On Being Loud on a Bike

I’d seen the obscene yellow plenty of times before, sure in person, but also in pictures hanging on walls in far off places, but this New York City taxi was closer, much closer. Biking north out of lower Manhattan on a one way street, the Ford Escape edged closer and closer to me, with purpose, its tires rolling from the black asphalt and onto the green of my bike lane. 

Commuting to work in NYC, nine miles each way, was one of the things that made an otherwise cramped and crowded city feel expansive and free. As someone who loves the outdoors, being on the road in the sun rather than underground on my way to work made me love where I was rather than wish I was somewhere else. I’d avoided the streets before. They seemed inhospitable, aggressive, but on my bike, the city cracked open for me. The sights and sounds swelled. People’s love of NYC began to make sense.

And the riding in the city was unlike anything I had experienced. It reminded me of the few white water rafting trips I had taken growing up. Sure, they give you a paddle and tell you where to aim, but in reality you are at the mercy of the river. You don’t steer, or drive. It is more of a ride, always on the edge of losing control, and that’s what makes it fun. Cruising down the bike paths, lanes and cobbled streets of New York City always felt the same: moving quickly, avoiding pedestrians and busses, riding the surges of the city, trying to hold on. I’m not a morning person, but I was awake as I’d ever be each morning when I arrived at work.

But this spring morning, I’d be a bit late. As the cab glided toward me, plowing toward a left turn, I had a calm sense of exactly what was happening. I was being hit by a car. The world slowed. There was nothing to do. It was a weird peaceful paralysis. The cab was going to hit me. It felt inevitable. But it didn’t need to be.

With the bike tumbling behind me, I glided toward the road surface, hands outstretched. It wasn’t until the skin on the palms of my hands scraped off that the world sped up again. I awkwardly rolled on to my shoulder, my helmet bouncing off the asphalt. The cab slammed on its brakes, and that corner of NYC caught its breath.

I did a quick self-assessment. With adrenaline pumping and heart racing, I couldn’t feel any pain. So, I looked: not too much blood, nothing pouring out of me, no bones sticking in directions they shouldn’t be. With exception of scrapes and some formidable bruises, I had been lucky. That’s when the cabbie looked down at me, one arm casually hanging over the window edge, and said “I had the right of way.” I was stunned into a rare silence. As I lay there, in the bike lane, where I certainly had the right of way, I was offered no apology, no inquiry as to my health. I was being scolded, for daring to be on the road. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

What followed was my favorite moment in NYC, the one where I felt most like a citizen of the city. A woman on the corner exploded at the man. “You did not have the F***ING right of way! You are in the bike lane. You just hit that man!” Others joined in, shouting, berating the driver. He rolled up his window, swerved around me and my bike, and drove off.

My bike fared about as well as I had. My chain was broken, my derailleur smashed in, the tape of my bars torn to shreds, but it would roll again. As I inspected it, the concerned woman, and others, came up to me, making sure I was alright, while complaining about the now escaped driver.

I was about an hour and a half late to work that day after sorting out how to limp my bicycle there. I’d be fine. I’d fix my bike. But I learned something about biking. It is not enough to take up the space you’re owed. Being is not enough to be safe. You have to be seen, and as I learned is often more effective, heard.

Before every ride, I’d prepare myself to be loud, to shout, to bang on the side of vans as they glided into me, to yell “Bike lane!” at pedestrians stepping off the curb looking in the wrong direction, to whistle at cars that went to turn out in front of me.

Sometimes, you just have to be loud on a bike. Absent any motor noise or pneumatic horn, our best bet is often a shout. I haven’t lived in NYC in a few years now, but this is no less true in my current small Vermont town. Just last week as I cycled the speed limit down the center of the narrow street through the middle of town, with lights flashing, I had to shout at a low slung  Volvo station wagon as it tried to pull out from the general store and into my side. I got a sheepish wave, far better than the blunt nose of a few thousand pounds of steel.

Get used to shouting on a bike. Do it loud, do it early and do it even when you’re not sure it’s necessary. Biking is a great way to get around, and safety devices like helmets, lights and reflective gear help to keep us safe. But it is also essential to be an active rider. Don’t be afraid to make your presence heard. If I had, I might not have spilled across that Manhattan road.

