Urban Handling

Written by Spencer Winans on . Posted in Posts.


It may seem like a given: You start with training wheels, totter on two wheels, scraping knees and then, with a surge of pride, you take off on your bike. A free kid at last. But not everyone feels so confident about their bicycling ability into adulthood—especially in the city. Luckily, it’s not so hard for New Yorkers to change all that.

A group of eager new cycling enthusiasts formed on a recent cloudy Sunday morning in Central Park for Bike Handling 101. Melissa Groves had just returned from the Adirondacks where, at the age of 35, she mounted a bicycle for the first time in 20 years. Jon Woods, 26, hadn’t ridden a bicycle since college, but had just registered for this year’s Five Boro Bike Tour.

We meet Green Cyclists co-founder Philip Kiracofe, 38, and his assistant Doug Gould, 24, at Tavern on the Green’s parking lot off West 67th Street. Attendants stationed at a rental stand dole out bicycles and equipment. Kiracofe says his outfit won’t stop until every ablebodied New Yorker has a bicycle and feels confident enough to ride it in the city.

Joining the group, I must wear a helmet with the rest of them, although I’ve spent two years commuting nearly every day between Brooklyn and Manhattan on road and single-gear fixed bicycles. As a child in rural New Jersey, I’d ditch my helmet in the weeds just after I left my driveway. After a day of debauchery as a renegade, just before reaching the home, I would fish through the brush, retrieve my helmet, put it back on and coast back to the house—the safest leg of my trip. As students under Kiracofe’s care, however, we all must wear helmets—and obey all traffic signs for that matter.

"[As cyclists,] we need good PR," Kiracofe explains. "And police have been handing out more and more tickets to bikers, especially here in Central Park."

When everyone is geared-up and adjusted, we trek to higher elevation, to a fountain in the middle of a cul-de-sac overlooking a pond in Central Park. The asphalt track surrounding the fountain serves as this class’s training grounds.

To begin, Kiracofe instructs his students to ride and then, after a few satisfactory laps, they must effectively stop. He teaches them feathering, a process of slowing down by teasing the brakes. Then, Kiracofe kicks it up a notch. He cordons off a small 15-footwide section of asphalt and instructs his students to perform figure eights, a veritable feat that has them—hell, would have even seasoned bikers—occasionally running into one another.

Not until Kiracofe brings his students atop the tiny elevated brick platform that surrounds the fountain does the class take its true form, and it becomes clear this is not so much a class about how to ride a bike, as much as it is about how to ride a bike in New York City. As the students tightly circle the fountain, just inches from its cold concrete basin, the photo-snapping foreigners enter the scene and become obstacles. Kiracofe’s pupils teeter over their handlebars to avoid running over the hapless gawkers.

And then it happens, as if it were planned from the start: A big, furry, black dog—that has clearly made this a weekly, if not daily, ritual—yanks his owner toward the fountain and leaps up and into the fountain’s bath. Unbeknownst to dog and owner—and between the students and their roundabout trajectory—they’ve created a clothesline for the cyclists to avoid. After a playful splash, the dog exits her bath, leaving a sopping trail, and the students continue along.

During a less-stressful moment, Doug Gould tells me how he started working for

Green Cyclists. "I met
Philip in Haiti, during a disaster relief effort, after the earthquake,"
he says. Later, Kiracofe adds, "We actually first met on the airplane.
We were the only white people on it…We left during the first wave of
efforts, while tremors were still shaking the island."

Kiracofe,
a tri-athlete, teaches all levels of bike riding, although, he admits,
Bike Handling 101 offers his year-old business the greatest potential.
According to Kiracofe, only 1 percent of New York City’s population owns
a bike—let alone rides one. To expand his efforts, Kiracofe is reaching
out to corporate offices based in Manhattan, offering course packages
for employees who live in the city, highlighting the innumerable
community, environmental and health benefits. "Recent legislation now
requires all public and commercial buildings to install bike stands in
front of building entranceways," Kiracofe says. "It’s a no-brainer."

