I’ve been biking every day I get the chance to class and work, navigating my old-school, silver trek road bike through the streets of Chicago and trying out all the difference routes to both East and West campus. And in doing so, I’ve experienced and seen some strange, crazy and pretty normal things, but things that are very unique to Chicago. I’ve noticed that biking through Chicago takes all 5 of your senses on a roller coaster ride. Here is some of the true grit of riding a bike through Chicago:
The choice between potholes, an opening car door, and a moving vehicle.
Chicago has a vast amount of potholes. And they all seem to congregate directly in the middle of the bike lane. One time I saw a pothole so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom of it! What was down there- a small animal? A shark swimming around in murky waters? It was scary!
The passing smell of chocolate.
There is either one huge chocolate-making factory in Chicago, whose chocolate exhaust wisps around the city with the wind, or there are a lot of small ones scattered throughout the city. I’ve smelled it downtown, I’ve smelled it on the west side, and I’ve smelled it up north. It comes and it goes, and I have no idea where the chocolate is. WHERE IS THE CHOCOLATE? Some day when I have nothing better to do, I’m going to follow my nose and get to the source. Mmmmmm….
The passing smell of trash.
My favorite route to school is directly down Wood St. to campus. There are minimal cars, even during rush hour, due to the fact that Wood runs straight through a warehouse district. The only down side is multiple trash facilities that are hidden in the depths of the district- and I’ve found them. I’ve come to associate the loud beeping of a truck in reverse with the smell of garbage. I try to avoid these trucks but sometimes they find me.
The mixed smell of hot dogs, donuts, chocolate and trash.
Ok I know I’ve expounded up the passing smells of Chicago, but the real experience is the mix of all of them together! I can’t tell if I’m hungry or need a gas mask…
The angry driver.
Classic Chicago drivers: they’re mad all the time. You stop in front of them at a stop sign. They’re mad. You drive 3 miles over the speed limit- they’re mad. You’re turning left in front of them and you take too long to do it- they’re mad. You’re riding a bike- they’re MAD! Well, I have experienced anything too terrible, but it’s the usual accelerate-way-to-fast-around-the-biker scenario. Don’t worry- they usually give you a lot of space–even take up the opposite lane–but they just want you to know that they’re NOT HAPPY about having to pass you.
The occasional overly nice driver.
They’re usually driving a Subaru, and there’s a dog sitting in front, panting out the window. They refuse to go, even when they obviously arrived at the stop sign before you. It’s really nice, but really confusing, given the fact that I’m used to the angry driver, as described above.
Chicago is extremely flat. I can think of one slight hill, in the middle of town on Halsted, which surprises me every time. Given the flatness of the terrain, you can see everything from anywhere. I mean EVERYTHING. I can see a tall man’s bald head from two miles away. When I’m biking to school I look over to my left and there’s the Chicago skyline! The one I’ve seen on postcards and photographs all my life. It’s a beauty, and after a year of being here I’m not used to it yet. And the best part is early in the morning, when the sun’s just coming up, (this doesn’t happen a lot, but there’s the occasional surgery that starts at 6:30am), it rises behind the buildings, and it’s orange. It’s totally orange and pink. The city’s on fire!
The fellow biker.
No matter how fast you think you’re going on the road, there’s always some guy in tight jeans, hipster glasses and a one shoulder satchel (that will give him scoliosis when he grows up, if he grows up) who zooms by at, I swear, 30 + miles per hour. Maybe it’s the fact that he doesn’t eat much and can therefore propel himself forward at almost the speed of light. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s already 20 minutes late to his meeting at the bike shop where he works, but that guy, THAT GUY, will always pass you, and not even look your way.
Then there’s the maniac signaler. Who is not only signaling, but screaming “RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT!” Who is she talking to? Not the drivers, because their windows are shut and they’re listening to the radio anyway. Maybe they’re talking to the dog or the squirrel that’s about to run in front of them. Or the pedestrian, so they don’t run ‘em over? I mean, I’m all about arm signals for bikes, but the yelling? Overkill.
So these have been my experiences as a Chicago cycling commuter. Every day there’s a new surprise- like the dog-pulling-owner-on-bike scenario, or the human-on-bike-pulling-dog scenario (which I saw today). Or the skateboarder who thinks he’s a biker, and takes up the bike lane. Or the pedestrian who simply refuses to acknowledge you and crosses the road, causing a near miss. (I hope I never hit a pedestrian, that would be embarassing… ) What will I see next?