Leatherballs III: Big City Biking

Bikers, as we all know, are a breed apart. But New York City bikers are so far from the rest of us you can barely see ‘em from where we’re at.

That’s a compliment, by the way, one said in a tone something akin to awe.

I lived in New York City for five years or so a while back, and I had my bike there. I won’t claim to have been a NYC biker, though, because the truth is riding in New York was so unpleasant for me that I didn’t do nearly as much of it as I had grown accustomed to my whole life before moving there. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I left back in ‘96. The advantages of pizza at 4 AM and Broadway musicals in no way outshone the soul-sapping disadvantages of $200-a-month parking slots and air-cooled engines overheating in permanently stalled traffic.

I’ve never been in combat myself, unless you count drunkenly wrestling imaginary pink elephants in Lower East Side bars late at night. But I’ve ridden various Harleys in and around NYC, and riding in New York is what I imagine combat to be like, at least somewhat. Certainly it requires the sort of me-and-my-buddies-against-everybody mentality that is the lynchpin of any successful violent engagement. Last issue I discussed the necessity of dealing with the likelihood of sudden unexpected death while getting our two-wheel ya-ya’s out; in New York City, that gamble sits on your shoulder like an ever-present dark angel.

Think you’ve seen potholes? Until you’ve waded through New York’s, no you most certainly have not. New York doesn’t have potholes per se; it has craters the size of Delaware. Some of them you almost need a grappling hook and a winch to negotiate; some of them are as dark as the other side of the moon when you hit bottom and start to wend your way back up the opposite slope. The old “here be dragons” warning takes on a whole new meaning as you descend unexpectedly into one of these black holes, perhaps never to be heard from again.

There are horror stories of New York City chuckholes snapping handlebar riser bolts, of them literally unseating riders and dumping them unceremoniously to the pavement, leaving the poor-schmoe biker at the less than tender mercy of the fifty or so wild-eyed cabbies that were all welded to his tombstone taillight mere seconds before, trying furiously to gain the all-important .04-second advantage at the next malfunctioning stoplight — all while displaying no more regard for the sanctity of human life than they did three weeks ago, when they were all working in a suicide-bomb-belt factory in South Waziristan.

And nothing can drive home the point that cagers are NOT our friends quite like an afternoon’s putt around Midtown. Dig, if you will, the pomp and pageantry of an old-school medieval joust presented in modern-day Manhattan, with the cagers as the squires, knights, and spectators, and us as the dirt under the horses’ hooves. Gotham is a target-rich environment, and guess who’s doing all the shooting. You dodge, you weave, you keep one foot out to slap against the left rear quarter panel of unyielding cagers as they seek to occupy the four inches of space between your right leg and the speeding bus that just casually swerved into what you so egocentrically thought of as your lane mere seconds ago. No signal for any of these light-speed lane changes, natch; why, that would require an ounce of effort, a millisecond’s forethought, and a shred of common courtesy, none of which is ever noticeably on display in the queue to the Midtown Tunnel or Queensboro Bridge. Or anywhere else in New York, for that matter.

No, the best thing about riding in New York is getting the hell out. There are beautiful, scenic putts all around the city; the hills of North Jersey, the quaint villages of Connecticut, the vineyards and farms of eastern Long Island are all wonders to behold from the saddle of a Harley. That’s if you can survive the two and a half hours it takes to ride the fifteen or twenty miles to get to ‘em. Afterward, you can either ride back into the City to meet your girlfriend for dinner at one of New York’s many wonderful restaurants — where you’ll circle the block for hours seeking but never finding a barren cranny in which to park your overheating and battered scoot, which will then most likely be stolen — or head straight back to your usuriously priced slot in a tomb of a parking garage located conveniently close to the hellish ghetto you’ll probably be murdered in as the unfortunate result of another botched mugging attempt.

And the funny thing is, there are lots and lots of bikes and bikers in New York City. In the summertime, you can scarcely throw a rock without beaning someone ripping down 2nd Avenue on a hot-rodded old shovelhead, splitting lanes like a will o’ the wisp with a cigarette insouciantly dangling from one side of his (or her, believe it or not) lips. Harleys of every imaginable warp and woof blast through the side streets setting off car alarms and reminding transplants like me of the good riding life we left behind in whatever country hamlet we foolishly migrated from. Hard-core chops, chrome-bedraggeled pseudocustoms, bone-stock fresh-from-the-showroom-floor factory rides, patched-together bobjobs, even geezer-glides — you can see ‘em all in New York.

And their riders bespeak the same diversity: everything from full patch-holders to weekend warriors are represented in the rich tapestry of New York biker culture. My hat’s off to each and every one of them; it’s a testament to the power and allure of the biker lifestyle that they find a way to brave the hazards and pitfalls of big-city bikerdom, and to the individual courage and will of those who manage it year after year.

Just watch out for those cabbies, fellas.

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