After
the final drill, which involves riding a straight line along the
badminton courts, we take to Central Park’s bike-and-car lanes, which
are filled with rollerbladers, cyclists, joggers, walkers,
baby-strollers, police buggies and a few horses. Serendipitously, the
clouds break, the temperature steadily rises and the sun warms everyone,
a welcome reprieve after the rainy spring.

We
cruise through the park toward Columbus Circle, and the students
prepare themselves for their first bikeride through Manhattan’s busy
streets.

As we ride
single file along the greenpainted bike lane into Times Square—a place
typically avoided at all costs on both bike and foot—Kiracofe randomly
asks if I’ve ever skied. I tell him that I have and figure he’s making a
savvy analogy: that the city’s relentless rhythm is to biking as
gravity is to skiing. This was never more apparent than when I worked as
a bike messenger. It lasted only three days but, as the magic number
implies, like when I learned to ski, it was hell the first two days and
absolute bliss by the third.

During
our ride through the city, we spend nearly as much time walking our
bikes through the Times Square "mall," which is festering with tourists,
as we do riding through the adjacent streets. We travel up Seventh
Avenue, off the bike path, alongside the traffic, where many of New York
City’s most enthusiastic bikers claim you experience the city at its
most authentic.

Finally,
we reach the Central Park West bike lane, which brings us back to where
we started, at Tavern on the Green’s parking lot. All cycling students
have survived. I take my helmet off—not a moment too soon—and chuck it
into the bin with the others.

I
approach Jon and ask him how it went. "Good," he says, beaming with
confidence. He goes on to recount fond memories of riding the Five Boro
Bike Tour with his stepfather before he left for college. "I’m excited
for this year’s tour."

As
Melissa, the most unsteady of the four students, waits in line to
return her bike, I ask her how it went. "It was great! I need to buy a
bike now," she says. "I think a hybrid is good, like the one I rented
today." I ask her if she’ll ride to work in Manhattan. Her smile turns
wan. "Possibly," she says, with a hopeful glint in her eye. "But it’s
more about going to the parks. I want to ride down to Coney Island—to
places like Prospect Park and the Promenade. The subway just isn’t
reliable. I want to be outside more."

Before
I leave, Kiracofe tells me about a recent 33-year-old student who had
never ridden a bicycle in her life. So I give her a call to find out her
story.

"I was
scared," Tina Tan says. "I tried once as a kid, and I was like, No way!
And I gave up before I could give it an honest go." More than 20 years
later, Tina went online to research bike-riding classes. She found Green
Cyclists and commissioned Ben Gould. Now, one month later, Tina can
ride a bicycle.

I
ask Tina, who grew up in Queens, why now? "I wanted to pick up a new
skill. I consider myself an outdoorsy person," she said. "And my husband
is a tri-athlete. He’ll be participating in his first New York City
triathlon in August. And it was time to learn. I asked myself, ‘What’s
the worst that could happen? I scrape my knee?’ So, I went for it." She
explains that it only took three classes before she felt confident
enough to ride solo. "And it felt so good… I felt so free."

I’m
curious, so I ask if she was embarrassed, not knowing how to ride a
bicycle and if she regrets waiting so long to learn. "I was never really
that embarrassed. Growing up, I had plenty other activities to choose
from. As for regret, I try not to live with regret. Have I missed out?
Of course. But, I don’t look back and wish things different. Coulda,
woulda, shoulda."

I
leave the park, wondering if maybe riding a bike in New York isn’t just
for lunatics anymore. On my way back home in Brooklyn, I hop on the
Hudson River Park bicycle path and travel downtown. I decide to shoot
off the path onto 10th Street and find a quaint café in the West
Village. I choose a table outside, take a deep breath, close my eyes and
feel the warm sun on my face. My nose is already pink. This is a Sunday
afternoon, I think. A gust of wind then comes along and lifts my paper
napkin into the street. I rise and leisurely step onto the sidewalk,
reach for the flyaway napkin and I am nearly trampled by an oncoming
pedestrian. 

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