It's Monday and most museums are closed. I opt for the one that is open, the Holocaust Museum. I'm interested because I know the history of the Holocaust in Germany and France. But The Netherlands - and Amsterdam - which had (and still have) a long tradition of liberalism and inclusiveness - how could that happen here? I am hoping this museum will be able to answer some of my questions.
The mood is somber, the photos heartbreaking. Here for instance. These young faces, all with so much promise:
Their names are listed below in the exhibit, next to the concentration camp each one was sent to: Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Sobibor. It is unfathomable. There is one survivor: the girl in the center in the white dress. She went into hiding.
As I travel through the exhibit, I come across many tragic stories, as well as one of a couple who were photoghraphed on their wedding day. They survived, but separately. He was taken. She went into hiding; he escaped. They found each other after the war.
What the Nazis did in the Netherlands was the template for what they did everywhere else: forced the Jews to bargain with them through dealing with a "Jewish Council" of leaders in that community. It was a fiendish plot designed to co-opt and defang resistence, based on the trust people had for their leaders. And the leaders themselves, hoping they could make some deal for their people to fend off the the Nazi threat, tried to bargain but were helpless as family by famly, their people were taken until at at last, they themselves received their "Deportation" papers. The next thing they knew, it was over. Of the 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam, 75% died in the Holocaust. The highest statistic in Europe. And most of those who survived went into hiding.
Two days later, I find myself with Peter and Sylvie, friends who live in the southern district of Amsterdam, and are taking me on a tour of their neighborhood. We're on a beautiful, wide lane with long rows of 4-story buildings - Churchill-Laan, not far from 37 Merwedeplein where Anne Frank and her family lived for 7 years before going into hiding.
And where she went to school.
The Franks lived in "Social Housing," a housing project with all the modern conveniences. In classic Dutch fashion, Amsterdam's government had set this area aside for its citizens and, to secure it from real estate speculators, did not allow the land to be bought, only leased. So all of that housing is there today.
This is the park they looked out at from their 2nd floor apartment:
Anne and her family lived a modern life. She and her family were just like us.
A statue of her in a nearby park shows her looking back at her home...
Europe was civilized - Amsterdam was civilized - no one could have imagined what the Nazis had in store for them. We of the post-war generations still can't conceive of it - one reason we have The Shoah Foundation, and Holocaust museums.
There was very brave resistance of course, and just outside Amsterdam in a village called Enschede, three men (including a Chaplain) went to the Jewish Council with an alternate idea to dealing with the Nazis: they suggested putting all their Jewish citizens into hiding.
"'Hiding' is not in our vocabulary," they were told.
That was the last time they visited the Jewish Council.
Instead, they set about raising funds to sponsor the people in their village with friends and willing families. Money came from every source imaginable - companies and manufacturers, individual donors; the fund raising was non-denominational. Of the 1500 Jews in their village, 500 were saved.
Every single story I read about survivors included making an escape, bucking the system, going into hiding. No one knows who betrayed the Franks but what is certain, is that if they had not gone into hiding, they would have perished far sooner - they almost made it.
I have been to Holocaust museums in the US, but it's not the same. I'm not walking the very streets where Nazis stormed in, where people fled or were seized; I'm not listening to the native language of people who lost their lives in a cold planned execution.
The Amsterdam Jews were easy to find. The government didn't force assimilation but freely allowed communities to stay together. And they kept records. The Nazi's work was done for them.
Why am I telling you this? Because more than ever now as in Amsterdam, I sense anything can happen in the US. This could happen.
There is no security if we don't fight for it. And what I learned from this exhibit was this: Resist. Stay united. Think for yourself. Organize.
My first day in the city, two Amsterdammers were kind enough to take me to parts of the city which they sensed would address my bike infrastructure obsession: the Centraal Station. The first place they took me was a busy outdoor space along the water, where ferry riders and other pedestrians intersect with bikes turning into a main bike thoroughfare. This place, they specified, was Amsterdam’s “Shared Space" (in what I later realized was one of its calmer moments).
I could see that it was sort of a slow-moving, constant negotiation, that seemed to work for everybody (unnerving as a pedestrian if you’re not used to it). What I didn’t realize then, was that shared space is the underlying basis for all of Amsterdam’s street infrastructure. And it begins with...
For example, these curbs are ubiquitous.
Usually found at intersections to side streets or along canals...
They serve the function of demarcating a shared street, but also slowing everybody down going in and out of it. Sometimes there’s a bike lane on that street.
But just as often bikes ride with the cars, especially if they’re riding in the opposite direction (yes it happens all the time).
There are also these curb treatments on pedestrian islands.
Whereas NY’s pedestrian islands have designated curb cuts by which we must abide, in Amsterdam it’s all cut - and accessible. Bikes can ride right over this curb, and so can electric wheelchairs. The highest most curbs ever get is this:
And sometimes there are no curbs at all...
