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Biking figures prominently in both our personal experiences of growth and in the popular imagination. Learning to ride a bike is often a child’s first taste of independence; the phrase “It’s like riding a bike” is used to express the ease of returning to a familiar activity, long ago learned but not forgotten. Riding a bike in New York City, however, puts that expression to the test—attempting to bike downtown may put you on edge for blocks and elicit a feeling of relief when you arrive, in one piece, at your destination. But city biking has its more pleasant thrills, too: the soaring sensation you get on a bridge when taking in views of the city, the sense of camaraderie with other two-wheeled travellers.
And, even if biking isn’t your preferred mode of transportation, watching bikers navigate the city delights and impresses—especially if you’re lucky enough to witness a rideout like the one depicted by Kadir Nelson in a new cover for the August 21, 2023, issue. During rideouts, groups of cyclists gather to make their way through stretches of the city together, performing stunts while slowing traffic, often stopping it altogether. The bikers have a magnificent roster of tricks: they lift their front tires in the air for a moment to do a wheelie; keep them in the air to ride exclusively on their rear wheels; or ride without hands, weaving around cars and buildings. For this week’s issue, Nelson captured the hint of anticipatory joy and determination on the faces of young cyclists on the Williamsburg Bridge. I talked to the artist about his own relationship to biking and risk, and his love for bridges.
You mentioned being a biker yourself. Were you a daredevil kid, or were you more cautious?
I was able to do a limited number of tricks on my childhood bike and went over a few jumps, but mostly I erred on the side of caution. I was no daredevil.
Did you bike when you lived in New York?
Not at all. I’ve seen the bike couriers weave in and out of traffic in Manhattan, and I’m not that adventurous.
Were you part of a neighborhood group of kids growing up?
I was fortunate to grow up split between Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the Oak Park neighborhood of San Diego, where there were a lot of kids who were very active. We played together often—biking, swimming, football, you name it. It was a great experience.
Bikers on rideouts aren’t an uncommon sight in New York City. Have you ever seen it in Los Angeles?
Sure. If it’s not an independent group of bikers on a rideout, there are times when the city closes off downtown streets for bicyclists, rollerbladers, and skateboarders.
Crossing bridges in New York can provide magnificent sights and a sense of escape. Do you have a favorite bridge or view in the city?
Having spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, I’m quite fond of the Brooklyn Bridge. I love the wooden, boardwalk-like pedestrian overpass in particular.
Your paintings are quite large and filled with details. How does scale affect your technique?
Painting large allows for more detail, especially if there are numerous figures in a painting. It also provides a more comprehensive and immersive experience for the viewer. I also enjoy the physical performance of painting large works, especially given that I stand while painting.
See below for more covers that celebrate biking in the city:
“A Bicyclist on His Way to Brooklyn,” by J.J. Sempé
“Fifty-ninth Street Bridge,” by Eric Drooker
“Shifting Gears,” by R. Kikuo Johnson
Find covers, cartoons, and more at the Condé Nast Store.