Shifting Gears: An inside look at Chicago’s growing cycling community

kevin dalton on a bike, shot by Lisa Bang

“Stay calm…there are enough bikes for everyone…”

And so it began. The crowd of twenty or so anxious customers crowded in close as Working Bikes’ General Manager Nicholas Colombo swung the door wide open and quickly skittered off to the side. It was one of the first nice days of spring, and apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d come crawling out of the woodwork to the small storefront on the corner of Western and Grenshaw, a good deal west of the Loop and just a block north of Roosevelt. Never mind that I’d arrived five minutes before the store opened, on the advice of many a friend who’d prefaced my journey with ominous warnings like “You’ll never get a bike on a Saturday!” and “Make sure you get there early!” Here I was, standing towards the back of a line that I feared would quickly devour any and all chances I had of taking away a good, cheap, reliable velocipede. As the people moved quickly and eagerly through the small entryway, I had the sudden discomforting realization that this is what my parents must have felt like whenever they’d waited in front of a KB Toys at six in the morning, surrounded by a swarm of other way-too-eager-to-please moms and pops searching for the elusive Pink Ranger or one of those annoying Furby creatures that you’d inevitably spend more time putting to sleep than actually playing with.

The store was small, and despite Colombo’s attempt at assuagement, there were most definitely not enough bikes for everyone. Models were being pulled off the shelves in rapid succession; in a panic, I found myself interested in a Schwinn only as a pair of hands wrapped themselves around the handlebars to “take it out for a ride,” from which it would never return. My chest tightened at the prospect of having to make another trek out this time next weekend–and even then, who could guarantee results would be any more successful? I took the last guys’ bike I could find, a gray, beat-up looking Nishiki International. The tag read $90; a bit more than I’d hoped to spend, but it wasn’t in the triple-digits and it meant I wouldn’t have to come back out again a week later. I took it.

Now, I’m no bike expert; prior to a few weeks ago, I hadn’t owned a bike since maybe the sixth grade. I wasn’t concerned with brand name, handlebar style, or even color: my only qualifications were that it not be a mountain bike and that it actually work. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

More and more, Chicagoans are stepping out from behind the steering wheel and plopping themselves onto the bike saddle. While laying down the cash for the day’s purchases (a fat 1-2-0 after adding in the thirty dollars for the necessary U-lock), I casually inquired as to whether the shop was this chaotic every week. “Yeah, now that it’s summer,” Colombo replied. “It wasn’t like this a month ago.” But after a few moments’ thought, he tacked on a hasty addendum: “Well, actually it was.”

Lest one fall under the impression that this is just a seasonal spike, a few factual tidbits will quickly dispel that notion. Colombo began volunteering at the nonprofit Working Bikes Cooperative seven years ago, and was hired three years later as one of the organization’s few paid employees. At the beginning, the Cooperative–which not only sells bikes here in Chicago but donates many to charity here and in needy countries the world over–operated solely out of a warehouse, where volunteers would “pick up a bike and fix it on the spot,” transforming busted old bikes into ready-to-ride vehicles. But following some praiseworthy coverage in the Chicago Tribune around the time Colombo started actually working there, the organization doubled in size and incorporated the storefront–and it’s been a cycling hotspot ever since. Sales have doubled for each of the past three years, and they’ve gone from taking in a mere ten bikes a day to nearly sixty, all of which end up donated or sold to help keep the shop in existence.

Add to that the extreme popularity of Tati–the newly-opened customized bike shop at 55th Street and Hyde Park that actually had to be closed down a few weeks ago due to an overload of orders–and it seems pretty clear that the bicycle might actually start challenging the hegemony of the automobile when it comes to getting around through Chicago’s busy streets. Even the gruff old management over at Art’s Cycles on 53rd admits that the general word in the industry is that sales have been improving “little by little” each year. And then there’s the re-opening of Blackstone Bikes, reincarnated just this past autumn after a terrible fire gutted the storefront in 2001. It’s a great time to be a bicyclist, and it seems that more and more people are catching the drift.

And with good reason. Granted, for the surefooted pedestrian, or the “sheep” in his “glass box,” to quote bicycling enthusiast and recent University of Chicago graduate Andrew Cone, it can be rather difficult to get what all the fuss is about. Behind the wheel, the image of the bicyclist is often that guy riding between cars without gripping the handlebars, smirking at the annoyed drivers–a habit that Cone readily admits to. “I screw with cars all the time…when it’s really congested I just zip through…it’s really fun to do it with no hands,” he confesses with a grin. While many bikers probably don’t go quite so out of their way to piss off their horse-powered compadres, the world of the bicyclist is nevertheless a world uniquely its own, cut off from comprehension amongst the unconverted.

