“Let’s go girls,” I mutter to myself underneath a scarf damp with my spit. The temperature is hovering above freezing in Brooklyn, and I’m biking a mile between a podcast premiere party in Deep Bushwick (the Wilson stop on the L train) and a vegan-soup dinner at a friend’s home in Bushwick Times Square (the Jefferson stop). It becomes clear, just as it did during the 6.5-mile trip from my home in Flatbush, that I’ve completely overdressed for the activity. I’m wearing ski pants that a charismatic nail-salon owner persuaded me to buy from Dick’s Sporting Goods and a parka I panic-purchased over the summer when it started hailing at Yellowstone National Park. By the time I arrive at my second location, my entire body is, much like the main course, steamy.
But this winter, I’m on a mission to bike through it. And by “it,” I mean the cold and inescapable sense of blah that seizes the city and my mind during this time of year. Historically, my will to bike has plummeted along with the temperature. I’m a coward in cold weather, and city-collected data shows I’m not alone: Thousands fewer New Yorkers bike in winter months than do between late spring and early fall. I’m no expert, but I imagine that’s for the uncomplicated reason that being exposed to the elements at this time of year is unenjoyable. This year, though, my drive to save money, desire to maintain my warm-weather exercise habits, and deep love of cycling are keeping me in the saddle.
Because despite its obvious dangers, biking in New York City makes me feel alive. It’s all action — there’s no hopelessly staring into the abyss of a subway tunnel as the station timer flashes “January 1, 1994.” There’s no transfer in downtown Manhattan to get between two locations in Brooklyn or “being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher.” And beyond practicality, it allows me to maintain some autonomy in a city with a strong centripetal force. Synching up with the pulse of the Brooklyn commute, smacking the hood of a texting driver’s car, and coasting across any East River bridge with the skyline stretched in front of me provides the type of high I imagine other city-dwellers achieve by ringing the stock-exchange bell or ordering off-menu at a low-lit, scene-y restaurant or, I bet, scoring the best fuck nook at an underground sex party. I want to hold onto some of that spirit during a season that mostly sees me reheating the same cup of herbal tea four times before noon.
In the winter, I feel especially like one of God’s most hapless Polly Pocket toys, rotating between the various cubicles of my life: work, gym, grocery store, home, repeat again tomorrow. With temperature highs hovering in the 30s and frozen gray sludge lining the city’s curbs, spending time outdoors doesn’t offer much in the way of gratification. But I find that sometimes, the best way to conquer that monotony is to deny its power, to turn off season 175 of House Hunters International, leave your overheated apartment, and embrace the discomfort of the cold. Biking forces some literal and mental heat into my days.
Admittedly, much of the city’s stimulating energy freezes up in the winter. Loitering neighbors, who in good weather provide soundtracks and the occasional encouraging head nod, have retreated indoors. There are fewer fellow cyclists on the streets with whom to form parasocial bonds and rivalries. But sparser crowds leave more space for noticing New York’s inanimate splendors and peculiar patterns, like how the asphalt gives way to concrete underneath bus stops, allowing them to bear the weight of the vehicles. London plane trees, with their patchwork bark and bursts of empty branches, decorate most city blocks. Cruising through Boerum Hill or Brooklyn Heights, fireplace smoke (what a luxury!) mingles on barren streets. School buses, with delightful names like Grandpa’s Bus Co and Little Richie Bus Service, congregate on long stretches of roads that line cemeteries and train yards in between shifts. On the crest of the Manhattan Bridge, I admire the clusters of tourists on the top deck of Circle Line Cruises below, deranged and determined to spend some time with the city — just like me. New York is more yours than ever in the winter. Biking becomes like visiting someone off-hours; you get to really catch up.
Also, it’s important not to underestimate the affirming ego stroke you get when you cycle in bad weather. People are impressed. As I hop on my bike and glide away after any sort of social function, I like to imagine my friends watching in awe from their apartment window or the backseat of an Uber. I stand up on my pedals, shift my weight into the frame and careen around a corner, looking slick, commanding, and dare I say, astonishingly Danish. What admirable, steely self-possession! my friends must think. The bodega clerk on his smoke break outside thinks it, too. As do the girls waiting curbside in the cold for their rideshare to ferry them to an underwhelming bar. If you assemble a big enough chorus of encouraging, imaginary strangers, the delusion of main character syndrome can keep you warm the entire way home.
The confidence I get from my body powering me through the streets does occasionally get buried under my thousands of layers. Often, I’m left wondering if my crotch is damp from sweat or urine. (It’s always sweat, but doubt is my most enduring condition.) And yet! Like a new-to-you bathtub, it just takes some trial and error efforts to determine the right temperature and make the endeavor worthwhile. Ears, hands, and toes are the critical extremities to keep warm. Throw everything else to the wind! Literally! Ciao! My core, the body part of my body, will always thaw enough through the repetitive cycling movement. My nose, no matter what, will always be a glacial river of snot. But I’ve come to embrace the dissonance between rival factions of my body. Sweaty pits and a runny, cold nose — women really can have it all!
When I cycle in the cold, it’s defiant proof that I’m not a victim of my circumstances. In the best of times, those circumstances are just windburn and winter doldrums. In worse, they are grief or depression or loneliness in an always-busy city. Knowing I can withstand those things to connect my body and spirit to the space I live in, warms me up more than a hundred miso ramens delivered directly to my door — by bikers, mind you!
What’s been especially rewarding and almost embarrassingly revelatory about winter biking is that while things are certainly sleepier, New York never truly dozes off. Hardworking delivery drivers, municipal workers, odd-duck neighbors who’ve dug out snowshoes from storage, eager tourists, and the old men seemingly practicing for the Tour de Prospect Park — they are all still out and about. The aforementioned sense of blah I’ve ascribed to the season is just that. One wintry afternoon as I traveled over the Manhattan Bridge, the bike counter display at the entrance informed cyclists they were one of nearly 2,000 people pedaling by on two wheels that day. I was proud to count myself among them, a loosely bound community I’ve found in a season I’ve so long marked as a lonely one.