By Stephanie Ratanas
Snow dust whips and swirls near the ground across Daley Plaza, catching on the chains and wheels of dozens of bikes scattered around. The clusters of bikes are reminiscent of a little league practice scene, only these bikes are larger, it’s winter and instead of grass and gravel beneath the bikes, only frigid cement. At 7:30am, with the temperature ten degrees Fahrenheit, thirty to forty people stand clutching steaming cups of coffee and hot chocolate that quickly lose heat. Today, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation commemorates the coldest day in Chicago history, January 20, 1985, when temperatures reached twenty-seven degrees below zero, with “Winter Bike to Work Day.” A tent is set up on the plaza offering commuters hot drinks and cheesecake as they pedal their way to their respective nine-to-fives. The “bike to work day” event has been held around this celebratory date for the past several years, and for even longer in the summertime. Melody Geraci, one of the organizers, speaks energetically, the cold seeming to have little effect on her. “We get a pretty reliable number of folks every year,” she says. Roughly 150 to 175 bikers are expected to pass through the event on their way to work. “Lots of regular bicycle commuters, but the event also encourages people to try biking in the winter, and see that it’s not as scary as it seems.”
Bike commuters are red-cheeked and warm as they coast in and drop their bikes on the ground. It’s only after they’ve been standing around that the cold begins to seep through mittens and boots.
“I’m way warmer riding than I am standing around,” says Randy Warren of CBF, another one of the organizers. Warren rides downtown from East Rogers Park every day. He notes that the event helps to draw attention to those who are riding all year round, and shows that on even on a cold day like today, biking is still an option. “If you only rode in good weather in Chicago, you wouldn’t ride that often.”
In the past five years or so, winter biking in Chicago has increased in popularity dramatically. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s executive director, Rob Sadowsky, attributes the increase to a number of factors. A combination of the ongoing CTA crisis and soaring gas prices has made it more viable for people of various levels of biking experience and interest, not just a fringe element of hardcore fanatics. “Our facilities compare right up there with most cities. If not beat most cities,” he says. “We have more bike parking than any other city… I think we have more regular, everyday people riding, not just students, not just the younger crowd, but more regular people, and different cultures, and different ethnic backgrounds that are riding than other cities.”
For a lot of winter riders, stopping when it gets cold doesn’t make sense. “People say things like ‘I’m doing it for the environment.’ I bike to work for selfish reasons: I always have a parking space,” says Kevin Read of North Kenwood, who has stopped by the event on his way to work in the Sears Tower. He’s wearing a bright yellow coat and pants made out of some sort of spandex material. The frost that has formed on his eyebrows under the front of his helmet doesn’t seem to bother him. “It’s amazing how warm you get. If I’m biking every day, I’m warm for the winter.” He insists that the cold that seems to scare people away from trying winter biking isn’t really a factor. “I think of how many Americans will freeze their asses off at a football game, but won’t ride a bike.” He enjoys the fact that he can easily meet someone for lunch midday, or run errands.
Christopher Wallace of Oak Park agrees—he runs all his errands by bike with the use of trailers, claiming he can fit all the groceries he needs and eight gallons of water, or up to 150 pounds, behind his bike. He too bikes nearly every day regardless of where he has to go, the weather or the temperature. “I think I missed four days this past year. People perceive that the whole winter is an ice-filled hell, but we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.”
Winter has become many people’s favorite time of the year to bike, including Sadowsky. “My favorite time ever is riding when the snow hits quickly in the late afternoon so that the streets can’t get plowed quickly enough and then traffic downtown starts to snarl up because everyone wants to leave the city,” he says. “Cars are shut down, and there’s just no way to get anywhere. So, I go down Milwaukee Avenue. Milwaukee Avenue is just one giant traffic jam and here as a bicyclist, I’m going down the center of the road all the way through and no one is moving. It’s a really powerful feeling. Even if I have to push the bike a little.”
The small back room of Catedral Café in Little Village is packed with about thirty-five people, sitting in consecutive half rings of folding chairs. Wall-mounted space heaters blast in the cozy room on this frigid Saturday, where it is a staggering zero degrees outside. The attendees have gathered for a “Winter Biking Workshop” hosted by Bike Winter, a grassroots organization that started in the Winter of 2000 that, as their Web site bikewinter.org suggests, began as a “somewhat humorous response” to the “Bike Summer” event, first hosted in San Francisco in the summer of 1999. Howard Kaplan is in his second year as the chair of the volunteer-run organization. He describes the nature of it as truly grassroots. “It’s grown to more of a campaign—at this point it’s almost a club, it’s almost an advocacy organization—so it’s really hard to describe and I think it’s probably good that way. When you give something too much structure, you lose the people that you really need the most,” he says. “So it’s kind of a nebulous grassroots campaign with a very loosely defined structure and kind of free form.”
Kaplan, who is now into his forties, got into bicycling in his late twenties as a recreational cyclist, going on long rides on the weekend. He became deeply involved in that scene for the first eight years he biked, spending some time as the president of the Chicago Cycling Club. Eventually, he discovered the Critical Mass rides.
“I got exposed to some different people, got exposed to some different ideas and ended up becoming a transportation cyclist, getting rid of my car and just becoming involved a lot more politically and wanting to become part of changing Chicago, changing the way the city lives and the way people get around.”
