An interview with Laura Solís, Bike New York’s new Outreach & Development Manager, about empowerment through biking, preceded by a spontaneous and totally unrelated retrospective on her many turtles.
Let’s talk about your turtles.
So the first turtle, Hershey – he died after about four months in my care.
Turtles live to be like 100.
I’m very well aware, but Hershey was like an illegal turtle you buy in the street that’s the size of a nickel. It didn’t work out too well. My uncle found my second turtle while he was running a marathon in Philly. He grabbed the turtle for me and continued to run the rest of the marathon with said turtle. I have no idea how the turtle is still alive without some sort of brain damage… This was in 2004, so 10 years ago. So that’s Turkey. I still have Turkey. And it happened again.
Your uncle found another turtle while running a marathon?
Not a marathon, but it happened when he was on a run. That turtle only lived for about three years in my care. And then my mom got two more turtles: Gregory and Tinkerbell. I named all the turtles. One that didn’t make it was named Ernie. And he died on my birthday last year, and I bought my fixed gear bike that same day, so I named the bike after him. It’s named Ernie Jr. III as opposed to Ernie Jr. because I preferred how Ernie Jr. III looked and sounded. And the color scheme [of the bike] is evocative of a turtle.
Ernie Jr. III, however, was not your first bike.
No. I inherited my first bike [in the summer of 2011] from my Mama, because someone was getting rid of it or something and she was going to throw it away. I said, “No, Ma! This is the cutest bike I’ve ever seen!” It’s this tiny foldable Peugeot. I still have it. (I took a photo with it earlier this year when I realized that I knew how to fix it.) So I took it to the gas station, inflated the tires, rode around, then went to my community board meeting with it. People were honking at me and yelling, “GET OFF THE ROAD!” And I really should not have been on the road. I was a hazard. I’m trying to turn and the handlebar is doing all of this wavey stuff, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m dangerous. I should not be…” But good thing was that the community board meeting was like half a mile away, so. I bought my second bike on March 30th of 2012 after I learned in February that I had gained entry [through the lottery system] into the TD Five Boro Bike Tour. I had already decided that if I got into the Tour, I’d get a real bike, like a bike bike.
So on March 30th, I got the bike and decided to ride to a WE Bike NYC meeting that night. But the thing about the Peugeot was that it was a step-through frame, so I had never had to properly mount a bicycle. It took me about 20 minutes to figure out how to do it in such a way as to not make a complete fool of myself. So I walked this bicycle that I had just spent 600 bucks on from Lafayette to Stanton, and I walked with shame. Eventually, I stop at a park on Chrystie, and ask myself, “What do delivery people do?,” because they’re like my best example of what a cyclist is. So I flip my leg over the back and ride the eight blocks to the meeting, and I’m like, “I did it! I rode the big girl bike!” And I pushed the door open into Bike Works, which is where the meeting was being held, and I was like, “Hi! I’m Laura! Is this the meeting?”
And this was WE Bike NYC’s second meeting?
How did you find out about WE Bike NYC?
I learned and became very much a part of the cycling world because of Twitter. On Twitter, I learned about the #BikeNYC hashtag–people would use it to chat about their bikes and what they were doing in New York City–and befriended Kimberly Kinchen, one of the founders of the NYC Bike Train. She told me about WE Bike NYC and actually took me for my first ride in Central Park in February 2012 on our way to WE Bike NYC’s first meeting. We walked up every hill because the Peugeot was not about those hills. It’s a 3-speed with tiny little wheels, and she actually walked her bike as well. She should have said, “You’ve got this tiny little bike; what made you think you could ride that through Central Park?” She was so awesome and she still is really incredible. But we totally missed [the meeting] because my slow ass was not making it anywhere on that bike. That’s how I found out about WE Bike NYC. So when I got to my first meeting, I brought my bike in and asked if I could lock it up, and they were like, “Oooh! Is that new?,” and I was like, “Yeah, I just bought it!”
So you’ve been involved with WE Bike NYC since day one.
Well, day two.
WE Bike NYC’s first ride was going to be the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, and they wanted it to be the big first ride.
What was the training like?
Actually, I couldn’t meet up with anyone [because of my schedule]. My training was commuting, and what I got from WE Bike NYC was the support. Like when I was commuting and getting to work sweaty and gross, I was like, “What do you guys do?”
And they were like, “We’re also getting there sweaty and gross.”
Hey, I have perfected that now. I don’t get anywhere sweaty and gross. Please. I sparkle when I get there. I did a whole workshop on this thing.
But you were primarily training on your own.
Yeah, I was the only person from the Bronx. I still am the only person [involved with WE Bike NYC] from the Bronx, but I’m used to being the only whatever–I’m an only child and I’m used to doing things by myself. But there were some social rides between March 30th and May 6th. [(The day of the Tour.)] There was one on the Hudson River Greenway, but I was the only person [in addition to the ride leader, Sarah] who showed up because it was cold as hell. I had never met Sarah, but she was standing with a bike looking lost next to the big cube in Astor Place. I asked her if she was here with WE Bike NYC and she said, “Yeah! Are you here for my training ride?” I was the only person who showed up so she was really excited. We went to the Greenway, and she was definitely faster than me, but I liked the push. She definitely pushed me to ride faster than I normally would. At one point, she asked how I was doing, and I was like, ” I”m OK, but can we stop for a snack?” Because I…
You need a snack belt.
