull, sure enough, a huge truck went speeding through its red light and surely would have turned me into roadkill. Even when there isn’t a wall, I look both ways before heeding a green light, especially since—again—bike riders come at you like pinballs from all directions. Don’t let the terrorists win!

Watch out for “dooring”

Is it too soon for another “never assume” item? Never assume that if a parked car looks empty and its lights aren’t on, there might not actually be someone in there and they might not be angling to do something brazen. “Dooring” happens when you’re riding past those parked cars and someone inside one of them flings the door open, making you go flying like a billionaire into outer space. The result is never pretty, and the suddenly bent car door is the least of the problems. If you’re thrown into the middle of the street by a careening door, you can easily end up ready for the next level of existence. To avert this situation, I advise that you stay at a careful distance from parked cars but also at a similar distance from traffic, maintaining a delicate balance between the two hazardous areas. Also, don’t speed (remember?) and always be ready to make a quick stop. That way, you might not get doored, and if you do, you’ll be much better off than if you were zooming and couldn’t step on the brakes. The trick is to halt the process rather than get thrown under a moving van.

Use bike lanes, but with caution

You have to use the bike lane if the street has one; I once got a ticket for not doing so, not to mention car drivers screaming epithets at me. And it’s a good idea to seek out streets that have those lanes. But a bike lane doesn’t make you automatically safe—far from it! I will never get tired of noting that other bike riders can be worse than car drivers. Some of them are downright looney; they seem to think they’re above the law and beyond all decency. In the midst of a whole battalion of them, you might feel like you’ve landed in some kind of deadly, real-life video game. Be vigilant—and don’t become one of the demons, either.

Always be prepared for someone to
cut you off

I beg you to ride in a straight line as much as possible, rather than make any sudden swerves. You’d be amazed how many bike riders do not bother to ring a bell or say something like “I’m on your right” as they cut you off from behind while whooshing into the night. When that happens, you realize that if you had veered even an inch off course, you would have been in very deep shit. You’d think these nutjobs would be afraid to provoke such accidents, but the truth is I never see them getting injured, only their victims. It’s one of the satanic givens about bike riding that the most aggressive rulebreakers seem to be Teflon. As a result, whenever I spot reckless bike riders, I think, “Yikes! They must have a death wish … for me.”

Don’t ride in the middle

Sometimes you decide to cross the street, but the light changes when you’re in the middle, so you suddenly have to move in a perpendicular direction. And you’re in the midst of all the traffic! It’s a nightmare because you have to keep pedaling while hoping the traffic on both sides of you doesn’t swipe your ass. The only good thing about this situation is that it provides excellent training for the staying-in-a-straight-line routine that I recommended in the previous rule. Even worse is when it’s a two-way street and you’re in the middle of vehicles going past you in both directions. Terrifying! You’ve never prayed so hard for the light to turn red again! Just stick to the bike lane at all times, and if there isn’t one, stay on one side of the street.

Don’t run over the waitstaff

In this Covid era, there are outdoor dining sheds and other alfresco eating areas everywhere you ride. If you see one, slow down and make sure you don’t run over a waiter holding today’s special. Come on, be a team player.

Be wary of riding in bad weather

If you absolutely have to ride somewhere in a heavy rain, it’s better to wear a poncho that covers your head than to hold an umbrella. Riding while applying the pressure of only one hand is so challenging it should be a circus act. Been there! And if it’s a heavy snow, think twice before going out at all. I would only approve such a trek if your bike has thick, sturdy tires and if you vow not to make any sudden turns in the slush; that’s when the bike slides to the ground and makes you an unwilling snow angel. Riding in heavy snow also makes it impossible to spot those awful potholes in your future. But don’t Google Image “Michael Musto bike snow” or you’ll see a photo of me ignoring all of this and bravely riding through a blizzard to Fashion Week. The devil in Prada made me do it!

Avoid bus lanes

They’re for buses. And those drivers can be extremely territorial. One of them recently barked, “Get back!” at me—and the whole neighborhood heard it because he had some kind of crazy sound system at the wheel. I dutifully obeyed, only to see the guy then plow through a red light.

Don’t hang bags from your handlebars

If you’ve just gone shopping, put the bags in either the bike’s basket or in a backpack or shoulder bag that’s attached to your being. Hanging bags from your handlebars risks them getting tangled in your wheels as you ride, making your groceries way less delectable, along with your life. Bag tangling usually results in the rider taking a nasty tumble, at which point you’ll be shopping for surgery.

Avoid smashed glass or gravel

If you see a mess of smashed granules ahead of you, do everything to (safely) swerve around them. Get off your bike and walk it on the sidewalk, if you need to. You might feel as if your bike can handle anything, but when you ride over all that debris, it’s just a matter of time before you hear air hissing out of the tires. And if you listen closely, the hiss is saying, “Told you so!”

Get good locks

Having to constantly replace stolen bikes is a chronic nuisance that could drive you back to the subway pole. So make sure you safeguard your property, especially if it’s a valuable item (unlike my $169.99 girl’s purple Huffy, though I do treasure it). The locks might cost even more than the bike itself, but it’s worth the investment. Protect your baby from the desperados! Meanwhile, don’t half-park your bike; make sure to lock the frame and both wheels to a pole. Also, don’t park it on a deserted side street, where thieves do most of their dirty deeds because there are no witnesses. And avoid leaving it in front of a hotel or luxury residential building—they love to slash your tires to discourage you from doing the same thing again. Wait, there’s more! Never park your bike over a grate: One slip of the hand and your keys are bye-bye. And don’t lock your bike against someone else’s in a way that makes it impossible for them to retrieve theirs if they come back first. If this has ever happened to you, you know how rage-making it can be. But otherwise, just relax and be yourself, lol.

Don’t cruise

That is, don’t get distracted by attractive people! One of the hazards of bike riding in nice weather is that you spot all sorts of beauties on the street, and a perfectly human impulse is to swing your head around and get a better look. (Friends of mine do this all the time, I swear.) But that’s when accidents happen, because you’ve become distracted from the minutiae of your journey at hand. Now is not your time to search for a spouse—so just keep your eyes on the road, honey. You also should never respond to someone on the sidewalk who’s noticed you and is screaming your name as you ride by. Looking back and trying to do some kind of face-to-face can be extremely messy. My advice is just to scream a simple, quick greeting in response –“Hey!”—and keep riding. Believe me, whatever they have to say to you is not terribly important, since they’ve obviously waited for a chance encounter to say it. And there’s always Facebook.

If you’re a mature person, be
extra careful

I should know. As I mentioned, I’m not a PYT myself—in fact, I’m so old that when I was in school, there was no history class. At a roasting event a few years ago, a drag queen quipped, “Watching Michael Musto ride his bike these days is an act of assisted suicide.” Just a joke, and I was able to laugh because I know I take precautions. And I remember seeing venerable photographer Bill Cunningham on his bike; he was sure to ride in a glacially slow manner, to avoid breaking anything. Bill barely moved at all—yet he got where he needed to go! So don’t think your age should prevent you from being on the road, but do make sure that it’s not your last ride.

Be wary of e-bikes

They’re expensive, they’re heavy, and the battery needs frequent charging. And I just bought one! But relax, I’m keeping my Huffy too.

If you see me coming at you, ride the other way!

I’m just sayin’.   ❖

Michael Musto is best known for his outspoken Village Voice column “La Dolce Musto,” which began in 1984. (With the Voice’s return, he is delighted to be back as a contributor.) He writes a gossip column for Queerty, has penned four books, found himself on the Out100 list of the most influential LGBTQs, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.

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