For a NY cyclist, it feels like the Dutch have legalized cheating! The sidewalks are equally accessible but bikes don’t ride them because pedestrians are using them, and because with so few cars*, there is plenty of space for everybody. It all works fairly seamlessly, on a system of trust. Yet long before Reagan, the Dutch were putting “Trust but verify” into practice. Because just when you think the street system is completely laissez faire, you see these Vision Zero “interventions.”
And realize someone is watching.
All of this makes for a palpable sense of relief for a New Yorker riding in Amsterdam. The system works even when protected lanes disappear and become this:
Cars are on notice: treat all bikes as if where they’re riding is “protected.” By law, it is.
PAVING SURFACES: Another key part of bike infrastructure is paving surface.
A little story. Many years ago, my 4-yr-old cousin was running away from home. “Watcha doin’?” his Mom asked, as she peeked into his room and saw him packing up a knapsack, ready to stalk out of the house forever. When he told her of his intent with furrowed brow, rather than try to talk him out of it, she got right on board with suggestions. “Oh well, you’re gonna need some cans of soup and a can opener. You’lldefinitely need a kettle to heat up water - and how about this cast iron skillet for the campfire?” Long story short, he got to the end of the driveway lugging 30lbs of household goods, changed his mind and turned around. And that’s how it is with street surfaces in Amsterdam. You wanna ride here? Well go ahead! You won’t mind this brick bike lane…
(Out go the clipless pedals)
How about this? I mean, it does rain in Amsterdam... (out goes the road bike)
In short, the local government in Amsterdam acts much like a passive-aggressive parent, quietly manipulating traffic with a gimlet eye, and only stepping in when things get dangerous.
And by the way, these pavement speed “disrupters” aren’t constant. There are just enough of them that delivery people (yes, they have them) ride the same speed as everyone else - and no one’s riding fast. Because after you’ve invested in a 40lb bike for all weather and all street surfaces, you’re not riding any faster just because the road got temporarily smooth.
Yes, those lycra guys still exist - but they pretty much ride on the smoother paths which - not surprisingly - can be found anywhere on the outskirts of Amsterdam, where they’re not likely to bother anybody. Coincidence? I think not.
The biggest upshot of all of this is safety. So that unlike NYC, where a silly mistake can cost you your life, the same mistake in Amsterdam at 10mph, is just that: a mistake. You trade embarrassed glances at the rider you thought you could turn in front of in the middle of an intersection - or even a driver - and ride on. You’ll live to ride smarter, another day. Cars are held to a higher standard.
The one thing these speed disrupters are not good for is some of the new mobility devices like electric unicycles, segways or scooters, tho I've seen a few - mostly parked. Because, aside from being illegal, on brick or cobblestones, you may end up carrying them a lot more than they carry you. Wheelchairs manage fine except for cobblestones.
One more observation. While in Amsterdam, I rode traffic circles - for the first time, with a protected lane. The feeling of freedom that comes with riding a separate, protected bike lane with timed signaling all the way around is unique, even enviable. Are you listening @NYC_DOT (#Columbus Circle)? This is the Wetteringchans traffic circle...
Is the bike infrastructure in Amsterdam perfect? No, it’s not. At an (English speaking) evening of improv I went to, when the audience was asked what was their greatest annoyance, the answer came almost in unison: Pedestrians in the bike lane! (Motor) scooters in the bike lane! And it’s true, motor scooters (not the NY kind, the old fossil fuel kind) have come more and more, to infest the bike infrastructure in Amsterdam. They’re loud, they’re too fast and they’re smelly.
They’re also illegal in these lanes, but so far there has been no serious crackdown I expect that it will happen though. The Dutch are smart. As for pedestrians in the bike lane, as a New Yorker I have plenty of experience with tourists - I this case I was one of them. Personally I had no problem with pedestrians. Broadly speaking, there was room for everybody.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam, it is easy to overlook how many ways the city serves its residents. For the newcomer, the number of bikes (and the outrageous parking for them) is the most obvious difference. But underlying that, is a multi-faceted infrastructure - from street design, to vehicles and parking, to taxing and regulations - where every piece works together. These observations are strictly my own, that of my camera, and a few natives I got to know along the way and to whom I made myself a complete pest. And while many of you may have long known a lot of this, here is what I saw:
PARKING (the biggest enabler of cars in cities): The hourly price for on-street parking in Amsterdam’s city center is 5 Euros. A day- ticket goes from 30 to 45 Euros. The further you are from the Old City Centre, the cheaper the parking is.* Cars are charged electronically, and can park in designated areas like this below (the X is a loading zone)
OWNING A CAR Want to buy a car? Go ahead: the tax for that will be 50% of the total cost. Gas is $6.48 a gallon.**
SPEED LIMIT/LIABILITY I was shocked at gas prices - and also surprised to find the speed limit in Amsterdam is higher than NYC’s: 30mph. But I rarely saw that - and when cars were moving fast, there was no close-passing. Drivers are careful because of the liability laws: if a driver hits a cyclist or pedestrian, the driver isautomatically deemed liable. In NY, the reverse is true and our fatalities are proof.
