Two wheels is all it takes to get in gear with Chicago's freewheeling bike scene
Bicycles aren't just cheap, efficient transportation for Chicago's most ardent cyclists—they're a way of life. From political activists to diehard athletes, bikers assume many shapes on our car-clogged streets. Here are a few of the more outspoken.
THE HUMAN TELEVISION NETWORK
If you happen to spot a 12-foot pink tricycle with a TV in the front flashing an animated moon singing lullabies in Spanish, you're not hallucinating. You're not watching a rerun of Pee Wee's Playhouse, either, but rather the Human Television Network, an organization that's driven to get you out of the house, onto the street, and maybe even riding your bike and thinking a bit. "It's creating occasions for people to come out and get to know each other—encouraging a human network," says Mark Messing, cofounder of HTN and a composer who scores music for Redmoon Theater and independent films.
The group builds and welds custom bikes to fit recycled TVs (powered by converted car-battery packs), speakers and DVD players. For instance, "Tadpole" is a reverse tricycle that has a metal frame between the two front wheels for the TV, a box on the handlebars for the DVD player and a compartment for the battery behind the seat. In the monthly "lullaby parades" through Humboldt Park and Logan Square taking place this summer, spectators will see the animated-moon video and an original song recorded by Messing that's meant to "rival" the chiming tunes of ice-cream trucks—not to mention "Pinky," the 12-foot modified tricycle, possibly steered by a guy who's also plucking a ukulele.
The grassroots posse creates a street presence for alternative media, and shows how TVs can be used for community building, not just solo channel surfing on your La-Z-Boy at home. "It's not so much about the rides, but what takes us out there," says HTN member Cynthia Castiglione.
While the lullaby parades are more lighthearted, the group also organizes rides that have a political bent. On January 20, the troupe rode in an anti-inauguration procession in West Town, and also in a march at the Republican National Convention in New York last year. At both events, it broadcast videos like Mike Nourse's Terror, Iraq, Weapons, in which a speech by President Bush is edited to emphasize his frequent use of those three words, and Robert Greenwald's agitprop documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, which accuses the Fox News Channel of tailoring its coverage to back Bush. On May 13, HTN will drop in on the Chicago Future Filmmakers Festival at Columbia College and screen some of the video work submitted to the fest by high-school students.
Constructing and maintaining the bikes is an ongoing challenge, as is the task of extending the life of the old TVs that HTN uses. "They're heavy, and they don't like bumps and potholes," Messing says. "And they don't like the rain, either, so we're trying to waterproof them."
Yes, Messing talks about TVs much like they're people. "When you unplug them from that sinister network, there's no telling what they'll do," he says. "They get to think their own thoughts, clear their heads...it's amazing."
For details on the Human Television Network or to get involved, visit www.humantv.org.—Leah Pietrusiak
CIGDEM TUNAR ANDTHE ILLINOIS WHEELMEN
Five years ago, Cigdem Tunar fell madly in love at a Critical Mass ride.
But it wasn't a hot biker with rock-hard calves who caught her eye—it was a crazy-looking antique bike with a giant, 56-inch wheel in front and a tiny wheel in back, often called a "high bike" or "penny farthing." "I couldn't have imagined such a thing in my whole life," Tunar recalls. Once she took the 19th-century bike for a spin, she was hooked for life, and she dumped her other five bikes like so many irritating old boyfriends.
Riding that high bike for the first time was "the second-most exciting thing I've done in my life," Tunar says. (The first was sky diving.) She quickly bought her own, an original made in 1888 that cost $3,500, and joined the Illinois Wheelmen, a small group of high-bike fanatics that gets together for biannual conventions and show off in Fourth of July parades. Six months after she bought her bike, she rode 800 miles from England to Belgium, and won an International Veteran Cycle Association championship race on a five-lap course.
Why does Tunar remain fiercely committed to this relic—a cumbersome, 45-pound behemoth she can't lock up outside (duh, it's an expensive antique), can't take on the train and can't stop without dismounting? Let her count the ways. She loves that it's low-maintenance: The tires are solid rubber (she'll never get a flat), and there's no chain, so she never gets grease on her pants. The seat absorbs the shock better than regular bikes when she's riding over bumps. And sitting 50-plus inches off the ground is like "floating in the air, like flying," she says.
