In the urban jungle, bike commuters must remain fearless

Only 1.6% in U.S. cycle to work; beware walkers toting their cellphones

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priedman@crain.com

Grant Gill suits up like an urban "Mad Max" road warrior most mornings: Wearing a 15-pound chain and padlock strung across his chest, the senior VP-executive producer at BBDO rides from his Chelsea home to his office a few miles away in midtown Manhattan.

His enemies: oblivious pedestrians stepping off curbs, aggressive cab drivers, car doors swinging open and the famed New York potholes. On the advice of the local bike messengers, who call Mr. Gill "one of their honorary brethren," he's disguised his Bianchi road bike by wrapping an inner tube around the frame, and used the chain and padlock as well as a New York Kryptonite lock to secure his bike on a street sign outside his office.

And not only does the chain prevent theft, he said, "it also serves as a defense mechanism-I've gotten into altercations with cab drivers" who've cut him off, and swinging it in the air at them has helped settle any disputes quickly.

Mr. Gill is part of a trendy group of ad executives who brave sometimes perilous traffic conditions and weather to cycle to work. While 60 million Americans ride a bike at least once a year, according to Bikes Belong, a national coalition of bike retailers and suppliers, only 1.6% of Americans cycle to work, compared with 15% of commuters in Japan who use bikes, 50% in the Netherlands and 77% in China.

sales, accidents up

But with high gas prices and a need to cram exercise into busy workdays, sales of bikes are the highest they've been in 34 years, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. It estimates adult bike sales of 14 million in 2005, up 17.6% from 2000. Bike accidents are also up. While about 720 cyclists were killed in motor-vehicle crashes in 2005, another 45,000 were injured, up 9.8% from 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About 47% of bicycle fatalities happen in just four states: California, Florida, New York and Texas, a disproportionate number considering that those states also account for 29% of all traffic deaths.

All the bike commuters interviewed for this story said they've had close calls. Mr. Gill, for instance, wasn't wearing a helmet when he crashed into a car, flew over it and landed with his head hitting the trunk of the car. A year later, this time wearing a helmet, he took a much more embarrassing fall in Times Square, where he ended up flying over the handlebars in front of a crowd of tourists.

New York, like many cities, has marked bike lanes, which people are supposed to honor. Ha! "You have to ride really defensively in the city," he said. "The scariest thing is pedestrians who step into the street talking on their cellphones, not looking."

Similarly, Simon Foster, an associate creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, who rides his bike from Park Slope, Brooklyn, into Manhattan, about 18 miles roundtrip, said the worst part of the trip is the tourists who wander accidentally into the bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge. "They're unpredictable," he said.

"I'm keenly aware of cab doors being flown open," added Kristina Trimmer, a project manager at Deutsch, who also cycles across the Brooklyn Bridge to work, about 10 miles round trip. "I know too many people with broken wrists."

slugging through traffic

Ms. Trimmer said she feels fortunate because most of her trip is on bike paths. She couldn't imagine having to traverse midtown Manhattan. "It's crazy between potholes and bad roads. The traffic is so thick, it's scary."

She deals with the pedestrian traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge with a "really loud bell" to warn people. "I ring it intensely," she said. "If you walk the Brooklyn Bridge, you really do get wrapped up in the views; it's understandable."

In Chicago, Heather DiLeo, a copy editor at Leo Burnett, said cars are more of a problem for her than pedestrians on her four-and-a-half-mile route to work. She's torn her shoulder in one accident in which a car turned into an alley and didn't see her. But it hasn't stopped her from riding, even in the winter. Cycling is "usually faster than waiting for the bus," she said.

Even in less congested areas there are challenges. Jamie Hampton, account exec at Bailey Gardiner, San Diego, doesn't own a car and bikes six and a half miles to work, client meetings and doctor's appointments. "I'm really good at doing the change in the nearby Starbucks," Ms. Hampton said.

Once on the way to an appointment, she got caught in a rainstorm, with water rising to her mid-calf. Luckily she was on a sturdy road bike and had a waterproof bag attached to her bike with dry clothes.

Rich Silverstein, partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, bicycles to San Francisco two days a week from his home in Sausalito, Calif. Despite the treacheries of the bridge and Chinatown (see sidebar above), he wouldn't have it any other way. "If I didn't ride, I'd probably go crazy."

contributing: alice z. cuneo

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