A Ten Speed Essay About Becoming a Chicago Bike Commuter
Hipsters are supposed to ride bicycles, and this may be why they also all wear skinny jeans. Now, so do I. As a biker, I am not a fan of the cuffed pants look. It’s far too obvious, and I have never had my pants get stuck in my chain. (My water bottle holder, on the other hand, is another story.) So I wouldn’t worry about that hazard too much, but do be mindful that it apparently has happened. Embrace the skinny jean—it’s your denim spandex, and your calves will look so nice. Wear a helmet, for God’s sake—non-negotiable— and don’t plug your ears with headphones. You need to know what’s going on around you, and listen to the buzz of your tires peeling over asphalt to find the beat in your head that matches the pumps of your legs.
Fat tires vs. thin tires? Do you value stability or speed? Do you want a bike you can lift or a bike that can’t be destroyed? (Try for both.) Your level of experience may depend on what you ultimately choose. For my money, I want to be able to ride over streets covered in potholes and glass without fear. And should I eventually graduate to a thin-tired bike, I will have honed my muscles on the extra work.
Get a handlebar water bottle holder and be prepared to install it using duct tape (or buy a better one than I did). It will save you from holding a beverage in your braking hand. Inflate your tires and oil your chain. Agony’s definition is biking uphill in a windstorm with low tires and squawking, groaning gears. Even having low tires on a flat stretch is an exercise in futility. You think, “I used to be going so much faster, what’s happened to me?”
Don’t ride on the sidewalk, because then cars will pay no attention to you as they make their right turns (also, illegal in Chicago, duh). Always carry bike lights for front and back (see and be seen!), and deodorant in your backpack. Have an extra light on your bike in case you find yourself without the bike lights you should be carrying in your backpack. Buy the most obnoxious klaxon of a bike horn that you can, and smile.
Finally, don’t leave your bike outside all winter unless you are 100% positive you are going to ride it regularly. Otherwise you will have a rusty ride, plus a sense of remorse.
4. Bikes on the Trains
Consistently riding one’s bike can be hard, at first. There are bikeless friends who want to see you, events that would be crippled by a two-tired date. But when you live a 15-minute walk away from your neighborhood’s subway stop, and your job requires 8 hours of standing and walking, you want another option.
I started riding my bike to the Metra train stop in my neighborhood instead of walking it. Riding to the stop was not particularly onerous. Getting the bike up the stairs to the train platform required a lot of teeth gritting and the reminder that this was a necessity.
The one good thing about Metra (which mainly shuttles suburbanites to and from the city) is the cars: silver, double-decker, Art Deco blocks with padded, self-contained seats, and air conditioning. The first time I got on a Metra train I thought I was in the fifties—there’s a retro-sounding chime and a calm male voice saying, “Caution, the doors are about to close.” That moment makes you feel like you’re in an old radio show—or that cocktails are about to be poured at any moment as women in A-line dresses slink out of their cabins to the bar.
But there were never any cabins, the bar car died several years ago, and nobody on Metra would be caught dead in an A-line dress. All you have is the voice luring you into fantasy.
On an unrelated note, the conductors, who are just taking tickets, not actually driving the train, are nice too. If you ride the same route often enough they might chat with you, joke about your job or tell you about the storm they’ve heard is blowing in. That might be a touch of the 50s after all. And I suppose that’s a nice thing worth the price and inconvenience. The CTA—the inner-city subway line—is, by comparison, straight out a dystopian novel, as is a subway’s wont.
For whatever reason, the Metra train steps are even steeper than the ones to my apartment. Grasping the bike at just the right angle in the front and below the seat is a science hard to master in the two seconds it should take one to heft a bike up on a waiting train. If you are me, which is to say a 5’ 3” woman with no muscles and a mountain bike roughly the size of you, the only way to get the bike over the steps is lift it so that its front handlebars are at the height of your face.
Holding the bike so it does not hit you in the face is also hard to master. Once, I did hit myself in the face, giving myself a fat lip the day before a job interview. That day I learned that my iced coffee habit is a practical one—I fished a few cubes out of my cup and applied instant first aid with a napkin. (Got the job too.)
The scariest thing that can happen to you on the Metra is when the conductor hops off and tells you there isn’t room for any more bikes, even though the rush hour bike restriction isn’t in effect. You have no way of knowing this until the actual moment the train doors slide open. Either plan ahead or be comfortable locking your bike up quickly and perhaps leaving it for days. I am not good with either.
The first time this happened I argued with the conductor and swore at him before luckily spotting a generous coworker with room in her trunk. The conductor and I made up a few days later and he gave me a free ride. The second time I figured out a way to ride my bike to a CTA stop and resolved never to try to take the Metra home in the evening again. I suggest you do the same unless you know the patterns of bicycle usage on your route and are early on the line. Or else be crafty like me and work even more bike riding into your commute.