Also reversed: where in NYC we cyclists are constantly in danger of losing our bike lanes to cars, in Amsterdam, cars are considered “Invited guests” on the street, with rights that can be revoked at any time. Right of way clearly prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists, and you feel it.
The oddest experience is to ride in a painted bike lane, without expecting to be “doored.” Fearful of losing my NYC habits, I never counted on this, tho clearly the natives do.
But much of the time, bikes and cars ride separately
The only possible exception to right of way for peds and cyclists is trollies; always yield to trollies. But cyclists are not above the law. A cyclist who texts or rides looking at their phone, is automatically fined 95 Euros - this is common knowledge. And cops can catch them because they're also on bikes.
BIKE FATALITIES Sadly, there are still fatalities. While in Amsterdam, I was introduced to a couple who live there, knew my interests, and brought with them a heavy book about cycling in the Netherlands. If you look at this chart (the yellow is bikes)...
You’ll see that with 73% of the population taking 665,000 daily trips,*** there were three bike fatalities in 2013 (if I’m reading that correctly). Feel free to check my stats - I never claimed to excel at math - but even if I'm way off, those numbers don't come close to New York which at last count had 450,000 daily trips**** - and 19 dead since January of this year (it's now Labor Day). That's more than 6 times the fatalities of Amsterdam with far fewer cyclists, making it overall 800% more dangerous to ride a bike in New York than Amsterdam.New York should be ashamed.
AND NOW THE OBVIOUS: All of this adds up to far fewer cars on Amsterdam’s streets, leaving room for lots of alternatives, like car-free streets for walking, dining, shopping…
And don't forget partying (for which Amsterdam has long been famous)
As well as a healthy Red Light District.
Without all those cars, public transportation actually moves.
And people with disabilities ride with impunity on the sidewalks, in the bike lanes, but just as often in the streets.
All of which ends up creating a city with streets that more of its residents can share. But what is rarely mentioned is the difference in noise level. This for example, is a pile of ear plugs I carry in every pocket of clothing while walking on the streets of NY, and which stayed in my hotel room in Amsterdam.
In NY, I sleep with a fan on at night all year round, to block out the noise. In Amsterdam, I awoke to the sound of seagulls, and went to sleep to the sound of trolley clangs and and bicycle bells. In two weeks, I heard 3 car horns total.
I admit it: I'm a reluctant traveler. Anxiety is my constant companion - will I get lost in a place I don't speak the language? Will I be able to feed myself (celiac)? Have I packed for all weather? You'd think I was traveling into space, or some place where I couldn't visit a simple pharmacy or restaurant. Still, there it is. It is only my love of bikes and determination to see a place that has normalized them, that has forced me out of my comfort zone in New York. Now that I've come as far as Amsterdam, I have to keep pushing. Haarlem seems like a bikable destination - only 20 kilometers away - I decide to ride there.
But first to the Centraal Station for fuel for the trip. Stubbe Haring, where I'm told the herring is so good, it's like sushi, with the consistency of butter.
It's true! It's messy, but it will keep me going. Then I make my way out of town.
OK, notice anything? Pavement for bikes and cars varies a lot here. While it can often be smooth...
It can just as often be challenging.
You'll see this particular pavement around pedestrian plazas, even where the space is not shared. Between that and trolley tracks (you often get both together), as a cyclist you really have to watch it. Not surprisingly, you rarely spot road bikes in the city - who would want to deal with this? There have been times when I regretted not bringing my Brompton - but riding over these cobblestones? No thanks.
What the Dutch have done is not only break the car culture, but reduce bikes to their basic function: a simple form of public transportation. This means - you're not gonna like this - slowing them down. Put these streets together with a rainy climate, and even if you're a delivery cyclist, you can only ride so fast before you run the serious risk of wiping out - I've seen it. Can you imagine New York City bike paths and streets like this? That would change everything!
Frankly, biking here - safe as it is - is kind of (to use a turn of phrase) pedestrian. It's not as exciting as New York. But it does work. And you don't fear for your life, which from a New Yorker's point of view is outstanding. As I write, we have already doubled the cyclist deaths from last year and the year is far from over.
The road to Haarlem has smooth pavement, so you see some road bikes out here.
And from time to time, there are some great views
But most of the time it's miles and miles of this:
As for me, it's a little scary for a woman traveling alone. Between that and a one-gear bike with a seat that shows little respect for the Ladyparts, I decide about half way through to make this a 1-way trip, and take the train back. Shouldn't be hard to find.
