I’ve been shopping for a new bike lately, with the goal of using it to get around the city, especially to places not served by CTA rail or within walking distance of my condo. The biggest obstacles to overcome, as I see them, are: a) helmet hair and b) for lack of a better term, butt sweat, which are the main reasons I refuse to bike to brunch. So I figured, what better time than Bike to Work Week to pick the brain of Julie Hochstadter, who runs The Chainlink, Chicago’s online community where cyclists go to connect and share info.
“I provide this online space for people who know a lot more about everything,” she says of the site.
We met, via bike naturally, at Chava Cafe (4656 N. Clark St.) where, fittingly, many a Chainlink business meeting took place in the early days of the site. Over iced tea, we talked about the challenges and benefits of urban biking.
CSJ: OK, you’re wearing a dress and heels and your hair looks great. What’s your secret? (Keep reading, guys. We’ll get the fashion stuff out of the way quickly.)
“It’s a learning experience,” says Hochstadter. “You’ve got to learn what works for you. For me, I don’t really have a ton of helmet hair.” One helpful hint: She does wear a pair of bike shorts underneath skirts and dresses to maintain a certain measure of, shall we say, decorum. She also recommends the blog Let’s Go Ride a Bike, written by a Chicagoan named Dottie. Motto: Life on two wheels can be simple, stylish and fun. Sample post: You can ride in a long skirt, and there’s a video demonstration to prove it. “Chainlink is a good information hub,” Hochstadter says, with a wealth of blogs, message boards and resources to answer almost any question a newbie or experienced cyclist might have.
CSJ: What do people mention as the most common barriers to biking?
“This is one I hate: My bike got stolen,” she says, and then the individual doesn’t have the time or money to purchase a replacement. “I have a couple of bikes but that’s not the case for most cyclists.”
Another common complaint: Chicago’s streets are dangerous. “I know more people hit or killed as pedestrians or as passengers in cars.” That said, CDOT’s “Streets for Cycling” plan is aimed at making it safer for everyone–from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds–to get around on bikes. The mayor has vowed to build more protected, buffered bike lanes, providing greater separation between cycles and cars, and bus drivers and cabbies are required to go through training on how to share the road.
“I ride defensively. I used to ride a lot faster, but I’ve slowed down,” says Hochstadter. “You start to pick up a lot of cues on how a car is going to behave.”
She recommends that new commuters practice their route on weekends, when there’s less traffic, and also encourages riders to take advantage of programs like Chicago Bike Buddies, which pairs novices with experienced riders. The Active Transportation Alliance has a great presentation on “Everyday Biking” that offers a quick overview on things like proper etiquette and hand signals for turning. “You don’t automatically know how to ride,” says Hochstadter. The technique for left-hand turns, for example, comes with time and practice.
Group rides are another way to build confidence. Hochstadter is a fan of Lee Diamond’s Chicago Neighborhood Bike Tours. “You’re riding around with 20 to 30 people; it’s a great way to get comfortable on streets.”
On the flip side, women riders often consider the city’s streets more welcoming than its sidewalks. “For a lot women, a lot of us feel more comfortable riding our bikes than walking in certain neighborhoods.”
That brings up another stereotypical obstacle to cycling: Women are stymied by the mechanics of bikes and things like flat tires and slipped chains. Hochstadter points to places such as West Town Bikes, which offers classes on maintenance and repair aimed solely at women. “It’s kind of like a hangout. It’s a safe place where women can work on their bikes together.”
CSJ: What do you preach as the benefits of biking?
“I’ve lost 15 pounds and kept it off. I’ve saved so much money on gas. I don’t have to deal with traffic and parking meters,” she says. “It’s addicting.”
Her “a-ha moment” came several years ago when she joined a soccer team and rode her bike to the first match. Her teammates agreed to meet up afterwards at a nearby pub and Hochstadter biked to the bar, where she waited, and waited, for her friends to arrive. “I was just getting ready to leave when they showed up,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Where were you guys?’ And they said, ‘We were looking for parking.’”
This reporter suggested that biking has actually stepped in to fill in gaps in CTA service and Hochstadter concurred. “If you’re in Lakeview, how do you get to Logan Square or Wicker Park? I’ve been to so many neighborhoods I never would have gone to. Pullman, that’s a really neat area–hands down one area I’ve discovered by bike.”
CSJ: How would you describe Chicago’s cycling community? How active are our commuters?
Hochstadter likes to quote a statistic from CDOT: A bike count at the intersection of Kinzie and Milwaukee revealed that 34 percent of everyone who passed through (including mass numbers aboard buses) did so by bicycle.
“We have a lot of commuters here, partially because it’s flat.” Though she may be a bit biased, Hochstadter also believes that Chicago’s cyclists are uncommonly supportive of one another. “It’s been a very homegrown, grassroots community,” she says. “We have all these free resources and people who want to teach you…. Some of that comes with the Midwestern mentality. And Chainlink has brought the community together. We all connect because we love biking, we all love our bikes.”
CSJ: Speaking of bikes, we’ve seen a lot of “fixies” (single- and/or fixed-gear) lately. Mountain bikes look like dinosaurs. Any recommendations?
“There’s just more and more bikes everywhere,” says Hochstadter, noting that bike shops have fared better during the economic downturn than other businesses. Chicago has a thriving used bike scene, with shops like The Recyclery specializing in pre-owned cycles. Hochstadter mentions Chainlink, naturally, as a great hub to search for a used bike (there’s even a discussion group for women under 5-foot-2) as opposed to Craigslist, where the potential exists for the bikes to be stolen.
Expensive models are popular as well amongst a certain demographic. “Buying a high-end bike is the new mid-life crisis,” she says.
Mountain bikes remain the entry-level cycle of choice for many riders. “They’re cheap,” she says. “They’re also heavy and they’re slow.” Once she purchased her first road bike, Hochstadter never looked back. “Everything’s easier. I can get places so much faster.”
CSJ: Do you remember your first bike?
“My first bike was my mom’s bike,” says Hochstadter, who still owns the hybrid Trek. “My mom passed away and when my aunt came to visit, she said, ‘I want to ride your mom’s bike.’ It’s got really nice memories.”
Bike to Work Week Events in the ‘Hood:
Roscoe Village Bikes, 2016 W. Roscoe, is serving as a Bike Pit Stop for the Bike to Work Week Commuter Challenge, Monday, June 11, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Heritage Bicycles, 2959 N. Lincoln, is hosting Bike Away From Work Hump Day Happy Hour on Wednesday, June 13, 5-8 p.m.