Bike The Drive: Chicago’s Other Opening Day

by John Picken on Flickr

We measure the beginning of seasons in many ways, some of which involve our sporting calendar. For baseball fans, spring proper begins with Opening Day, no matter how cold it is at Wrigley or the Cell.

Summer in Chicago has another athletic Opening Day as well: Bike the Drive. In this annual fund-raiser for the Active Transportation Alliance, the city closes Lake Shore Drive to cars and lets cyclists take over one of the most beautiful roads in the world. As the song says, “there ain’t no road just like it,” and there ain’t no sight quite like 20,000 people on bikes pedaling along the lake, unaccompanied by the roar of automotive traffic, as they did last Sunday.

In some Latin American cities, car-free paseosnot to be confused with the Toyota—are staged weekly or monthly, but in Chicago, it happens only once a year. Bike the Drive showcases two of Chicago’s greatest assets: Lake Michigan and the architecture. Our lakefront, unlike the waterfronts of most cities, is almost entirely parks and beaches. All cities exist in a tension between the natural and the man-made, but the push-and-pull in Chicago is especially dramatic. The vast lake sits like a metaphysical counterweight to the city’s magnificent buildings.

Bike the Drive lets cyclists experience all of this along its edge, at a speed suited to quiet contemplation. Even for many who don’t get on bikes, the day feels like a holiday. Ask any of the tens of thousands who live in high-rises along the lake, who wake up in the morning, rub their eyes, and furrow their brows, trying to figure out why they feel unusual, why their condos and apartments seem a little different…until they realize that there’s no traffic hum filling their bedrooms. A moment of silence. A pause. What nicer way to begin a summer?

The weather this year was perfect, warm and windy but with a nice cloud cover keeping the heat down. From dawn till mid-morning, all sorts of cyclists filled the iconic road: families with bright yellow trailers full of toddlers or kids testing their training wheels, hipsters on freak bikes, tattooed Critical Mass devotees, lean bike messengers having a busman’s holiday on their fixies, daily cyclists and once-a-weekers, Lycra-clad race teams, and tourists pedaling rented fat-tire three-speeds.

One thing I contemplated as I put in my 50 miles: Is Bike the Drive a sporting event?

One sage friend of mine defines sports, justifiably, as anything some Outfit bookie or Las Vegas will take a bet on. Since Bike the Drive is a ride, not a race, by this definition it is not a sporting event.

But many Bike the Drive participants are clearly athletes. Sunday morning, hyper-serious riders in colorful jerseys drafted off one another in carefully formed pelotons, wearing out their vocal cords shouting “On your left!” at slower riders who had strayed into the fast lanes. These riders weren’t being timed by anyone but themselves, and no yellow jersey waited to be bestowed by local beauties at 57th Street, but riders did track their mileage and times, they did compete, even if only to beat last year’s time.

A peloton: the large main group of riders in race (opensourceway/cc)

These faster riders can occasionally distract from the point of the event for most of us, which is to experience an urban space differently and more deeply. Lake Shore Drive is not just another urban boulevard, it’s Chicago’s most beautiful and famous thoroughfare. But we normally speed along at 50 mph, or faster. The skyline rushes towards us, and then we’re dwarfed by it, unable to take it all in. The sound of engines drowns out the lake except in the most extreme weather. Chicago writer Stuart Dybek once said that “When you’re on Lake Shore Drive, you know you’re going somewhere.” Bike the Drive, by slowing us down and quieting us, makes us more deeply aware of the somewhere we are going, the city which we are lucky enough to live in or visit. And this experience is open to anyone, athlete or not.

My riding group this year included an 11-year-old visiting with his father from England who kept up with our fastest riders, even if some of them perhaps slowed down a little for him. We rode together and drifted apart, meeting up at the rest stops. One small contretemps with the police regarding the inadvisability of riding no-handed ended peacefully enough. Near Bryn Mawr at the end of the ride, someone had cold beers on ice in a small cooler in one of his panniers, and nothing is better than an ice cold Berghoff Prairie Lager after a long Sunday morning bike ride.

No one wins. No one loses. And even those who pedal fastest and attempt to beat the clock, beat their friends, or beat their own sense of mortality generally did so politely and without embarrassing themselves or slower riders like me.

In the end, I decided it doesn’t matter whether we call it a sporting event or not. Too much time philosophizing about such distinctions can be a distraction. Best to just cruise along at 10 or 12 mph and enjoy the unique Chicago experience: the sun rising over Navy Pier, the vast blue mirror of the lake, the towering skyline, the spectacle of the riders, the gentle sounds of nature too often hidden. Every year, Bike the Drive lets you do just that, as our sporting summer begins.

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BILL SAVAGE teaches American literature at Northwestern University. Full disclosure: he is a not-particularly-active member of the Active Transportation Alliance, puts about 4,000 slow miles a year on his battered old Trek 950, and does not consider himself an ath-a-lete.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy John Picken/cc; photo of peloton courtesy opensourceway/cc.