Friday, June 6, 2008

The Ride of Silence

By John Greenfield

Wednesday, May 21, I rode in Chicago’s Ride of Silence, part of a worldwide tribute to bicyclists who have been killed by motor vehicles.

The memorial originated in Dallas in 2003 after endurance rider Larry Schwartz died when a bus sideswiped him on a deserted highway. This year cyclists in almost 300 cities participated, demonstrating that bikers should be allowed to ride safely, without fear of being struck by cars.

Although the message of the Ride of Silence is similar to that expressed by Critical Mass participants, its means are different. Instead of taking over the streets, memorial riders roll slowly in single file, wordlessly. Rather than celebratory, the mood of the procession is solemn and contemplative.

The ride had special resonance in Chicago because this has been a bad year for bike fatalities. According to CDOT figures from 2001 to 2005 an average of six cyclists per year were killed in crashes here; at least three died between February and April of this year alone.

While previous local rides drew at most 50 participants, about 200 showed up at Daley Plaza this year, including family and friends of young people who died this year: Matthew Manger-Lynch, Tyler Fabeck and Amanda Annis. Many people pinned signs to the back of their shirts or bags commemorating them, as well other fallen Chicago riders like Ryan Boudreau, Blanca Ocasio, Tom McBride and Isai Medina.

Organizer Elizabeth Adamczyk distributed cloth armbands to cyclists: black for those who were there to honor others; red for those who had been injured by cars themselves. “You’re a survivor if you’re wearing red,” she said.

Lauren Vega, who sported a “You’d look hotter in a helmet” sticker on her own headgear, wore a black armband. “I’ve only had one crash,” she said. “It was me versus the alley and the alley won. I’ve never had an altercation with anything moving, but this ride is just a good idea.”

Before the riders hit the street, Adamczyk addressed the crowd. “We’re here to raise awareness that cycles have a right to share the road legally,” she said. “We’re not here to be confrontational with motorists. We’re going to let the silence roar.”

She then read from a poem written for the occasion by Mike Murgas ending, “Tonight’s ride is to make others aware / The road is there for all to share / To those not with us or by our side, / May God be your partner on your final ride.”

Cyclists then rolled out of the plaza, heading west on Randolph St. with riders and police cars “corking” the late rush-hour traffic. As we headed north out of the Loop, almost all riders respected the request for silence and the relative hush made the line of bicycles seem like a funeral cortege, in an effective way.

Although the front of the line stopped at all stoplights, the rest of the procession did continue through intersections as signals changed from green to red, so a few blasts of car horns did break the calm. But overall, bystanders seemed intrigued by the long string of serious, silent bicyclists as we headed up Wells St. and Lincoln Ave. to Lincoln Park.

I had to leave at Fullerton, but friends told me the riders stayed on course with little static from cars. The cyclists visited the sites of recent fatalities on the North Side, most of them marked by white-painted Ghost Bikes locked nearby with signs memorializing the fallen.

First they headed to the intersection of Lincoln / Damen / Irving Park in North Center, where Matthew Manger-Lynch, 29, was hit by an SUV on February 24. From there the group rode south to Western Ave. and Logan Blvd., a complex crossing in Logan Square where Tyler Fabeck, 22, was struck by an eastbound driver on Aril 20.

After rounding Logan Square’s Centennial Monument, the procession continued to the corner of Kedzie Blvd. and Armitage Ave. where two young women were killed within the space of a few months. On September 11 of last year Blanca Ocasio, 19, was hit by a right-turning garbage truck. Amanda Annis, 24, was struck there on April 30 when a car ran a red light.

The ride concluded at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, where Isai Medina was killed by a vehicle that hopped the curb as Medina stood on the sidewalk with his “chopper” bicycle.

All of these people will be missed by their loved ones for many years to come. Chicago’s Ride of Silence served as a reminder to motorists to drive with care and be mindful of their vehicles’ potential to take lives.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

How to Get Started in Bike Racing & Spectating

[This article runs in the May 22 issue of Time Out Chicago:]

By John Greenfield

“I love speed and Chicago is all about speed,” says local bike racer Shane Winn. He says the focus of racing here is criterium (laps around a closed course on city streets) and track (riding single-speed, fixed-gear cycles on a velodrome.) “It’s a gladiator phenomenon.”

If you dig velocity, there are over 30 teams in the area, many of them geared towards mentoring newbies. But if you’d rather kick back with a beer and a brat while watching chiseled folks in lycra zoom past, it’s gonna be a great summer for spectating. Get up to speed at, with info on teams, rides and races.

XXX Racing-AthletiCo ( is one of the biggest, most inclusive local teams. To get involved, just show up for one of their Saturday training rides, leaving at 7 am from Wicker Park, 1425 N. Damen, for a 50-mile roundtrip to Highland Park and back. There’s a “no drop” policy for the first half; ride home at your pace.