I’d seen the obscene yellow plenty of times before, sure in person, but also in pictures hanging on walls in far off places, but this New York City taxi was closer, much closer. Biking north out of lower Manhattan on a one way street, the Ford Escape edged closer and closer to me, with purpose, its tires rolling from the black asphalt and onto the green of my bike lane. 

Commuting to work in NYC, nine miles each way, was one of the things that made an otherwise cramped and crowded city feel expansive and free. As someone who loves the outdoors, being on the road in the sun rather than underground on my way to work made me love where I was rather than wish I was somewhere else. I’d avoided the streets before. They seemed inhospitable, aggressive, but on my bike, the city cracked open for me. The sights and sounds swelled. People’s love of NYC began to make sense.

And the riding in the city was unlike anything I had experienced. It reminded me of the few white water rafting trips I had taken growing up. Sure, they give you a paddle and tell you where to aim, but in reality you are at the mercy of the river. You don’t steer, or drive. It is more of a ride, always on the edge of losing control, and that’s what makes it fun. Cruising down the bike paths, lanes and cobbled streets of New York City always felt the same: moving quickly, avoiding pedestrians and busses, riding the surges of the city, trying to hold on. I’m not a morning person, but I was awake as I’d ever be each morning when I arrived at work.

But this spring morning, I’d be a bit late. As the cab glided toward me, plowing toward a left turn, I had a calm sense of exactly what was happening. I was being hit by a car. The world slowed. There was nothing to do. It was a weird peaceful paralysis. The cab was going to hit me. It felt inevitable. But it didn’t need to be.

With the bike tumbling behind me, I glided toward the road surface, hands outstretched. It wasn’t until the skin on the palms of my hands scraped off that the world sped up again. I awkwardly rolled on to my shoulder, my helmet bouncing off the asphalt. The cab slammed on its brakes, and that corner of NYC caught its breath.

I did a quick self-assessment. With adrenaline pumping and heart racing, I couldn’t feel any pain. So, I looked: not too much blood, nothing pouring out of me, no bones sticking in directions they shouldn’t be. With exception of scrapes and some formidable bruises, I had been lucky. That’s when the cabbie looked down at me, one arm casually hanging over the window edge, and said “I had the right of way.” I was stunned into a rare silence. As I lay there, in the bike lane, where I certainly had the right of way, I was offered no apology, no inquiry as to my health. I was being scolded, for daring to be on the road. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

What followed was my favorite moment in NYC, the one where I felt most like a citizen of the city. A woman on the corner exploded at the man. “You did not have the F***ING right of way! You are in the bike lane. You just hit that man!” Others joined in, shouting, berating the driver. He rolled up his window, swerved around me and my bike, and drove off.

My bike fared about as well as I had. My chain was broken, my derailleur smashed in, the tape of my bars torn to shreds, but it would roll again. As I inspected it, the concerned woman, and others, came up to me, making sure I was alright, while complaining about the now escaped driver.

I was about an hour and a half late to work that day after sorting out how to limp my bicycle there. I’d be fine. I’d fix my bike. But I learned something about biking. It is not enough to take up the space you’re owed. Being is not enough to be safe. You have to be seen, and as I learned is often more effective, heard.

Before every ride, I’d prepare myself to be loud, to shout, to bang on the side of vans as they glided into me, to yell “Bike lane!” at pedestrians stepping off the curb looking in the wrong direction, to whistle at cars that went to turn out in front of me.

Sometimes, you just have to be loud on a bike. Absent any motor noise or pneumatic horn, our best bet is often a shout. I haven’t lived in NYC in a few years now, but this is no less true in my current small Vermont town. Just last week as I cycled the speed limit down the center of the narrow street through the middle of town, with lights flashing, I had to shout at a low slung  Volvo station wagon as it tried to pull out from the general store and into my side. I got a sheepish wave, far better than the blunt nose of a few thousand pounds of steel.

Get used to shouting on a bike. Do it loud, do it early and do it even when you’re not sure it’s necessary. Biking is a great way to get around, and safety devices like helmets, lights and reflective gear help to keep us safe. But it is also essential to be an active rider. Don’t be afraid to make your presence heard. If I had, I might not have spilled across that Manhattan road.