How I overcame the fear of riding without giving up caution

When I first started cycling in New York City I was absolutely terrified. I had just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where biking was more of a leisurely activity and requires less commitment. It took me months to get on the roads here and once I did, I was convinced that city cyclists were insane to consider bike commuting a viable option. The roads are pocked from brutal winters, cabs drive the way three year olds color, and many cyclists––who might as well be wearing blinders and earmuffs––act as though they are alone on the streets.

It was my third ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan that changed me. Nothing extraordinary happened––except I survived. In truth it was a combination of things. First, I realized that riding erased the worry of delayed trains. Second, I could carry a change of clothes (or buy sweet, fashionable cycling gear), so I didn’t have to arrive at the office looking like a banshee or the Swamp Thing. And third, I was developing some kick-ass calf muscles.

After I started riding on a regular basis, I noticed that I had been subtly inducted into a pseudo-secret society. People were amazed when I showed up in Midtown on my bike: “You rode?!” And when I stopped at stoplights pedestrians thanked me on a regular basis. I was passing people on the straightaways; I was balancing on my pedals at lights; I was considering the best footwear for riding. I was hooked. I was a devout city cyclist, with or without a club T-shirt or special handshake.

And then, slowly, I noticed hints of ‘New Guy’ syndrome. I would be riding across town wearing a helmet, looking both ways, using brakes, and stopping at lights. When, from behind me would come a herd of bravado––running every light, blowing past when I slowed for a crossing pedestrian.

I’ll be honest; it’s not just the guys. But guys are still the majority of city riders (though StreetsBlog says the gender gap is decreasing), and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to claim that guys have set the bar out there. It seems to have become the creed of the street to pass, out-pedal and outmaneuver anyone ahead of you, at any cost. Despite the recent well-worded (and much appreciated) rant in the Wall Street Journal, the majority of cyclists treat the streets like a skate park. But let me be clear: I have no interest in taking these kinds of risks; it’s dangerous and irresponsible.

So what is the moral of the story? It’s ok to be afraid of cycling in New York City; in fact, it’s probably imperative. Of course cars are by far the more frightening menace, but other cyclists are a close second. If the number of cautious riders outnumbered the speed-racers and agro riders, it would probably make the roads a more appealing place to cycle. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d love it if there were more bikes on the road than cars. And if, like this article in The New York Times has us believe, women are more timid about riding, then please ladies, go out and form ranks of careful riders. I’d really appreciate some company at red lights.


Genevieve Walker is a freelance journalist and illustrator living and cycling in New York City. Currently working on a masters in journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter journalism institute, Genevieve writes about bikes, coffee, art and rituals. To read more of her work, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.
twitter: @pickled

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4 Responses to Being a Lady Cyclist in New York City

  1. Karen says:

    I used to be one of those cyclist who used to want to outrun any other rider that passed me at the red light especially men but I realized that I was getting to places sweaty & had to carry an extra shirt.
    After a couple of months passed I realized that it was not about just getting to my destination but about enjoying the ride. Now when I get to places people ask the same question: “You came in bike?” and I proudly say yes because it has become a passion & my lifestyle.
    I have been riding for 3 years & I have noticed the increase of girls riding.
    I even got some women and girls to start riding but I tell them to take their time and that it is not a race because that is the reason many get intimidated. I have noticed that I am more positive since I do not have to wait for the train & more or less know the amount of time it will take to get to my destination.
    I also find myself asking can I take my bike or would I be able to bring my bike inside.

  2. Janai says:

    Heck yeah this is exactly what I nedeed.

  3. cb says:

    I like your approach. I stop before the crosswalk for all the reds and wait for them to turn green but I also love to ride fast and find that I can catch a string of lights and go around 10 blocks without stopping. I find that much better and safer than slowing down at every red just to hang out in the intersection waiting for traffic to clear and getting in pedestrians’ way. I still have to remind myself though that it’s not a race and it’s OK to use my brakes.

  4. fay says:

    This is such a brilliant article, I myself took a while to get back onto my bicycle, after moving from laid back Cambridge to London. There is an insane sense of rushing which is honestly annoying, as puffing and sweating is not a chic look at all. I have on many occasions had men cycle behind me but in a pushing manner so that I get out of their way, but after a while I did not let it bother me as I have as much of a right to the road as they do. And yes many girls at my work think I am so brave to be cycling out there. Hopefully i can convince them to take it up as well…

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