Everything I needed to know about cycling in Chicago, I learned in high school. This, of course, does not apply to the actual practice of cycling, e.g., pedaling and braking. Instead, I am referring to the social aspect of two-wheeling your body and gear around the Windy City and, to that end, the lunchroom tends to explain a lot.
Take, for instance, what you are going to eat, or in this case, ride. A Dutch bike? A fixed gear? A touring bike? A cruiser, perhaps? Your bike, like your choice of Salisbury steak, says a great deal about you, but in Chicago, it defines what others say about you.
Walking from the lunch line to the lunchroom itself, the focus on your food switches to where to sit, or more to the point, with whom you will sit. Always more important than mid-day nourishment was the decision to align yourself with a certain slice of the stratified, trajectory-defining social construct of the lunchroom. Similarly, with whom you choose to cycle and where you choose to cycle matters more in Chicago than that Salisbury steak you’re riding.
What am I talking about? Cliques, conformity, groupthink, and some innate sense in all of us to be noticed and included.
Don’t get me wrong, Chicago. I love you and always have. The grid, the weather, the lakefront and the people: simply wonderful. In Chicago, it is easy to feel estranged from cycling culture even if you know what you’re doing on that bicycle. The addition of a helmet can alienate you from some sect of the city’s hipster union. Riding the lakefront in enjoyment may draw the ire of the rainbow-suited road warriors. Stopping at an intersection for a red light? You may as well sit with the nerds and never show your face again.
You thought we were talking about riding bicycles? Yes, so did I. That you know how to pedal, how to protect your skull, to illuminate your ride and look both ways before crossing a street should be enough. Chicago, however, throws you a few curveballs, but don’t let that sway you from mounting a bike and saving some money, whether it’s on gas or an infuriating transit system. Remain steadfast in your desire to burn calories, lower your carbon footprint, or simply enjoy an alternative mode of transportation.
For all the cycling culture this city has to offer, it can be difficult to feel like a part of it. We have Critical Mass and Bike the Drive. We have online cycling communities and shops that hold classes on bike maintenance. We have bars and restaurants devoted to cycling. My advice is to enjoy your ride no matter how you practice it, because you are part of it. Regardless of what you eat or what you ride, cycling culture exists because of your pedal power. (John Alex Colon)