For a taste of the track, head to the Northbrook’s Ed Rudolph Velodrome, Meadowhill Park, 1500 N. Maple Ave. ( Established racers compete on Thursday nights but on Fridays from 6/13 to 8/15 between 6 and 10 pm, all ages and abilities can participate in the Developmental Bike Racing Series.

The big news this year is the debut of the Chicago Criterium on Sun. 7/27. Part of Mayor Daley’s campaign to bag the 2016 Olympics, this showcase will be the first Loop crit since 1987 (Google “Chicago Criterium.”) Races starts at 7 am. Thousands of people will flood Grant Park for the event, which features $40,000 in prize money, most of it earmarked for the pro competition at 2:25 pm.

The races take place on a mile-long circuit of streets: Jackson, Columbus, Balbo and a rare closure of the northbound lanes of Michigan Ave.“It’s going to be a great event for fans: high-intensity with lots of turns which makes for a very exciting racing,” says Anne Davis from the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.

Two other crits are coming to the city’s South Side this summer. XXX-Racing hosts the Sherman Park Criterium on Sat. 6/14, with races starting between 8 am to 4:40 pm ( Spectators are invited to bring barbecue fixins and a live DJ will spin at the park, 1301 W. 52nd St. in the Englewood neighborhood.

The Beverly Hills Cycling Classic ( on Fri. 7/8 is a 100K, 50-lap crit, a great excuse to trek down to the remote neighborhood of Beverly and take in its historic mansions and surprisingly hilly terrain. The race starts at 6 pm at a festival at 107th St & Longwood Dr.

Bicyclist who like to swim and run as well might want to give the multisport scene a “tri.” A good way to get your feet wet is the monthly happy hour and clinic hosted by the Chicago Tri Club, first Wednesdays at Fizz, 3220 N. Lincoln Ave. at 6:00 pm (

The area’s most popular multisport event is the Accenture Chicago Triathlon (, with about 6,500 competitors in the main race on Sun. 8/24, starting with swimming at Monroe Harbor, 101 S. Lakeshore Drive.

On the other side of the racing spectrum, the Chicago Couriers Union and other messengers are bringing the 11th annual North American Cycle Courier Championships to town with City-sanctioned, closed-course races in Garfield Park, 3400 W. Washington St., on Sat. 8/30 and Sun. 8/31 from 10 am – 4 pm (

Although the main “alleycat” races will be messenger-only, “civilians” are welcome to compete in the sprint, trackstand, skid, and bike polo competitions. Organizer Augie Montes promises “There’ll be all the jack-assery you might expect.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Is the Bike Safety Ordinance Being Enforced?

Police will be fining dangerous drivers this summer, as well as lawbreaking cyclists

[This article runs in the May 22 issue of Time Out Chicago:]

By John Greenfield

In March bicyclists rejoiced after City Council passed Mayor Daley’s new bike safety laws which assign $150 fines for drivers who endanger bikers, $500 for actions that result in a crash. The ordinances cover fouls such as passing within three feet of a bike and opening a car door into a pedaler’s path.

But the deaths of two cyclists in April, killed by cars in Logan Square within a few days of each other, beg the question: are police enforcing the new laws?

No, said a dozen bikers responding to a query on the Chicago Critical Mass listserv last week. Brendan Neuman reported when he got “doored” by a car last week in Greektown, an officer who witnessed the crash failed to cite the driver.

Police spokeswoman Monique Bond confirms that the number of tickets written so far is probably extremely low, because of the newness of the ordinances.

But Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele says the laws have already raised awareness. “With all the media coverage this received, our hope is people who saw the TV coverage or read the news said ‘Hey, I need to be more careful when I drive.’” He adds his department is working on a flyer for distribution to all officers this summer to make sure they know about the safety ordinances.

But aldermen have also requested that CDOT help reign in dangerous cyclists. “Are we going to insist that bicycles obey the rules of the road?” asked Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) at a hearing before the laws passed. In 2005 Stone vetoed the construction of a bike bridge, citing its proximity to a senior center.

Ben Gomberg, Chicago’s bike coordinator, responded that the City was looking into ways to increase compliance. One strategy from the City’s Bike 2015 Plan is: “Develop and implement an enforcement program targeting particularly dangerous bicycling.”

As a nod to the aldermen’s concerns, the flyer will also remind officers about laws that apply to bikes: cyclists must ride in the street, not on the sidewalk (if over 12); use a headlight and rear reflector at night; and stop at all stoplights and stop signs. Steele acknowledges that the memo should result in more tickets for bikes as well as cars. “Those laws are there for a reason and they should be enforced.”

But the last time the police announced a crackdown on bicyclists, with plans to fine Lakeview lawbreakers $25 to $250 in summer 2005, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation stated in a bulletin the CBF believes “enforcement efforts should focus on traffic with the greatest impact on safety” – i.e. cars.

