Musings From My Bike Ride Into the City
Today was one of those perfect early fall days in Chicago. The sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. A light wind was blowing, creating a pleasant and invigorating chill in the air. It was as if mother nature was saying to us in her own way; "Come Outside". So I decided that today, I was going to ride my bicycle into the City for the first time.
I'd like to start off by saying I consider myself a less than average bicyclist; mediocre at best. I learned how to ride a bike when I was fairly young. I was so happy to finally be able to ride around with my brother and his friends. My mother never let me go too far, but it didn't matter, I loved riding my bike as a kid. It felt so freeing.
Fast forward to adulthood and moving to Los Angeles. I traded in my two wheels for four and spent a majority of my days sitting in my car in traffic. I did eventually buy myself a beach cruiser that I would ride about 1.5 miles to work. I lived in Marina Del Rey and would ride on the Venice Boardwalk to the office near Windward Circle in Venice Beach. Again, I absolutely loved it. I never wore a helmet and often had flip flops on. My bike was old, didn't have gears, and didn't go very fast. It was perfect for the chill vibes of Venice.
I moved to Chicago seven years ago and noticed right away how many bicyclists commute all over the city. I see them riding year round; in the rain, snow, hail, sleet, all of it. I'd like to just pause and say if you commute on your bike every day, my hats off to you.....truly. You inspire me.
I hit a bicyclist once, when I first moved to Chicago, in Rogers Park. I was at a stop sign. I looked both ways as I always do, and started to go when this guy literally came out of nowhere and hit my front end. He fell off his bike, and I ran out to see if he was okay. He was, thank goodness, but his bike needed a new wheel. I gave him my number and offered to pay for his bike repairs, which I did. He walked off, seemingly unscathed. I however, was horrified. I consider myself a very safe and alert driver. If I am capable if hitting a bicyclist, does that make getting hit by a car pretty much inevitable if you're a daily biker? I decided that day that riding my bike in the city just wasn't for me.
A few years later, I moved to a house in West Logan Square very close to the 606; a 5.7 mile long running and bike path that used to be a train line. I was particularly excited about living so close to this path, knowing that one day soon I will buy another bike and ride it without the worry of cars. When I finally decided to buy a bike, I wanted it to have a certain esthetic. I always admired how casual and cool most people look riding around in their city bikes with all the bells and whistles. I wanted to look cool too. I bought my bike at a used bike shop in Pilsen called "Working Bikes, Chicago". This place was huge with hundreds and hundreds of bikes. I spent well over an hour test riding bikes and discovered very quickly that some of those "cool" bikes felt very unsteady and awkward. I ended up choosing a black Trek bike that was pretty simple but had all the gears. I'm not sure how cool it is but it was better than what I've had in the past and it felt comfortable.
I've had my bike for a few years now. I started out mostly riding to my local farmers market on the weekends, and every now and then if I felt inspired, I'd ride to a yoga class. My ride would primarily take place on the 606 and when I had to get off, I stayed on smaller side streets. This Summer, I made the decision to ride my bike more often and for longer distances. I rode to teach my yoga classes at Yogaview and Midtown Athletic Club, approximately 3.5 miles from my house. On rare occasions, I rode to teach my Wednesday class at Namaskar Yoga studio which is in Lakeview near Wrigley Field; a longer ride for sure but for the most part I was able to ride on side streets.
I recently bought my first helmet at REI; a vintage style helmet by Thousand Heritage. Honestly, I liked it more before I bought it. I kind of feel a little dorky wearing it, not too mention it doesn't fit that well. I think I may need to get a new one next year. :(
I was doing okay, riding once a week, maybe, which is more than ever before, but I was always terrified of riding into the city. I always did admire the people riding their bikes while I'm cocooned in my car. Today, I took mother natures advice to be outside and rode into the city for the first time. I won't lie, I almost chickened out. I was nervous. I looked up bike routes and most lead to major streets which I'm still not that comfortable with. I figured I know the side streets well enough and I just went for it.
