You'll feel mighty accomplished after your first successful city cycling trip.

ShutterstockYou’ll feel mighty accomplished after your first successful city cycling trip.

What does it take to truly join the elite tribe that is urban cyclists? Do you have to achieve Paperboy levels of expertise: master the left turn in traffic, negotiate vanishing bike lanes without missing a beat, learn to bunny-hop over open sewer drains? Or do you just have to successfully ride your bike in a city, even once? If it’s the latter, break out the champagne — ’cause I’m in the club, baby.

I earned my spokes earlier this week, when I decided it was high time I got out of my relatively quiet neighborhood and into some real city traffic. I haven’t taken this step before because, frankly, riding into the morass of buses, cars, and trucks on the downtown streets freaked the hell out of me. But after getting inspired at a recent bike symposium, I steeled myself to give it a try.

If you’re standing where I was just a few days ago — on the outside, looking wistfully at the urban bike crew — let me be the first to encourage you to go for it. Get the basics down first, then lean a little closer. I’ll share a few of my hard-won lessons, too.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

1. Think like a cyclist.

One of my biggest hurdles to biking anywhere beyond my neighborhood: the epic hill that lies between me and pretty much every other destination in the city. The shortest route downtown is particularly intimidating, careening straight down a slope that drops 250 feet over the course of half a mile. Um, no thank you.

But then I realized: Man, you’re thinking like a driver. Just because that hill is the easiest route for a car doesn’t mean it’s the best way for your newfound urban cycling self. It was an answer so obvious I didn’t even see it at first: Find another way.

2. Tap your route-planning tools.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

OK, but which way? I first turned to Google Maps’ cycling directions tool. The mapmakers cheerfully routed me down the gentler west side of my neighborhood hill, keeping the screaming descents to a minimum before directing me onto a semi-busy street straight to the city center. But, hmm — would that congested road really be the best way to go? I wasn’t so sure, so I opened my Seattle cycling map, a free brochure I picked up at the library that views the city through two-wheeled glasses: a network of bike lanes, “sharrows,” signed bike routes, and off-street paths. The street in question wasn’t singled out as particularly bike-friendly, so I decided I’d deviate around it on my way down. After a few more minutes comparing Google to the paper map, I pieced together a route I felt reasonably comfortable attempting — but just in case, I slipped the bike map into my bag.

3. There is no shame in walking the bike.

I hopped into the saddle and pedaled off. Hey, this isn’t so bad! I thought, cruising more gradually downhill via the recommended route. But then I swung east, crossing the aforementioned murder slope, and started down my alternate path. It was then I learned a hard truth about cycling in Seattle: Sometimes, your choices are steep and steeper. Even though this wasn’t the worst way down the hill, it was still dramatic enough to cramp my hands over my brakes like crab claws.

So, dear reader, I got off and walked. After just two blocks, the grade relaxed enough for me to jump back on and continue my ride. Now, wasn’t that easier than a) somersaulting over the handlebars, b) riding in futile circles trying to find a better way down, or c) giving up the cycling thing altogether?

4. In fact, embrace your hybrid nature.

In just a few minutes, I reached that busy street I’d already planned to avoid. My workaround: Just ride through the large pedestrian complex located right next to it (hey, I didn’t see any CYCLISTS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT signs). This, in practice, didn’t turn out to be the best idea. It being a sunny summer day and all, the place was packed with wanderers moving in jellyfish-like hordes. Rather than risk mowing down an unsuspecting tourist, I again jumped off the bike and walked whenever the crowds got too thick. It wasn’t exactly rapid transit, but I made my way out.

I was now getting into the outskirts of downtown, a confusing mass of construction zones, busy arterial roads, streets that abruptly turn one-way, and weird diagonal intersections. And here, I suddenly realized what an advantage it was to be both a part of traffic and not a part of it. How many times have you been stuck behind the wheel in slow-moving traffic and longed to yank the wheel sideways, driving over the sidewalk to freedom? Or seen your destination right there, but had to drive around two blocks to get there because of one-ways, no-turn signs, and medians? On a bike, none of this applies. Whenever the road started feeling dicey, or I saw a shortcut to my destination that the street couldn’t reach, I simply pulled over (safely, of course), got off, and melted into the cityscape, right to where I wanted to go. Then, bam, I rejoined traffic smoothly whenever the obstacle was past. This must be what it’s like to be a shape shifter.

5. Assume all cars want to kill you.

To my relief, I didn’t have any close calls or scary moments riding downtown. This might be because I was feeling extra-defensive. On a bike, you’re painfully aware of how small and fragile you are next to the armored vehicles of death with which you share the road. Now, I don’t really think drivers want to kill bikers. But some drivers aren’t really paying attention, or don’t have bikes on their radars, and others might honestly just not see you. Either way, in any collision, you, as the cyclist, are holding the losing hand. Cars turning right in front of you, zooming through yellow-turning-red lights, opening their street-side doors: Assume all want to flatten you, and you’ll be ready.

6. Just ride up the damn hill already.

I made it downtown, locked up my bike, ran my errands, and was soon facing the flip side of the hill problem. My planned route took me back on yet another road, this one with an uphill bike lane. If I wanted to make a habit of this cycling thing, I needed to face up. So I switched gears, took a breath, and went for it. Did I get all sweaty? Did my quads burn? Yes and yes. But did I make it — in even less time than the typical bus ride? Also yes! Hear me roar! I made it downtown and back in one piece!

Have you already mastered city riding? Just recently joined the ranks? What tips and tricks have helped you? Share in the comments section below, s’il vous plait.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!