After a semi-organized raffle drawing, where nearly everyone in the room wins a fender, u-lock, blinkie light or other bike-related gift, a panel discussion on the ins and outs of winter biking begins. Bridgeport resident Lauren Sailor discusses dressing for winter biking. In addition to the green scarf draped around her neck and cyclist-style cap she dons, she’s got the works: snow pants, a wind and waterproof jacket and a couple of personal secrets. She holds up a shiny silver metallic snowboarding helmet, which doubles as a safety helmet and an ear warmer, and “super-cool” science lab goggles to keep the wet and wind out of her eyes. Her last tip is a simple bandana or handkerchief tied around her glove, which she says she uses to wipe the snot off her face that the winter weather unmercifully creates. “I also do the snot-rocket at stoplights.”
Sailor “fell in love” with biking three years ago when her friends brought her to Working Bikes Cooperative and she bought a used bike, which she used to get to class on the University of Chicago campus, and eventually far beyond. In her second winter of biking, she has already become deeply involved with not only Bike Winter, but other biking activist and social groups as well. One of these groups, “The Midnight Marauders,” describes themselves as a “nocturnal drinking group with a cycling problem.” The group meets every third Saturday of the month to ride the dark Chicago streets. “There’s usually some drinking involved because we think hydration is important,” says Sailor. Tonight they’ll meet at Billy Goat Tavern downtown, and then take a midnight ride through the subterranean of Chicago. On the coldest day of the year.
Dressing for winter biking is really about layering and keeping the wet off, and once someone spends a winter on two wheels, overall it seems to become preferable. Kaplan says that he definitely prefers winter over summer now. “I sweat a lot in the summer and I don’t really like taking the extra time to wear specialized clothing and change clothing at work. So my approach is just to ride fairly slowly and try not to get drenched in sweat by the time I get to work and I have a much easier time with that in the winter…though I’m not as successful on making it on time.”
Kaplan says that the winter-biking scene goes beyond a necessity to get to work efficiently, but that for a lot of people who have been involved in Bike Winter for years, it becomes a time of the year they look forward to. Instead of viewing the long Midwestern winter as a cold, cooped-up and lonely time, being part of a winter-biking community is a way of psychologically dealing with the season.
“It brings people together and creates a whole social scene that, in the end, they’re really not missing anything in the wintertime that you think you might not have access to because it’s too cold.” He indicates, like others, that he has definitely noticed an increase in the number of people he sees out biking in the winter on his daily commute, as well as the mainstream sectors of the biking community such as bike shops embracing the season.
“In the past, bike shops, especially smaller independent ones, I think the owners tended to survive the winter by drinking a lot.”
Dozens of small kids’ bikes and Christmas lights adorn the tall fence in the alley between Artesian and Western next to North Avenue in Humboldt Park. A sign near the gate clearly conveys that West Town Bikes does not sell or buy bikes, a perhaps common misconception of the nonprofit learning center. It’s Monday night, and the second class in a five-week “Winter Tune-Up” workshop for adults. Four students hoist their bikes up on stands in the workroom, which looks like a bike mechanic’s dream garage, and gray city snow melts off wheels and pedals onto the floor. Tools are hung all over the walls near the workbenches. Bikes, tires and wheels hang from hooks near the painted, off-white antique tin ceiling, and boxes of spare brake cables, inner tubes and miscellaneous parts are stacked throughout the room. The students are instructed carefully on how to change a flat and given tips for biking in the winter such as keeping rims and brakes clean and chains lubed. Each student concentrates on his or her own project, while also taking time to learn from their peers’ different tune-up needs as Talking Heads plays quietly in the background.
While the main emphasis of West Town Bikes is their youth programming, due to the rapid increase of winter bikers in recent years, founder and president Alex Wilson has been offering winter tune-up classes for the past three. He paces around the workshop on the next evening, open-shop night. Wilson has been a bicycle activist in Chicago for the past decade, and says that, recently, the bike community has really exploded, including those who have become winter cyclists.
“It used to be not that long ago, five years ago or so, most cyclists I would see on the street in the winter I would know, personally know. Now, most cyclists I see on the street I don’t know,” he says. “And it’s not because my circle of friends has shrunk. There’s just way more.”
Wilson has been a bike enthusiast since he began riding at age six, and tinkering on them at age eleven. For the past ten years, he has worked on bicycle advocacy in Chicago through various grassroots groups and organizations. He became very involved in Chicago’s Critical Mass, which introduced him to other biking activist groups like Bike Winter, Cycling Sisters and Break the Gridlock, started hosting bicycle mechanics workshops in the basement of his apartment building and eventually at Urban Bikes (now Uptown Bikes) where he worked. Through his various forms of activism he was hired by the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, where he worked on a student marketing program for three years, encouraging college students to use bikes to get around campus and the city. In 2004, he helped to pilot a summer youth “earn-a-bike” program, which eventually became what is now West Town Bikes.
Westtownbikes.org lists a calendar of events for a variety of classes, workshops and open-shop nights and are open to bikers of any skill level. There are opportunities to acquire skills from basic maintenance, changing a tire etc., to building a bike, as well as to pick up tricks and tips about biking in the winter, though Wilson is more than willing to offer that knowledge up front.
“Fenders—it’s not a trick or a secret, full fenders. The more of the wheel you can cover, the dryer you will stay, cleaner you will be, the cleaner your bike will be. Lube your chain all the time, and also lube your other components,” he says. “Bike lube usually works best.”
Wilson, who was one of the commuters who showed up at CBF’s Winter Bike to Work Day, continues, “There’s lots and lots of commuters, and that’s a very interesting thing here too, that many of the commuters identify themselves as bicyclists and are involved in activism. I was reading something recently that was dividing cyclists into different types, you know—the racers, the mechanics, the mountain bikers and road racers, and then the commuters. It said something about how this last group is not very excited or enthusiastic or excited about bicycling, and…that writer needs to come to Chicago.”