This might sound a tad overdramatic–after all, for many bicyclists what it all boils down to is convenience and a simple mode of transportation–but regularly hopping on a velo really does start to shift one’s perception of the surrounding world. If nothing else, the ride to work or class might get a whole lot more scenic, and the cars a whole lot more dangerous. But to many within the biking community, these two-wheeled contraptions provide more than just a nice breeze and a freedom from the frustration of public transportation. To Cone, it’s a way to express a “latent punk ideology” that lies deep within. “I use Linux, ride a bike, and cook my own food,” he explained with an earnest laugh. Meanwhile, a twenty-six-year-old bicyclist shopping at Tati (who wished to remain anonymous) confessed a few less-conventional reasons of his own, citing such perks as “the avoidance of DUIs” and explaining that “the consequences of hitting someone after drinking a few beers is less [than if hitting someone with a car].” “And,” he added, “I have gotten laid at least once as a result of riding a bike.”

But it’s not always so much about what the rider says about the bike, as it is what the bike says about the rider. Typically, the extent of customization stops at comfort and consists of such low-key alterations as switching handlebars or putting on a new saddle. Some riders convert the pedals so that they can wear shoes that latch into them while riding, making for a smoother ride across long distances (but proving to be a pesky dilemma when dealing with stop signs and traffic lights). Baskets and fenders are popular out of sheer practicality. But beyond that, some cyclists see the opportunity to customize their bikes as something profoundly more significant. “I want it to look like me,” a young woman named Ebonee Green explained of a custom-made bicycle she’d recently ordered, “I want it to be an extension of me.” This might mean anything from simply picking out the minute details of the color scheme, to pouring ten-thousand smackers into your bike to get a carbon fiber tube frame with engraved titanium casing at the joints and aerodynamic spokes on the wheels. And while part of such an investment might be the simple desire to have a lightning-quick bike, a need for speed doesn’t stand up as a solid MO in its own right. As Tati’s shop owner “J” put it, “[that bike] is more expensive than what professionals ride”–and if that’s not using a commodity as a means of identity formation, what is?

It’d be difficult to discuss the symbolic significance of the bicycle without discussing the whole political aspect, which can be seen perhaps most directly at the monthly Critical Mass event where hordes of bikers ride through the city en masse, disrupting traffic and turning heads. Pro-vegan pamphlets abound as the riders congregate, and stickers that read “Bicycling: A Quiet Statement Against Oil Wars” can be found adorning the frames of many bikers’ cycles. But not all conscientious cyclists prefer the quiet route: in February, a group of biking activists protested the Chicago Auto Show, parading banners and attempting to dissuade visitors from entering with claims that there were “too many cars in Chicago.” Some even dressed up as polar bears, inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Nevertheless, for many bicyclists it’s not so much about promoting left-wing politics as it is about promoting a biking community and celebrating a common ground: the love of the bicycle. Lauren Sailor, a fourth-year University of Chicago student, recently started a listhost (velorution@monksofcool.org) to keep the various bike enthusiasts of Hyde Park updated on different events that take place throughout the city–and there are quite a few of them. The Ride of Silence, which honors cyclists and pedestrians killed and injured on public roadways, just took place on May 16. Also recently advertised was a preliminary planning meeting for the World Naked Bike Ride, to be celebrated in Chicago on June 9. And being the bicycle enthusiast that she is–she even works as a bike messenger at Jimmy John’s–Sailor’s also unsurprisingly well-connected to a number of different cycling communities throughout the city, such as “freak bike” creators the Rat Patrol and the Midnight Marauders, a group of cyclists who get together for drinks at the Handlebar Bar & Grill (located at North and Western) and then ride around at midnight for a night of “pillaging” and all-around rowdiness.

The concept of a “biking community” is perhaps one of the least obvious, and yet most important, byproducts of the growing number of bicyclists taking to Chicago’s streets. The number of individual groups dedicated to cycling is astounding: from the University of Chicago’s Velo Club (a race team consisting of faculty and students), to the Cycling Sisters and their off-shoot, the South Side Cycling Sisters (groups of female bikers that stage how-to maintenance workshops and promote greater female biking participation in general), to the larger Chicago Cycling Club and the advocacy efforts of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, it’s clear that the bicycle is giving people entirely new channels of communication and a means of fostering relationships outside of the workplace and the Friday night bar crawl. Since a bicycle really is a unique means of expression, it should come as no surprise that certain biking communities attract certain types of cyclists. For example, a group of bikers got together to rally behind the ingenuity of the folding bike, and voila! the Chicago Folding Bike Society was born. Others bond together over their love of the fixed-gear bike, claiming “if it’s not fixed, it’s broken” and uniting in support of the Zen-like experience of riding unhampered by the annoyance of brakes. Even Critical Mass, with all its activist undertones, tends to play out as more of a celebration of community than a grand political statement. Compared to similar events in other cities, Colombo claims Critical Mass is “more of a parade here than a riot,” and considering the bikers’ gleeful shouts of “Happy Friday!” and the surprisingly large number of drivers who tend to cheer rather than honk in aggravated protest, it’s hard to find fault with his assessment.

Whether cycling individually or in a community, on the way to work or on a leisurely jaunt, the benefits of biking are multifold. It’s healthy, convenient, and can be used quite efficiently as an ideological statement to boot. But really, when you boil away the polar bear suits and the thousand-dollar titanium casements, bicycling is just pure, simple fun–and that seems to be more than enough reason to get the growing number of cyclists throughout Chicago out of their automobiles and behind the handlebars, onto the bike lanes of the city streets.