I arrive in Haarlem about 2o minutes later than GPS had predicted, which doesn't surprise me given my bike. One of the city gates has been preserved (the rest came down to expand Haarlem)
It's a beautiful Medieval city of canals...
One glorious remaining windmill,
And shared spaces, where cars know their place...
And are gently reminded to stay the hell out.
Note: these bollards are electrified to go up and down. Why NYC cannot invest in these on the Hudson River Greenway it beyond me.
Everyone rides here, both young and old.
My interest here (other than biking) is to see the Grote Kerk, the main church around which religious life centered in Haarlem. Beautiful, isn't it?
I'm glad you like it. You can find it on Wikipedia. Cause this is what's there when I arrive:
Haarlem preparing for a jazz festival; you can't get into the church. It's not that I don't like jazz, but I could hear that in Harlem in New York...So I decide instead, to visit the Frans Hals Museum. Hals, who lived most of his life in Haarlem, was a leading painter of the Dutch Golden Age (17th Century).
The museum itself is exquisite, with paintings by many of his contemporaries, as well as artists he influenced - and paintings of course, by the man himself. It is exclusively by, and about white men, but putting that aside, the Dutch understood something about light that the rest of the world did not. They were the first, and their understanding of it remains as luminous and unique as ever. I am captivated.
But about 40 minutes in, anxiety begins to tug at me about the route back. It's not that I can't find the train station (I passed it on the way in), it's about whether I can find my bike. Um...where is it exactly? I've parked my bike in a couple of places since being here. I start back with quickening steps and look every place I can remember being. Was it here?
Nope. How about here?
Not even close. I consider asking for help. "What did it look like?" my helper is bound to ask. "Well, it was black..."
They're ALL black!!
The question is, is it lost - or stolen? I feel a case of Tourista coming on...(did I mention that I'm an anxious traveler?) What if I can't find it? What if I can't find a bathroom? What if I never get back to my life?
I finally decide I'll just have to leave it. Take a train back the next day; if it's stolen I'll have to pay for it; if it gets confiscated, I'll try to locate it through the proper authorities. I'm never gonna find it this way; I've looked everywhere.
Just at that moment, I stumble into an area I have no recollection of ever visiting. And there it is (recognizable by the slightly smaller tires). Last time I will EVER park my bike without taking a photo of it.
Now I'm ready for the trip back.
I begin my ride slowly through the town of Haarlem towards the train station...
When I spy a bike ahead of me making a curious turn. And that's when I hit pay dirt: the underground bike parking garage, the prodigious kind I've heard every Dutch town has, that's near a train station (you may have seen this one on youtube). Even a town as small as this has one. Here it is. Enjoy.
Five years after I first discovered the possibilities of biking in New York, I find myself at last in "The Holy City:" This is what we in the biking world call Amsterdam; the city that models to us the possibilities of what New York could become if we were to look beyond the mess that Robert Moses started and that Uber and Lyft have finished. For we are finished as a city. Our streets are choked with cars. Buses don't move and subways are broken. We cannot breathe, we cannot walk, or cross the streets; we are being hit and killed by cars in numbers not seen in decades (pedestrians have it worse). We simply have to change; we have to expand our thinking.
So I came here. To observe, to learn and see what the Dutch are doing right just from a personal perspective. And it's a lot.
If you follow the pioneering work of Clarence Eckerson (https://www.streetfilms.org) you already know that one of the things many European cities have done to restore balance, is remove parking. This removes any incentive to drive. In the central city of Amsterdam there is very little car parking. One native told me there is a shopping mall that offers 200 parking places inside the building. Beyond that, cars simply have very little place to go. But there is bike parking. And how:
I mean, everywhere you go...
At the Centraal Station, in spite of 3 floors of bike parking (not counting underground valet) and an close to acre of it on the ground, there are barges on the water, which hold even more bikes. And they get used!
It seems there is never enough.
To the naked eye, it eventually starts to seem like so much clutter. I mean, who would need so many bikes? But as a New Yorker, your eye is different and you quickly translate: in our city, that number would represent cars - lots of cars. Because most cars driving around New York only hold one person. No WONDER we can't move!
In spite of the clutter, a cyclist looking at all this bike parking is like Oliver Twist peeping into a shop window filled with delicacies: we have virtually no bike parking in New York. The occasional bike rack, usually taken up by delivery bikes. Everyone else is left to their own devices. There is one company trying to make a go of secure parking: https://www.ooneepod.com/ We are rooting for them, but so far they have yet to find permanent space in Manhattan.
So changing who gets parking has had a tremendous effect on how Amsterdam functions. But they've done lots else. Like build bike lanes truly protected from cars.
With split phase light signals for bikes...
Floating islands for buses and trollies so that bikes don't have risk being pushed into traffic, or getting crushed by a 10-ton vehicle approaching the curb.
