Neil Bezdek is a champion cyclist, a writer for cycling publications like Bicycling magazine, and a planner for the bike share group at the New York City Department of Transportation. We caught up with him to talk about what got him riding, how he stays warm during the winter, and what competitive cycling means to him as a professional racer and as a New Yorker.
Hi Neil. When I met up with you to take your photo, you were on your way to work. Can you tell me a little about your job?
I work at the DOT. There’s a team of us who are dedicated to bike share planning… The system’s in a really good place and the future of bike share in New York looks good.
We’re obviously very interested in seeing it expand into neighborhoods that weren’t previously served. Hopefully that’s still part of the plan?
Yes. It’ll double in size by 2017.
What do you hope New York City cycling culture will look like in, say, 25 years, on a broad level?
Hm. I think it’s just getting more mainstream, compared to a decade ago. Even five years ago, you were considered an extremist if you rode a bicycle around New York City, and that’s certainly not the case now. It’s especially popular among young people. I guess that could be just a passing phase- people grow up, their priorities change, maybe they’ll ride less- but I think the fact that not only do you have a really enthusiastic group of kids, but actually a group of adults, I think that means it’s a permanent shift more than a passing trend.
So, in addition to your role at the DOT, you’re also a professional racer. I first heard of you because you kept winning the Red Hook Crit. How many have you won?
Three of ‘em in New York. I’ve won four overall.
That must be around a quarter of them.
[Laughs] I don’t have the number off the top of my head, but yeah, I guess that’s true.
I’d like to come back to your racing career later… can you tell me about how you started riding?
I’m from Denver, Colorado. Denver, or at least the foothills outside Denver, has really good single track mountain biking. so I did a lot of that, starting when I was like 13 years old. Then everyone turned 16, got driver’s licenses, and stopped biking. When I turned 16, I got a job in a bike shop and then drove to new places to go mountain biking.
So I guess this cold doesn’t phase you when you’re out riding.
It’s interesting—even though Colorado is cold, it’s dry. The cold here is much worse. If anything, East Coast winters have hardened me.
Do you have any advice for folks getting into winter riding?
Generally when you ride your bike, you’re exerting yourself a lot less than if you’re doing something like running, but you’re moving faster, so the wind is going to cool you down… and it cools your extremities, especially. I’d emphasize keeping your hands warm, your feet warm, anything like that.
Thanks. So, how’d you get into road biking?
I went to school in Santa Barbara. It’s just a really great area for it; there’s something about the convenience of a bike ride that starts at your front door. And when I was done with school, I wanted to do something really different, so I moved to New York and became a bike messenger for less than a year, though it was full-time and through the winter. That was a great way to see the city. When that ran its course, I got a desk job working for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which was a great place to land. I was doing really interesting things, but I felt a bit pent-up in the office. I always wanted to get into road racing, but I had just never done it, probably because my summers were filled with other things: During college, I guided white water rafting and mountaineering trips for four summers in Colorado, so that prevented me from ever racing. So, finally, I was in New York, where there’s a great local racing scene, so I immersed myself in it and things took off quickly after that. I worked my way up through the categories in 14 or 15 months, and I got a pro contract at the end of 2009 and raced professionally from 2010 – 2012. These days, I’m the captain of the CRCA/Foundation team. We have a national-level race team, and we graduate a few people every year to professional teams. That’s been a big endeavor for me. I like being able to take my experience as a bike racer and put it to use for other people.
What is it that you like about racing?
Bike racing is really dynamic and interactive. It’s about moving through a group of people and trying to predict what they’re going to do. You can cover a course really quickly by being clever about how you draft off other people, or when you choose to pedal… it takes cycling, which is already fun and really enjoyable, and adds a whole new dimension to it. It just gets a lot more complex; all of a sudden, there are these new things to think about. I’ve always enjoyed the intellectual aspect of bike racing.
There’s been some controversy regarding cyclists going fast in places like Central Park… do you have anything to say about the responsibility of recreational cyclists in New York?
Yeah. It doesn’t matter if you’re working as a messenger, commuting to work, or training for a bike race—everyone’s subject to the same rules and we all need to be responsible. If anything, if you are a serious roadie, and you’re training hard and capable of going fast, then you’re probably capable of riding across the George Washington Bridge or choosing a place or a time that’s more appropriate to do a proper high-speed training ride. So I’d say there’s a little bit more of responsibility on the part of recreational cyclists, competitive or not.
Do you have a recommendation for a good ride just outside of the city?
I would encourage people to get off of 9W and to explore other areas, especially on the east side of the Hudson. It takes a little bit longer to get out of the city through The Bronx and Yonkers, so what I’ll do is take a long one-way bike ride and take the train back. The areas around the Kensico Dam and Croton Reservoir are just amazing.
And as for city riding, do you have any neighborhoods that you like to ride in, or streets that you always enjoy?
I live on the Upper West Side and work in Lower Manhattan, so I take the Hudson River Greenway, which is super convenient. It’s a great resource for cyclists. But oftentimes I’ll divert myself through Central Park, across the Queensboro Bridge, and then down through Greenpoint on my way to work. It adds a nice variety, and since I’m outside of Manhattan, I can see the skyline the whole way. It’s a nice, scenic ride. I like the Queensboro Bridge. Instead of being set back from the Manhattan skyline, it enters right into the thick of it, so there’s this wall of buildings that you’re riding out of or into. I find that pretty dramatic.
Speaking of the Queensboro Bridge, have you ever ridden in the TD Five Boro Bike Tour?
I have, in 2008. It’s been a while. I had friends in town. It was really hot; I got sunburned.
Any professional advice for new riders on the Tour?