Pearls of bicycling wisdom from an NYC cyclist

Day 18
38 miles

As you might guess from today’s mileage, I’m bushed. But getting out of writing a blog entry isn’t the only reason I’m so pleased to introduce the b(ike)log’s first contributor, Paula from NYC. Paula spent several years bike commuting the 25-mile round-trip between the Bronx and Manhattan and now logs most of her miles on long weekend rides, so she’s earned some serious cycling chops.

Here she tells the story of her first flat tire and doles out good advice on maintaining a bike, navigating the road and what gear to bring along for the ride.

* * * * *

I got a flat tire the very first time I took my new bike out for a short ride in the city (VERY short, maybe 10 blocks from the subway station after taking the train from Manhattan to Queens). I had absolutely no idea how to fix it. I also had absolutely no idea how to ride a bike in the big, crazy-motorist-clogged city (hence the subway trip).

This could have been a rather sad situation. But all was well: I got the flat just as I arrived at a “Savvy Cyclist” class run by Bike New York for newbie riders just like me. Here I would learn how to fix a flat. And here I would get some skills — and just as important, some confidence — for riding in traffic, anticipating erratic motorists and pedestrians, and making myself and my bike at one with the mean streets of Manhattan.

Let this be a lesson to you: LEARN HOW TO FIX A FLAT!!! It’s one of the most essential things you can do to make yourself self-sufficient as you embark on this amazing and wonderful journey on two wheels. You don’t want to be stuck somewhere with a flat tire and no idea how to change it. You REALLY don’t want this to happen if it’s raining. Or snowing. Or just cold.

Local bike shops probably have classes on flat-fixing and other basic maintenance, plus there’s instruction all over the Web (Google: fix bike flat). Then, once you’ve gotten the basic instruction, practice in your living room. Again and again. At first it will take you forever and be vaguely terrifying. That’s the point. Better in your living room than on some remote street corner. Eventually you’ll be able to do it almost with your eyes closed. And it will become almost fun: “Look, Ma! I can fix a flat!”

(If you can do the “Look, Ma! No hands!” thing, that’s pretty fun too. Just don’t do it in traffic.)

As for my fear of riding in the city, a few years of commuting 25 miles round trip from the Bronx to Manhattan got me over that. It also taught me a lot of things about how to make something that was fun to begin with — the bike — even more fun and reliable. For instance:

–MAINTENANCE: Check your tires for little bits of glass, wire, staples and the like after every ride. When you find such debris, pick it out (squeezing and/or fingernails usually work) before it has a chance to dig in and cut the tube. Inflate your tires to the recommended PSI (usually found on the tire sidewall) before EVERY ride. This lessens the chance of flats. Lube your chain every week or two. Do the League of American Bicyclists’ “ABC Quick Check” before every ride. Of course, carry one or two spare tubes, plus tire levers, and a multitool, with you at all times.

–LIGHTS! CAMERA! (The former for safety. The latter because when you roam far and wide on the bike, you’ll find all sorts of cool things to take pictures of.)

–TRAFFIC SKILLS: Ride assertively but not like, well, another word that starts with an ‘a.’ Adhere to the rules of the road. Know how best to position yourself in traffic. Be relaxed (or else you’ll freak out) yet not so relaxed that you let down your vigilance. ALWAYS be on guard (in a relaxed way) and always expect the cars and-or pedestrians around you to do something stupid. That’s not a commentary on them as a breed. But if you expect the worst (in a relaxed way) then you’re ready to react quickly when something does indeed go wrong. All of my close calls have come when my mind was wandering …

–FINDING YOUR WAY: Instead of trying to commit an unfamiliar route to memory, write the basics down on an index card. Then use a cue clip (Google it) to clip it to your handlebars, or a couple of small binder clips to clip it to the cables leading to the shifters. For real fun, you can plot out your route using Ride With GPS — just plot the route on the map and it will create a cue sheet that you can print and clip to your bike. My boyfriend, as he sat in California, used it to plot out some nice routes for me in Vermont. (Of course, and not that he did, use this in conjunction with your knowledge of local road and traffic conditions on any given road.)

–CLOTHING: Layers are your friend. Wool is your friend (OK, that’s just my personal preference, but modern merino wool is indeed a marvelous thing.) A good rain jacket and rain pants are very helpful — but be prepared to get wet anyway when it’s raining. That’s OK. It’s just rain. Just be vigilant in checking the forecast ahead of time, and if there’s even a chance of rain, stash some dry clothes, protected by plastic bags, in your pack or pannier. When it gets really cold, think about getting some lobster gloves, a balaclava, an extra pair of socks, plastic bags over your feet, chemical hand and toe-warmers … the possibilities are endless. Invest a little in things that keep you comfortable and you’re far more likely to keep riding over the long haul.

There are lots more tips all over the Web. The League of American Bicyclists is a good place to start for more great tips in all of these areas.

Most of all: Keep having fun!! I’ve never, ever had a bad day on the bike. There are many times when I don’t want to get on it to begin with … but once I’m out there rolling, it’s heavenly. Even in Manhattan.

* * * * *

You can find Paula’s now defunct bikeophilic blog here: Stay tuned for more bike banter at her new blog:

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