In 2007, New York City had 220 bike-lane miles. Just two years later, it got 200 more. Last year, the total number of lanes reached 1,009.
Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, spearheaded the transformation. Now, at long last, New York is caring for its bikers, and nowhere more than in Brooklyn. We lead all boroughs in total bike-lane miles—311, as of last year. Manhattan is second with 241; Staten Island has the fewest with 75.
That said, for as many people who are bike enthusiasts and ride bikes safely, there are plenty more who are not, and do the opposite. Then, there are an equal if not greater number of careless cars.
So after yet another cyclist fatality in Williamsburg, and for anyone who hasn’t taken their first spin of the summer, we wanted to talk to the experts for tips on achieving the best cycling experiences, all summer long. At Bicycle Habitat in Prospect Heights, Richard and Lydia told us what bike gear is most essential, how to best care for your bike—including which parking spots to avoid in order to thwart indefatigable bike thieves—and how to ensure the most stress-free ride. So get onto those designated paths, and keep some (or every single one, if you know what is good from you) of these guidelines in mind while you’re at it.
Gear essentials: Helmet, lights, lock, bell.
No matter what kind of ride you’re taking—a short one to the park, a longer one to the beach, an even longer one outside the city—this gear should accompany you each time.
On Helmets: The maxim that applies to exercise—the best kind is the kind you do—holds true with helmets. As Richard at Bicycle Habitat says, “The best helmet is the one that you want to wear.” Solid. “Yeah, because all helmets are helmets once they’re certified, and all do almost exactly the same job.” So do yourself a favor and get one, as Richard says, that is comfortable and you don’t hate aesthetically—namely—the one you will actually put on your head.
On Bells: Do you really need one? Yeah, you do. There are so many pedestrians and other cyclists and cars and strollers and skateboarders—such a mass of activity—on our streets, that the loudest warning sign that you can muster, without being rude, is best. Which is to say, a warning that is not screaming at the top of your lungs, “On your left! On your left!” to the pedestrians in front of you. “It’s pretty hard to politely yell at someone,” says Richard. “A bell costs 15 bucks, why not just get one?” Origin8 makes a bell out of brass that is loudest—so loud it’s almost instrumental—but if you want to be a hit with the ladies or dudes, might we suggest Dimension’s Hamburger bell, or the bell that is also a pun, the Bell Pepper?
On wheel locks: Wheel theft happens constantly. Bike thieves love themselves some one-off wheels—especially the quick release variety that doesn’t require a tool to remove it from the frame. So first things first, make sure your wheels are secure. Richard says, “I actually recommend that people, if you’re willing to spend it, buy wheel locks.” Wheel locks are maybe not the kind you’re imagining: It’s a pin that you stick through the center of the wheel, which is attached to the frame. Then, the pin itself comes with a key. No tool can take it out. The wheel lock replaces the quick release skewer. “Having any sort of wheel security is going to make someone move on to another bike,” says Richard. Wheel locks, like this one from Pinhead, retails at $65. Pricey, but less expensive than buying a whole new wheel.
On frame locks: “There is no science here, there is guess work,” says Richard about deciding whether to invest in a heavy- to less-heavy-duty lock. “We all tend to think that it’s about the risk you’re taking and the value of your bike.” Which is to say, if you threw down lots of dough on your bike, it’s worth it to throw down more on a lock. Look to the security level 10 U-lock from Kryptonite, which will allow you to leave a bike in public for hours on end, retails around $90, and weighs about as many pounds, to provide maximum peace of mind and protection.
This one is also good if you commute on your bike and leave it in the same place for stretches of hours. Thieves will notice, and exploit your habit. If you do select the highest security lock, an absurd tool, like a mechanized angle grinder—a cutting disk with a motor attached—is the only thing that will slice it open. Which, miraculously, still does happen from time to time.
On lights: No rule here, except for that of the helmet: the best kind is the kind you attach to your bike, and turn on at night, and remember to take off, if you’re locking up in public.
Become familiar with the most common repairs: flat tires, new brake pads, greased chains.
Lydia at Bicycle Habitat says that, because each bike is about as unique as its rider, no one issue is most common, nor will one fix apply across the board. But the issues that occur over and over are flat tires, worn-down brake pads, and dry, janky chains.
