What I Heard at the Women Bike Chicago Conference
Michelle Stenzel is co-chair of Bike Walk Lincoln Park, a committee to make walking and cycling safe in that neighborhood.
During a “Bike Comfort, Safety and Style” session at Saturday’s Women Bike Chicago conference, one woman shared how heavily padded bike shorts came in handy when her menstrual cycle began a few days before her first bicycle ride of 100 miles. There was a sympathetic murmur of laughter, and another participant, Susan Levin, piped up enthusiastically, “This is exactly why we wanted a women-centric event!”
The conference, held at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s African-American Cultural Center, was organized as a grassroots effort to give women an opportunity to gain practical skills and tips, learn from women who already ride bikes in Chicago, and share their experiences with others. I talked to several attendees to understand why they ride a bike and why they came to the conference.
Julie Harpring of Lincoln Square was volunteering by setting up the “Bike Buddy” map and stickers. (Participants were asked to wear color-coded stickers indicating their geographic area in order to encourage people to find others with whom to “buddy up” with for commutes or rides.) Harpring said she rides her bike to the Ravenswood Metra station and then takes the train the rest of the way to get to work, and she hoped to convey to other women that they can take incremental steps to incorporate bicycling into their commutes: “You don’t have to go all the way and burn yourself out.”
Dawn Wolfe of Oak Park said that after a serious health scare two years ago, she decided to begin riding a bike again after 20 years. She said that riding bike “makes me feel like a kid again.” She rides on the Salt Creek Trail for recreation and uses her bike to run local errands. She has biked to her job in the Loop three times and would like to do so more regularly, but parts of the route can be “a little dicey.” She came to the conference to meet new people in the bicycling community, and perhaps a new commuting partner with a slow pace similar to her own. Wolfe said she’s still working up to full strength and feels that “I slow people down.”
A group of four friends from the southwest suburbs attended the conference because they heard about it from Jane Healy, a past president of the Active Transportation Alliance and an advisor and volunteer for the event. Mary Kirby said she was interested in learning basic maintenance skills to use when riding on the trails in the forest preserves. “I don’t want to be stuck on a trail with a flat tire. And I don’t want to have to bring my husband with me, either.”
Eileen Bak of Lemont said she works near Midway Airport and would be interested in riding her bike the 15 miles to work occasionally in good weather, but all the potential routes are simply too dangerous with fast-moving motor vehicle traffic to consider it. She would like to see more of the “phenomenal” bike lanes like she saw in Montreal.
Martha Medina of Pilsen heard about the event from an e-mail she received as a member of the Active Transportation Alliance. She said she was hoping to learn how to fix a flat tire, and get tips on how to dress comfortably for a bike commute. She has already been commuting by bike for six years from Pilsen to her office in River North near Hubbard and State. She avoids the Kinzie protected bike lane because of the large number of “aggressive cyclists” who travel at high speeds, she said, and has instead altered her route to use the bike lanes on 18th and Wabash streets.
During the opening keynote panel, Susan Levin shared her experience of recovering from the mental trauma of being injured in a crash. She said that after the incident, she stopped riding for almost one year and sank into depression, but her friends encouraged her to begin to ride slowly, for short distances, and always with a goal at the end, like a restaurant dinner. She said that for a long time, she cried whenever they reached the destination. Levin said that since then, she worked with the Active Transportation Alliance to start the Crash Support Group, which provides practical advice to people who’ve been involved in collisions as well as “help on how to move on.” Her advice on how to get back in the saddle after a crash? “Patience, persistence, have goals and dear friends.”
Cynthia Bell, community liaison for the Active Transportation Alliance, and Julie Hochstadter, who runs the online bicycling community website The Chainlink, led the “Bike Comfort, Safety and Style.” They shared advice about practical accessories for biking, and choosing clothing that wicks sweat and doesn’t wrinkle when rolled up in a pannier.
Bell, who lives in North Lawndale and rides her bike to many areas of the city for her work at Active Trans, said that women are often the target of rude comments or even physical harassment. She advised that women should dress so as not to draw attention: “You don’t want to look too sexy.” She added, “Always know the area you’re riding in” and noted that major streets might be safer than secondary streets, if gang members were known to frequent the side streets. Bell described an occasion when she was on her bike and a man in a car reached out to slap her buttocks. “That’s when I became an awareness biker,” Bell said. She chased the car down to get the license plate number and reported the incident to the police. She said that she considers her U-Lock to be a weapon to be used if needed to protect herself.
The presenters noted that many women avoid bicycling because they don’t like having “helmet hair.” Bell demonstrated how women could use a scarf to wrap around their head under their helmet, so that the helmet doesn’t leave impressions in their hair. Hochstadter demonstrated how she tucks her curly hair up and under the helmet when she rides.
In the “Bike Shop Basics” session, Justyna Frank, co-owner of Rapid Transit Cycle Shop, led the discussion about how women can get the most from a visit to a bike shop, including during the process of buying a new bike. She said that women are often easily influenced by the opinion of a man who thinks they know what is “right” for her, but pointed out, “It’s your bike, don’t be shy. You have every right to insist that you are getting what you want.”
Annika Byrley and Ash Lottes, both of Logan Square, led the discussion about family biking. Each of them has two children and experience riding with their kids, ranging in age from three months to six years, on a variety of bikes, including Dutch-style box bikes, some of which were available for attendees to test ride in an open area next to the building. One participant asked if they ride on the sidewalk (which is illegal by people 12 and older in Chicago), and Byrley acknowledged that they did, when necessary for safety. Suzanne Hawley of North Center was with her eight-month-old son Jacob. She and her husband had received a Burley trailer for a wedding gift but had not yet used it to tow Jacob yet. She asked, “What is the best first ride for nervous parents?” and was advised to first try low-traffic side streets.
The event had a homespun feel, making the atmosphere warm and welcoming. The enthusiasm of the attendees indicates that there’s need for more women-centered gatherings. I felt a real momentum building for women biking in Chicago. Women are still outnumbered in Chicago’s bike lanes, but events like this might help change that.