But there are also unprotected lanes which feel perfectly safe, in part because they are not adjacent to parked cars who could pull out at any minute or "door" us. And check those bumps to the right: if you did pull over, you couldn't open your car door. If you stop to discharge passengers in the middle of the street you'd hold up traffic (which cars hate to do to each other). So traffic moves and bikes are safe.
The truth is, there's been a complete culture change here. Bikes - and pedestrians - have been so prioritized over cars, that even when they mix with them, cars tend to drive rather sheepishly - especially when turning - like an ex trying to live down past bad behavior (yeah, good luck with that). As a result, anyone can walk here - you can walk all over the city.
If you can't walk, you can roll
Or take public transportation, which is accessible
And biking is safe for everyone. Moms...
Vision Zero (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Zero) is a science, and I don't claim to be an expert, but I know the principles when I see them - because I feel safe. And they're at work in Amsterdam. New York will never be Amsterdam, but we can be a much better New York. It's time to turn the streets back over to the people.
Let’s face it: New York is just not a great place to be if you’re trying to get over your ex, and your ex is the bike. In Chelsea, the first protected crosstown lanes are going in right now. The boroughs are verdant with bike activism and new lanes. Prospect Park and Central Park are now car free.
And the L-train shutdown will easily double the riding in Manhattan.
Every time I pass my folding bike, Lucille and my road bike Lola in the hallway, my heart is tugged. I can’t bear to part with them, but at this point I’m terrified to ride. I've suffered 2 nasty tire-slips which came seemingly out of the blue, and my trust is broken.
If you believe Dorothy Parker's adage that that the quickest way to get over one man is to get under another, my attempts at shifting my focus should have worked by now. I’ve tried: walking with podcasts, Pilates, tap dancing, a rigorous daily workout routine (meh), jazzercise. I've reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to walk on two legs and hook up my bra. But nothing has replaced my yearning for the bike.
Nobody considers couples counseling until they have exhausted every other resource (I know this from personal experience). It’s a painful process fraught with disappointment, largely because two parties go into it allegedly to stay together but underneath, each secretly hopes the other one will change.
To be honest, I don’t have high expectations of Lola changing: she’s always been a narcissist. Her 16lb weight and compact crank leave other bikes in the dust; and the impatient sound of her chain coming up on other cyclists causes them instinctively to move over and make way; she doesn’t seem to care that even without a bell, she’s louder than an ambulance on the Greenway. So I’m almost not surprised that the one thing I ask her to do she refuses: put on nubbier tires. Her sleek frame will not accommodate them. The best I can do is these.
(Specialized All Condition Armadillo Elite Tire) Good for gripping the road in the rain (not that I’m considering it). I opt for them anyway. I don’t know what else to do; The bulk of the work it seems, will be up to me.
As I look at my own responsibility, the one thing my two tire-slip falls had in common was - forgetting the curb, the sand or other convenient excuses - I was turning left and fell right. I even had a fellow rider in Central Park warn me about my lopsided riding...
But I never anticipated what a game changer it would be.
As I wait for Lola’s tires to be replaced, I ask my bike tech Marc if there is such a thing as a bike coach? Someone who could observe my riding and point out where I might be off? (Gawd, could I be any more like my mother? Truly, this feels like a new low). Marc is not put off by my question though. In fact, he says with a twinkle in his eye, there’s something better. He recommends these:
Most people says Marc, maintain their balance with forward momentum and never think about side balance. Most people don’t have to. I am not one of them. Bike rollers, he says, will change this. With bike rollers - round tires gliding over round rollers – side balance is everything. If you have any holes in your technique they will reveal it fast. Until you ride properly, you simply won’t stay up. And then he says something unexpected: once you learn how to ride rollers, you don’t actually need to keep using them. They will permanently change your riding. I am hopeful but dubious. Could bike rollers really be the answer to my problem?
My first Googling attempts yield a multitude of hairy wipeouts.
I throw myself on the mercy of Amazon and wait with some trepidation for my tough-love therapist to arrive.
After a quick set up, I spend the 1st week riding in a too-wide hallway, hanging onto the nearby bannister for dear life, and trying to balance. I get nowhere. I spend the 2nd week like that. And the 3rd - but I can’t seem to get any further. If this is doable, I’d like to know how.
As I look back, I can see how deeply ingrained my habits were. Desperate to move forward, I call Marc. I’ve found a narrower bathroom doorway that would work, but I’m scared to try this alone. He volunteers to come over just in case.
We set up in the doorway, and I try to hold on with one hand as I did before, but there is no hand-hold in this space. There is nothing for it but to let go and ride. I brace myself – and tip over right away. Not far; the doorway keeps me from actually going anywhere. I try it again. And again. There isn’t much Marc can do. Holding the handlebars will only throw me off. He encourages me to engage my core and keep up my speed - and eventually to my astonishment I experience 10 seconds of perfect riding – really riding. Marc is cheering me on. “You got it!” he exclaims.
