Yesterday, Chris and I went downtown Chicago to swim in the lake.
After work, we hopped on our bikes and rode over to catch the train into Chicago. Now, I’m not a big fan of going to the city. When you grow up in a city I believe you get like this. To me, the city means ten years of memories filled with sirens, loud motorcycles, crowds, not being able to cross the street alone, crazy people walking down our street throwing potatoes (yes, tubers), loud garbage trucks, being on lockdown in a classroom because some kid went crazy in the hall, gates on the windows, and other things that make childhood oh so delightful in the city.
But if it involves triathlon and making me faster, then I might be game. So when my coach and Chris suggested I take more trips to the city to swim in the sometimes wavy choppy cold waters of Lake Michigan to become a stronger open water swimmer, I said sign me up.
There we were, on board the train with other people who go from the suburbs to the city after work. In other words, a mixed bag of students, young urbanites that spend their weekends in their overpriced flats visiting cultural events and eating at fusion restaurants with one syllable names (“we” – who names a restaurant “we”?), and other random vagrants that look like this might just be the best part of their day to ride the train back and forth just to have something to look at, or someone to talk to.
Aboard the train was a pile of gangly, misfit bikes. Comparing our bikes to the other bikes going to city, though, ours were sorely out of place. You see, we had both front brakes, thick tires, and more than one gear. Plus our bikes were actually made in this decade. Wait, I might mean this century.
The other bikes were a mangy assortment of cyclomutts and clunkers. Single speed with day-glo colors, rusty chains and weathered brakes. Grandma bikes with wide seats and a basket on front. Mountain bikes with mismatched paint. For the first time as a cyclist, I felt very out of place. My bike was too functional, too clean. It was the suburban version of a bike. Not cool enough to be from the city. Perhaps not cool enough to ride in the city. Guess we’ll find out.
A 30 minute express train ride later, we found ourselves on the streets of Chicago in the middle of rush hour. I looked at the streets thick with cars, the sidewalks hurried with mobs of people, and stoplights that seemed to instantly flash from green to red leaving rows of cars jerking slowly along. This was no place for cyclists. This was no place for pedestrians or even cars. But somehow we were going to have to make our way through it all on our bikes. I looked at Chris, he looked at me, helmets were on, and we took off.
The city was literally zipping with cyclists. While cars waited in lanes 3 deep at times to inch from stoplight to stoplight, the cyclists sneakily snaked their way along curbs, through traffic, and atop sidewalks as needed. Reckless, fearless, riding with flagrant abuse of any rules of the road these cyclists had no interest in riding right or hugging the white line on the side of the road. In contrast to suburban riding where you take your life on two wheels if perchance you veer slightly left by two millimeters from the white line, these cyclists rode smack in the middle of lanes, passed cars on the left, jumped curbs, rode through yellow lights, did everything and anything we as suburban cyclists learned that you never, ever, ever do if you would like to ever get on your bike again.
And when I called these urban dwellers “cyclists”, I use the word lightly. No, there was no spandex to be found here. In most cases, you didn’t even find helmets. Mostly, these were hurried masses that simply found two wheels the fastest way to move from point A to point B. With their right pants leg rolled high, they were reckless, careless, riding nothing but two thin wheels. And all of them – young, old, student, commuter, mountain bike, hybrid, single speed rode with nothing in mind but getting somewhere. They didn’t watch out for cabs, busses, Sunday drivers, or a neverending line of soccer moms driving oversized SUV’s on their cell phone with juice box greedy children in the back watching their entertain me entertain me now DVD players – no. They didn’t care about hazards like this. In fact, they rode right by them, so close to them that if the SUV got too close – they just banged on the back of their car.
And the most bizarre thing was that the driver of the car didn’t honk, didn’t get out of the car, didn’t send a string of cuss words flying into the wind towards the lake. They just kept driving. And the cyclist kept riding. It was the strangest, yet most intimate and real version of share-the-road that I had seen in a long time. In a sense, it seemed like cyclists ruled the city roads. And perhaps because they were the only thing actively and swiftly moving through the city on Thursday at 6 pm.
