Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Riding Brooklyn - A First Look

Brooklyn is a better place to bicycle than I had thought. Two weeks ago during a break from the cold weather I started out on what I'd planned to be a short ride from my apartment in Park Slope. I rode the half block to Prospect Park and the three mile road around the park’s perimeter. Then, I decided to explore Brooklyn. I rode out of the park at the southeast corner roundabout. From there I continued West along 15th street toward Red Hook. I wanted to see how long it would take me to get to Home Depot, where I had walked the weekend before in a half hour.

By bike the trip took just five minutes, but seemed much shorter. When I got to busy Third Avenue I bypassed the store, turned left and began to ride south deep into Brooklyn. Third Avenue is a wide, busy road lined with cement-colored factories and warehouses. I’d hoped to ride for just a short distance and and find a place where I could turn right, toward New York Harbor, and ride along the water. But a row of industrial buildings lining the waterfront continued for blocks, blocking access to the harbor.

I rode about a mile and finally saw an opening. I turned right on what was probably 45th Street and ended up at the parking lot of the New York Maritime Armory (or something similarly named). The gate to the parking lot was open, yet the presence of a manned guard station made the place look unwelcome. I continued instead down a narrow road between one of the armory buildings and a factory, and came upon a quarter mile long ferry pier.

There were no boats on the pier. There was a group of fisherman, however, at the far end. Mostly short Mexicans that seemed somehow out of place on the waters of New York, four or five of them stood around talking while their poles leaned motionless on the pier railing. Nothing bit at their lines. I sat down on a bench and looked out directly into New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. To my right, surprisingly far away, was Manhattan. The City barely rises out of the water. A wave could cover it. Straight ahead was Staten Island, with its hills that slope high out of the harbor. I started to get cold, and got back on my bike.

Back on Third Avenue I continued South. Around 60th Street the warehouses disappeared, replaced by three story residential buildings with storefronts. A main street of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

…to be continued…

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

An accomplishment, a crash, and a new neighborhood

It has been almost four months since my last post and a lot has happened. First, I reached my goal of riding at least 25 miles per week for a year. I exceeded the goal, reaching 1525 total miles for a real average of just over 29 miles a week. There was only one week during the year that I didn't ride the minimum without good reason (flu, away on vacation). I'm proud that I managed to stick to my plan. I finished the "year" on November 7, a year after I installed a computer onto my Trek 800.

Tragedy very nearly struck soon thereafter. In mid-November I was riding my bike down a hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I had a head on collision with a car. I am fine, but I was EXTREMELY lucky. The Trek 800 was totaled, its rear triangle folded sideways. I was too close to oncoming traffic, my fault, and as I was riding down the hill, too fast, a car suddenly appeared around the curve in front of me, far to its left, blocking my way. Our combined closing speed was probably about 35 miles per hour, at least. I had just a split second to react, and slammed on my rear brake and skidded sideways into the car rather than hit it head on. My bike hit the left side front bumper of the car, I flew in the air over and beside the car, taking off the rear view mirror with some part of my body in the process. I landed somewhere near the rear left part of the car and bounced up immediately to my feet, searching out the woman who drove the car and telling her that I was allright. I was fine, but felt immediately ashamed of myself. I had been going too fast and had been over too far and it was stupid, and this poor woman who was driving her car was probably terrified to death. As it turned out, I think she was overwhelmingly relieved that I was OK.

The state of her car revealed the violence of our impact. Half of the front bumper was shattered and torn from the car, as well as the plastic lining that rides over the wheel inside the the front left wheel well. We spent a few minutes cleaning up bits of bumper from the road and tearing off the dangling pieces that remained attached. She continually asked me if I was okay and I was. Later on I found a medium bruise on my left thigh and a nasty bruise under my right groin, where I think I may have slammed into my seat while being thrown off the bike. I checked my bike and found that the rear triangle was bent and the rear wheel folded. We exchanged phone numbers and went on our way. I was very lucky. The woman, I hope, has been able to forget about the accident somewhat but I imagine she's a bit terrified while driving these days...

Somehow I wasn't completely surprised that I'd gotten into the accident. I've been riding in New York for the last four years, and with time I've become too comfortable in traffic (see my June 30 post). When I first took to the New York streets I was terrified, hyper alert and cautious. Riding in the city was overwhelming, but I needed to navigate the urban grid at least part of the ride to work (I rode on the West Side bike path most of the way, but would have about a mile and a half of unavoidable city street riding downtown near the office), on rides to Central Park and on rides north to the George Washington Bridge and into New Jersey.

I never had a harrowingly close call during those four years. There were a few occasions when a driver would deliberately cut me off, but somehow that didn't scare me because the strafings were intentional. It's the completely out of the blue stuff that gets you in New York City. And, telling from the number of bike accidents I hear about on the news and read about in the paper, there are ample opportunities for the unexpected in this City. But, for a long time I remained vigilant and I had no accidents.

Over the last few months, though, something began to change. I'd find myself riding down busy 14th street looking at storefronts, my own shoes or making sure that my commuter bag was securely fastened to the rack. At the same time, New York city traffic, including whale sized busses, aggressive taxis and skittish drivers from the suburbs lurched and flowed around me, often in evening darkness. I'd look up from whatever I was doing and find that I'd come dangerously close to the car in front of me. Or, that the traffic environment I'd been riding in had changed dramatically in the past five seconds that I wasn't paying attention, and I'd quickly have to readjust. I'd berate myself for not paying attention, regain focus for a few minutes, but then return to my newly formed bad habit of casually looking around instead of watching the road. I knew I was going to get myself into trouble, but I'd been lulled by four uneventful years of city street riding into a general state of dangerous casualness while on my bike.

I'm sure that for too many riders, this is the final sensation of their lives. I got comfortable, I got overconfident and I got in a bad wreck. I also got extremely lucky.

I have since moved to Brooklyn, which is a completely different riding environment. Fortunately I live near Prospect Park, which has a three mile, car free loop that is full of cyclists. However, away from this oasis Brooklyn is far from bicycle friendly, "bike paths" are nothing more than white-lined sections on major streets and a long ride is required to get to anyplace that is safe and open for riders. I have yet to ride to work because it means riding over the Manhattan Bridge directly into the sprawling, crawling streets of Chinatown, followed by a voyage across downtown Manhattan during rush hour. I may take the long route, riding the bike path around the southern tip of Manhattan and up the west side bike path, but this will only partially help. We'll see. I don't imagine that I can keep off the streets forever. But I'll have to rewire my brain. I also have a new bike, a Kona Dew Deluxe, that I'm eager (though not dying!) to work out.