I recently received a note from Cordt, a former classmate of mine from Juniata College now living in Chicago. He had said he read my blog and without flinching, I asked him to write for Bikeable Jo. I always knew Cordt was a cool guy, but I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful account of cycling (sometimes without clothes) in one of America’s great cities.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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Cycling in Chicago has not always been as easy as it is become in recent history. However the transition to a bike-friendly city is much easier for this Midwestern city than most East Coast and European cities. One of the positive attributes of the Great Fire which took place over 140 years ago was it allowed an already established city to be completely rebuilt with strictly regimented grid system with the only geographical restrictions being Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. Comparatively, East Coast cities (especially in New England) primarily sprung up around trading ports and expanded radially outward; as these cities continued to develop, a grid system was super-imposed on already established radial trade paths and was restricted by geographical recesses of the coastline. Where East Coast cities such as DC, Boston and New York were at a shortage for space, Chicago had space to work with. By shortening the breadths of streets and sidewalks and limiting certain on street parking areas, bike paths could be created for a fraction of the cost it would cost other cities. Hell, they even threw in bicycle traffic lights.
The populace of Chicago is slowly adapting to being a bike-friendly city. Cars still rarely to check their rearview before careening through the bike path (even if they just passed a cyclist merely seconds before). Passing a delivery truck which is double parked in bike lane will elicit a blast of the car horn even if you signal. More often than not, a 2-mile ride will find a handful pedestrians standing directly in the middle of bike path completely oblivious of their surroundings and they will even yell occasionally “watch where you’re going!” as you attempt to navigate around them.
The biggest challenge to riders here in Chicago are the Yugo-sized potholes which erode from our very arduous and bitter winters. I have a ’73 Schwinn Super Sport which (to the best of my knowledge) was largest fillet-brazed frame to ever come out of the Chicago plant. This yellow titan is a seemingly indestructible as I believe I could get struck by a bus and the frame would still be intact. The same cannot be said for my street tires. In the first summer I had my bike, I had 12 flats (I started buying tubes in three packs). In all of my childhood, I can recall having a flat only once; I usually outgrew my bikes before the I had issues with the tires. I wish I could have pinpointed the cause of the flats such as a a sharp edge on the inside of my rim but the flats ranged from metal shavings on the road to hitting large stones or the occasional 3 inches missing from a roadway due to construction. However, after investing in a pair of gatorskin tires and new aluminum alloy rims I have only had 1 flat in the last year and a half.
It is bad enough getting flats as is but exponentially worse when you are going to meet up for World Naked Bike Ride. Every last Friday of the month is host to Critical Mass where thousands of cyclists take to the downtown in a 20-mile-long snake through the city. Every June this ride transforms or should I say disrobes, for World Naked Bike Ride. This event is host to cyclists from all walks of life scantily-clad or baring it all for the world to see. When I first moved to Chicago I had heard of this ride and once I bought my bike, I knew I had to add it to the bucket list. The meetup point is generally in non-descript area were 10’s of hundreds of people can prep their bikes and don some spectacular body paint.
My first WNBR I had a buddies birthday in the afternoon and the ride that night. I rode from the party clad in only in my euro volleyball shorts (imagine a kid’s medium on a 6’8″ guy). I was about 2 miles away from the meet-up when a car cut me off and rode me into a curb. I heard the unforgettable “pt-sssssssss” of the tube giving up the ghost. I was a mile from home so I walked my bike home all the while the sorrowful slap of the flaccid tire reminding me of the ride I was missing. When I arrived home, I quickly changed the tube (there is that 3-pak of tubes again) and double-timed it across town as the ride had already embarked and now it was guessing game where they were heading next. As dusk closed in, visibility lowered and I vowed I would strap my light on as soon as I found the group. Seconds, later I was pinned between truck and a guard rail with only 5 feet to stop before hitting a massive pothole which would claim my second tube and ultimately the rest of my evening.
My second attempt at WNBR was much more successful and surprisingly became a socioeconomic case study. This particular ride’s swath was cut primarily in the poorer southside of city in Southeast Asian, Hispanic, Eastern European and African American neighborhoods. The ride would stop all traffic for roughly 8-12 minutes as cyclist past by but each neighborhood seemed to have a slightly different reaction to the interruption. The Koreans, Chinese and Ukrainians seemed to have similar reactions of peeking their collective heads out the window and then sheepishly doing a double-take to then coming out of their homes and waving as the crowd rode by. The Mexican and Puerto Rican areas were by far the most elated to see the stream of bodies. People in their houses would come out and sing and dance while those in their cars would turn up their car music, honk their horns to the beat and get out of their cars and dance. The older African Americans seemed to smile and laugh as if saying “Look at those crazy white folk!?” The younger males would point out eccentricities in the crowd such as an exceptional bike rack (haha) or a poor bike seat which was slowly being devoured by someone’s rotund backside. Of course all of these are gross generalizations of my perceptions but nonetheless, grounded in truth.
