Fundamentalist cyclists have me praying for relief

BY ALPHIE MCCOURT | In the mid-1970s I lived in San Francisco and worked in a restaurant in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge, 14 miles from the city. I rode the bus. Sometimes, when I worked late and the buses had stopped running, I caught a ride to the freeway and hitchhiked from there.

One night I caught a ride in a van. The driver and I were roughly the same age, about 35. He addressed me as “sir.” Two longhairs, we talked a bit, mostly about where we were from and how we grew up. He continued to call me “sir.”

Across the Golden Gate we went and on into the city. He drove me to the building where I lived, down behind the Opera House, on a street full of whores. He had mentioned “the club” a few times. Now, as I alighted from the van, again he mentioned “the club.”

“The club?” I said. “What’s the club?”

“The Hells Angels,” he said. “Oh,” said I.

This Angel-biker had gone out of his way for me. Would a New York City cyclist do likewise? Perhaps, but cyclists tend to be more elitist than bikers. Leather jackets, beards, boots and booze are not for them.

Two years ago, as I walked by the Church of the Holy Apostles, on Ninth Avenue and 26th Street, I was reminded of this. On that day, the people, mostly homeless men, were waiting outside the soup kitchen. A small knot of men had spilled over from the sidewalk and into the bike lane, where an official person with a clipboard did his headcount, or whatever business he was conducting.

I would have to make my way through the small crowd. Out of the knot of people came a cyclist in all his finery. He had to slow down and he was annoyed, outraged, even. He passed me, too close for comfort and his shirt sleeve brushed against mine.

I am up in years, a lifelong pedestrian and subway rider. Once or twice a week I must drive in Manhattan. Now, if I were driving with the window rolled down, and my sleeve happened to touch the sleeve of a cyclist, what would happen? There would be the spit of outrage, lawsuit, settlement and a rise in my insurance premiums.

Last year, on Eighth Avenue, I was standing in the street, in the parking lane, just south of the crosswalk, when a car reversed into me. It was a heavy impact but, luckily, the car suffered no damage. Nor did I. The driver emerged briefly, sat back in, resumed his reverse all the way across the crosswalk, and achieved his parking spot. That parking lane is now a bike lane. When it comes to bike lanes, we pedestrians know to look both ways. I should have known it then.

Self-appointed and -anointed, cyclists perceive themselves as centurions of the climate. There is a whiff of fundamentalism about the mayor’s approach and in the attitude of these pedaling apostles of the environment. Fundamentalism, at its best, and there is no best, is a prayer before dying. At its worst, and there sure is a worst, it’s a prayer before killing. We need the separation of Bike and State.

I grew up on a bicycle. To a boy on a bike, open road with no traffic in sight — that’s freedom, pure freedom, as close as I would ever come to flying. When I was 15, a small group of us rode the 80 miles, over the Kerry Mountains, from Limerick to Killarney. We carried blankets, ground sheets, tents, pegs and food for the weekend. On Saturday night we cooked and camped out. On Sunday the rain came. We were experienced campers. Even so, our stuff still got soaked. On Monday, with double the weight, we rode back to Limerick. That was our Tour de Kerry.

And once, on a beautiful New York Sunday, on rented bikes, a friend and I rode downtown from the East 70s to the Staten Island Ferry, halfway round the island, back to the ferry and back uptown. That was a great day.

I wish I could tell all this to the cyclist who’s having a hissy breakdown because a foolish pedestrian stepped in front of him or because some driver avoided him, only at the last minute, as he angled around the offside of the car. Would he listen? Or would he rather have his hissy?

There’s nothing holy about riding a bicycle. No reverence is due. The bicycle may become a good and efficient way to travel around the city but there is little freedom in it. I can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy riding in city traffic. Unless she’s towing an agenda. Or can it be the challenge? New York is renowned as a walking city. True, you had to be prepared for the taxi breaking the red light, the car cutting it too close, the garbage truck going beep-beep-beep as he backed up. But we were used to it.

Courtesy and deference should be characteristic of the new apostles of the environment. Not so, in my experience. Instead, there is a petulant insistence on their rights, with little or no regard for their own duty of care. That will have to change, now. It will take cooperation, an approach that eschews elitism, fundamentalism and the cult. The city belongs to all of us.

It belongs to the weekday bicycle messengers, stripped down and built for speed, the bag of top-secret financial documents slung over the shoulder, bike-dancing through clustered pedestrians and traffic jams. There’s a lightness, a symmetry, in their perfectly engineered approach. And it belongs to the restaurant deliverymen, too often scorned as illegal immigrants, as they trundle along on heavier bikes. I defend them. They are working. More important, I have never been hit by one. Come rain, come snow, I marvel at the determination of these disciples of the pissa. Where would we be without them?

Now, with bicycle rental stations offering convenient pickup and drop-off locations, even I will be tempted. Some years ago it was reported that a starlet had “accessorized” with a puppy in her handbag. (What’s next? An infant?) How about a puppy-rental station to go with the bikes and she can accessorize to her heart’s content.

Some years ago, at a charity breakfast, I was asked to introduce the author of a book on schizophrenia among the Irish.

“There is no humor in mental illness,” I began. And I stopped. The audience laughed — the uncertain laugh of relief. The truth is there may well be more humor in mental illness than there is in the subject of bike lanes. Yes, let’s save the environment, but, in our zealotry, let’s not forget to show a degree of consideration for the person standing next to us.

The licensing and registration of bicycles is inevitable, along with special rules for the puppy on the crossbar. And traffic tickets, for a new “revenue stream.” Drivers, riders and pedestrians will form a new coalition against this additional imposition. Neighborhood groups and community boards will do their job. Hysteria will die down and the city will move on to the next.