I'm totally going to jinx myself by typing this, but here goes: After 10 years of religious urban bike-riding, nothing terrible has happened to me. I've never been doored or side-swiped, my bike has never been stolen outright (though parts of it have), and I've never caught a flat while flying down one of San Francisco's many hills. This latter event is something I nonetheless imagine almost every day, since I live on a hill, and riding down it is the only way to get anywhere.
The scenario goes like this: Right about the time I'm topping out at 30 mph, my front tire catches a shard of something and goes instantly flat, the wheel rim clanking against the street as it spins 90 degrees and I topple over the bike—breaking something instantly, a wrist or a rib or both—then slide down the concrete, abrading elbows and knees. If I'm lucky, I'm wearing a helmet, but I "forget" to do that most days, because it doesn't fit over my fading 1973 World Championship Oakland A's hat, the head-trauma-preventing powers of which being slim to none, so now I have a concussion, too.
Or, or: I have another one. This one happens when I approach an intersection, the stoplight of which I'm trying to catch as it switches from red to green so I don't have to slow down. With my expert's knowledge of the city, I time it perfectly, barely slowing as I fly Kevin Bacon-style through the intersection, before—WHOOMP—a car trying to beat the light hits me. In my mind, the sound isn't a calamitous crashing, a gnarling of metal and shrieking of brakes. Instead, it's a low, quick, dead thump—WHOOMP—like someone swinging a baseball bat into a punching bag.
But, again! None of this has happened to me! Part of this is absolutely luck—there's a statistical inevitability to the above tragedies, like earthquakes and Expendables sequels—but part of it, I must immodestly say, is skill: poise, smarts, training. I will now attempt to pass some of this wisdom onto you.
Disclaimer: Much of the foregoing assumes that you people who drive cars are evil, angry, incompetent fucktards who antagonize bikers every chance you get. To clarify: Bike-riders only see you that way when you're behind the wheel. I'm certain that in your daily non-car-driving life, you sing songs at church and compost your green waste. But man, when you get on the road, you're like a bunch of entitled kindergartners, honking and lurching whichever way you please. Yes, many cyclists act like petulant jackasses in return, but it's your behavior that made us this way, not the other way around. I guarantee road rage was a thing from the moment old Henry Ford found himself stuck behind a swerving rickshaw, or however history works. Anyway. Here we go.
Don't trust bike lanes. They're awesome, and we're all very grateful to David Byrne for single-handedly installing them everywhere, but they can create a false sense of security, especially when they flank a row of parked cars. I am way more fearful of parked cars than I am moving ones, for one simple reason: doors. Part of the art of being an urban cyclist is training your brain to process innumerable visual and auditory cues simultaneously, like Spider-Man: "Is that person turning?" "How long has that light been orange?" "Did Tobey Maguire really play me?" The reason doors are so pernicious is because there's no cue. One minute you're riding down what appears to be a perfectly uncongested bike lane, and the next you're waking up in an ambulance: It really does happen that fast. (Or so I've heard!)
For that reason, I stay well outside the range of doors, to the point where I'm practically tracing the outer white line of the bike lane. But this presents another problem: Nothing gets motorists' dander up like cyclists that doesn't know their place. Asshole car people often have plenty of space, yet they'll still pass right up alongside you, like Maverick buzzing the tower in Top Gun. To avoid this, treat the bike lane like it's about a third of its actual size: Keep a buffer on both your left and right sides.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, aggressive bike-riding will keep you way safer than its opposite. People love to double-park in cities, fines be damned. I think of the bike lane as like a bonus lane: Sometimes I'll have access to it, but when I don't, I take up a full auto lane just like any other car. That means I don't ride on the shoulder or try to hug the edge of the lane: I take up the full lane. This pisses drivers off something awful, but I've yet to encounter a driver who will flat-out rear-end a bike, and taking up the full lane means they can't go around you unless they want to run into oncoming traffic.
A proactive (read: aggressive) approach will also keep you safe(r) from urban riding's primary non-car hazard: every other thing. My dog hates bikes and lunges at riders constantly; he is not alone in this proclivity. More so even than other motorists, pedestrians—eespecially tourists, as if there's nary a bike in Billings, Mont.—are seemingly blind to self-powered two-wheel conveyances. If neither of these kill you, then the construction, train tracks, skateboarders, Rollerbladers, swing dancers, wayward nails, open manholes, etc. surely will. Channel Paperboy (the video-game character, not the rapper) in your fearlessness and zeal, and you will be fine. Riding your bike in the city is not for the faint of heart, but then again, neither are sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, or the oeuvre of Jason Statham, and hopefully none of you are planning on depriving yourselves of those things any time soon, right? (Except for Parker, which you can skip.)
Having said that, here's a note on red lights and stop signs: I'd be lying if I said I haven't run both, twice, yesterday. It's a dick move that rightly drives the car folks nuts—If we're all equal on the road, how come bikes can run red lights and we can't?—and I cannot formally endorse it. If you did do it, however, during slow traffic times and with the utmost caution, perhaps you could assuage your guilty conscience with the thought that everything about your chosen mode of transportation, from the exercise it provides to the pollution it doesn't, is superior to driving an energy-gobbling, two-ton steel projectile around densely populated areas. Wait, did I just write that? Sorry: Don't run red lights.
Now, bike thieves are up there with cable providers and Red Sox fans on the list of the world's worst people, but until they make meth less delicious, we're going to have to deal with them. I think my personal strategy is the best: Ride a shitty bike. I actually have two bikes: my beloved, high-performance road bike that I used to trace the California coastline (and which I treat like Cameron's dad's Ferrari), and my equally beloved decoy bike that I use for daily city riding. This latter bike is a hybrid Diamondback from the Clinton years, the bike equivalent of a '98 Pontiac Sunfire. From its dinged-up frame to its goofy handlebars to its gnarled set of gears, it's ugly to the point of being un-stealable, but the grace note is my own innovation: a soiled towel balled up in the milk crate that's bolted to the frame. Keeping this dirty old towel in there is like filling the rear basket with used toilet paper. It's like a force field that emits cooties.
In the event you won't be procuring your own uniquely repellant decoy bike anytime soon, then for god's sake get a good U-Lock. You want to protect both your front and back tires from theft, because for some reason crackheads are able to pawn those somewhere. This requires a combination U-Lock/cable, which is costly and inconvenient, but it beats having to walk your front-tireless bike home four miles from work so you can purchase a new wheel set for thrice what the locks would've cost you.
The final and most important piece of advice I can give you is just stay calm. Now that commuter biking is becoming popular, the bike lanes are filling up with eager software engineers and social-media marketers decked head to toe in reflective tape, their brand-new "city cruisers" festooned with lights and pinwheels and road flares. I encourage the wearing of safety gear, but understand that the fluorescent life jacket you're wearing is no substitute for simply knowing your surroundings and riding confidently through them. Passive, nervous riders wreak havoc on a commute the way newbie poker players fuck up a table: None of us has any idea what you're thinking, so we end up busting each other just to avoid you. I'm pretty certain that when it's my time to take a serious spill, it'll be at the hands of one of you lovely people, although please don't let that dissuade you: I still like you more than anyone driving a car.
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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