When in doubt, be a car.
When the author of this fine blog asked me to write about biking in Chicago, it couldn’t have come a more opportune time. April is here. The 80-degree days this March primed everyone for summer. Chicago’s bike shops are slammed. Time to get some air in those tires and ride. Biking is a great way to get around—it’s free, keeps you in shape, and is often faster than a car or the CTA.
If you’re new to Chicago streets, or simply need to brush up, this is your cheat sheet to urban cycling. I’ll include some words from the Oz of riding in the city: Bike Snob NYC.
The bike blogger who’s made a name by skewering cycling culture came to Tati Cycles in Hyde Park last week, led a ride to On The Route in Lincoln Square via the Lake Front Trail, and delivered a sermon before a shop full of skeptic, profane bipeds looking for some velo-salvation.
Bike Snob, aka Eben Weiss, has published a compendium of his wisdom from the vantage of a New Yorker (and I implore you to check out his blog). His advice translates over, but at the end of the day, we’re Chicagoans, riding in Chicago, not Brooklyn.
As a year-round rider, I proffer some riding advice if you’re just getting going.
First, I tell everyone who is unsure about city biking one simple rule of thumb: When in doubt, be a car. Stop at red lights. Stay to the right. Use lights at night (to be seen, not illuminate all of Damen with your million candle-power LED death ray). If you like your brain, wear a helmet. Or don’t, but as someone who has tasted pavement, it don’t taste good. They make helmets that look cool, don’t worry.
I won’t cover every conceivable scenario that might befall your ride, because anything can happen. You might ride into a hole. You could get a flat. A bird could shit on you. Fear not. Just keep your head up, be confident, and you’ll be just dandy.
Sunglasses: Wear them. Besides the obvious, they minimize irritating wind, and stop the errant bug from disrupting your vision.
Red lights: So the light’s been red and there are no cars to be seen. Should I stay or should I go? Some riders treat red lights like stop signs, and stop signs like yield signs. There are laws, know that. All Illinois traffic laws for cars apply to bikes. I’ve never seen CPD pull over a biker for blowing a light or stop sign, though doing so could easily earn you the contempt of the drivers who saw you do it. You might’ve saved yourself a minute. But the driver sitting at the light might not have as much sympathy for the commuter biking a block behind you.
Doors: Ah, the elusive door zone. That pocket between traffic and parked cars. Whether you’re in a bike lane, shared lanes (indicated by the chevron-shaped arrows painted on the road), or any other road, give yourself space from parked cars. You’ve got the right to not get doored by the girl on her phone who’s running late to yoga, neglecting to check her side mirror. Fact is, no one wants to door you. They’re not trying to be malicious or spiteful (at least I hope not), but people don’t pay attention.
After I got doored by a minivan last summer in front of Lincoln Hall (but hey, Nick, don’t minivans have sliding doors? LOL) which is a heavy bike traffic area, I cannot stress enough to give yourself space and be aware. It’s like getting hit by lightning—you can be prepared and hyper-aware, but occasionally doorings happen.
Be on the Lookout
A few things you can look out for: Tail lights, doors ajar, exhaust are all signs that someone might be getting out of a car. On a bike, you’re typically at a higher eye-level than a driver, which can let you see someone’s head over a headrest in most cars. Keep an eye out. Especially if you’re approaching a red light between stopped traffic and parked cars—drivers might think the coast is clear to open.
Don’t Do This
A couple things to not do, as prescribed by the Bike Snob:
Salmoning: Riding the wrong way down a bike lane or one-way street, as a salmon swims up current to spawn. You’ll bewilder traffic, inspire zero confidence for the cycling world, and look like an idiot. Don’t be a bike-salmon.
Shoaling: This phenomenon occurs when you pull up to a red light, and the next approaching biker stops directly in front of you. Another rider pulls up, pulling in front of the second rider, then another and another until a line of bikes extends beyond the crosswalk into the intersection. Don’t do it.
The look: Don’t scoff at other riders, whether it’s that Carhartt-clad day worker on the Huffy going to work or the lycra-laden triathlon-geek zipping by on his Cervelo, hunched over on his aerobars. You’re all in this together. Be nice.
And a couple nuggets of my own:
Cell phones: Man, for those few that can somehow pull it off, I marvel. You’ll see these guys sitting upright, as if perched atop a horse or straddling the armrest of a sofa, letting the bike ride itself. I’ve almost been hit by these types, and seen them nearly get taken out by cars. Please, for your own well-being, find a curb, put your foot down and tap out that text.
Nothing: If you opt to do nothing where you should’ve given a hand signal, or alerted someone you’re passing, then just blow by, you’ll catch people off-guard. Surprising people makes you a jerk. This is the Be Kind Rewind extrapolation to cycling.
Remember, be predictable.
Questions? Happy to help.
See you on the road.
– Nick Wright
Get Your Bike On
The Chainlink: Chicago’s biking community online. Any question answered.
BikeSnobNYC: Making cyclists laugh at themselves
London Cycle Chic: Functional fashion and more for the couture cyclist (good links on the right)
For Further Exploration:
Bicycle Film Festival