Cycling to work

I rode my bike to work today. This is what it was like.

I left just after 6 AM. The morning was still cool. If I had walked to the train, I likely would have worn a cardigan, but since I was riding and would get warm from exertion I just wore a t-shirt with a pair of cropped pants. Safety is important to me, so I wear a helmet and a bright yellow vest just like the construction workers wear.

The first two miles are easy and familiar. I rode this way just last week to visit a friend at her apartment. Traffic is light, but I remain alert to cars parked next to the bike lane; I wouldn’t want to get doored. There are other cyclists that pass me, but at this point of the ride there are only a few about. The ones I see are decked out in true cycling gear, riding bikes with thin tires and pedals made for those special shoes. They are all men.

I stop at the complicated intersection of Elston, Damen, and Fullerton. I realize I am at the halfway point of my ride and I’m glad because I am tired. This is the first time I’ve cycled to work in about a year and I’m not conditioned to it. I have also had no breakfast and no coffee.

The road is rough for the next mile and I try to steer around the ruts and holes without moving too far out of my lane. When I stop at lights, I drink deeply from my water bottle.

There are cyclists who don’t want to stop at signs and lights. As they approach stop signs they don’t even pause; at red lights they jostle and slip through the intersection if there is the slightest pause in traffic. I stop at every light and wait for it to turn green. I slow and pause at stop signs, not taking the right of way as the other cyclists do. But then again I need these rests to drink and to slow my breathing. It occurs to me that these other cyclists are likely 15 years younger than me.

As I merge onto Milwaukee Avenue I encounter many more cyclists. They are all young and coming from the Chicago’s equivalent to Brooklyn: the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square neighborhoods. They’re dressed in the uniform of the young and hip: jeans, graphic t-shirts, and messenger bags. They are riding street bikes that either are vintage 1980s or have been made to look like them. Many of them are not wearing helmets.

Riding Milwaukee up and over the Kennedy Expressway I gear down lower and lower. I am struggling, but I make it. At the Des Plaines Avenue bridge I get off my bike and walk for a block. I am too fatigued to attempt the steep ascent and the lane change just after the crest so I can turn left onto Fulton. But I’m back on my bike again after a few minutes and ready to finish the journey.

The last mile must be taken leisurely as I negotiate around buses and pedestrian traffic. Pedestrians are a challenge for cyclists. They apparently see us as less of threat than cars and are more likely to step out in front of us; they have more faith in my ability to brake quickly than I do.

At my office building at last I park in the bike room, unhitch my trunk bag and panniers and head up to the gym to shower. I am red-faced and sweaty, but I have a schedule to keep. I’m in my office less than 30 minutes later with some breakfast and coffee.

I work through the day.

When it is time to leave I change back into my riding clothes in the rest room. There is no rush now because I have plenty of time to get where I am going next. I begin to back track my route: Adams, Canal, Lake, Des Plaines. I make it up and over the Des Plaines bridge this time and time the light perfectly. I get a delicious whiff of chocolate from the Blommer Chocolate Factory.

As I get to the intersection of Milwaukee and Grand I’m surrounded by a pack of fellow cyclists. We all pause for an ambulance, although one fellow has to stop short quickly since he wasn’t paying close attention to the sirens and lights.

At Elston I turn off and leave behind most of the cycle pack. This stretch before Division is calm and has light traffic. I recall seeing a guy a few years ago slowly cycling along here as he conducted a conference call on his blue tooth headset.

I get caught at the light at Division and am again surrounded by men in sporty cycling gear. They don’t want to put their feet down so they jostle and balance. But the light is long and they eventually concede to gravity. Once the light changes they jack rabbit ahead and I have the road to myself again.

This time when I reach Damen I turn. I’m not going straight home, and this is a good route to my destination. I head north up and over the river, gearing down and moving slowly. This is the last big bridge I must cross and I’m grateful. North of Diversey, it’s a delight to cycle Damen on a warm afternoon. The street is lined with trees and three-story housing which blocks the sun and casts cooling shadows. I dawdle along for several blocks, crossing Belmont and Addison with ease.