What I was not prepared for was the turn to the north, the area of money and ample opportunity: the predominantly white neighborhoods of River North and Lincoln Park. As we headed into these areas, I noticed a huge influx of photographers with legitimate camera equipment. They didn’t seem to be concerned with getting a good angle on the crowd or proper lighting as much as they were concerned with getting as close to the females in the group. This was the first time I felt the safety of the crowd impinged upon and the guys rode to the outsides of the group so the girls could ride in the safety of the center of the pack. When we crossed intersections, I noticed that although some people delayed were laughing, smiling or instagraming, a slight majority seemed off-put: grinding their teeth, blasting their horn and and counting the every second they had to wait. The tension mounted when a Bro revved up his 4×4 and tried to pull through the flow of cyclists. His very essence of being an Alpha was being challenged and no less in front of his Barbie strapped into the heated, leather passenger seat who I could not tell was grimacing or smiling due the amount of botox she decided she could not live without after 29 years. As we let the Rover of some sort pass through the crowd, I couldn’t help but feel tinge of sadness knowing that this 8 minute inconvenience ruined their entire evening. It is amazing how different all of our pursuits of happiness are.
I am happiest on my bike when I can ride unabated, just enjoying this beautiful city.
Sometimes this will coming off the beach after stretching the last glimpses of sunlight out finishing a day’s worth of volleyball. The ride along the Lake Shore is cool in the summer, closing the pores and drying the combination sweat and powder from the sand. All the while lights flickering on the massive skyline reminding fireflies it time to do their nightly waltz.
Other times, it will be a fall ride through the Loop (our financial district) after business hours when the air stings nostrils and purifies the soul. The mammoth buildings dwarf my tall frame and me as well. The wide breadths of the streets bustling and clamorous only hours earlier, are remarkably barren with the only sound being the soft “Shhh” of my tires on the asphalt.
My happiest ride to date and perhaps one of my favorite memories of Chicago was last spring. Many Chicagoans will say they put up with 8-1/2 months of awful weather to for the 3-1/2 months of summer. For me this is not the case as I have found a plethora of ways to keep myself busy in the cold months and when the summer does come around, it is a giant cherry on top of an already great year. However, there is something to the advent of summer in Chicago that is unlike anywhere I have ever lived before. There is a collective excitement and love of life in the air which I can only best describe as: one part, Christmas Eve when you are 8; one part, last day of school between your junior and senior year of high school; and one part, you are about to get laid. It can be in the mid 60’s and guys will be in shorts and women in flowing sundresses.
This particular ride was on an afternoon in May where it was sunny and warm for the first time since October. I finished work and unlocked my bike as the deep shadows of the buildings seem to lengthen. I then realized that it was not the sunsetting as much as dark storm clouds of April returning for an encore performance for the May Flowers. I took my shirt off, packed it in my bag and began riding like a madman knowing I had minutes before the first drops would start painting the asphalt. I was a 1/4 mile into my 2-1/2 mile ride home when the first splat hit my back. Within 40 seconds, a lazy faucet drip became quarter-sized globules which seemingly bounced off the road and soaked my underside. I started a hill climb when the even larger hail began pelting my back. I rode by 8 people huddled in an enclosed bus stop and I started laughing uncontrollably. What a sight I must have been. My pasty white back being tattooed by hail while I pumped up a hill into a headwind, all the while the din of the downpour being broken rhythmic chirping of saturated denim rubbing against itself.
I have been caught in downpours before where I ride angrily and curse my luck. However, this day the abundance of cool precipitation and warmth of the doused day made me giddy and bubbling with laughter. I rode past the turn to my house and spent the next hour zig-zaging my way through streets of Wicker Park and Bucktown in search of the deepest puddles to part like a beardless bicycling Moses. It is easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of big city living but it is moments like these which act as a spit-shine for the soul– clarifying perspectives and falling in love with the blessing that is life.
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And he ended with ‘I think that is all I have for now. Be well Johanna and ride free and safe. ‘