High Anxiety

In the move “Goodfellas,” Nora Ephron’s enduring classic in which Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal play platonic friends who eventually become lovers, there’s the scene in which Henry Hill finally gets busted and, in a voiceover, says the following:

For a second, I thought I was dead, but when I heard all the noise I knew they were cops. Only cops talk that way. If they had been wise guys, I wouldn’t have heard a thing. I would’ve been dead.

I think about this scene often when I ride in New York City–not in the context of cops and gangsters, but of inexperienced versus seasoned cyclists. The latter move swiftly and effortlessly through the urban environment without much of a fuss, whereas the former are anxious and loud and yell stuff like, “On your left!!!” and “Get out of the bike lane!!!” every block and a half–something I had an opportunity to consider yet again today, as I rode downtown to my dentist astride my Midlife Crisis Fixie:

As seen in such videos as Aging Self-Important Beardo Tells You What To Do:

As well as a forthcoming video, tentatively titled Aging Self-Important Beardo Tells You What To Do…Again:

By the way, you may note my Midlife Crisis Fixie has taken on an additional layer of irony in that before heading to the dentist I flipped my wheel to the freewheel side, so now it’s not a fixie at all:

That’s an AC (not ACS) freewheel I sought out years ago specifically because it accepts a Shimano cassette tool and thus is highly convenient to remove. I have no idea if they’re available anymore, but at the time Harris Cyclery, home of the late Sheldon “Sheldon Brown” Brown, used to carry them. I should also point out that, despite seeking this unit out for its convenience over most other freewheels, I have not removed it one single time since installing it well over a decade ago.

As for why I flipped the wheel to the freewheel side this morning, the reason is that my knee is hurting me, which I blame on the fact that I’ve been using vintage Shimano SPD pedals on my Eye Of The Tiger Bike instead of the Times to which my creaky joints are so well-accustomed over the decades…either that, or after [XX] years of faithful service, my knee has simply decided, “Fuck it, you’re buying a Hyundai” and decided to give up on me. Regardless, subjecting it to a fixed-gear seemed like an exceedingly stupid thing to do, and for the sake of prudence I treated my knee to the salve that is coasting on a bike with large platform pedals.

Oh, and while we’re under the hood, I really like this bell:

And I’m not just saying that because I get like nine cents from Osloh if you order it through that link, either–I really do like the little trigger thingy. But hey, don’t order one, see if I care. In fact, I don’t even want you to order one, and I’m emailing Osloh right now and telling them not to fill any orders that come through this site, or else.

So who’s the shill now?

Anyway, all of this is tangential to my main point, which is that the Pando Bike Boom seems to have come with a not-insignificant number of anxious cyclists. For example, as I prepared to execute a simple turn at a moderate speed today, a rider behind who had apparently deemed it an opportune time to pass shouted, “HEEEYYY!!!,” as though I’d attempted to lodge a length of stale French bread in the spokes of her Citi Bike. No bell (Citi Bikes do have bells), no friendly “Heads up,” and not even the hated “On your left,” which in this particular case would have been vastly preferable to the panicked “HEEEYYY!!!” And if the rider found this benign situation so vexing, I can only imagine how she might react if confronted by actual danger–probably by ghost-riding the Citi Bike into the West Side Highway and then diving headlong into the Hudson.

Of course, it can be tempting to yell, and even the most seasoned among us still do it from time to time. When analyzing my own yelling behavior over the years, it almost always comes from one of two places: entitlement (whether actual or perceived), and fear. For example, when the city started adding bike infrastructure in earnest, I was already an experienced cyclist who was comfortable riding in heavy traffic. However, all the new bike lanes raised my expectations–which, unsurprisingly, were promptly dashed by people parking in the bike lane, people walking dogs in the bike lane, people degreasing stuff in the bike lane, and so forth:

[Archival photo]

As a result, after years of silently slithering through traffic, I found myself tempted to yell, fold in sideview mirrors, and otherwise chastise people for their transgressions against me, the most important person on Earth–which is almost never worth it.

As for fear, even though I’m a grizzled veteran of these mean streets who’s on a first-name basis with danger and has long been engaged in a Bergmanesque game of pinochle with Death, it’s hard not to yell at people (drivers) from time to time when I’m riding with my kids, and my occasional lack of restraint has added richly to my childrens’ vocabularies. I suppose this is because riding with kids changes the calculus, and while I may not be afraid for myself, deep down I’m still probably afraid for them.

Riding in the city is like walking across a carpeted floor: it feels great, but sometimes you get shocked. You can yell about it, or you can just take off your socks. Whatever works for you.

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