Flats: First, fill your tires with air about once per week if you ride regularly. However, even when you are diligent about this, flats are hard to avoid. “Flats are standard, and you either have it changed or fix it yourself,” Lydia said, straightforwardly. It seems hard (to me) to do this, but Lydia says a flat it actually one of the easier fixes. If you’re near a bike shop, of course, you can just wheel you’re bike on in. If not, this is what you do: carry a tube with you—the inflatable tube, connected to that air valve, inserted in the outer protective wheel. When not inflated, it rolls up nice and tight so is very portable. If you know how to change a flat, you should also carry a tire lever, which makes it easier to remove a tire from a bike. Bike tubes and levers are about seven bucks.
If you are not familiar with these fixes, just sign up for one of Bicycle Habitat’s repair classes for not that much money, offered at their locations in SoHo and Park Slope. When you show off your flat-changing powers, everyone will think you’re gifted, when in reality you’ve just learned how to do something easy.
On brakes: “It just depends how often you ride,” Lydia says about brake maintenance. “Some people don’t ride bikes that much and don’t need to change brake pads as frequently.” As with most things in life, you just gotta kinda feel it. Lydia tightens her brakes every couple of months, and replaces them about every year and a half.
On Chain maintenance: “I regularly wipe my chain down and lube it up,” says Lydia. The times it’s most important to clean and grease it nice and slick is after a rain, when all that street muck invades chain crevices. Lubing your chain, too, is not so hard—just requires a willingness to get your hands dirty, and the boldness to yank your chain off its tracks. It can be put back on pretty easily, you can experiment (or go to that class).
Which bike best suits city riding?
“Our most popular bike is the Trek 7.2 FX,” says Lydia. It’s a hybrid bike—a mix of city and mountain—and retails at around $500. Pretty reasonable. Once again, you might want to go pure road bike, or you might want to go pure mountain, but the hybrid, as per the name, will allow a fluid transition between terrains. And in New York City, we’ve got pretty much every kind—the dirty rocky paths and the nice smooth bike-able paths, thanks to Ms. Sadik-Khan.
What’s the proper distance between your seat and your full down-pedal?
“You basically want to have as much extension between your knee and the pedal as possible,” says Lydia, but without getting into hyper-extension territory. Often, that will mean your feet won’t touch the ground when you’re not pedaling. “I always tell people, when you come to a stop, get off your bike,” says Lydia. As always in life, also do with your bike what feels best.
Don’t be an idiot—avoid bad biking behavior on the streets
You see those bikers that you despise because they are either oblivious to the world or so intensely biking that they nearly bulldoze everything in sight. Don’t be either one of those cyclists! Keep these things in mind.
Don’t wear earbuds: That’s it. Really straightforward. When music streams in your ears, you can’t hear the lady screaming at you that you are about to take out. Nor the horn from the car that is about to cross paths with you on your left.
Avoid getting doored: This is that horrific scenario where you’re doing as you think you’re supposed to do—riding in a bike lane—and out of nowhere a car door opens and you run straight into it. Lydia says people can die from this; it causes them to fly straight over the top of the door frame. “When I am in the bike lane, I don’t ever ride on the right side, I ride on the left side of the bike lane,” says Lydia. That means, yes, ride closer to the traffic, which might sound counterintuitive. But in fact, you’re already moving with its flow, and the cars behind you see you. Whereas doors open against you, and, more often than not, passenger riders are opening those doors blind. So, take a leaf out of Lydia’s book, and stay closer to traffic, and farther away from opening car doors.
Avoiding bike theft, 101
It happens all the time: Prodigal thieves case neighborhoods, scheming where and when to take that tire or use that mechanized saw to open your Kryptonite U-Lock, because they’ve noticed a pattern. Or, teenagers trying to get away with selling a bike they stole to a local bike shop. “Teenagers will come in here wanting to sell bikes that clearly don’t belong to them,” says Lydia. “We see it every day,” says Richard, especially seat and front tire thefts. So Richard shared all of his best secrets for thwarting thieves, who will go to nearly every extreme—just wait! you’ll see, it’s ridiculous!—to poach a bike, or bike part, or even steal city infrastructure to make it happen.
