I’m 3 years a city biker without any intents to retire my ‘70s Schwinn roadway bike anytime quickly. It’s hassle-free, inexpensive and also as a photographer — feasible. Come winter months, it can additionally end up being a marathon in the middle of Chicago’s most tough riding problems.
I’ve usually questioned what inspires the motorcyclists I run into in the cool, as well as if they really feel the exact same feeling of area in passing. Along a 60-mile path throughout the city embarked on in quits as well as begins in December as well as very early January, I quit to speak to a broad-ranging team of Midwestern winter months bicyclists established to see the period with.
Carriers, travelers as well as lovers shared their restrictions, their methods for the roadway as well as the crucial equipment that aids obtain them where they wish to go.
Along mile 4 I satisfied 32-year-old messenger Robert Bigelow-Rubin right before night shift modification at Cut Cats Carrier Solution on Lincoln Opportunity.
Bigelow-Rubin was preparing for a six-hour change of distributions throughout Chicago’s Lake Sight community.
The path was absolutely nothing brand-new for Bigelow-Rubin as well as neither was the mid-December evening trip. He relocated to Chicago to be a carrier in 2013 — the winter months a polar vortex dipped temperature levels well listed below no. He informed me he’s made distributions in every period, creating his very own system for layering along the road.
“Space-wise as well as weight-wise you can’t manage to simply bring the entire wardrobe with you on a change,” he stated. “I’ve done it enough time that I recognize precisely what I require.”
Woollen knee socks as well as base layers are Bigelow-Rubin’s trick to outliving the cold. Unlike cotton, the product takes a breath — maintaining him both completely dry as well as cozy throughout distributions.
The sunlight was establishing when send off contacted a shipment order. Bigelow-Rubin powered on his bike lights, placed his KHS Flite 100 bike as well as headed eastern down Addison Road.
I trailed behind while Bigelow-Rubin remained in complete command of our path. A knowledgeable motorcyclist that understands the ins as well as outs of city biking, he called out turns as well as lane blockages as we browsed the North Side heavy traffic.
It can be a hard work being a Chicago messenger in the winter season, Bigelow-Rubin stated. Snow as well as freezing rainfall creates glossy problems. A number of drops a period are not unusual, yet Bigelow-Rubin stated he’s handled to stay clear of any kind of severe mishaps so far.
“Bike lanes essentially go away in the snow, which press us out right into the roadway,” he stated. “You simply gotta take it a bit slower.”
Somewhere along Southport Avenue we stopped to pick up the order — Thai food. Bigelow-Rubin packed the food into the largest cycling bag I’ve ever seen. We set off again, coasting North Broadway amid radio chatter from dispatch.
It was mile 19 and inside the storefront of Uptown Bikes I met 59-year-old Randy Fleer.
The Edgewater resident laid a backpack filled with piano equipment near the front counter and waited to pick up his winter-outfitted Trek 820. Fleer works in piano services — tuning, repairing and commuting by bike most days to jobs across the city.
On Sundays, he plays organ at his local church. Handlebar mounted mittens keep his hands warm during the ride.
Mechanic Leah Plummer wheeled out Fleer’s bicycle and showcased the repairs. He opted for the bike shop’s winter special: trued tires, a new drive train, brake pads, cables.
Fleer pulled out his phone and showed me a map of his recent 11-mile ride to north suburban Winnetka. I began to understand the need for his bike’s winter overhaul. He’s a high-mileage commuter who puts serious wear on his equipment year-round.
“Once you go an hour and a half one way, going an hour is nothing,” Fleer said. “Once you ride in five-degree weather, 20 degrees is nothing.”
I lingered a few more minutes by the counter to speak to 56-year-old shop owner Maria Barnes.
A customer needed new brakes and thinks their chain is falling off; that was Maria’s downstairs neighbor. Another had a tear in the sidewall of their tire; they’ve known Maria nearly two decades.
It was evidence of the relationships the bike shop has fostered on Chicago’s North Side for years.
“We try to be active in the community,” Barnes said. “We try to know our neighbors.”
Across town, it was mile 27. At West Town Bikes, a social meetup for women, trans and non-binary cyclists was about to get underway. I stepped into the backroom of the bike shop and met 29-year-old Kingston Smartt-Nalli who was preparing for the evening ride.
Smartt-Nalli helps lead the monthly meetup on its route through Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Riders chat at stops along the way and tune up their bicycles in the workshop beforehand.
One by one riders trickled in. Smartt-Nalli welcomed into the warmth a new member who looked unsure if the event was still happening.
“We’re building a community,” Smartt-Nalli said. “Even through the winter, a handful of people show up.”
Outside, he showed me the e-bike he built from scratch. He’s added 4.8-inch-wide tires to the frame and a motor to help him power through snow.
“This winter I have this amazing bike and I’m going to test the limits — that’s the plan,” he said.
Smartt-Nalli said his mental and physical health are what motivate him to ride year-round. The monthly meetups at West Town Bikes help, too.
“The folks that I’ve met here I can always reach out to when I’m struggling,” he said. “We nourish each other.”
