The Beginner’s Guide to Biking in NYC: 7 indispensable tips

Terrified of riding in traffic? Welcome to Part 1 of what you need to know to go from novice city cyclist to pedaling pro.
Do NOT ride on the sidewalk, okay? Only for photo ops! (Photo: Molly Gallagher for Well+Good)

If you’re interested in riding a bike on the streets of New York City but have never done it, you’re probably terrified, for good reason. (Unless you’re one of those people that weaves back and forth leisurely through five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Citi Bike, wearing heels, a skirt, and flowing, helmet-less hair without a care in the world, in which case, what is wrong with you?)

Consider this: I hopped on a bike in the Big Apple for the absolute, very first time a few weeks ago, on a group ride with the cool folks from NYC Velo at Gotham West Market. The very first thing that happened to me, within two minutes of being in the saddle, is that a pedestrian crossing 11th Avenue screamed “What the f*ck are you doing?!” very loudly in my direction (it was my fault). Another two minutes later, and I was crossing the West Side Highway in front of five lanes of traffic as the light turned green and my limbs shook with fear.

But I’m happy to report that the rest of the ride was all smooth sailing, and I was so inspired by the feeling of cruising down the Hudson that I decided to experiment with learning to be a legit NYC cyclist—and to take you along for the ride.

So, I picked out a pretty blue Schwinn urban cruiser (safety precaution number one: nobody will be able to miss me on this bike), and I started pedaling the streets—and talking to tons of cyclists about their experiences.

Over the next month or two, I’ll share my own experiences with you, woven through with tested expert advice, in a series of stories dedicated to helping beginners to New York City biking become pedaling pros. Welcome to The Beginner’s Guide to Biking in NYC. First up, here are seven simple things you should know before you gear up and go:

1. You’ll need somewhere to put your bike. You’re thinking, “Oh, I’ll just stash it somewhere, no problem!” But this is New York, honey, where apartment building bike rooms have waiting lists, closets don’t exist, and outdoor storage means certain theft. Strategize before you buy.

2. Get a helmet. We’ll go into way more detail on this later, but seriously, don’t ride without one. Just don’t. This isn’t the Ocean City boardwalk.

If you don’t plan ahead, your bike will end up occupying the space behind your couch and next to the amp that you also don’t have a real place for. (Photo: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good)

3. Parked cars are worse than traffic. Everyone will tell you this, but it’s worth hearing every five minutes. Stay as far away from parked cars as you can, which means you’ll have to get used to riding closer to traffic. The first time a cab whipped by me at close range, I felt the breeze from the motion and my heart leapt. The second time, it wasn’t as bad. As a nice journalist named Bill who’s been riding around New York forever told me, you need to develop a “Spidey sense” that will help you sense doors before they open and avoid pedestrians and feel oncoming cars all at once. Work on it.

4. Cobblestones suck. Riding on them hurts so much more than you would think (especially if you have a road bike with skinny tires). Avoid them.

5. No one follows the rules. Not the cyclists, pedestrians, or drivers. You still should, even if you have to be like me, the lone biker waiting with the cars at a red light. (We’ll go deeper into what the rules are soon.)

6. Bike lanes are everywhere. There’s a lot you can say about Mayor Bloomberg, but when you’re on a bike, you kind of want to kiss his feet. The city’s system of bike lanes is pretty impressive and easy to follow if you map out your route in advance (I’ve been using the Google maps bike routes and they’ve been reliable so far). There are even street signs directing you to the next path a lot of the time. The trouble is that the paths are often blocked—by buses, garbage trucks, delivery trucks, construction, and dazed, iPhone-focused pedestrians.

7. The city is so much smaller than you thought. Not everything is faster than the subway, but so many trips are. The hour subway ride from my Astoria apartment to Williamsburg? Thirty minutes on a bike. Across town in traffic instead of the bus? Freedom!

Which brings me to the fact that if you’re scared, you should know this. If you’re an in-love-with-this-city New Yorker like me, flying over the East River on the Queensboro Bridge is like experiencing the honeymoon phase all over again, getting to know the object of your affection in a whole new, exciting way and discovering aspects of her character that thrill you as much as the first time you saw…the skyline.

It’s also exhilarating and empowering and good for your body (an hour spin class that propelled me to my office? yes, please!).  As for the cursing pedestrian issue? Bill gave me one other piece of advice. “The other the key is to be confident. You have to develop a ‘don’t f*ck with me attitude.'” I am so on it. —Lisa Elaine Held

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