I feel like Eliza Dolittle. My cycling transformation has begun!
The closest thing I can compare it to is flying. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted physically, but the best. And I realize one of the reasons I feel so free on a bike, is the sense of balance. This is why I’ve always found exercise bikes - and even trainers - so dull. Without the sense of freedom balance gives you, what’s the point?
It is also instantaneously clear to me why I fell: I had been riding with most of my weight on the handlebars, definitely weighted more to the left. You can’t do this on a bike roller and stay up. You have to relax your shoulders – both shoulders - keep your weight centered on the saddle and balance with your core. Marc says the optimum ratio is maybe 70:30 saddle to handlebar weight, and that seems about right to me. Looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t fall sooner.
There are some other things about bike rollers that are different. For one, there’s no real resistance (though you can find some rollers that have it for a price), even if you change gears. And unlike trainers, they will not help you build power. But sweating is off the charts (I still haven’t figured out why). And breathing – one of the best things about a real bike - is great.
Most of my cycling friends have never heard of bike rollers. Used mostly by racers and track bikers, this technology long preceded trainers and exercise bikes. “Are you crazy?” asks one of the best cyclists I know. “Those things are terrifying!” This by someone who would probably master them in 2 minutes – ‘cause how else could she be such a fearsome rider?
But it doesn’t matter. I was the one who needed them. I am the one who uses them. And I am the one who loves them; they are healing my relationship with the bike, something I thought could never happen. There is no price on this.
To be honest, it will still take some time to get my confidence back - I’ve said this before and because of that, I’m not putting a time limit on it. For all I know, I may never take Lola out on the road again (though she is itching to go – she is a road bike after all). But I have taken my Brompton Lucille – the twitchier of my two bikes – out for a couple of rides. And my riding is indeed different. Steering from the handlebars is light and optional – most of my steering comes from my core now. At this point, I’m still very conscious of technique, and ride very deliberately. But I can tell my riding is different because I can now signal effortlessly with my either hand. This was impossible before; I could only signal with my right.
What a revelation! I’m thinking I can ride this way anytime I want – be safe and never leave the house! I picture a future of doing just that: me, Lola and bike rollers riding into the sunset when, with a sense of dismay, I realize I have been taken in by the oldest trick in the book: transference. I think I have fallen back in love with riding; I have actually just fallen in love with the therapist. It’s a great training exercise, but it remains to be seen whether Lola and I will be able to rebuild our relationship without the safety of our therapist (or that handy doorway): out on the road.
There are all kinds of couples and all kinds of relationships. What would work for some people seems totally out of place for others. Still, they say willingness is the most important thing.
Anyone who has had a bike accident which required them to go to the ER, will be asked about their pain level. In my case, as I sit dizzily on the bikeway trying to get my bearings, my hunky lifeguards arrive cheerily bearing first aid, and offer me - wait for it...
Fentanyl?! That seems a bit of a stretch. I haven't broken my back. I need an addiction like I need another broken arm. My wailing obviates the need for a siren as the ambulance speeds over bumpy streets to the ER (I turn down the offer). There, I’m told Fentanyl is all EMTs are allowed to give me. Not morphine (50% less potent, but also less dangerous), not Ibuprofen, not Tylenol - not even an aspirin (not that that would have helped much).
Clearly, there's money in opioids, and it's turned the entire medical profession into pushers - even the lifeguards! There's money in prescribing opioids, and there's even more money in getting people off them. A whole industry in fact, of rehabs (when the 12-step programs were always meant to be free). But guess where else there's money?
Medical marijuana. And I'm in California.
OK, it's not the same, but a couple of days after leaving the ER, (with a prescription of Oxy I never asked for), I opt for a more holistic approach. I go online, talk to to a doctor, and get a prescription for medical marijuana.
A veteran of New York's Blue Laws, I'm unschooled in the ways of cannabis, and quickly encounter a learning curve. Active ingredients, I’m told, can generally be divided into CBD (no associated high) and THC (join Weight Watchers now). CBD is used as a mild painkiller, often for people with arthritis, and also as a sleep aid. Since the pain from my broken arm has been keeping me awake at night, CBD sounds like a good idea.
I find a dispensary nearby.
The waiting room is small and subdued with subtle lighting, and a receptionist in dreadlocks. But it is distinguished from any waiting room I've ever been in by the pungent stink of muscular, well tended cannabis. The receptionist takes my ID and I peek through the teak slats behind him. It looks like a deli. It looks like a candy store.
It looks like the Herbology class at Hogwarts.
“Budtenders” stand patiently behind the counter. The atmosphere is quiet and professional. One person at a time is allowed into the dispensary. Alas I am not one of them; my New York ID invalidates my California prescription.
