It doesn't seem that long since riding your bicycle in the city earned you daredevil status among friends and co-workers. Telling them you liked to pedal your way around town would prompt visions of berserk bike messengers dodging and careening over city streets and sidewalks, always a chain link away from certain death. But now the secret's out (as evidenced by a 40 percent jump in local ridership in the past six years): Cycling in New York is not only a traffic-busting way to get around town, it's also a thrilling, wind-in-your-hair way to experience the city, thanks to dedicated bike lanes, better-designed cycles that take on the city's worst potholes with barely a shudder, and improved locks that keep your wheels yours. Below, some tips to help start your journey on the right foot.
What kind of bike to buy has everything to do with what you intend to use it for. If you're planning to just cruise around doing errands and short commutes, you really don't need the latest independently suspended titanium wonder that comes with GPS navigation and 3.9 percent A.P.R. financing. Instead, go looking for that old-school three-speed beater like the one you had when you were 12. Not only are they cheap (at Bike Works, 106 Ridge Street, 212-388-1077, they average about $100) but they score points with the cool crowd for their retro looks, and you needn't be too paranoid about locking one up outside Balducci's. If you're going for the classic look, standard livery is black with fenders and a basket. Venerable British makers like Raleigh or Rudge are among the most sought-after; forged of heavy steel, they tend to last longer than their owners.
While the old-world charm of the three-speed is fine for the dilettante, those who demand more from two wheels should look at the mountain bike and its taller, skinnier cousin, the hybrid (which combines the posture of the mountain bike with some of the speed and agility of an old ten-speed). Their comfortable upright seating position gives you a better view of traffic flow, and wider wheels make potholes less tooth-jarring than on a traditional road bike. However, the standard-issue knobby tires are designed for digging into dirt and mud -- on relatively flat surfaces like Sixth Avenue, smooth tires (misleadingly called "slicks") actually provide better traction, as more of the tire is in contact with the road. Put slicks on your mountain bike, and you'll have the best of both worlds.
What brand of bike you buy is mostly a matter of personal taste. The difference between an equally priced Trek and a Cannondale is like the difference between Nike and New Balance. "When it comes to mountain and road bikes, there really are no lemons," says John Kaehny, executive director of cycling advocates Transportation Alternatives. Bike stores make their money on repairs and gear, so many will offer you a lifetime's worth of free labor, hoping you'll come back and buy scads of Lycra. Because the profit margin on bikes is wafer-thin, haggling will get you nowhere, other than maybe a free rack or a water bottle. Bicycle Habitat (244 Lafayette Street; 212-431-3315), Larry & Jeff's Bikes Plus (1400 Third Avenue, near 80th Street; 212-794-2929), Toga Bikes (110 West End Avenue, at 64th Street; 212-799-9625) and Rock & Road (1304 Eighth Avenue, Park Slope; 718-499-2514) all have excellent reputations, but it's best to develop a relationship with a shop near your home, unless you like schlepping your broken set of wheels across town.
For the urban cyclist, folding bikes may be the perfect solution. Not only will they shuttle you around town; the collapsible frame makes them easy to store when space is limited. "They're definitely the next thing," says Kaehny, "because the parking obstacle in this city is so great." The seven-speed Swift Folder folds into a tidy two-by-two-and-a-half feet that will easily fit into your cubicle at work. Designed for urban commuting and custom-built in Brooklyn, it's available at the Hub Station (517 Broome Street, 212-965-9334) for $745.
LOCK AND ROLL
Nothing weighs heavier on a New York cyclist's mind than theft. Dave Glowacz, author of Urban Bikers' Tricks & Tips, recommends spending at least 15 percent of the bike's replacement cost on locks. He recommends a Kryptonite New York U-lock and a 9/16-inch cable. Bike mechanic and legend Hal Ruzal says that for the moment, the only lock that cannot be cracked is Kryptonite's New York Chain (noticing a pattern in these names?), a square-link chain secured by a disc lock. That is, until thieves start packing oxyacetylene torches.
Most bike theft, however, isn't the result of some industrious felon. As many as half of all bikes stolen are unlocked when nabbed ("I just turned my head for a second . . ."). So even if you're just popping into a deli or reaching with both hands to inspect a rutabaga at the local greenmarket, lock it up. Always secure the wheels and the frame to sturdy street furniture. Don't use signs that are bolted to the sidewalk, any kind of scaffolding, signposts without signs, or small trees (good lock-up spots are parking meters or signs and railings
cemented to the ground). If you're looking to avoid high-theft areas, the most popular pinching grounds, says Kaehny, are outside the Angelika Film Center, Film Forum, and the EMS store in NoHo.
The flat tire ranks second among biker banes. Glowacz uses solid rubber airless tires, like those made by Nu-Tech. They're flat-proof, albeit about a pound heavier than conventional tires. Other options include hard plastic liners made by Mr. Tuffy (about $15 each) or the even harder, practically bulletproof Kevlar belted tires ($35 to $55). Most flats are the result of inadequately inflated tires and are therefore avoidable. A fully inflated tire will spin off most bits of glass and metal, while a soft one will split open like Jell-O. As rubber is porous, inflating a tire is always a work in progress. Use a pressure gauge to determine how hard your tires should be and check them regularly.
THE RIDE STUFF
Urban cyclists enjoy certain advantages over their suburban counterparts. The subway is always there as a backup in case of a breakdown of mechanics or willpower. (Metro-North, the LIRR, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak also allow bikes, with some restrictions. Call first.) And believe it or not, New York drivers, accustomed to darting jaywalkers and yawning potholes, are generally good at not hitting you. The safest place to ride is at least six feet out in the middle of the street, where cars can see you. Danger waits in the so-called "door zone," the few feet closest to parked cars, where an ajar door will send you head over heels into the waiting, and rather uncomfortable, asphalt.
If you want to share your wisdom of biking in the city, or just want to learn from more experienced riders, joining a bike group is a worthwhile expense. The two main organizations in New York are the Five Borough Bicycle Club (212-932-2300, ext. 115) and the New York Cycle Club (212-828-5711). The 5BBC is more beginner-friendly (the annual fee is $15); most of its riders fall into the 35-to-50 age range. It organizes rides in and out of the city and offers bike-repair courses. The more-serious-minded New York Cycle Club ($21 a year) attracts those interested in the sporting side of cycling.
Every city cyclist ought to join Transportation Alternatives (212-629-8080), organizer of the annual New York City Century Bike Tour and the major city-bike advocate. Thanks to its efforts, the MTA allows bikes on the subway, the Port Authority allows riders on the George Washington Bridge, and the city has built ramps on the Brooklyn Bridge. Its Website (www.transalt.org) includes a map that gives the up-to-date riding conditions on all of the city's 24 bridges. A one-year membership is $25; one benefit is that it allows you to buy the Kryptonite New York Lock at wholesale cost.