Actually, I learned the other day that a lot of people put their burritos in their jersey pockets. Anyway, that’s a whole other interview. There are going to be spinoffs. So we ride up the Greenway all the way to the George Washington Bridge. I was so fearful of crossing a bridge [to get back to the Bronx] that I rode back down with her, and I remember hating the Greenway. To this day I don’t like it; it’s not my thing. It’s too pretty and scenic. I want traffic; I want cabs and chaos.
You want something to challenge you.
Yeah, and the Greenway is just… Although it was a good, safe, first ride.
What was the longest ride you’d done before the Tour?
Probably the Greenway, so like 20 miles up and down. But every day I was commuting to work, which was 10 miles every day.
When did you start taking Bike New York classes?
I took a Bicycling Basics class with the Peugeot in 2011, and that was when I started feeling more capable. But I was still limited by the bike. It probably could have been my commuter, but I was really uncomfortable. I just didn’t know you could feel any differently.
But then when I did the Street Skills Ride, one of the Bike New York instructors fixed it for me. Although it’s a 3-speed, it was only working on its 2nd speed. So I did [the class] on that 2nd speed, and he was trying to be really sweet about it, but he was basically confused as to why I was doing it solely on the 2nd speed. After the class, he tickled the bicycle–and I say this because it’s got this encased chain business so you can’t see what’s going on in there–and he literally put his fingers in there and then all three speeds were working. He basically gave me a brand new bike that day! And I remember he was a bike mechanic and he worked at a bike shop, and I thought, “I should totally buy my next bike from this guy!” And he was handsome.
So you’ve been riding for a little over two years? And now you’re the Outreach & Development Manager at Bike New York.
I feel like a toddler, but like a big toddler.
What is your favorite thing about biking in New York?
Overcoming fears. And doing so has transcended into other parts of my life. My first fear was riding to work. My main fear that I’m left with is getting hit by cars. Which is a useful fear. You don’t want to think they’re fluffy teddy bears.
What has overcoming your fears allowed you to do?
I started feeling invincible. Like, “If I can do this, perhaps I can mention this idea I’ve had at work and see what that will turn into, or try collaborating with this organization.” A lot of it has come out with my work for WE Bike NYC. It’s made me feel more confident. I’ve been more willing to take on new things. That’s been great.
Before you started biking, were you involved in any kinds of activism?
In healthy living and healthy lifestyles, yes, but not very actively. I got involved with WE Bike NYC, and through that I met everyone and their mama. I wanted to ride with more people, so I Googled “biking in the bronx,” and found Twitter handles and went to a meeting for the Bronx River Alliance greenway team, and that was that.
So you basically owe your bike life to a hand-me-down Peugeot and Twitter.
Yeah; it has impacted my life in so many ways! I was actually telling some of the women at WE Bike NYC last week that if I hadn’t gotten into the TD Five Boro Boro Bike Tour in 2012, I totally would have procrastinated buying the bicycle that I ride year round.
What is your favorite thing about the biking community?
The love. Everyone has been really welcoming and nurturing. For the most part, people are really interested in your bike story or journey. So whenever I’m in the street, particularly in the Bronx, I will acknowledge other bikers with a nod or a wave. I have given away two pairs of gloves in the past couple of months, because you can’t ride in this weather without gloves. One of the guys was really grateful, and the other guy was like, “Am I going to see you again?,” and I was like, “Not that kind of love.”
Is the biking community a uniquely nurturing and welcoming community?
I… See, I don’t want it to be unique because I want this to be a world full of rainbows and butterflies and people supporting one another, but honestly it is unique to me. I do have a lot of nurturing, loving people in my life who don’t ride bikes, but most of them do.
What are you most excited about for the future of biking in NYC?
It goes back to the mission of WE Bike NYC. When I met them, I wasn’t necessarily thrilled by the idea of a bunch of women riding bikes. I’ve never been one to want for any specific thing about me to be the reason why I got anything. I was just like, “I want to ride my bike with people.” But I also didn’t know that there were so few women riding bikes and that there was a specific need for WE Bike NYC. My goal is for there not to be a need to have WE Bike NYC, that we would just all feel really safe and happy and be so successful that it would cease to exist. WE Bike NYC exists as a reaction to a lack of women biking, and soon we’re going to be riding to Washington, D.C., for the National Bike Summit to get our voices out there. I want to go so that people like me have a voice–”people like me” being those from a low-income, single-parent household in a neighborhood where you don’t necessarily see much opportunity. You have to be really self-reliant when you’re riding a bicycle, and that’s not always portrayed in the most positive way within neighborhoods where opportunity seems to be lacking. Also, I’m a woman of color, so I want people to see that anyone can ride a bike, and it could impact their lives.
Unfortunately, to attend the National Bike Summit–which is trying to engage people who are underrepresented in the biking community–you have to pay 500 bucks and take off from work. If you do the numbers, it’s probably going to cost each of us $1200 to get there, so… I just hope that the community continues to do what it’s doing, that we can all exist together. I want the community to always feel like a family, looking out for each other and becoming more and more connected. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of working towards these goals.
What do you hope to accomplish as Bike New York’s new Outreach & Development Manager?
Pretty much all of what I’ve already been working towards. When I told my best friend that this organization was going to pay me to be myself, I was like, “This can’t be real. Do they know what they’re doing?” And now I have time to ride my bike more. A bike that empowers and a job that caters to my individual interests is really empowering. And if I hadn’t gotten that golden ticket to the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, I wouldn’t be here. Interestingly, my former supervisor [at the YMCA] told me that I should look for a job in an area around my new interest. I thought he was trying to fire me, but he said, “No, it’s just that you clearly care about this.” It’s like living a fairytale, and anyone can do it. When someone asks how it’s going, I tell them it’s like Disneyland.