Chicago Winter Ride

March 4, 2015

About Chicago, Illinois:

Since the 1860s, before the introduction of the chain to racing bikes, Chicago has been a cycling city. Once the base of America’s bicycle industry, and founding homeland of Schwinn, SRAM, and a hundred other smaller brands, Chicago’s premier status in the social, technological, and economic advancement of the bicycle is unrivaled in North America. Going forward in the twenty-first century, the city not only continues to have a vibrant racing community, a fleet of busy messengers, a mountain bike park, and one of the largest Critical Mass rides in the world, but it also has enough miles of bike lane to ride a century loop without ever leaving the city limits.

There are, I think, three very good reasons to record every ride. The first, and perhaps most valuable is that in the event of an accident there will be a record of what happened. The second is when you have an amazing ride you can show it off, though I speak from experience when I say good luck finding an appreciative audience for that sort of thing. The third is when you see or do something so terrifically stupid it must be recorded, saved, and passed down as testimony to humanity’s great resilience and ability to survive against the odds, even the self-imposed ones.

It is this third thing I mean to speak to today.

The portmanteau that got brandied about last year to describe the city was, “Chiberia”. We went something like a hundred days below freezing and five months with snow cover -or permafrost as we called it. People with inadequate gear were forced indoors for several days at a time. Avid cyclists are like horses, we need to get out and run free or we bray on cycling forums and kick at our trainers in frustration. It was in one of these fits that I said forget the cold, I’m going on a ride.

A few miles and a few warm-up stops later and I’m on the Lakefront Trail, a gauntlet-like ribbon bordered on one side by the racing cars of Lake Shore Drive, and by the frozen abyss of Lake Michigan on the other. There is no beach in this equation, just a man-made drop-off to the cold wetness. The waves had been crashing, marching up the trail and back down again for some hours, each time leaving an ever-thickening layer of flawlessly smooth ice. For most of the length of the trail it wasn’t a problem; there was a little spit of land at the very top, against the 12-foot-tall concrete divider that separates cars from bikes, that hadn’t been touched. It wasn’t until the bend, that peninsula of concrete between Ohio and North beaches, that the waves had a direct, focused angle and could breach all the way to the wall. There was also a slope to the trail, not much but enough to coax rain and wave water off the pavement without leaving puddles. Unfortunately for me the slope on the bend was also a little bit steeper than the rest of the trail. “Big deal,” I said aloud as if there were anybody around to question my bravery. I could make it across. The spit of affected concrete was only about fifteen curving yards if I stuck to the wall.  My other option was to go back to Ohio beach where the concrete divider ends and I can get back on to the street, but that would have taken, like, ten whole minutes, and I was already cold. So yeah, I timed the waves, waited for a lull, and ventured out.

I probably got about two yards before I fell. Both front and back tire slipped out so fast I held still in air for a moment before crashing down, my elbow putting a spider web crack into the ice where it hit. And then, at a pace so slow I could have counted the individual grains of gravel in the concrete beneath me, I began sliding towards the drink. There was nothing to grab; the ice had leveled out every bump and imperfection between me and the void. My rubber boots, my leather gloves, useless in this frictionless world. My greatest fear was that another set of big waves would roll in and finish me off. It was like being strapped to a conveyer belt moving towards the jaws of some awful piece of machinery, my struggles did nothing but tire me out and in no way prevented, or even slowed down, the inevitable. I would have cried out, but who would have heard me? A million people were on the other side of the divider, but the rushing cars drowned out my noises and to the people in the overlooking buildings I was just an ant.

I have a long, deep scar on my leg because when I was fifteen, practicing wheelies in my parents’ driveway on a BMX bike, my foot slipped out of my sandal, causing the pedal to hammer backwards into my shin, tearing a gash up for several inches in the chaos of trying to not crash. BMX pedals, the ones I like at least, are covered in spikes, partly to hold your shoe in place, partly because they look gnarly.  As an adult I always ride BMX pedals in the winter to avoid the hassle of clipping in. Now, as gravity and ice colluded to get me to go swimming, I looked for something to halt my momentum. The one thing leaving a mark in the ice, a thin white line pointing from where I fell to where I was headed, was one of those pedals. I reached for my bike, which had been sliding in pace with me, and thrust it under my stomach so my weight focused over the cranks. The pedal dug deep like an ice pick and stopped my progress. Though stationary, I felt like Death was ice-skating just out of my vision, checking his watch and noting my progress. Resting on my knees and channeling the image of Everest mountaineers I’d seen on TV, I lifted the bike and dropped it, pedal first, a foot in front of me, then dragged the rest of my body up to it. Every time I got on my knees to push the bike forward a foot, I’d slide back six inches. Then the first of a set of hungry waves came in, splashing up between my pants and boot.

I don’t know how long it took me to inchworm to safety. The blurry trance of panic made it hard to record any memories. I remember at one point, just before getting to dry concrete, a wave swelled up, grabbed me, and pulled me back several feet. I was exhausted, soaked, and so numb from the cold it was hard to hold on to the bike, much lest hoist and slam it down. My elbow was stiff and rapidly swelling from the earlier fall. But, as evidenced by this blog post, I lived.

Safe on dry concrete after more adrenaline-fueled exertion than any Sunday criterium, I rested and looked back to the peninsula. Rollers were coming in and pushing water all the way to the wall with a concussive splash when they hit. As soon as I could I ducked off the trail into a convenience store to warm up and dry off with their electric hand dryer. Then I rode the three miles back to my home, and have never told this story to my friends or family for fear that they might all conspire to ban me from cycling and burry my bikes so deep I’ll never be able to ride them.

Cycling is a challenge in both the physical and psychological sense. Sometimes we enter knowingly into situations that test us; sometimes those situations appear unannounced. Regardless of how you handle the horse when it intersects the rattlesnake, it’s good to have someone watching your back, like the Fly6.

About the Author:

            Scott Wilson is a student at Columbia College, working on his masters in nonfiction writing. A lifelong cyclist, Scott has toured across the state of Iowa, mountain biked down the Tualatin Mountains, raced BMX, Road, and Cyclocross, and worked as a shop and race mechanic for close to a decade. He lives near the former site of the historic Humboldt Park Velodrome -where the 1940 Olympic tryouts were held- in Chicago, Illinois. He writes music reviews for Quipmag.com, technical articles for Thechainlink.org, and regularly updates his bike blog: www.bikeblogordie.blogspot.com