I’m just back from having purchased a bike. I rode it home, five miles, from the Atlantic Avenue Target back to Bay Ridge, following 4th Avenue as it goes from Mexican to Puerto Rican to Chinese to Arabic.
Buying a bike in New York City is harder than you might think. Well, that’s assuming you don’t want some kind of titanium, high-tech, stealth-technology-enhanced super-bike that costs more than most Americans’ cars. If you’re up for spending giant sums of money, there are scads of boutique shops to cater to your needs. And most of these boutiques will even cater to folks who want to spend a mere $400 or so on a bike, though the salesperson will probably look at you with a mixture of pity and disdain. Apparently one is supposed to enter these temples of bikeitude with either an extensive knowledge of alloys or the humility of a religious seeker. The reaction I get when I ask for the cheapest bike is what I imagine I’d get if I went to Bergdorf’s around Christmas and said, “Show me your cheapest handbag, please.”
What makes this state of affairs particularly baffling is that one so rarely sees fancy bikes actually being ridden around New York. Is there some kind of delivery-guy underground I’m just missing? Where do their thousands of lightweight, perfectly functional, obviously cheap bicycles come from? And who wants a thousand dollar bike in the city anyway? My Schwinn came from Target already broken — it won’t change gears properly — and I assume this is a clever anti-theft system provided by the store for my benefit. Still, I’m semi-resigned to the thought that one day I will go looking for my bike where I left it, and it won’t be there. That’s what happens to bikes in the city, and I’d rather it happened to a bike that costs less than my phone.
Once you drop below about $400, you get into the realm of bikes that cannot be purchased at bike shops. These lowly vehicles must be sought out at toy stores, sporting goods stores, or big-box generalists like Target. And at Target, it’s actually remarkably hard to buy a bike. I had to wander across the store in search of someone who could get on a walkie-talkie and find out how much the bike I wanted actually cost. And forget about getting it adjusted. I guess that’s what you pay the fancy places for. The bike is sold as-is, and you just have to hope it does what it’s supposed to.
Mine does, more or less. No, you can’t change the gears very well, and I’m not convinced the handlebars are completely straight, and the rear break is a joke. But the bike cost a mere $178, and it got me from there to here.
As for the getting, it was harder than I’d like to admit. Today was muggy but not excessively hot, and 4th Ave. is not exactly mountain terrain. Still, as I came up the rise from 30th to 50th Street, my heart was pounding and I felt myself overheating. I pulled off the street, locked my bike to a subway entrance railing, undid my new helmet and staggered into a bodega to buy a bottle of Gatorade.
I remember overheating like this as a kid sometimes, especially as I hit the top of the hill on Las Gallinas, back in Terra Linda, on the way to the mall. There, I would just keel over on the side of the road and wait for it to pass, hearing the pounding of blood in my head as I lay on the sidewalk. It was a private experience, an internal crisis that I could experience alone. Riding a bike in the city is a different experience, a public activity that involves engagement with others at every moment. It’s fun, though, and I hope to do much more of it. I just need to get in better shape!