"The other beautiful thing about this bike," Tunar says, "is that it puts a smile on everyone's face."
For details and more information on the Illinois Wheelmen, visitwww.thewheelmen.org.—Laura Baginski
ALEX WILSON, WEST TOWN BIKES
In January, Alex Wilson, a ubiquitous leader in Chicago's bike culture, opened West Town Bikes, an organization primarily created to teach bicycle maintenance and repair to local residents. The center is equipped with six student bike-repair stands, complete with tools, and an instructor's stand where Wilson can spin his wheels during his workshops.
Starting Monday 9, WTB will offer three-hour classes Mondays through Wednesdays on everything from basic maintenance and repair to complex customization of bike parts. But the center is billed as a "community bicycle workshop space" as well: It's available for group rentals at just $25 per night, classes cost a suggested donation of $10, and it'll be used for creative bike building and grassroots advocacy projects. Wilson also plans to form the West Town Bike Club, providing members with increased access, special privileges and further discounts.
WTB sprang from BickerBikes, a bicycle-maintenance program for at-risk kids that Wilson, 34, initiated last summer. He'd been working in tandem with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit community development organization that makes housing available to lower- and moderate-income residents of West Town, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. Bickerdike provided Wilson with a storefront space for his program at North and Western Avenues last June. Wilson, in turn, peddled his own brand of empowerment.
"One girl who asked to be in the program was born without a left hand," Wilson says, "so she never learned to ride a bike." Wilson built her a special bike and taught her to ride. After moving to his new location, he retooled the program and expanded its focus to include adults.
His bicycle-oriented brand of altruism first took root in 1998, when a friend invited him to participate in a ride with the Chicago supporters of Critical Mass, a loosely structured worldwide activist movement aimed at winning environmental-minded bicyclists a fair share of the urban pavement. "It was in the early days, and the group had a protest vibe to it," Wilson says. "The cops didn't know what to make of it, and they ambushed the ride and arrested about 17 or 18 people."
The experience transformed Wilson from a "lone wolf" biker into a quasi–Lech Walesa of bike culture. "I recognized the energy," he says, "and saw how it could motivate people about riding and reclaiming public space."
An art-school grad then working as a commercial printer, he used his design skills to spread the word, creating banners, T-shirts and a logo for Critical Mass. Later, as a staffer at the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (a nonprofit dedicated to increasing bicycling and improving bicycling conditions in the region), he wrote a booklet encouraging college students to ride bikes (for a free copy, call 312-742-BIKE), and he continues to design the Critical Mass bike zine The Derailleur.
Now, with his latest advocacy efforts, Wilson appears to have traveled full circle from his days as an 11-year-old kid who liked to tinker with bikes in the family garage in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Bikes do only good," Wilson says. "If everyone rode a bike, the world would be a better place."
West Town Bikes is at 2418 W North Ave (between Western and Artesian Aves). Visit www.westtownbikes.org for details.—Rose Spinelli
THE CYCLING SISTERS
Okay, ladies, fess up: How many of you can fix your bike's flat tire? Better yet, how many of you tear up the bike lane with skill, confidence and a little I-dare-you-to-door-me aggression?
Thanks to Gin Kilgore and her organization, the Cycling Sisters, many more women have the grit and know-how to navigate the city streets. A die-hard bike commuter, Kilgore noticed the lack of female cyclists on the streets and only a few female leaders in biking organizations. So in 2001, she coordinated a forum and posed the question: Why aren't more women riding, or more visible in the cycling community? Women answered that they didn't know other female bicyclists and felt uncomfortable riding in traffic. "After we had that forum, women got together and said, 'Hey, we care about getting more women on bikes,'" Kilgore says. "And [Cycling Sisters] just evolved from there."
The 241-member Sisters offers rides and workshops on bike maintenance and street smarts—a recent class covered how to make your own messenger bag complete with tampon slots. Its listserv is an opportunity to vent about asshole drivers, or to ask members about everything from the best socks for riding to how to find a bike that fits a woman's body.