A few blocks south, the event soon kicked off. As bike lights descended down Campbell Avenue, the group’s conversation drifted back toward me. I photographed the cyclists as they passed beneath a streetlamp and rode off into the night.
Monday morning and mile 30 I stopped at a busy intersection along North Milwaukee Avenue as cyclists navigated steady rain and rush hour traffic. To my right was 40-year-old Logan Square resident Melanie MacKay atop the largest bike of the intersection — three wheels and a front cargo compartment with holiday lights strung about its exterior. Inside that compartment sat two small bike helmets.
MacKay was on her way to her job in the Loop, having just biked her children to school beforehand.
“I like having them in the front so they can see,” she said “It’s my car, really — I don’t have a car.”
The Midwestern-born cyclist wasn’t expecting to bike in the rain that morning but three wheels keep her riding through most weather conditions. On Chicago’s coldest days, she wears snow goggles. The windchill reminds her of snowboarding trips she took to Colorado growing up.
“I love the freedom of a bicycle,” she said. “I love fresh air. When the winter gets cold I put on my snowboarding gear, and I feel like I’m on the mountain again.”
I was photographing MacKay when a cyclist called out my name from the bike lane to our right. It was Bigelow-Rubin heading to the Loop on a morning round of deliveries.
I pulled up to a bike rack inside a Kostner Avenue shopping plaza along mile 36.
Moments later, nearby resident Luis Gomez walked out of the West Humboldt Park Aldi store with a bouquet of flowers for his partner and snack for the ride home.
It wasn’t a typical grocery haul for the 31-year-old. On weekends, Gomez and his partner bike up Kostner Avenue to the Cermak Produce store in the 4400 block of West Armitage Avenue to get the bulk of what they need. It’s a group effort that takes several layers of clothing, two drawstring bags and an oversize backpack intended for art supplies. Still, Gomez said he prefers the trek to driving.
“I get to see what’s around me,” Gomez said. “When I’m in the car I’m just focused on the car in front of me.”
He’s biked as far south as Jackson Park and as far north as suburban Wilmette. It’s impressive ground to cover for a recent transplant to the city. Gomez, who moved from San Francisco in 2020, said he makes sure to survey new neighborhoods along the way.
“In a way, I feel like I’ve gotten to see parts of Chicago that I don’t think I’ve heard my friends talk about,” Gomez said. “It’s given me more to appreciate.”
Heading home, I approached the west end of the 606 Bloomingdale Trail along mile 38.
A familiar looking bike exited the end ramp. It was Smartt-Nalli heading my direction.
He asked where I was headed and offered to ride with me along the way. We coasted east down the trail and talked about bike repairs, jobs and ways I could volunteer at West Town Bikes on the weekends.
At Maplewood Avenue we parted ways. I turned east and he turned west, each seeking refuge from the cold.
I approached mile 50 a few days into the new year. On a foggy afternoon in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, I entered Small Shop Cycles & Service in the 4200 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue.
Inside, I met 39-year-old shop owner Chris Willard, who was working on a bike near the store’s front entryway.
Willard, who grew up in nearby Hyde Park, has been educating and riding bikes on Chicago’s South Side for close to two decades. He spent nine years teaching at Woodlawn-based Blackstone Bikes, a youth-focused bike mentorship program, before opening Small Shop in 2016. It’s one of only a few bike shops on Chicago’s South Side, and the only shop in Bronzeville.
Willard, a year-round cyclist, said he’s excited to have seen an increase in biking activity, community rides and bike share stations on the city’s South Side over the years.
“The more bikes you see the better it will be for everyone,” Willard said. “That makes more people aware that cyclists are out here and overall leads to a safer ride for everyone.”
I asked Willard what neighborhood he lived in and he hesitated — Rogers Park. It’s a recent move that’s put a 16-mile ride between home and work. Commuting by bike isn’t realistic for the full-time shop owner, so he’s been driving instead.
Still, Willard said he’s exploring his new neighborhood this winter with what’s most comfortable — his bicycle.
“The first time I biked around Rogers Park was the first time I obtained a sense of the neighborhood,” Willard said. “A car is just a bubble as well as makes it really easy to disengage with the neighborhood — the bike gives that ability to me.”
Just then, one of Small Shop’s regular customers entered with a niche repair.
Dwayne Fields, 70, pointed to his medical walker and laughed. “I know it’s a bike shop, but it’s the same principle,” Fields said.
Fields doesn’t ride a bike, but when the right brake cable snapped on the Hyde Park homeowner’s walker a few days before, he sought out a temporary fix nearby.
Seated near the store’s front counter, Fields enjoyed the attention of Small Shop’s resident orange tabby cat, Gourd.
The break is a recurring issue for Fields, who said his walker moves too fast, forcing him to continuously engage the brakes. But Fields said he enjoys the work of Willard as well as the company of his animals in the store.
“This gentleman is good — he’s done it before,” Fields stated. “They do good work right here.”
Lou Foglia is a self-employed photographer based in Chicago.