Before I can ponder what to do next, The receptionist tells me that it is possible to order for delivery. He gives me the number of his sales rep: “Tell him you are a friend of Sonny who's a friend of James, Sarah’s boyfriend, who...” This “Rep” is sounding more and more like a dealer. Do I really want to go down this road?
But it turns out I don't need to. A quick call to a friend as I am leaving, reveals I never needed a prescription to begin with. In California, recreational pot is just as legal as medical! Will wonders never cease? Next stop: MedMen.
There's a 10-minute wait outside the place, and ID is checked, but except for the familiar odor when you get inside, there is a 180 degree difference between this and the dispensary. Designed to look like an Apple Store...
There is a central island with iPads showing photographs and Peterman-like drawings of plants, accompanied by text detailing the strains, the origins of harvest, percentages of CBD to THC. There are also flat, covered dishes with magnifying glasses built in, and spring-loaded latches so you can sniff the product.
Assorted marijuana products line the walls: bubble bath balls, dropper bottles, vaping pens, sublinguals, chocolate-covered cannabis-infused blueberries (5 mg THC per bite), weed for rolling. Wandering salespeople are knowledgeable and available to help - and business is booming: the noise level rivals Macy's on Christmas Eve (before Amazon). By the time I leave, the line stretches around the corner.
I wonder what's going to happen to those little dispensaries when word gets out about this place?
I emerge with 2 salvs for my sore shoulder (one with THC), and a bubble bath ball. Oddly, these come in both CBD as well as THC versions (seniors bring your Life Alert pendant with you into the tub). Oh, and a bottle of drops for sleeping.
The sleeping drops are lovely, the salvs only go so far. Broken bones are too much of a challenge for marijuana it seems, and I wind up resorting to Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and the strategic application of cold packs.
I am lucky my pain is manageable with just these. I pass no judgement on anyone who needs more powerful pain relief. There are meds for that.
But to my knowledge, no pain killer has ever been invented for the pain of a broken heart. As I'm leaving MedMen, I spy this.
Like the lover who dumped me but lives nearby, this is a sight I know I'm going to have to get used to every time I leave the house. Especially back in New York where bike lanes are increasingly ubiquitous. The first protected crosstown lanes are going up right near me. I was the one who recorded the ride to illustrate the need for them.
I still believe in cycling, and I will always love it. I will always admire the riders: working cyclists, commuters, day-trippers and racers. They are road warriors extraordinaire. But in three years, I've visited three different ERs. The best I can do now is to continue to advocate for cyclists, help keep them safe, and on the road - out of the ER and off painkillers.
He's bad for you but he makes you feel so good. Attractive, powerful, even immortal. It's a fallacy of course. Haven't you been listening? Self-worth comes from within! And yet, there's something about him. You've never felt this way before about anybody (and you've been around). He’s irresistible. There are a growing number of red flags, but you are confident you will be the exception.
Your life opens up. So THIS is what love is about! The more you learn about him, the more fascinating he becomes. You can see a future here. You travel together. You begin to record and write about your experiences. Then one day for no reason, he hits you - hard. You are in shock. What happened? You did nothing wrong. You hope this is a one-time event. You vow to be better. You tentatively recommit. Then out of the blue, he hits you again and the cycle repeats itself.
Did I say cycle?
Once again in Los Angeles over Christmas, I rent this beauty.
And ride almost 30 miles. At Manhattan Beach, I learn this is where beach volleyball started.
But ultimately, I become less interested in the beach itself, than the creative ways people have found to look at it.
I wish I had started this ride earlier. It goes all the way to Palos Verdes, and I would love to make the entire trip. But winter light is shortened even in Los Angeles, and I reluctantly turn back so as not to have to cycle in darkness.
I'm running at a good clip, passing a fellow cyclist. The path is not congested, there are no sharp turns to be made. But there is by definition a fine, invisible sprinkling of sand. And before I know it, I hit the ground too fast to even brace myself. I hear the familiar and terrifying clattering of the bike. My head bounces off the pavement. I'm wearing a helmet, but when I sit up, I can't move my arm.
And here is the great difference between New York and California: in a twinkling, I am surrounded by 5 beef cakey lifeguards, the front line for EMT here, all focused on me with concern, and smiles that would light up a stadium. If only I could reach my phone! No one will believe I could ever attract babes of this caliber. It's the one highlight of my final escapade.
I will not take the reader through the painful ambulance ride, the drudgery of the ER, the x-rays, the scans showing a shattered humerus - and having to once again be taken care of by my long-suffering sister. My heart is too broken for that anyway. I know it's going to be 4 to 6 weeks. I know my riding days are coming to an ineluctable end.