First, avoid scaffolding: “Scaffolding can be quite easily taken apart with a wrench,” says Richard. “It’s held together with nuts and bolts and, if your bike is attached to it, you just need to take some nuts and bolts out on either side.” Bam. Stolen bike.
Use city infrastructure: “Anything that the city has put in place that is designed to have a bike locked to it is your first choice,” says Richard. And, this sounds ridiculous, but, “You should always just check to make sure it’s attached to the ground. I’ve seen poles you can just kind of pull out.” So look for those little silver bike wheels, for instance, and make sure they’re anchored.
Avoid trees: It’s illegal to lock your bike to a tree. And, if you do, a bike thief could cut down the tree and steal your bike. That of course would make them more of a terrible person than they already are, because they’re killing a tree and stealing a bike, but it happens.
When possible, avoid street signs: “Some of the poles in the street that have street signs on top of them, they can be pretty sturdy but it is pretty easy to remove the sign from the top,” says Richard. Once again, if a thief wants a bike, he’ll find a way to remove the barrier to get it done. “If you stand on your car and lift the bike all the way over the top of it, they can take it,” Richard explains. Insane! Bike thieves are insane. But you heard it from Richard. This happens, so try to avoid signage poles.
Always avoid locking your bike near gyms: “Yeah, first of all, there are locked bikes there. Second of all, the assumption the thieves make is someone is going to be in there for at least an hour, so they have plenty of time to do it without being disturbed.” Solution? Ride your bike to the gym and then wheel it a block or two away. It will be out of site of your thief and so, maybe, out of mind.
Always avoid locking your bike up outside, overnight: Even if you have the heaviest duty lock, under the cover of night is when a bike thief can take out that big tool and go at your Kryptonite lock with that mechanized blade. “Locking up your bike over night is the highest risk thing you can do, when thieves are looking and ready to steal your bike,” says Richard.
Take the long ride home—tips for enduring through the miles:
Sometimes, you’ll take a trip that is outside the city, which means you can ride, undisturbed, for miles. That’s fun. What freedom. Just be prepared. Outside of water and snacks, keep these things in mind.
Be prepared for a flat: Carry a spare tire tube, carry a small pump, and even, possibly, some small tire patches. “That’s going to take care of that,” says Richard.
Carry a small multi-tool: For instance, a hex wrench, says Richard, the kind you build Ikea furniture with. If something rattles loose, you got that multi tool to tighten it up.
Major mechanical failure is unlikely, if: “If [your bike is] tuned up in good working order, it’s very unlikely anything major will go wrong,” says Richard. So, you really don’t need to carry a bunch of tools. Your bike is a beautiful piece of machinery! If you treat it well, it will do the same for you.
Get a comfy seat: For those long rides, your behind will take the brunt of the journey’s blow. So, be good to it. “Most people would agree that the Brooks leather saddles are the most comfortable seat,” says Richard. “They start out pretty hard but, once you’ve worn them in, you’ve basically personalized them.” They’re pricey, but just think of that cush.
On choosing the best city route—use those bike paths!
“The thing I often find myself saying to people, because you know I’m not from New York originally, a lot of people don’t know the best streets to go somewhere,” says Richard—by which he means, those streets paved with some of the 1,009 miles of New York City bike lanes, or those that are relatively traffic free, the non-Atlantic or Fulton Avenues of the world. So, do yourself a favor and go onto Google maps and get yourself the directions with designated bike lanes, whenever possible. “It’s very rare that the best route is the one to take with a car,” says Richard. “The street adjacent to that will (usually) drastically reduce the chance of having a stressful ride.” Bedford Avenue, for example, all the way down to the Rockaways, has a dedicated bike lane the whole way. It’s a stress-free straight shot. Take the time to find these paths. Do Sadik-khan proud.
Or! Consult the official New York City bike map. Available here or in most bike shops, it’s a good thing to get to know. “Take two maps,” Richard suggested. “Stick one on your wall and then carry one with you.” So, basically, this way, you can eat, sleep, and breath city biking. When it comes to traveling round New York City—as long as you’re following even some of this advice—you could do far worse.