We were riding down Adams playing a game of chase with the other cyclists heading towards the lake. Except that most of the other cyclists rode while throwing caution to the wind while I white knuckled my brakes. Because I knew that in a windy city like Chicago, throwing caution to the wind could be a very dangerous thing. Near misses with a bus, a curb that was too high to jump, a cab driver that wasn’t interested in sharing the road, manhole covers, spacy on cell phones pedestrians, rogue cyclists cutting across three lanes of traffic coming the other way to cross the street. So what, as a cyclist, do you do when faced with maddening and not to mention unsafe behavior like this? Well, you just join right in.
But joining in wasn’t easy. You see, all of them, each and every one of them, buzzed by me like I was going backwards. For the first time in a long time, I felt slow, awkward, and overly cautious. Two guys wearing matching shirts, skateboard helmets, on clunky old mountain bikes passed me so fast I almost screamed. Some guy with super hairy legs, a white mushroom-sized helmet, and a bike with what I swear had a quadruple ring passed me going uphill. And the girl with the tattoo on her back and the Capri pants with budding butt sweat (of course I noticed) – canned my ass at the corner of Lake Shore Drive. This was urban cycling at its best and my cycling skills at their worst. Ironman finisher, national champion, blah blah blah – didn’t mean a thing, currency not accepted on the streets of Chicago. In fact, if I wanted to get anywhere in the city, I best find me a urban cycling currency exchange. At the very least, lose the helmet, for sure.
The lake loomed in front of us with only a short ride to go along the lakefront path. Over a dozen cyclists were staged at the corner to cross Lake Shore Drive onto the lakefront path. I looked around and saw almost every category of cyclist represented. Recumbent, mountain, single speed, hybrid, men in button down shirts, girls in dresses. If we had engines, we’d have revved them because we were antsy and waiting to cross the road.
And it’s not an easy road to cross. A T-intersection with about 4 lanes of traffic coming from each of three directions. When it started to take too long and the cyclists had better places to be someone shouted out, if we all go across the street at the same time they’ll stop. Fearless. Just like the squirrels in the suburbs, these cyclists darted, en masse, across the road to the median then went some more. At the peak of rush hour traffic in a major city. In my mind, the only thing possibly more risky and restless than these riders would be those doing motorcross. As for supermoto – high speeds, turns, and pavement - these urban cyclists would have those guys canned.
Believe it or not, once we were actually on the lakefront path it got worse. A swarm of recreational cyclists, commuting cyclists, rollerbladers, walkers, runners, and tourists came at me from every different direction. Oddly enough, some path users were close versions of “real” cyclists but in the city you really can’t take this too seriously. I mean, riding on the lakefront path with your souped up road bike, Zipp wheels, aerobars, and Assos shorts….never to exceed speeds of 12 mph as you weave through masses of other path users– come on, that is not riding. That’s just sightseeing along the lake.
But I wasn’t about to tell them that. Nor was I about to tell the girl wearing the designer running outfit and those silly bouncy running shoes that those aren’t the shoes of a real runner. And besides after this whole experience in the city I was beginning to think that judging any athlete by its cover – or coverings – was not really my place.
After our swim, we had about 15 minutes to ride bike and catch the train. The ride back was not nearly as maddening as most of the traffic had died down and we had grown more accustomed to the staccato flow of traffic and people through the city. And once we were back on the train, I was exhausted. Not just from the hour long swim in chilly, choppy water but from the darting, the dashing, and daring to ride through the city streets.
But I’ve got to admit, I think I found the one way I can enjoy the city – in a rush of riding through the city and all of its urban obstacles before plunging into the crisp water of the lake only to go back in reverse and do it all again – cyclocitycross, if you will, so start your engines.