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You Don't Have to Be Superhuman to Commute by Bicycle

You Don't Have to Be Superhuman to Commute by Bicycle
Dmitry Gudkov

"Nice story, but completely alienating to 98 percent of people who might want to ride to work."

That was the tweet from photographer Dmitry Gudkov about this weekend’s New York Times story on a group of long-distance bike commuters who ride as much as 40 miles each way, year-round, from the city’s upscale suburbs to the office towers of Manhattan. The article profiled a number of high-achieving riders who definitely qualify as outliers, such as Christian Edstrom, who twice a week leaves his Westchester house at 4:40 a.m. to get to his job at JP Morgan, averaging a 17-mile-per-hour pace:

Having sheathed his legs in NASA-worthy Capo bib shorts — woven from high-tech fibers that compress leg muscles to minimize fatigue — he pulled on a pair of winter cycling tights lined with fleece from the waist to the thighs. Next came over-the-calf Smartwool ski socks under Sidi Genius 5.5 shoes strategically packed with chemical toe warmers. To shield his torso, he wore a wool base layer under an Italian long-sleeve racing jersey, and a windproof vest reinforced in front to block freezing gusts and meshed in the back to vent excess heat. On his head, an Assos Fuguhelm racing cap with vents on top to minimize sweating, and a pair of Oakley Jawbones sunglasses. The final touch: a pair of $19 insulated work gloves, coated with beeswax to make them water resistant.

Long-distance commuters such as Edstrom and the others interviewed for the piece – including a 20-strong group from Ridgewood, New Jersey, that rides in a pace line at around 22 miles per hour – are fun to read about, for sure. In my fantasy life, I am clinging to the back of their peloton. But Gudkov is right that the image of the road warrior in space-age gear, pedaling a custom-built bike worth thousands of dollars over icy predawn roads, is off-putting to most ordinary folks. And it’s ordinary folks who make up 98 percent of New Yorkers who use bicycles for transportation in New York City.

Gudkov has captured many of them in his charming series of #BikeNYC portraits (that title comes from the Twitter hashtag used by many in the city’s cycling community). These are people who travel many miles at a pace more like 10 miles an hour. They wear regular clothes and ride the bikes that they can afford.

But everyone who bikes in New York or any other city has certain things in common. The Type-A strivers on their carbon-fiber steeds; the skinny-jeans-wearing fixie riders; the elevator repairman in work clothes on his anonymous hybrid; the fashionable businesswoman on her folder; the 82-year-old photographer on his cruiser. All of them benefit from an increased recognition that bicycles are a legitimate way to get from one place to another, and that you don’t have to be some kind of a freak to use them.

That recognition is not merely symbolic. It becomes very tangible in the form of protected bicycle infrastructure, such as the trails cited in the Times article, and in pro-bicycle regulations -- such as the Bicycle Access to Office Buildings Law, instituted in 2009, which requires many office buildings to grant access to bikes.

All of these factors have combined to double the number of bicycle commuters in New York between 2007 and 2011, according to New York City Department of Transportation figures. The DOT aims for 2017 levels to be triple the 2007 numbers. It looks like there’s a good chance of meeting that goal. Most of those new riders won’t be in the Lycra-clad suburbanite demographic (although let’s give those people a round of applause). No, most new riders will be average people on average bikes, maybe not worthy of a feature in the Times, but perhaps more valuable in their very ordinariness.

The other night I was riding back to Brooklyn from Manhattan around 7 in the evening. The temperature hovered in the high 20s. Not many years ago, this was considered a hard-core commute. I used to be able to brag about riding all winter long, because almost nobody else did it.

But on this January evening in 2013, I was gratified to see how many people were cycling over the Manhattan Bridge, despite the darkness and the gusty winds. I wasn’t a particularly tough customer, after all. Just part of a parade of red and white blinking lights, happily making its way over the East River. 

Top image courtesy Dmitry Gudkov

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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