Stressed biking (and the ego of the dedicated commuter cyclist)

On Thursday I returned to New York and to urban commuter cycling after a month-long yoga training and retreat in Connecticut. As I coasted down 2nd Avenue from Grand Central to my office building downtown, I realized something was wrong. Instead of soaking up the lazy hum of NYC's late-August doldrums, I was stressed.
Every metal grate and lip of the manhole cover signaled impending doom. Every cab was attempting to sandwich me into the giant churning wheels of a tour bus. In every parked car lurked out-of-towners waiting to obliviously open car doors into the traffic stream. It was a clear, sunny morning and I was miserable.
It's not that there weren't days when I dreaded getting on my bike before my break, but usually as soon as I'd start to ride, the adrenaline would kick-in and I'd feel great. Now something was different. I wondered if after a month of yoga and meditation, my stress tolerance skills were out of practice. But then I realized that the real trouble was that I was finally being honest with myself about how stressful riding in the city can really be.
I didn't ride my bike every day because it was always a pleasant and enjoyable experience. I rode because I had some notion of toughness tied up with my ego telling me I needed to ride even when it was icy or raining or late at night and I was exhausted.
I'd hardly had time to go online over the past month and so it was with great anticipation that I logged on to Streetsblog on Monday to catch up on the latest transit and biking news. The top post, however, was a sobering piece about the death of James Langergaard, an experienced NYC cyclists who was killed by a car while crossing Queens Boulevard at 69th Street.
I'm always a little troubled after hearing about a cyclist's death, but usually I can manufacture a reason why I'm a safer cyclist than he or she was. However, James had years of city cycling under his belt and was a committed bike advocate who had spent countless hours helping other cyclists learn how to ride safely in the city. This time there was no rational for my own survival - only good fortune.
Shortly after I'd read about James, a coworker approached me in the office kitchen and said she is inspired by my commuting and was considering starting to bike to work as well. It would save her a lot of time, she said, but she'd never tried because she had a lot of fear about riding in the city.
Before, I would have vociferously encouraged her to overcome the fear. It's not as bad as you think it is out there on the streets, I would have urged. You'll feel terrific.
But now, having just been reminded of our tenuous mortality, I acknowledged that biking in the city is scary and stressful. Sometimes, I told her, that little bit of fear is terrific - it makes you feel alive before you plop down in front of a computer monitor for the next eight hours. But you have to weigh that juiced up feeling with the risks of the endeavor, and if you really don't feel safe, it's just not worth it.

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