In a city where car ownership is the exception, being in sync about traveling via bicycle can determine how smoothly your relationship does — or doesn’t — run.
She was European, built for speed and had a hard-to-pronounce name: Cilo. Her frame was small, so our bodies fit perfectly. I took her all over the city with me, and men would compliment us. Or, rather, her. “Nice bike,” they’d say. She had steel lugs, drop handlebars, Shimano components, and handled like a dream. Then, one very late night, after seven years together, I came back to where I had locked her, and she was gone. I circled the East Village block numerous times and ultimately went home in a cab. I’m not ashamed to say I woke up the next day and cried. But, unlike with people I’ve loved and lost, I immediately replaced her with another.
If you’re a New York City cyclist, there are few relationships more intense than the one you have with your bike. David Byrne wrote an entire book devoted to the experiences he gleaned from his two-wheeled urban travels. Bill Cunningham has forged an illustrious career aided by riding his around town. And Michael Musto says he is lost without his. Perhaps the only bond that could be stronger would be one with another biker. But has the exponential growth of cycling — Citi Bike, the largest bike-share program in the country, has provided roughly 8 million trips with a total of over 14 million miles traveled since its launch last summer — created a bumpy ride for the city’s love lives?
Justin and Adrienne (some names in this article have been changed) started dating during their senior year of college. Three months after graduation, Justin moved to Manhattan. That’s when he began to get into cycling. “He got really, really into it,” says Adrienne, who eventually followed him to the city and found a place to live in Gramercy. “Whenever he took the subway with me, he was always complaining. He’d say, ‘I can get from the Lower East Side to Carroll Gardens in 15 minutes.’” Justin lived on Avenue C, far from the subway, so it was easy to pedal over to each other’s places. But soon, he began competing in alley cats — messenger-style street races through traffic — and collecting expensive Italian bikes, which he began flipping for extra cash.
“He really wanted me to be part of that bike culture, and I tried my best,” she says. She had two bikes (he owned seven or eight), and they shared a tandem. “We had a lot of great rides together — to Red Hook, up the West Side boardwalk, up along Kent to Greenpoint.” But then there were the not-so-great ones, like the time they rode out to Fort Tilden from Williamsburg, where they had found an apartment together. “A lot of people do it,” she says. “But Justin got lost, and we were literally biking on the highway. I’m an okay biker, but I was really scared. We got to Fort Tilden, and I was shaking.” An afternoon spent at the beach calmed her nerves, but when it came time to head home that evening, they ended up calling his mom, who came and picked up Adrienne and her bike. Justin rode back by himself. “Justin would have never ridden in a car with me,” she says. “That would have never been an option.”
Soon they were leaving dinners and parties separately because she didn’t like biking at night after she’d been drinking. “It didn’t feel like we were a team,” she says. Justin began having accidents; once he even landed on his unhelmeted head. “He called me from the ER,” Adrienne recalls. “I think he went to see a neurosurgeon, but everything was okay. After, he was more careful about helmets. But even when it was crazy, snowing and icy, he’d still ride across the bridge. It seemed sort of selfish…I got sick of worrying about him.”
But she never wanted to be a nag. “I knew he knew I was worried, but it never even crossed my mind to say, ‘I want you to stop biking.’ If he did an alley cat, I’d say, ‘Be careful,’ and he’d text me after the race, ‘I’m not dead.’ I knew it made him really happy. And I never wanted to be that type of girlfriend — maybe that was a bad thing — who says, ‘You can do all these things, but it’s coming at the expense of our relationship.’”
About a year ago, Adrienne told Justin she wanted to break up and move out. “To me, it wasn’t worth it to figure it out,” she says. “But in a post-mortem, I’ve said that the biking distanced us. He didn’t really have a response to that. I don’t think there is a reply to that.”
Until this interview, Adrienne says she hadn’t considered that it was his biking that killed the relationship, blaming their demise on “global issues.” But when I ask if she’d still be with him if she loved it as much as he, she answers, “Maybe. It’s possible.”
Eric, a 35-year-old freelance photographer, puts it this way: “I’d definitely see a girl with a bike as a major plus — she’s not too much of a diva, and she’s health-conscious, and conscious of the environment. Someone on a bike seems they can take care of themselves more.”
