More often than not you’ll find me in the city streets. I’m no longer intimidated by the impatient honks, construction barricades, narrow (or nonexistent) shoulders, or uneven gravel of the city. Well, not really. . . Okay, an unexpected encounter with gravel still results in a spike in my heart rate, causing muscles to tense and eyes to zero in on the rough and unpredictable surface. I’ve had more than my fair share of falls, but never at a speed exceeding 2 MPH. I count myself lucky, in that regard, so I take to the road!
There are times, however, when the noise and bustle of the city streets isn’t what I’m looking for. In an urban environment you need to be on “high alert” at all times, aware of pedestrian traffic, pet dogs straining against their leashes, and hordes of distracted drivers. During rush hour you might find yourself sandwiched between an idling SUV driven by a newly licensed teen and an impatient motorcycle, making a loud show of the fact that it will beat you “off the line”, in 3. . . 2. . . 1! An experienced cyclist knows how to take the lane, navigate the crisscrossed streets and hold her own, with confidence. But the unpredictability of the streets can be anxiety producing. Or it can be invigorating.
In any case, on occasion I seek out a path that is just a bit more . . . contained.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, with easy access to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, many of which are connected via a system of bike trails. Today there are over 100 miles of paved bike trails, and 200 miles of multi-use trails. My father was a cyclist, of the social sort, and rode with the Elmhurst Bicycle Club. I recently discovered that I was also a card carrying member, back in 1986, at just 12 years old. I don’t recall there being so many close encounters with the pavement, while in the saddle. Perhaps I’ve blocked out those childhood memories.
“The Elmhurst Bicycle Club (EBC) continues to live up to the motto, “Riding at the Speed of Fun.” Club members, who range from novice to the very experienced, come from all walks of life and live throughout the western suburbs of Chicago.” (EBC website)
On a recent road trip to Chicagoland, with my bike tossed into the back of my Subaru Forester, I revisited the path that begins just across the street from the Brookfield Zoo, where I’d worked for many years, as a teen. It was the 4th of July, and I’d ridden across familiar commuter railroad tracks, along a community parade route, past picnic tables & beer tents, and through the local habitat revitalization area to get to the bike trail. Once on the trail, I was joined by a surprising number of cyclists, joggers, and families out on a holiday walk. There was an interesting comradery on the trail, accompanied by a sense of quiet. In this election year, I might go so far as to say there was a sense of patriotic reflection this 4th of July, even on the bike trail.
In a way, this “protected” trail cycling can slip into something of a meditation, as wheels spin around and around. A cyclist settles into a rhythm, finds her cadence, away from the noise and the distractions of urban cycling. In the Chicagoland area the trail is periodically interrupted by the suburban infrastructure. There are 4 lane roads to cross, but it’s a welcomed interlude, to come back to the real world, to the here and now. It’s a reminder that you are not alone on the trail, even though it’s been miles since you saw another person. At one end of the trail I come upon the Dorothy and Sam Dean Nature Sanctuary. I dismount, to walk the area’s nature paths. I can hear highway traffic on nearby roads – it’s Chicagoland after all – but there’s natural beauty and diversity all around.
Growing up in an area that was “bike friendly”, I never realized that this was anything unusual. Chicago is a big city, but out in the suburbs there is a real investment in recreation. Even in the city there are amazing paths along the lakefront, and many bike commuters. I’m reminded of my recent adventure on Bike the Drive, pedaling along Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive in the early morning, as it was closed to motorized traffic. Bikes ruled the drive that morning!
Bike path etiquette, especially if it is a mixed use path, keeps everyone upright and wanting to come back for another visit. There are as many guidelines, rules and regulations on the path as there are on the city streets. Amongst the rules:
Trail users are asked to be polite and courteous to fellow patrons.
Trail users must ride or walk on the right side of the trail.
Trail users must give an audible warning before passing others.
Helmets are recommended for all riders, and required for riders 14 and under.
Stop only on shoulder of the trail.
Ride at a responsible, controlled speed. No racing is allowed.
Forest Preserve District hours are sunrise to sunset.
Collection of plants and animals is strictly prohibited.
Feeding wildlife is strictly prohibited. (Forest Preserve website)
This may seem like a lot of guidelines and restrictions, but the payoff is free, public access to this beautiful nature preserve. . .
And the details are vibrant, full of color, and begging for your attention. . .
Just as I decide to turn around and head back the way I came, I’m greeted by a resting area, on the edge of a residential property. The homes of Oak Brook are substantial, with sprawling lawns, multiple-car garages, expert landscaping and professional architectural touches. I can just imagine what they are like on the inside. Here the homeowner has created a small space that invites me to pause for a moment. I can imagine that the moment that is captured here is one that replayed again and again in this little girl’s life. The furry companion is hanging on her every word, and I’d guess it’s not the first time he’s heard this particular story.
As I climb back onto my bike, as a visitor to this trail, I consider looking up the Elmhurst Bicycle Club the next time I am in town. They seem like a welcoming crowd: “Rides range from 8 to 10 mph to over 16 mph. Ride distances range from 10 to 100 miles. Sometimes we ride just to ride, and sometimes we have a specific purpose like exploring a new park, restaurant or a community festival.” (EBC website) This is my sort of crowd! I look forward to getting to know them a bit more.
Join me on the next adventure!
Forest Preserves of Cook County: http://fpdcc.com/
Bicycling – Forest Preserves of Cook County: http://fpdcc.com/recreation/bicycling/
Forest Preserve Rules & Regulations: http://fpdcc.com/preserves-and-trails/rules-and-regulations/
Elmhurst Bicycle Club: http://www.elmhurstbicycling.org/