And like any woman in a halfway house who looks back on her abusive relationship, I can no longer ignore those red flags. Bono. My late friend Jamie Johnson, who died on his bike. A woman in her twenties I heard about just a year ago, riding in a group with helmet, not particularly fast, who hit a pothole and went down at an odd angle. Paralyzed for life. Friend of a friend who spent 3 months in the hospital with a hip injury. Twice. The wife of my internist who will never walk again without a walker. Young still. My own orthopedist, former cyclist, who was so badly injured on a downhill in Europe that he was out of work for a year and a half. In short, every cyclist I know on one level or another. There may be people this never happens to. I am not one of them. The fact is, I love the bike, but the bike does not love me back. Not the way healthy people define love.
In my heart of hearts, I knew this day would come eventually. I just didn't think it would come so soon. And it’s jarring to be here so abruptly, having just recommitted to this blog.
I have no regrets. I wouldn't take back a moment of it. There is nothing like cycling: the exploration, the sense of adventure, the pure joy of being alive. The breathing of outdoor air, of real air. Discovering parts of New York, of Missouri, Ireland and France I would never otherwise have seen. Riding has made me healthy and strong - but not invincible. In the space of 3 years, I have had three injuries, and three lengthy recoveries. This does not bode well.
Many years ago, having suffered a romantic betrayal, I consulted a friend in a healthy marriage. I will never forget the question she asked me. “How can you love someone you don't trust?” And how long, I ask myself, before the betrayal has much worse consequences?
For the record, and before you even suggest it, spinning is not a viable alternative. That would be like giving up the Goth bad boy for the stamp collecting guy in high school who wears the pocket protector and whose idea of adventure is rearranging turtles for the class science project. This guy might one day make a good provider, but no woman in an abusive relationship is ever gonna trade her abuser for this. Love is still love.
I’m not ready to give back the ring. The thought of selling Lola, even worse Lucille, is more than I can bear right now. I will put those decisions off for another day.
For now I just need to heal, and think about how I can look for joy in other ways. Nothing will give me what cycling did. But somewhere out there is a healthier love.
It’s everyone’s dream to be able to go back in time with the wisdom we have now, but in the circumstances of the past; to experience life with a sense of predictability and control, and make better decisions. Living our lives with the advantage of hindsight is a fantasy forever plaguing us second-guessers (“If only I had known!”). But what if the chance to do that still doesn’t give you the answers?
When I began this blog, I was just starting breast radiation, a grim and very real procedure following surgery (which was bad enough), and what was left of my denial was running on fumes. Waiting rooms of neon light, whose rock music mocked hairless patients with searing radiation burns; sessions on the gurney bombarded by the mechanical whip-sawing sounds of medical equipment – all of these were hammering home the fact that no matter what I did, I was from hereon in an eternal member of the Pink Ribbon Club.
My mother had died just weeks before. Time off the gurney was spent grieving, shutting down the bureaucracies of her life, planning a memorial (amid thoughts of my own), and sorting through a history of acquisitions precious to her after years of decline.
So the sight of two people joyfully carrying their Bromptons down the steps of a Mexican restaurant on a Spring evening startled me, long in a deficit of hope. I was primed for anything that held promise of life. I saw them and touched with an imaginary finger, the filmy membrane of memory - bike rides of my youth, speeding along sandy streets between tall dunes, surging with independence and optimism, the sense of having life ahead of me, of freedom and possibility. I felt something within me spring alive I had not felt in years. On the strength of that vision, I brought Lucille home the next day, and never looked back. Until now.
What would I have said to my then-self in that moment if I had known the future? If I could have foreseen a fractured wrist, or 5 months stranded away from home healing from a knee fracture; if I could have understood the physical - and worse mental - pain of learning how to walk again. Would I take back any of the rides I’ve gone on - through Manhattan, over its magnificent bridges, through the five boroughs? Would I prefer never to have ridden in France? In Ireland? In short, would I have thought the risks worth the experience?
Cyclists, when discussing these things, usually answer “Oh, it’s just a part of it. You heal and keep riding.” As if these things were never permanent (I've learned sometimes they are). And my circumstances have changed. The results of a recent bone scan show the stakes for falling are much higher for me now. So the question arises: is there a point to keeping a biking blog if at any moment a sudden injury could put an end to it? And more importantly - should I be riding at all? Wrestling with these questions explains – if anyone is interested – my silence lo these many months.
The thing is, hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Given the warnings I’m now aware of, given my own personal experience, I still find myself attracted to riding. And I ask myself all the time why, since I'm not a daredevil by nature. To be sure, I ride for exercise. I also ride for transportation. I ride to experience my city in a different way, to see more of it, to rejoice in it. I ride for the sense of empowerment I don’t always have in other areas of my life. And of course, I ride for joy. In the end though, I think I ride because I ride. I don’t know if I can explain it any better. I ride because there’s just nothing else like it.
And so I have decided to continue this blog. Because there's still so much I don't know, and riding for me is the best way to discover it.