THE GREENWAYS of Portland seem very far away as Joe Simonetti and I pedal down a street in the Bronx that looks like the nightmare underbelly of America's car culture. In front of myriad body shops sit subcompacts with mashed-in crumple zones and SUVs with spidery shattered windows. A billboard urges auto-accident victims to dial 1-800-I-AM-HURT. Cars honk and weave, delivery trucks wait parked in the bicycle lane. "The Bronx is lawless," says Simonetti. "It's the Wild West, dog eat dog—or car eat car."
We cross the Madison Avenue Bridge into Manhattan and a few minutes later reach the Central Park loop, one of the few car-free spaces of the day. Our ride has gone off without conflict, not that it's always so. "It's hard to ride ten years without some incident," Simonetti says. There's a crash—not always major—every season or so, not to mention logistical concerns like bathroom breaks. He says he enjoys two-thirds of the ride but admits to having to "push myself" through the final third.
But the benefits are clear. For one, Simonetti, despite being nearly two decades my senior, seems ready to keep riding, whereas I'm struggling from an old knee injury that's come wriggling up like worms after rain. For another, knee notwithstanding, I feel fantastic. In a study by the University of Surrey, car commuters reported having the "most stressful" commutes, while cyclists saw their journeys as "interesting and exciting." Indeed, where driving into New York City always leaves me feeling edgy and irritable, I now feel curiously alive.
To cycle in America today is to engage in an almost political act, but what's often obscured is the simple idea of pleasure. Andy Clarke notes that bike-component maker Shimano, in some research it conducted with the design firm IDEO, found that when you talk to adults and ask them about their earliest childhood memory, "it invariably involves a bike—exploring their neighborhood, careening down a hill, ditching the training wheels." We need to rediscover that, he says. "They don't want to feel like they have to be Lance. People want to be normal, and they want cycling to be a part of normal life."
Returning from a visit to Cape Cod last summer, I was staggered to see a traffic jam stretching for dozens of miles, heading to the beaches. Almost every car had several bikes lashed to it. You could almost feel the collective urge to escape traffic and get on a bike. I thought: This is the country that hates cyclists, that sees them as a road menace?
Simonetti and I draw to a stop outside his office building, two people on bikes amid Midtown gridlock. I ask him why he does it. "I have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment," he says. "No matter what else happens in the day, I can feel good about the ride. There aren't many other things that make me feel that way."
How many people can say that about their commute? After saying goodbye to Simonetti, I head home myself, riding over to the Hudson River Greenway, that jewel of New York's expanding—and controversial—bicycle network, where none of the larger thoughts about cycling in America intrude. I'm just enjoying the breeze off the river and thinking about that final climb over the Brooklyn Bridge.