KOMANOFF: You Nearly Die, You Keep Going

It just takes a second for a cyclist to be killed. Left, Adam Uster on Franklin Avenue last week. Right, Broadway at 231st Street, where our writer had a close call. Photo: Maneka Kapoor
It just takes a second for a cyclist to be killed. Left, Adam Uster on Franklin Avenue last week. Right, Broadway at 231st Street, where our writer had a close call. Photo: Maneka Kapoor

I came a second or two from death on Saturday, in the Bronx. As I was cycling south on Broadway, headed home to lower Manhattan after a day exploring uptown, the Bronx and Yonkers, a guy coming the opposite way in an SUV left-hooked directly in front of me.

Charles Komanoff
Charles Komanoff

Drivers encroach on me often, unsurprisingly with all the cycling I do in and around New York City, averaging close to an hour a day. Usually it’s from behind, fast-passing. It’s unsettling, but over in a flash. The danger feels different when it unfolds in front of you, as if you and your bicycle were filling a 200-inch screen when Godzilla enters the picture.

My riding pal Dave and I were wrapping an easygoing day-long ride under a glorious soft-blue sky punctuated by electric clouds. The rains were gone and people in vast numbers were strolling, hiking, bike-riding, tossing baseballs. Kids, families, everyone out on the best day of spring, seemingly throwing off three years of Covid restlessness. The world’s ills felt at bay.

Up Riverside Drive, across the Heights to the Harlem River Greenway, past the Inwood car washes, up hilly Riverdale into bustling Van Cortlandt Park, onto the stately South Country trailway to leafy Westchester and a descent through Yonkers’s Italian-futurist Carpet Mill Historic District.

After sandwiches, we pedaled in cadence toward the Broadway Bridge to get us over the Harlem River into Manhattan. Wind at our back, mostly downhill, we hightailed it until Broadway and 240th Street, where the wall of cars abruptly began. Sigh. The next two dozen blocks would be bumper-to-bumper.

What Broadway looked like on the day in question. Photo: Maneka Kapoor
What Broadway looked like on the day in question. Photo: Maneka Kapoor

Broadway is two-way, with one regular lane and one “service” lane in each direction, the two separated by iron stanchions holding up the elevated #1 subway track and trains, plus the supposedly obligatory parking lane on each curb.

The two of us on our spindly bikes moved like daddy longlegs clambering over a sea of metal hippos. Block by block we shimmied through and around the molasses-like cars and the rusted stanchions, shaking off the trains rumbling and screeching overhead and the air-splitting horns.

Truth be told, it was exhilarating. We kept advancing, now in the main lane, now shunting into the service lane, probing and slicing, not halting even once.

Intersections are the worst, of course, as crossing traffic injects an extra dollop of chaos. I was utterly alert and so I saw it from the git-go: a northbound SUV emerging from the maw and turning left fast, barreling perpendicular across and filling the space in front of me. I was headed straight for it. My hands were over the brakes, as always. I squeezed and squeezed again. The bike slowed and left a bare bit of room between his broad side and my front wheel.

I’ve no idea if the driver ever saw me. Had I been five feet further on, he would have smashed me. As it was, his vehicle brushed past without my even having to stop. I still had the green light and resumed pedaling.

In 50 years of riding a bike practically every day, this may have been my third closest call. I’m not ready to talk about numbers one and two. Only once, in 1999, in Chinatown, was I knocked to the ground by a car — also a left-hooker. Neither I nor my bike was damaged. How much is luck, how much is skill, that I’ve yet to be maimed by a driver? Is my good fortune statistically normal for someone who has logged 125,000 bike miles? Or have I been pulling off a miracle?

Adam Uster wasn’t so lucky. At the start of the week, the 39-year-old Brooklyn father of two was run over and killed by the driver of a flatbed truck in Crown Heights. Adam, hauling a bike-trailer with a week’s groceries and moving at a good clip, had begun passing the truck on its right. Video of the crash obtained by Streetsblog doesn’t show the trucker signaling, and anyway it seems doubtful that Adam, a seasoned rider and a cycling advocate to boot, would have ridden past a big vehicle he knew was about to make a turn. The way I see it, he lucklessly got caught in a one-second death interval, not ahead enough to clear the truck, not behind enough to stop before it.

Adam’s was the 13th cycling fatality in New York City this year, putting us on pace to surpass the full-year record of 35 set in 1999. His death pervaded the week for many of us. Take two seconds from me and give them to Adam and he would be alive and I would’ve been unlucky #13.

And yet, I keep riding. Just like Adam did. As Isaac Zal, one of his friends, said at Wednesday night’s vigil for Adam.

“If he wasn’t safe on these streets nobody is,” said Zal. “Is that a reason to stop riding? Absolutely not. It’s a reason why more people need to ride, it’s a reason why the cars need to slow down.”

Can’t stop won’t stop. You nearly die, you keep going.