Cycling Stories

Strangers on the Bike

July 27, 2020


Strangers on the Bike

Conversations with strangers never fail to entertain me, and New York City has provided me with more than enough strangers to talk to: on the train, at a park, on the street… but on the bike? Given its nonstationary and practical nature, it was the last place I expected to have these encounters. I had no idea that, by merely biking, I would be automatically signed up to join the cycling community at large. 

There was a bike rental program at the university I was attending at the time. There was no reason not to participate, as it was free. Except, I’ve always been a chill biker from the small suburbs who enjoys riding slowly along the water, feeling the breeze, and absorbing the sunlight. New York drivers seemed like they were all part of a big survival game, and I knew I wasn’t ready to ride on the road, yet.  

So, with the bike I’d just rented, I walked to the Hudson River Park, where I didn’t have to deal with cars and pedestrians on the road. After hopping on, I immediately realized the seat was too high, and my feet dangled off the ground. I started pedaling out of panic to maintain balance, which seemed to be the right decision.

However, the decision proved to be not-so-smart since I wasn’t sure how I could dismount the bike without my feet touching the ground. Consequently, I couldn’t stop pedaling. 

A million thoughts ran through my head. A brief flash of a fairy tale I’d once read: a girl with red dancing shoes who couldn’t stop dancing and ended up having her ankles chopped off. I even thought of yelling out for help: Excuse me, could you please stop my bike? 
There was finally a moment when no bikers passed by, so I threw myself onto the ground. 

After getting up, I wandered around the park with the bike and found an old man lying on the bench with his bike parked beside him. I asked him if he knew how to lower the seat, and he couldn’t help me. But he directed me to a bike shop across the street.  

The shop’s owner was easygoing (although he also couldn’t exactly solve my problem), and we immediately became friends. They’re the first stranger I befriended while biking, who has now become my roommate. 

Although this has been the most significant influence among all my biking interactions so far, there have also been many brief, smaller encounters along the way: The person who defended me when a driver was swearing at me. The police officer who gave me my first ticket for running a red light, and another officer who complimented me for my patience, since I stopped at a traffic light when no one was around (I shouted back, “I learned my lesson from you guys!”)  

A group of bikers from the opposite side of the Williamsburg Bridge who wished me good luck on a very windy night as I biked up the incline, fighting against the wind. At least a couple dozen bikers whom I’ve chit-chatted with while waiting for green lights. Tourists asking me for directions, since my bike’s presence misled them into thinking I knew the city’s shortcuts like the back of my hand.  

The person that helped me when my fender came off, and when my skirt tangled in the chain. Those who complimented my bike and those who worried that its frame might be too large for me. Random pedestrians who waved at me. Those who took their time to ask if I was okay when I got hit by a car. The person who once helped me carry my bike up the stairs. Even the mysterious stranger who hung their trash bag on the handlebars. 

Reflecting on what I wrote, I wonder if I’ve romanticized my biking experiences, like how former lovers only remember the good times and forget all the bad ones. However, I would like to believe that most interactions did leave a smile on my face, and it’s funny to think about how many smiles I would’ve missed out on, had I not started biking. I also wouldn’t have met my roommate, who has become somewhat of a family member for me here in the city, living thousands of miles away from home. 
We all bike for different reasons. Whatever yours may be, my two-wheeled machine has offered me a sense of belonging in a somewhat carefree fashion, and given me a silly excuse to connect with strangers, offline, in this digital age. I find all of the cycling-related aspects to be very endearing. 

Still, as a beginner cyclist, I only bike when it’s warm out, from April to October. However, I hope to be strong enough to bike during the colder months, soon, with nothing but a thick coat to keep me warm—and the smiles I exchange with my fellow bikers.

Heeyoun Keum is a Lindy Hopper, aspiring Tanguera, appreciator of Jazz music, iPhone street photographer (@flaneurpillow), an admirer of Ingmar Bergman, and friend of the Little Prince.
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