For Kilgore, getting more female riders out there is a way to help women experience the freedom of biking. "Taking that late-night walk from a train station in an unfamiliar area, or having to wait 20 minutes for a bus in the middle of the night...On my bicycle I never have to deal with those issues," she says. "That, to me, is the most empowering part of riding a bicycle. I feel like I can go anywhere I want in the city, any time of the night. I think that's the most wonderful thing bicycling has ever given me."
For more info on Cycling Sisters and upcoming events, go to www.cyclingsisters.org.—Laura Baginski
Just more than seven years ago, Marcus Moore, a former bicycle messenger who now owns Yojimbo's Garage, a high-end racing bicycle shop in Old Town, traveled to Toronto along with one of his bike courier colleagues to participate in a road race. On the way home, they wondered if other messengers might also have an interest in racing.
"When we got back to the city, we had a general meeting," Moore says of his first stab at gauging the desire among messengers to take part in organized races, "and 28 people showed"—a very promising turnout.
They met again and sifted through more than 60 suggested names for the team, finally settling on XXX, inspired not by anything of a racy nature, but by a Toronto restaurant called XXX Cafe that Moore liked.
In its earliest incarnation, XXX served primarily as a support system for couriers, but the team made a conscious decision not to restrict its membership, and soon attracted racers of all stripes. Members take part in road races; sloped-track velodrome races; urban, closed-circuit criterium races; mountain biking; and off-road cyclo-cross. "Basically everything except BMX," Moore says.
While some XXX riders compete on an elite level (Chicagoan Rebecca Much won a silver medal during last fall's Union Cycliste Internationale world championships in Italy), many team members are beginners. "It's the most supportive team in the region for people who are starting out," Moore says. "We put more time into developing racers."
In 2003, local physical-therapy provider AthletiCo became a cotitle sponsor of the team, which now rides under the name XXX Racing-AthletiCo. The sponsorship allowed the team to continue to grow, and XXX was able to add a juniors and women's division in recent years.
About 95 percent of the team's members (somewhere around 105 to 125 riders) live in Chicago. Moore thinks that gives the group a unique makeup. "It's a pretty wide range of people," he says. "It's the most diverse team in the Midwest."
For information on joining XXX Racing-AthletiCo and to download a membership packet, go to www.xxxracing.org.—Mark Sinclair
THE RAT PATROL
I'm hauling ass up Damen Avenue, late for a meeting with the Rat Patrol, a dumpster-diving, chopper-riding bicycle pack. As I'm fighting the wind, a guy dressed in shorts over jeans, a flannel shirt and a backward Sox cap pulls next to me and smiles. "Man, that wind is killing me," he says, laughing. "I've been going since 31st." We ride together to the meeting place.
That sort of friendliness, as it turns out, is as much a part of being a Rat as a willingness to dig through dumpsters for discarded treasures. Tonight isn't a build ride, where the Rats put their formidable welding skills to use and create Frankenstein bikes at the end of the night out of the debris they pick up along the way. Tonight is just a ride, where the friends joke around, hang out in back of Dunkin' Donuts looking for some free snacks and dress up in grass skirts inexplicably trashed behind an Office Depot.
Johnny Payphone, dressed in a patch-and-pin–spangled black jacket, is the charismatic de facto leader of a relatively leaderless gang. He rides a "tall bike," with one bike frame welded atop another, giving him a second-story view of the road. Scallywag Mike, riding a chopper with a front fork that runs about four feet from handlebar to wheel, arrives with Connie, whose pet rat Emily rides in the hood of her black sweatshirt.
"I have love and laughter and friendship and allies in every alley," Payphone says. "We all teach each other skills everyone should know, like mechanics and construction and electronics and welding."
Chopper Carl comes up and introduces himself, all smiles about the new mudflaps on his bike. He's an affable guy who, later in the ride, will be thrilled when he scores a video game in a dumpster. I ask Chopper Carl what life is like for him as a Rat.
"Before I met these guys, man, I was just a normal, church-going black guy," says the 30-year-old piano mover. "Then I found out they're cool folks to hang with, and now I'm a Rat for life. And since you've been on a ride, you are, too."
