Saturday, August 8, 2009
Winston's Tweed Ride
by John Greenfield
[This piece also runs in New City magazine, www.newcity.com.]
Kentucky Derby Day in Chicago, and a pair of southern belles in floppy derby hats are staggering tipsily on high heels from the Metra commuter rail station at Ashland and Cortland. Just west, forty bicyclists, nattily attired in vintage woolen formal wear and mounted on English steeds, combine alternative transportation, fashion and alcohol in a far more dignified manner.
It’s Winston’s Tweed Ride, a tour of former speakeasies that celebrates booze, bicycles and Brits, hosted by the group British Bicycles of Chicago. The jaunt was inspired by January’s Tweed Run in London, where dozens of fixed-gear and single-speed enthusiasts donned dashing duds for a leisurely pedal from Saville Row, famous for its traditional “bespoke” custom clothing.
“This is a civilized ride hearkening back to the wonderful times of 1930s bike touring,” says Chicago organizer Garth Katner, splendidly dressed in britches, sports jacket, bowtie and fedora. The leather handlebar bag of his fat-tired Robin Hood three-speed is adorned with antique pins from UK cycling clubs. “We’re wearing natural fibers – no Lycra louts.”
Actually, tour guide Lee Diamond wears a t-shirt and tights. “I went to nine different thrift stores and couldn’t find any tweed,” he apologizes. “That’s OK – I didn’t even dress up for my wedding.” The 10-mile ride departs at 1 pm from Jake’s Pub in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, visiting scores of classic pubs like Glascott’s, Halligan’s, Emitt’s and Lottie’s, and gangster history sites like the spot where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place in 1929.
The lads and misses pedal at a stately speed, ringing bells and giving the “Queen’s wave” to diners at Wicker Park sidewalk cafes on this perfect spring afternoon. Since the crowd only stops to drink at a few of the taverns on-route, it’s a surprising sober affair. “The ride’s been slow and genial, with lots camaraderie and dry English humor,” says Suzanne Nathan, in woolen skirt and scarf. “Like when the light turns green people shout, ‘Carry on, carry on.’”
Pausing across from the Gold Star bar on Division St., Diamond announces that the strip used to be a rowdy nightlife district known as Polish Broadway. “This pub has a particularly seedy reputation because above it was a hotel of ill repute,” he says. “It’s also supposed to be haunted.” Outside the nearby Inner Town Pub, a Ukrainian Village dive, Katner complains, “This bar told us not to show up because we’d ruin the atmosphere.” The genteel throng boos loudly.
The outing concludes at the Hideout, a honkytonk in an industrial zone, where the group hoists pints on the patio as the sun sets and the Sears and Hancock towers illuminate. Unable to choose between all the charming ladies in their long coats, flapper caps and aviator goggles, Katner hands out “Most Snappy Lass” prizes to all of them. “Most Dapper Chap” goes to Mexico native Hector Soriano, impeccably attired in flat cap, necktie, knickerbockers, and golf shoes. He raises the trophy cup in a shout-out to “all my tweeded Mexican friends.”
The handful of actual British subjects present is amused by the display of Yankee Anglophilia. “I’m pretty flattered,” says Yusuf Bangora, from Northampton, England, who rode a Raleigh Superb. “It’s nice that Americans are interested in the culture of my country, even if it is styles from before I was born.”
60s-ish Welshman Alan Lloyd is less polite. He’s vividly dressed in an emerald jacket and britches with red-and-green argyle socks, riding a lemon yellow Raleigh borrowed from his son who owns Blue City Cycles on the South Side. “I’m enjoying that I can one-up them because I’m actually British,” he says. “To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, ‘You Americans say “herb” and we say “herb,” ‘cause the word has a fucking “h” in it.’”