Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
Caro is a bike courier and an essential worker in New York, delivering medicine to clients for a private company. She’s spent eight hours a day on her bike since she moved to New York five years ago, but now things are different on the streets. “There’s less car traffic but way more bike traffic,” she tells me. “That can be frustrating in itself. A lot of people — they don’t know how to ride bikes.” Yes, they are making progress on two wheels down the street, no, they aren’t falling off, but this isn’t what Caro means. “The new people lack bike control. I have to be extra-cautious. People can’t ride a narrow path, let alone not be shaky on the handle bars. They don’t know how to stay balanced. They drift a little left, a little to the right, a little to the left, a little to the right.”
Biking is many things: It’s operating a machine, and it’s moving through space. Knowing how to do one and knowing how to do the other are two skills, and both might be very rusty for the New Cyclists of the Paused Summer. Cycling shops have proclaimed this is the “best bike year in history” for sales. The National Association of City Transport Officials says there’s an “explosion in cycling” (!). In Philadelphia, ridership has doubled; in Utah, its new popularity has been compared to that of toilet paper. The American supply chain has also floundered with its bicycle stock, as many adults bought wheels for the first time since childhood. Rusty bikes that once leaned on apartment walls as monuments to failed intentions have been lubed up, rolled out.
Of course there’s a signature newcomer wobble. I’ve heard my bike friends call this wobble amateur hour (none but none of these friends is a biking professional). Mostly, amateur hour is a self-imposed assessment. Someone will say it if they’ve taken a stupid fall, but it does contain a shadow of snobbery. People who are very good at biking are incredible creatures. They never really seem to sweat? But are always going just faster than you? They kill me. But no one, no matter how faded the bike seat imprint on their black jeans shorts, was born on a fixed gear.
This is really the great lie: that it’s just like riding a bike — you never forget. Even if you remember how to ride a bike, you might not know how to ride a bike. Caro, the bike courier, tells me even she “forgot” and it took her years to learn again. She rode as a kid around San Antonio, until she got into video games. “From 11 to 20, I didn’t ride bikes. I definitely had to reteach myself bike control. That took me maybe three and a half years to really handle my bike in a way that looks effortless.” It took a lot of falls, but she says she could have learned in other ways. “Ride with friends who know how to ride better. Watch how they ride a bike. It’s up to the cyclist, if they’re willing to learn.”
Deltrece Daniels, the outreach and membership manager at Bike Cleveland, has been seeing plenty of “newbies” get into biking. “They were really bored, and they don’t know what to do,” she says. Now “they’re contacting me about how to find a bike, because they’re sold out everywhere. And I’ve seen an increase in injuries, because they are falling off their bikes. I try to help as much as I can, virtually.” Daniels has moved her education classes for cyclists online. She especially encourages people to make themselves seen when they’re riding. “If you have to light up like a Christmas tree to be visible, light up.” And take up your space, she says. Though you might be tempted to hug the far right side of the road, this could give cars an opening to sneak around you and get close. “It’s counterintuitive, but you go into the middle of the lane. They see you and have to slow down.”
Cycling safety kinda breaks down into two categories: gear and flow. Obviously, you must wear a helmet, and the helmet needs to be uncracked and younger than five years old. Coincidentally, I’ve noticed in the past five-ish years, there are so many less nerdy-looking helmets than there used to be! The upgrade could land you with a cute mod-style blobject. You can also check if your bike is safe pretty easily. Caro emphasizes what most bike messengers will emphasize: learn to change a flat tire, and carry extra tubes to fix it. “You’re going to be charged up the wazoo at a bike shop.” And the bike stores now are very, very busy.
Then, regarding flow. There’s a lot to consider about the way you’re about to move through space, and everyone else that’s going to be moving in that space. An accomplished biking friend pointed me to a charmingly Web 2.0 page with comprehensive graphics about navigating traffic — everything from not getting doored to dealing with one-way streets. “I think about it all the time,” they said, “especially the ‘red light of death’ graphic.”
In a certain way, there’s never been a better time to bike in your city, and there may never be again. Austin Horse, a New York–based, Red Bull–sponsored bike courier says, “It was sort of a dream to ride here with so few cars on the road. But the cars that are on the road are taking advantage of the open space. The pause in New York, with COVID, eliminated the congestion that naturally slowed vehicle traffic —” and here, Horse abruptly stops himself. “That’s such a bummer way to start talking about it. You have all these new riders, and the first two things people think about are, one, how do I do it safely? And second is, how do I keep my bike from getting stolen?”
Lock up your bike! You can use an intimidating big chain or a U-lock. For extra precaution, weave a chain around your front tire (and even through the bottom of your bike seat, if it’s a fancy one; also, congrats on having a fancy bike seat). You can also get up to some ingenious trickery: While my brother lived in New York, he wrapped electrical tape all around a nice frame so no one knew it was nice.
But back to Horse’s point: Biking is amazing, so amazing that it’s worth doing safely. Know your stuff about doing it properly, but don’t let it intimidate you. Everything’s got its catches. Wind in your hair that’s semi-interrupted by a helmet is still wind in your hair.
And — if you’re in cities like New York or Paris — there are some stretches that are ideal for you to start out on, as a newly fledged, full-grown human bike rider: the open streets. Horse, the super-skilled rider, tells me that he’s on the Berry Street one in Williamsburg all the time.
Especially with a well-selected route, cycling can be a shortcut to feeling peaceful. “Even if someone is honking at me, flipping me off, maybe I get a little startled, but I stop and realize, holy moly, they’re stressed out and I’m not,” says Rio Oxas, a League Cycling coach and mobility activist in the Los Angeles area. “I’m going to send them love because they’re stressed out in a car! When I get in a car, I’m also super-stressed, but when I’m on a bike, I’m genuinely happily noticing the small things, like, look at that person with the cute little dog!”
Biking is a noticing adventure the way cars aren’t. Biking gets you somewhere while shedding the current stress of public transportation. Even in earlier times, Horse says, “with trains and buses, you had to look at a schedule to decide when to leave. With riding a bike, you can push it. There’s a reason cyclists are late, because they push it.” On a bike, you can leave whenever you want; there aren’t any obstacles. “I think, probably, the self-reliance is one of the most appealing things about riding a bike.” And you can teach yourself again. You’re all you need, baby!