Biking in New York City changed Argun Ulgen. Here’s how.
Destroying The Gym Obsession: I used to go to the gym with militaristic regularity for years: 18:15 after work, five or six times a week. I’d surround myself with clocks, sets, repetitions, and segmented routes from one machine to the next. This wasn’t the worst thing in the world on one level; rigid discipline has its virtues. But my body started to feel like a spreadsheet and I would feel anxious if I missed three consecutive days, that I was somehow growing “unfit.” I also found that for about an hour my thoughts were staid as I occupied this machine or that.
Three years of biking in New York City changed this approach. I don’t keep track of mileage and if there is a side street that interests me, I’ll be happy to break my route to see what’s what. I take a number of different routes in Brooklyn, including the Williamsburg Waterfront, loops around Prospect Park, and when time allows, a long straight road down Bedford Avenue to the Coney Island Boardwalk. In addition to endorphin boosts and a total body workout, each ride offers a panoply of views: rivers, arboreal passages, random city events, a variety of bikers riding at different speeds and traveling for different reasons.
As a result, over the last two years, I’ve dissipated a great deal of anxiety associated with a previously self-imposed strict adherence to my workout routines. Biking has helped replace this strict approach with a more holistic appreciation for exercise that shifts the focus away from workout numbers and toward feeling physically fit and mentally and emotionally satisfied with my ride.
Cohesive thinking: In Henry Miller’s On Writing, he advises that if an aspiring writer wants to travel, he should opt for bicycling whenever he can. Achieving a continuous flow of thought while riding through the city’s perpetual flux has a way of merging individual ideas into a cohesive template. Over the years, I’ve learned to let my ideas for a new essay generate from the rhythm of my pedaling; if a good idea arises, a nice internal conversation continues as I pedal on.
Appreciating Present Surroundings: And yet, it’s easy, even when on a bicycle, to get too lost in my own thoughts. Or in a kind of obsessive fugue over my speed and time. To compensate for this, I bring along my camera to get at least one picture of the cityscape or the waterfront during my ride. That allows for my eyes to wander when I’m on my bike rather than just focusing on getting to my destination at a certain time.
Racing The Sunset: At about 8pm last Summer, I wanted to take a photo of the sunset at the Brooklyn Bridge Waterfront. I noticed that I had about 5 minutes to get there and I found a relatively empty side street on which to jet down to the harbor. By the time I got there, however, the sun had already fallen well behind the cargo ships. I had lost the race by a minute. I was disappointed, but I also reconnected to a fond memory I had in the 8th grade, pedaling in dire urgency on a late September afternoon to get to the baseball card shop before closing time (I arrived on time, but dropped $10.00 for Upper Deck packs that didn’t yield a Ken Griffey Junior rookie card).
Patience: It’s a simple truth: fighting for momentum up hill, lactic acid burning through my calves, I have to stop at a red light. Other times the obstacle will be a pedestrian ambling about a protected bike lane like a squirrel. Even worse, an SUV, engine still humming, while the driver aloofly yammers away on his cell phone.
After two years of continually muttering and chastising lane violators, I now try to just let it all go. I may make a brief admonishment, but not so much so that I interrupt the precious meditative flow of my ride. Moreoever, I’ve come to slowly accept that momentum, for reasons legitimate and otherwise, is meant to be broken and rebuilt time and time again in one’s lifetime
Sleep Management: With the continual advent of telephone and computer technology, it’s easy to understand why sleep deprivation has become an increasingly widespread disorder. Biking helped to ferret out issues I had with sleep management; the combination of an hour of fresh air, physical exertion, and simple mechanics has helped relax my body and my thought patterns when I’m settling myself to sleep.
Physiologically, bicycling helps boost serotonin and oxygenated blood levels; both factors that contribute to a good night’s rest. Conversely, reminiscing on a simple time away from the computer helps to curb my mind’s meanderings and opens it up toward allowing for a good night’s rest.
Improved Relations with Others: I used to have a tendency to control conversation through rants. That changed for the better through biking. Indeed, city cycling requires the alertness and flexibility to sift through an endless gauntlet of cars, scrambling pedestrians, pot holes, gypsy cabs that claim 98% of the “shared bike lane,” and the occasional floating plastic bag headed straight for your head during a ride in a balmy 20 mph wind.
Handling these challenges can translate well into homing into others’ social cues in a conversation. Conversation, like biking through the city’s streets, is a protean mechanism. As biking became an essential part of my constitution, I’ve come to accept conversation as more than something that can be controlled. And so I’ve lost my past propensity to overly control talks through self-involved rants.
Identity: I never felt that I had a sense of developed identity when I regularly went to the gym. There were too many other people in the same room, doing the same thing on a floor with a factory layout of machines. Once again, this had its value. The understanding that we are all creatures of essentially the same mechanical movements working on the same categorical muscles gave me an understanding of myself in a part n’ parcel of the world sort of way.
However, I’ve cultivated my own singular identity through biking. When I say that I’m a “city biker,” this represents two years of well earned experiences based on a richer personal autonomy than derived from mere stationary exercise routines. It involves consuming visual experiences and adventures through decisions to travel different streets; earning the arrival at destinations through burning calories; and achieving ownership of one simple machine that eventually became a fundamental part of who I am as would my camera and my writing.
Perspective On Time: Now I do most of my traveling on a bicycle, my perspective on car transportation has changed dramatically. One can’t appreciate the overwhelming magnitude of automobile transportation in this country unless he or she has traveled regularly on the same streets as cars for a while. On a 10 mile route, pushing against wind to keep a 15 mph pace, I must travel past 500,000 pounds of fast, aggressive if not impatient steel. My bike is .00004% of this weight, and an even smaller percentage by way of dollars.
To say this is all mesmerizing makes me sound like a crotchety old soul. Fine, maybe I am. Suffice to say, I can appreciate that getting to a destination at 15 mph instead of 50 is good enough, especially if fresh air is involved. And I’m a little more OK with missing the first five minutes of the game, the show, or dinner than I was a few years earlier when I insisted on driving a car everywhere.
Feeling of Unity: When I first moved to the city four years ago, I was woefully introverted and overwhelmed by what felt like the homogenous competitive vibe of the places I frequented, all of which were mostly after daylight: the gym, bars with friends, house parties. Ironically, despite frequently being cloistered in tight spaces, these scenes continually felt segmented and to some degree overwhelmingly hierarchical based on a rigid code without very little room to move.
It was biking that drew me into the city during the day. One awesome thing about biking down a long protected bike lane is that over the course of a ride, buildings of all different shapes and sizes begin to blend; so, for that matter, do the several other bikers you pass along the way.
Each biker is on essentially the same machine as you. Granted some bikes are built to be faster or sleeker than others and some riders distinguish themselves via sponsor clad spandex for a Tuesday afternoon ride, but these differentiations feel less relevant when everyone is a part of a fluid if not cooperative stream of movement. They’re motions are the same as yours, as is the sun shared. There’s a quiet unity here, like a school of fish, a community of relative equals.
That may sound like a high minded ideal, this one of unity through more cohesive variety. But it’s not merely conceptual; it’s a feeling through movement. I’ve come to learn that to intellectualize an ideal is one thing, to experience it is quite another.
Photos: Argun Ulgen