Be one with the city

For firefighter and former pro skateboarder Mike Hernandez, crashing while riding his track bike is not even an option. We had a chat with him about speed, danger and riding in New York.

Text: Silje Strømmen
Photos: Mari Oshaug

Mike Hernandez, firefighter and former skateboarding pro, speaks about riding a bike in New York the same way that others speak about catching the perfect line in morning fresh powder down a mountain. For him, maneuvering his Bianchi Pista through New York is all about finding a perfect line, staying alive and keeping moving.

“It is an art form. Reading the people walking, the lights… That is exciting to me. Creating a new map every time you ride your bike, even though you are riding down the same street…”, he says over a cup of coffee at his neighbourhood café in Brooklyn, where he both lives and work.

“Be one with your bike, then you’ll be one with the road, and if you are one with the road, you’ll be one with the city” is Mike’s mantra while riding.

“Riding a bike in any setting – in any city – has a degree of danger to it. I don’t use the bike lanes. I don’t use a helmet or any of that shit. I like danger. I’m not reckless. People may see me in a video or whatever, and I’ve seen the comments on YouTube (Mike is featured in a video for Chrome Industries’ series “Streets of Chrome”). Some people think “oh how ironic he is a fire fighter and rides like an asshole”. To the outside it may look like I’m reckless, but I am in complete control and confident of not crashing. Crashing is not even an option”, Mike says.

Although speeches like this may come off as Mike being just that, a reckless and arrogant rider, who swishes through the city looking irritatingly cool in his vans and cameo pants, he is nothing like that. Because when Mike tells you that he is in complete control, you believe him. It is hard to explain why, but there is something in Mike’s character that is assuring. Maybe it is the fact that he fights fires for a living? Maybe it is the confidence that comes with having been a professional skateboarder throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s? Or maybe it’s because he is not pretentious and not part of a scene? Truly sticking to his own thing!

“Considering I don’t ride a skateboard no more, a bike is pragmatic and a useful tool”, Mike says about switching out four wheels for two after he decided to end his skateboarding career.

“Every ride in this city is like starting a video game. That is what’s really exciting and attractive to me about riding a track bike in the city. I’m not a messenger but whenever I’m going from point A to point B... I swish trough the city! That is what’s amazing to me. I like danger, to a degree.”

When Mike finally put the board on the shelf and turned to bikes it wasn’t his first meeting with two wheels and a frame. Before skateboarding became his thing, he was really into BMX, and even raced on an amateur level for almost two years, back in the early 80s. Back then, getting to the BMX track was a hassle. You had to go to Jersey or Long Island to get to a race track, while the good skate spots were just outside of your door. Everything was in skating range, but these days Mike has noticed that more and more skaters are riding bikes (specifically fixies, track bikes and vintage bikes, but also the regular citibikes) and definitely think there is a connection between the two.

“The transition for a skater to get into a fixie or track bike seems to me like a natural progression. Eventually a skater will get “it” and pick up a bike. The bike itself is simple and practical - and that is why it is attractive. Now a lot of skaters are moving into New York from the west coast, so they are venturing out to find skate spots. Where we were limited to staying in the imitate city, they are venturing further out”, Mike resonates.

As the conversation continues, the words “danger” and “speed” is often spoken from Mike. It is therefore no surprise when Mike admits that he has always been attracted to the track bikescene and the bike messengers of the city.

“Who doesn’t like speed?” he asks rhetorically.

“I like to go fast. I have a fast car. I ride my bike fast. I like danger, you know? Why…?”, he laughs and repeats: “I like to go fast”. You feel free. Its as close to flying as you can get”.

One of the things about riding fast that might be alluring to Mike is the feeling of being scared. And if there is one thing that Mike believes, it is that “you will not be able to enjoy life if you don’t take a chance to scare yourself”.

“Not in a reckless way but you know… try to scare yourself”, he elaborates.

“You’ll appreciate life when you are close to death, and I don’t mean that in a crazy way. If something makes your hair stand up, that is what life is about, regardless of what it is, whether you are a runner, skateboarder or a rider”, he explains.

When Mike decided to quit skateboarding, he also quit an extreme active lifestyle. Riding fast through the city became his way of keeping his mind sane.

“Riding made me excited in the same way that skateboarding did. You can do whatever you want to do. And I like that you can be solo. Riding a skateboard is more group oriented, and I love that part of my life. But I don’t skateboard any more. I don’t eat, sleep and think about skateboard like I used to…” he says.

Riding through and from work is a ritual for Mike. He can choose between four different routes, and they all are highly dynamical in terms of traffic routes. By the time he get to work, the ride ensures that he is awake. Going home on the bike helps clear his mind from everything that has happened for the past 8, 15 or 24 hours of “dealing with fucking Brooklyn”. Riding a bike and going to work are the two places where Mike gets his daily fix of excitement.

“Obviously fighting fires is way more serious. There are no margins for errors and I try to apply that to riding in the city as well”, he says.

The next day we spot Mike in full speed down a car-packed Brooklyn street. He looks effortlessly cool and totally focused on the road and his surroundings with movements that are controlled and flexible at the same time. He is truly one with the city, and one cannot help wondering what line he has chosen this time. How this video game of riding in New York traffic might look like from his perspective.