Street Smart Chicago

Have a Car-Free Summer: Life around the Edge

Bicycling, Essays & Commentary, Events, Green, Oak Park, Wicker Park Add comments

By Elizabeth Winkowski

Shortly after I began biking a few years ago, I showed up at the Hollywood Grill on Ashland and North early one Saturday morning for the fifth-annual Perimeter Ride, a hundred-mile jaunt around the edge of the city. I knew little about bicycling then, except that serious bicyclists called hundred-mile rides “centuries.” I had done some research online, and found information on proper century training and equipment—padded spandex shorts, a skin-tight jersey and a light, carbon-fiber bike. I disregarded this information and pulled up in a t-shirt and sunglasses instead, riding a rickety, rusting, pink Schwinn ten-speed.

I was surprised to see that the route map included crude drawings of ice-cream cones, beer cans and Morrie, the anthropomorphic hotdog in a leopard-print toga perched atop Superdawg, where were supposed to have dinner about twelve hours later. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it—I had never ridden more than a few miles in a day—but I hopped on my bike anyway, embracing the note that was scrawled in the map’s margin: “Live on the edge!”

It was a cloudless August day as our group of forty rode to the city’s eastern edge, following the lakefront path south to an ancient marble column just north of Soldier Field—Benito Mussolini donated this Roman oddity to the City of Chicago to celebrate Italo Balbo’s 1933 flight from Rome to the Century of Progress Exhibition. It was the first of many surprises the Perimeter Ride would offer.

We traveled south until reaching Calumet Park, a bustling beach next to an enormous power plant with a red-and-white striped smokestack. After devouring my peanut-butter sandwich and apple, and being offered a bite of another rider’s curry, we made a brief detour to the Illinois-Indiana border. We skirted around irregularly shaped Lake Calumet, taking in the foul smell of a garbage dump, before rolling through the tidy streets of redbrick Pullman, a model town built to accommodate Pullman Palace Car Company employees. An 1894 strike shattered the community’s utopian façade.

We picked up five-flavor ice-cream cones for eighty-seven cents in Beverly—it happened to be the eighty-seven-year anniversary of the Original Rainbow Cone. We cooled off with layers of chocolate, pistachio, strawberry and “Palmer House” (cherry-nut) ice cream, as well as orange sherbet.

It was probably about four o’clock by then, and the sinking sun seemed hotter than ever as we headed west. My stretchy black leggings stuck to my lower body and my squishy bike seat—which I once thought was so comfortable—started to feel like a rock no matter how I shifted my weight.

In Berwyn, we rallied around the car kebab—eight rusting, boxy cars stacked up on a fifty-foot skewer in the center of a strip mall parking lot. Artist Dustin Schuler created “Spindle” in 1989, but the opening sequence of 1992’s “Wayne’s World” immortalized it. The piece had long been a sort of totem pole for bicyclists, a supposed harbinger of the death of car culture. In May 2008, the sculpture was razed to make room for a Walgreen’s.

Blinking rear lights came on as we passed through the massive dusky green lawns and stately homes in Oak Park and up past the Radio Flyer company headquarters, where the world’s largest red wagon stands.

It was after nine o’clock by the time we reached Superdawg on Chicago’s northwest edge. I’m not sure anyone had ordered the fish sandwich in years, so it took some time for my order to come up. But once I opened the little box with the breaded fish fillets on a bun, crinkle-cut fries and tartar sauce, I enjoyed one of the best meals I have ever tasted. I ate too quickly and washed things down with a Coke and then a can of beer.

Close to two in the morning, we made it to the Handlebar, back in the center of Wicker Park. I gulped down a pint of water and exchanged hugs with the other eleven bicyclists who’d made it to the end. I was deeply tired, but once I was back on my bike, I flew home in the breezy heat, slowing only to point out to a cyclist in tight jeans that a pack of cigarettes had fallen out of his back pocket. I felt like I could do anything then.

The Perimeter Ride usually takes place in early August. Check the Critical Mass Listserv ( for details.

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