To check out the Rat bikes or get more information, go to www.rat-patrol.org.—Jonathan Messinger
THE CAMPAIGN FOR A FREE AND CLEAR LAKEFRONT
Michael Burton and his wife didn't have a car, didn't plan on getting one, and wanted to make more room for a garden.
So they rented a jackhammer and first attacked a 20-square-foot concrete slab between their parking spot and the fence. (Well, at least the top six inches, before hitting brick and then another four inches of concrete—that's tenacious stuff.)
"Depaving can start in your own backyard," says Burton, who helped spearhead the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront, which trumpets the distinct rallying cry "Depave Lake Shore Drive." The group formed five years ago to highlight the fact that the seminal Chicago Plan of 1909 , drafted by visionary architects like Daniel Burnham, recommended that the lakefront remain "forever open, free and clear."
The "Depave Lake Shore Drive" slogan has met with some incredulous looks. Sure, it's a lofty goal, admits Burton, who also organizes the annual Burnham/Ward Lakefront Vision Ride taking place this summer on June 5 (departing from Daley Plaza at noon). "But as Burnham said, 'Make no small plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood,'" Burton says. "There's no lack of pavement we can take aim at—and if it all adds up to the length of Lake Shore Drive, that's great."
The campaign's views are shared by others, including Rogers Park residents who, in a November 2004 referendum, voted against a proposal to extend Lake Shore Drive to the southern edge of Evanston—a measure that would've increased park land, but also put eight lanes of cars between residents and the beach.
On May 21, the campaign is organizing a bike ride to Elmhurst, via the Illinois Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking/biking trail about 20 miles west of Chicago (see "Trail mix" on page 22), to visit the home of a man who tore up his concrete-covered backyard with a pickax and planted native grasses and plants. "It just goes to show how one guy with a vision and some sweat can do wonders," Burton says.
For information on the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront, go to www.foreverfreeandclear.org.—Leah Pietrusiak
THE CHICAGO CRUISERS
Luis Mercado frames puppy love quite simply.
"Bikes are just so great—they are your first love when you're a kid," he says. "In Puerto Rico, I grew up watching people on their cruisers, and man, were they cool! Old-fashioned Schwinns are still big there. Even here, you see them everywhere around Humboldt Park. You know, cruisers are such a cultural thing for Puerto Ricans."
Five years ago, acute nostalgia and a desire for a family-friendly activity led Mercado—a husband and father of three girls—to found the Chicago Cruisers, an all-ages bicycle club that's since grown to nearly 100 riders and hits the pavement every other Sunday in the summer. Decked out in matching red T-shirts, the bikers cruise—salsa and merengue blasting from a boom box strapped to the club president's handlebars—to a different destination each time: the lakefront, downtown, and west and south of Humboldt Park.
Although the club is 95 percent boricua, being Puerto Rican is not a requirement for membership. The hard-and-fast rules are few: Everyone must own an old-fashioned cruiser (a leisure bike with fat tires and a big seat) or a low-rider (usually a modified, customized bike, with long handlebars and elongated seats built closer to the ground), and everyone "must be a good person," he says.
Mercado's strong sense of family and community values were a major catalyst for the Chicago Cruisers's formation. Before starting the club, Mercado had contemplated joining the Just Cruisin' Bicycle Club—an all–low-rider, mostly Puerto Rican group that's facing an uncertain future—but JCBC's park-and-drink habit wasn't for him.
"These days, families don't do stuff together," says Mercado, whose wife and daughters were among the club's first members. "This is just good, healthy fun you can do with your kids, and with friends of any age, really. The oldest member of the club, who's close to 70, said to me the other day, 'Luis, you're keeping me alive. If I wasn't in this club, riding all the time, I'd probably be at home, sick from doing nothing.'"
Chicago Cruisers rides depart from Casa Puertorriquena at 1237 N California Ave (between Crystal St and Potomac Ave) at 1pm Sundays, from Jun 12–Sept 4. Call 312-829-5089 for more info.—Cecilia Wong