Up ahead is a very dangerous intersection, though. Cyclists have been killed here and accidents occur frequently. Where Damen, Lincoln and Irving Park come together there is a CDOT safety brigade out in force. They are dressed in fluorescent yellow t-shirts and clutch pamphlets in their hands. I get off my bike and walk it through the confusing confluence. One of the CDOT people asks me “Did they warn you to be safe?” I guess he is referring to the other CDOT folk stationed where I started crossing. “I know this is a dangerous intersection,” I say, “I’d rather walk my bike here.”

I’m now on Lincoln and continue to pedal north and west. Then I reach my destination where I spend a couple of hours happily visiting and knitting. I eat a sandwich from my pack and drink lots of water. When I emerge later it is full dark. I mount my removable lights on the front and back of the bike: a clear headlight beam for the front, and a blinky red light for the back. I get on my bike and resume my ride.

Rather than get caught up in the busyness on Western Avenue, I use Wilson to cross it. I pedal past Waters Elementary and its bountiful gardens to Rockwell, where I turn north again, cross the el tracks, and pick up the bike lane on Lawrence just east of the river. One more bridge to cross, but it is not very demanding here where river traffic is limited to canoes and kayaks.

At Kedzie I encounter a bus. Buses are good, bikes are good, but making both of them share a lane is not good. I avoid playing leap-frog with the bus as long as possible, but at Kimball it is still loading passengers when the light turns green. I wait a minute, then decide that I need to pass the bus. I pull abreast of it just as it begins to rumble through the intersection. Now I’m forced to race and my leg muscles are burning. It finally falls back at a stop, but not for long.

I continue pushing myself hard. I must not get stuck behind this very full bus or I will forced to either stop every time it does or make a quick foray into the car lane at each stop. At Pulaski it seems like I’m ahead, and so it remains until I finally turn off Lawrence back onto Elston. My hamstrings, quads, and glutes are nearly quivering from the strain.

I’m on the home stretch now, and there is no chance I’ll encounter a bus on Elston. Traffic is light and I easily maneuver through the small spot of construction and the last light before I turn onto my street and pull up to the garage through the alley.

My dog greets me as I enter the house. I think she likes licking the sweat off my face, but I feel filthy and hot. I take a cool shower, pour myself a glass of whiskey, and pull out my laptop to write. I’ve cycled about 20 miles in total and it’s been a good day.

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5 thoughts on “Cycling to work

  1. I am excited to read your blog. Newly transplanted to Chicago from the country (WI) I am happy to find some familiar themes in your blog, chickens and pickling and other “country” crafts.

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  2. You were smart to walk your bike through the dangerous intersection. Road biking scares the daylights out of me. Most people who have done serious time on their bikes have gotten hit by a car…or worse. Last week a colleagues daughter in law got hit from behind by a guy who fell asleep at the wheel. It was broad daylight and she died instantly leaving behind her 3 year old daughter and the rest of her family shocked and in disbelief. I’m still so sad when I think about it.

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    • Yes, I actually got in an accident the second time I rode to work several years ago. Techically I hit a car, not the other way around, but I wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t been literally forced into it. Cab A was stopped in my bike lane dropping off a fare; Cab B was in the lane next to me. I was positioned to pass Cab A when Cab B made a very wide right turn around Cab A, at the same time cutting me off. I stopped as fast as possible and also took evasive action. I decided it was better to hit steer into the bumper of Cab A rather than broadside Cab B (which was a minivan and presented a wall of metal to me). I wailed like a little girl as I plowed into the bumper of the cab, then flipped onto his trunk. I was bruised and shaken up (and I think I chipped one of the bones in my elbow, too) and I ruined the front fork of my bike. But I haven’t given up riding.

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  3. 20 miles- that is fantastic!

    I so wish cities were designed to be more bike-friendly. The city to the north of us has a fantastic bike path that used to be a railroad line. However, I can’t get to it by bike because I would have to risk life and limb going over an expressway with such a narrow bridge that it would just be too scary to ride over. I want to ride on the path, but I want to live too.

    Have you had more excursions since? It sounds like your area needs to be a bit more bike friendly too!!

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