Spokeswoman Margo O’Hara confirms the CBF would like to see the City’s limited police resources used to ticket cars, not bikes. After all, drivers injure bicyclists, not the other way around, she says.

O’Hara adds the perception of reckless bicycling as a widespread problem may be fueled by media bias in reporting deadly crashes. “They often blame the victim, focusing on what the cyclist was or was not doing. You only get the driver’s perspective because the cyclist has been killed.”

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Chicago Musicians Say Bicycling Inspires Them

By John Greenfield

[This piece runs in the May 22 issue of Time Out Chicago with photos:]

John Herndon, drummer with Tortoise and various jazz groups

“The rhythm of riding relates to my role as a percussionist,” says Herndon, an ex-messenger who enjoys biking with son Hollis, 4. “I sing along with the rhythm my legs are making.”

Herndon bought a Klein while performing in Europe in 2005. “That was amazing to have a bike on tour.” Back in Chicago, he tried to ride it home to Ashville, NC. switching from highways to country roads in Kentucky. “Dogs were on my ass the whole way.” He finally bailed and hitched a ride with a trucker.

Nowadays Johnny’s machine is a Bridgestone. He recently used it to pull a minimalist kit on a trailer to his weekly residency at Danny’s. “A goal of mine is to bike to more shows.”

Mark Messing, leader of Mucca Pazza

“I often write music in my head while riding,” says Messing, car-free since 2004. “It’s one of the best times.”

Members of his 30-piece “circus punk marching band” tow Sousaphones and glockenspiels to gigs on bike trailers. “We load the tympanis upside-down – it looks like a caterpillar.”

Their studio Maestromatic shares a space with West Town Bikes community cycle center. Manager Alex Wilson built Messing’s workhorse so the musician doesn’t know what brand lies beneath the reflective tape.

He enjoys biking Chicago because it’s flat and he gets to pass cars stuck in traffic. “I like thinking about all the money I no longer spend on gas, parking tickets and getting my car de-booted.”

Sally Timms, singer with the Mekons, Wee Hairy Beasties

Timms, a regular commuter, likes to croon while cycling. “You can really howl away, especially on Elston where there’s no one else around.” She also uses saddle time to brainstorm song arrangements.

Growing up in Huby, West Yorkshire, UK, she often rambled the countryside on a five-speed, and now she gets around on a Diamondback. “I don’t care for it the way I should but it’s never let me down.”

“It’s faster than the CTA, it’s exercise and it’s non-polluting,” she says, but as a woman she occasionally endures catcalls. “If you’ve gone out in a skirt you’ll get comments, that’s for sure. But it’s faster than walking. I wouldn’t walk down Elston at night but I’ll ride on it.”

Andrew Bird, violinist

“I’ve definitely written songs while biking,” says Bird, who commutes and goes on day rides. “Just occupying your body so your mind can wander is pretty key.” “A Nervous Tick Motion” is one of many melodies that have come to him on two wheels.

He brings his appropriately-named Heron on the tour bus. “I bought it for myself as a reward for all the touring I do. It’s been great, but four years ago in Saint Paul I spaced-out and went over a curb and my handlebars and bashed the hell out of my knees.”

He likes to cruise the backstreets of Bucktown in the summer, late at night. “On Hoyne or Leavitt between Division and Webster with the streetlights and canopy of trees, it feels like a movie set.”

Bob Weston, bassist with Shellac

“I like the weird, unspoken camaraderie out there between cyclists,” says Weston, a former courier who bikes as his main mode.

“But it’s not like I’m out there riding with the Rat Patrol. I don’t hang out at the Handlebar. I’m not part of some messenger subculture. I’m just a dude who uses his bike for transportation.”

Although he plays an aluminum bass, he rocks a lugged-steel Centurion single-speed. “A lot of modern bikes are really futuristic and ugly. I like simplicity.”

Weston usually cycles to guitarist Steve Albini’s studio then rides in the van to gigs, but he pedaled to the Hideout for most of the band’s six-night stand last winter. After one concert he found his ride covered with a half-foot of snow. “I think I caught a ride home with my wife that night.”

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Ped-Friendly IDOT & More Bike Trails?

by John Greenfield

(Pedestrians at the Looptopia all-night arts festival in downtown Chicago)

Last Wednesday I dropped by the Sears Tower, ran my messenger bag and pannier through the x-ray machine and headed up to the offices of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning for a meeting of their Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force.

CMAP is the regional planning agency for Northeastern Illinois, responsible for issues of land and water use, transportation, economic development and housing in the seven-county region.

