Like a lot of us, I spent much of my childhood riding bikes, but fell out of the habit for a while. Forty years. Then my wife and I moved to New York, where cyclists risk their necks in a daily Thunderdome of cabs, police cars, firetrucks, double-decker buses, messengers on motorbikes, and delivery trucks backing around corners at 20 miles an hour. Not for me! At least not until my 50th birthday, when my metabolic furnace flamed out. Calories started going directly from beer bottle to beer belly. It was time to start exercising. Either that or give up Samuel Adams, and I couldn’t do that to Sam.
I started on a stationary bike in a gym. Working up a sweat while watching TV, I could see how many calories I was burning: about 200 in a half-hour at a smooth pace, enough to cancel out one beer. I felt stronger and more alert afterward, but there was something unsatisfying about being an aging, balding guy working hard to get nowhere. Call it a midbike crisis – I longed to get outdoors again.
On my 55th birthday, my wife bought me an all-black cruiser with fat tires and wide handlebars. That bike is as indestructible as I feel when I’m on it. Riding around Manhattan, I stuck to bike paths along the Hudson River at first, feeling the wind blowing through where my hair used to be. Little by little I branched out into the city.
I was a late-life convert to a fast-growing trend. “Walking and jogging are awesome, but you cover so much more ground on a bike. There’s no better way to explore a new city or the town where you live,” says Steve Taylor, a spokesman (get it?) for the League of American Bicyclists, a nonprofit group with more than 100,000 members. He calls biking a healthy, environmentally friendly alternative to sitting in a car, “not just for young people or fitness buffs, but for businesspeople who might not have been on a bike since they were kids. It has never been easier for grown-ups to ride, and it’s getting easier every year.”
Each year brings thousands of miles of new bike lanes all over the world. In the United States, programs modeled on those in cities like Paris and Amsterdam are making bike-sharing the Zipcar of human-powered transport. New York’s Citi Bike, the nation’s largest, boasts 100,000 members. Others include Boston’s Hubway and Chicago’s Divvy.
Like most cyclists my age, I’m not out for thrills, chills, or medals. Whenever I’m tempted to race a rider who’s zipping up behind me, I remember the day I spent with Lance Armstrong when he was Tour de France champion. When I asked how he could possibly dominate world-class cyclists who were doping if he wasn’t doping, he gave me an icy look and said, “Hard work. Any other questions?”
I had one. “Any advice for a cyclist my age?”
He looked me over and said, “Don’t fall off.”
I have tried to live by Lance’s advice. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to ride across the Brooklyn Bridge without running into a tourist. They’re always stepping into the bike lane without warning, smiling for selfies. Later, rubbing Neosporin on my scabs, I console myself by thinking of people all over the globe enjoying photos of their trip to New York, with me as a blur in the background, skidding off my bike.
By now I’ve traversed more than 10,000 miles of the five boroughs, from Tribeca to West Harlem and back, under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges to the United Nations building, across the 59th Street Bridge to Queens and from there to Red Hook, Brooklyn, where the Statue of Liberty looks you right in the eye – enough mileage to feel I belong here as much as any mogul in a limousine. I can tell you more about New York’s nooks and crannies than Donald Trump, who choppers to a New Jersey airport from a Manhattan helipad that I pass a couple of times a week.
One day I detoured to Grant’s Tomb, a granite colonnade in Riverside Park in Harlem. Guess who’s buried there? Fifty blocks from there, the 40-foot-tall Little Red Lighthouse stands guard over a stretch of the Hudson River that English warships and American colonists once fought over. I took a wrong turn near there and found myself pedaling madly between speeding cars and semitrailers on a ramp to the George Washington Bridge. That was my second-worst wrong turn. The worst was the day I hung a left instead of a right and found myself in the middle of Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. I didn’t know if I should plow through the marching band ahead of me, or stop and sing.
Seven miles south of Macy’s, in a desolate part of Brooklyn, you can pedal across a Superfund site where toxic sludge flows into New York Harbor. Every now and then you’ll see a fisherman pull a striped bass out of the Gowanus Canal. Can’t say I would like to join him for dinner, but it’s good to see signs of life. And that, in the end, might be the biggest difference between biking and other modes of moving. On foot, you can’t cover much ground. In a car, you might as well be in a submarine. On a bike, you get to see and hear and smell the world. You can put down your kickstand anywhere you want.
I often ride a 12-mile circuit from Brooklyn to Queens and back, with a detour over a drawbridge to Roosevelt Island, a thin slab of turf and pavement in the middle of the East River. I set out with supplies in my pockets – nuts, a bagel, a bag of cat snacks – because I’ll be meeting some friends along the way. There’s a colony of feral cats on Roosevelt Island, a dozen notch-eared strays that shelter in a hut that a friendly carpenter built for them. They come out for tuna-flavored treats when I stop by. Sparrows, pigeons, gulls, and Canada geese tussle over bits of bagel. From there it’s four miles to a park where some of the squirrels know me. Riding up to a spot where they nest in an oak tree, I’ll make a clicking noise. The squirrels hear human voices all the time, not to mention car horns, sirens, leaf blowers, and a hundred other city sounds, but only one human clicker. They don’t know English and I don’t know rodent, but they understand the signal: It’s the peanut guy! They pile out of a hole in the oak, one after another, looking for lunch. And in a world of inequality, politics, violence, and other terrors, it’s a relief to spend a minute with creatures that are absolutely delighted simply to get a peanut.
Now my family and I are moving to a college town in Massachusetts. I hear they’ve got more than 1,000 miles of bike trails up there. The squirrels of Massachusetts will have to learn the signal.
Like to bike? Join Rotary’s International Fellowship Cycling to Serve. Find out more at cycling2serve.org.
Kevin Cook’s next book, Electric October, will be published in the fall.