Last summer, Eric started chatting with a girl while on his way home across the Williamsburg Bridge. She was on a steel road bike with drop handlebars and wore a Bern helmet that was covered in scratches and stickers. To him, she looked like an experienced cyclist. “She was such a sweet person,” he says. “She’d tell me stories about being on a bike and having problems with someone with traffic, how this guy almost hit her and she’d say, ‘How about I put this u-lock through your face.’ It was so cute.”
On one of their first outings, they biked over to see a movie in Union Square. “When we got on the road, I assumed she’d be closer behind me,” he says. Instead, she stuck with the bike lane, while he jumped into traffic and began swerving through the cars. “It threw me off. That was my bad assumption, that she’d be right behind me.” Their romance was done by the end of the season.
Eric insists the reasons weren’t related to her biking abilities. “I’m not trying to enter a race or compete. If I was dating somebody and she didn’t bike right away, I’d hope she could eventually get into it or bike every now and then and bike to the beach.” But for others, skills mean everything.
“I’ll have no problem weaving through traffic and doing it comfortably, and if someone is freaked out about that, they’re probably not someone I’d want to date,” says Will, a 27-year-old startup CEO who is currently looking for a relationship where he can incorporate biking. “They have to be able to handle that and be interested in that kind of risk.”
Athos, 38, a real-estate photographer, found a cycling soul mate in his current girlfriend Beth, who was a complete novice when they met at the bike shop where he also works. “There was a pretty young woman who came looking for a bike, and I said fuck it, ‘I’m going to ask her out for a bike ride.’” On their first date, they went for a ride over the George Washington Bridge and down to the Brooklyn Bridge. They rode at exactly the same pace. “The fact that we clicked on the speed rate and the experience was a big plus,” he says. “I’m pretty adventurous when I ride, I don’t just ride the greenways. I cut into the city, go grab Shake Shack and maybe an hour later, stop at a bar. She’s always down for the adventure of it. No matter what, she’s always down for it. It was crazy, I couldn’t believe it.” Since then, he’s bought her a slew of top-shelf safety accessories for her bike. “No birthday, no occasion — I just want her to be safe.”
Just how steep a climb is it for couples with an imbalance in prowess? Ask Ken, a web designer and art director whose online dating criterion was a rhymed mantra: “If biking is in the profile, then it’s in the approved pile.” Ken is also a former bike messenger, and runs the annual Cranksgiving ride, an alley cat for charity. “I’m between an avid commuter and a messenger,” he says. “I still ride quickly and aggressively within traffic, and from other people’s perspective, I take ridiculous risks.”
In 2010, he met Margaret, a publicist, on a dating site. “I’m pretty sure he had search terms he’d look for,” she says. Her profile included the crucial words: I like riding my bike around Brooklyn.
On one of their first dates, they met in Times Square to watch a Broadway show. He arrived on two wheels; she came by subway. “I remember an ex-coworker was like, ‘Ken, Don’t tell her you ride bikes so much,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I? I can’t pretend that’s not a huge part of my life.’” Afterward, he carried his bicycle to ride the train home with her.
Margaret quickly assessed the situation: “It’s awkward and inconvenient, but the alternative is you don’t go home together. Either that or somebody has to carry their bicycle upstairs and downstairs.” So, she picked up biking more seriously. “If anything, I wanted to impress him, to seem totally capable and totally confident and I didn’t want to hold him back at all,” she says. At one point, Ken was traveling from a business meeting in Los Angeles to Boston, for a bike polo tournament. He didn’t want to schlep his bike back and forth across the country, so he asked Margaret if she’d meet him in Boston with his fixed-gear bike.
“I told this giant lie that I could ride a fixed,” she says. “He assumed I had, and I didn’t want to let him down.” She decided to ride his bike to work and then put it on the bus. That day, Boston was hit with a snowstorm. “I nearly died,” says Margaret — but now she rides fixed-gears exclusively because “it is a lot more fun.”
“The things I’m sharing are how we got onto the same page, but none of it felt like a sacrifice to me,” she says. “I was happy to do it, it was fun learning, and we were together all the time.”
Ken, who married Margaret last fall, agrees. “I didn’t expect her to, but she did it because she wanted to do stuff with me, and I was happy about it because I wanted to do stuff with her, too,” he says. If she didn’t cycle, “It would’ve been an entirely different relationship. She’s still the person I love, and it isn’t just because she rides bikes.”