The bike and ped task force is made up of advocacy organizations, community groups and businesses, plus representatives from local, regional and state government working to improve conditions for walking and biking in Chicagoland. The quarterly meetings are open to the public; e-mail Tom Murtha, Senior Planner with CMAP at if you’d like to receive meeting announcements and other bike and ped news.

To be honest, most of the meeting content went over my head but afterwards Murtha and Randy Neufeld, Chief Strategy Officer with Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, brought me up to speed on two of the major topics of discussion.

New pedestrian guidelines for IDOT?

CMAP is recommending that the Illinois Department of Transportation add more guidelines for pedestrian-friendly design to its Bureau of Design and Environment Manual, the design bible for all construction projects. “We’re proposing to IDOT that they adopt national practices that they need to work on catching up on,” Murtha said. “They know the manual is really short on pedestrian safety."

The historically auto-centric transportation agency has made strides toward improvement lately, Murtha said. The state’s Safe Routes to School program, which encourages kids to walk and bicycle, is finally off the ground and IDOT has become a leader in funding bike facility projects. “We’re hoping to extend that to more basic, day-to-day projects,” said Murtha.

The manual needs to be updated because the state adopted a Complete Streets policy last fall, according to Neufeld. The new policy mandates that roadway projects must accommodate the needs of all users including pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities, not just motor vehicles.

The updates to the IDOT manual would be based on a new pedestrian design guide that is likely to be adopted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which sets the national standards for road design. “The AASHTO guide is very good,” says Neufeld. “It’s going to change the way a lot of intersections are designed so bicyclists and pedestrians can safely navigate them.”

“That way you won’t have a road like North Avenue in DuPage County, where you end up having a lot of fatalities,” he said. “Where people try to cross the street where it’s not planned because there’s no other option.”

Making all road projects pedestrian-friendly from the get-go will keep IDOT from having to retrofit dangerous streets, says Murtha. “So you won’t have a situation where somebody burns the toast and then somebody comes back and scrapes it. We need to get it right the first time.”

More bike trails for Northeast Illinois?

Neufeld wants you to remember three numbers: 500, 1,000 and 2,500.

500 is the number of miles of bike trails (including off-street paths and on-street bike lanes or signed routes that connect segments of a path) that existed in 1997. That quantity has doubled over the last decade. 2,500 is the number of miles of trails CMAP wants to see built by 2040.

The planning agency is now updating the Northeast Illinois Greenways & Trails Plan map, originally published in 1997, which helped get those 500 additional miles constructed in the last ten years. The map shows all the regional trails that CMAP is proposing to be built over the next three decades. You can view the map online at:

The bulk of the update is the addition of proposed Kane County trails and new greenway proposals in Chicago. The new urban paths would include the Calumet Sag Channel Trail on the city’s southern border and an extension of the Burnam Greenway on the Southeast Side.

More visionary, expensive Chicago proposals included on the map include the extension of the Lakefront Trail south through the former site of the U.S. Steel plant; expanding the Loop’s riverwalk; and rails-to-trails projects like the Northwest Side’s Bloomingdale Trail.

“The trails plan is key because it draws a line in the sand establishing the importance of trails,” Neufeld explained. “It has the ability to change how money is spent. If a road project comes along, the map has power to influence its design.”

“We’re trying to put a trails system in place that makes sense for the region,” added Murtha. “We’ve already got a backbone of off-street trails.” He cited Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, the Illinois Prairie Path, the Plank Road Trail, The Fox River Trail, The Green Bay Trail and the Virgil Gilman Trail as mainstays of the existing system.

CMAP wants to see the trails network expanded with new greenways built as part of new housing developments; county and forest preserve projects; and road construction. For example when an extension of I-355 opened in the southwest suburbs last fall, the bicycle federation’s Roll the Tollway ride raised $70,000 to help build a 10.5 mile bike path paralleling the interstate.

Well, shouldn’t the path have been paid for as part of the highway project instead of requiring “bake sale” funding?

Murtha explained that the road project’s bond covenance prevented the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISHTA) from building the path. But ISHTA did a lot of the bike path engineering, provided the right-of-way for the path and completed the rough grading of the trail.

Plus, a temporary bridge constructed over the Des Plaines river to facilitate construction of the highway is going to stay in place for the bike path, tentatively called the Veteran’s Memorial Trail, a donation worth several million dollars.

To help get bicycle projects included in future road construction, after the updated regional greenways plan is approved CMAP will include it with materials sent to IDOT when the state agency plans streets and highways. “But IDOT’s not going to go to the mat for this,” Murtha cautioned. “It’s going to have to be local communities who spearhead the bike trails.”

Fortunately, the existence of the greenways plan is helping to build political support for new trails in Northeast Illinois, Murtha says. Local agencies, municipalities, county governments and park districts are getting positive feedback about trail plans at community meetings and via letters and e-mails from residents. “They’ve been able to voice that support by spending money and implementing the plans,” he says.