As I awkwardly walked my bike down my front steps and started riding towards the 606 entrance, my anxiety started to fade. I know I've said this several times, but it was really really beautiful outside, and the breeze was hitting me from behind which made the ride feel really smooth. I took the 606 to Damon and went down to Cortland where I headed towards the lake. That area of Bucktown is really spectacular. The leaves are just now starting to fall which made everything seem extra magical. It's a quiet neighborhood; people drive fairly mellow and there are plenty of bike riders around which made me feel better. When I began to approach Ashland Ave, the highway overpass and the Chicago River, I started to get a little nervous. It's noisy, people are not paying attention (more on that later), and the roads always seem really bumpy and filled with potholes. I made my way through, slowly and carefully, having to be extra careful with all the people turning and not looking out for bikes in the bike lanes. Once I got through that, I ended up on Armitage Ave in Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park is one of the most gorgeous neighborhoods in Chicago, filled with quaint shops, restaurants and pristine multi million dollar homes. I was really happy to finally be riding my bike through this part of Chicago.
Once I got to Lincoln Ave, I made a right and headed towards the Gold Coast. Lincoln Avenue eventually turns into Wells street which is considered Old Town. This was the point that I knew I was nearing the downtown area. The environment around me suddenly felt very frenetic, and my nervous system quickly kicked into fight or flight mode. A lot more cars, and taxis, and Lyfts and Ubers. A lot of pedestrians too, many who are not looking where they are walking. I have to say, a majority of the people I saw were simply not looking forward while driving and walking. Seriously, it was scary. People everywhere just staring down at their phones. It felt like a creepy science fiction end of the world movie. And then there were people who deliberately cut in front of me or blocked the bike lanes with their hazard lights on. It was frustrating to say the least. But I cautiously kept going, paying extra attention to everything, making sure people saw me, never assuming anything. In addition to the traffic, there is also a lot of road construction this time of year, so I had to wind down different streets to finally make my way to Equinox, Gold Coast. Yay!
I walked into my class with my head held high, cool bike helmet in hand. I told a few students that I rode in today; no one seemed that impressed, but I didn't care. I was pretty darn proud of myself.
Riding home was a little different. By then, the fatigue in my legs had settled in. Oh, and remember that wonderful breeze behind me that made my ride in so lovely? Well, my ride back was going against that breeze...not so lovely anymore. I got yelled at by a motorist because I didn't give the proper hand signals for turning, and a cab driver almost killed me. On a positive note, a cool bicyclist guy rode up next to me and told me he liked my helmet; I thought that was nice. I rode home the exact same way I rode in, and the ride home was even more beautiful. The sun was sparking through the autumn leaves, and when I got back to the Bucktown area I felt myself relax a little more. I even lowered the gears so I didn't have to peddle so hard and just enjoyed taking my time. All in all, it was a great way to start the week.
Here's what I learned from this first ride into the city.
1) Worrying about something that might never happen robs our ability to really live a full life. I spent years wanting to ride my bike more, but was worried something might happen. Imagine how much more exciting and fulfilling life would be if we stopped worrying so much.
2) We all need to do better when it comes to paying attention when we are driving, riding, and walking around in the city. Today was beautiful, as I mentioned at least five times already, and so many people were missing it because their heads were down on their phones. I deleted all my social media from my phone a few weeks ago and I am so happy I did. There is nothing better than being in the moment.
3) I am pretty sure my less than stellar bike riding skills annoyed a few people, and I get it. I too suffer from road rage and often get impatient when I'm in a hurry or running late somewhere. Lately, I have been leaving my home early so I don't feel rushed. I'm also doing my best to be a little more empathetic when driving. When I see someone who is driving like a bat out of hell, instead of letting it bother me and ruin my day, I send them good will and I usually feel better. I'm not perfect, I still give the unsolicited middle finger to jerky drivers, but that always makes me feel worse.
I am so happy I rode to the city today, I only wish I had decided to do this sooner. I am going to take full advantage of the nice weather while it's still here and continue to ride my bike as much as I can. While I don't intend on riding during the winter (I do love my car), I will make it a point to pay extra special attention to the bicyclists battling through all the crazy Chicago weather day in and day out. And the next time you're out there driving, and you see a bicyclist who maybe isn't so fast or graceful or doesn't know the proper hand signals, think of me, and know we are all trying to do the best that we can.