Another Cyclist’s Tale of Watery Peril on the Lakefront

The Lakefront Trail near Chicago Avenue. Image: Google Street View
The Lakefront Trail near Chicago Avenue. Image: Google Street View

Recently I reported on how in September local bicyclist Stephanie Brenan slipped on wet algae near near the Adler Planetarium and broke her arm, and that other local cyclists had experienced similar spills, leading the Chicago Park District to take measures to improve safety in the area. In the wake of that article, Chicago native George Brannen, now a retiree living in Seattle, contacted us with his own story of a lakefront misadventure during a recent visit, which I thought might be of interest to our readers. -JG

Last April I very much enjoyed a bike tour of Chicago I took with about a dozen other visitors — many from other countries, including Australia, Brazil, Germany (I think), and other countries. Having six generations of family presence in Chicago binds me to this magnificent city, though I’ve lived in Seattle for nearly 50 years.

Near the end of the trip we cruised along the lakefront with a fine tailwind. Near Chicago Avenue, I seemed to catch a disruption in the cement, a frost heave, which torqued my steering in such a way that I found myself in the lake with the bicycle. I believe I was about 10-15 feet out making my way toward “shore,” which was a cement wall, a few feet high. As I drifted towards the wall, an impressive wave surge hit the wall and pulled me back away from shore.

Initially I saw the two Australian women waiting to grab my arms when I could reach the wall. At that point I realized that my weight, the pull of the surge, my layers of wet clothing, and the wall would make it difficult to pull me out of the lake. I looked for a ladder, but there was none nearby. I admit to being very frightened at this point.

Other members of the group swarmed to my rescue, and were finally eventually able to extract me. The Australian women later told me that the tireless efforts of a Brazilian man who was with us seemed to make all the difference. There were others too. These actions clearly put the rescuers at risk, as the waves were washing upon the cement bank, and certainly they must have gotten quite wet.

The very selfless efforts and kindness shown causes me to reflect. Initially feelings of humiliation and embarrassment prevailed, and then awareness arose that my rescue depended on multiple persons from other lands putting aside their own safety and comfort to commit to a lifesaving challenge. Thanks to the quick thinking of these people from other lands, I am alive and well, and I’ll never forget this experience — it was a timely reminder of the importance our global community.

  • Kelly Pierce

    It sounds like the park District should have life preservers
    along the trail when it is next to the water. It is unreasonable to expect
    cyclists to be swimmers with the training to strip off their clothes and hoist
    themselves out of the water within seconds. The issue is not physical fitness
    or age. Cyclists may not be mentally prepared to instantly act in a crisis situation
    in the water if the dangerous scenario has not been practiced before. Who do we
    need to contact to convince them that publicly accessible life preservers need
    to be available on this part of the trail?

  • Jacob Wilson

    I once had waves submerge above my bottom bracket coming around the sharp corner of the S curve in January. Very disconcerting experience but somehow I just kept peddling and didn’t get washed out.

  • Chicagoan

    I love that curve, it’s so very scenic, but I’m sorry it happened to you.

  • Bernd

    You’re not supposed to ride on the broken concrete near the water. There have been painted lines indicating this for decades.

    What’s the common thread here? People who aren’t paying attention to what they are riding on.

  • Poor visibility of the stripes given the weather conditions cited aside, this stretch is one of the worst parts of the LFP with the path sloping towards the lake at too steep an angle. No roadway intended for motorized traffic would ever be allowed to be constructed to these low standards.

  • Bernd

    You don’t even need the painted stripe. The entire nature of the pavement changes. It’s been that way since before I ever rode the lakefront trail over 25 years ago.

    To consider this section dangerous is laughable from my POV. For me it was one of the fastest, least congested, and easiest sections to ride, especially southbound. There were numerous other locations that were far more dangerous and congested. I regularly sprinted through there at top speed.

    “No roadway intended for motorized traffic would ever be allowed to be constructed to these low standards”

    They certainly are allowed to decay to them. I have ridden many roads in since I bought my first adult sized bicycle in 1982 and there are many roads that are as bad or worse.

    Keep in mind this section of lake front trail was routed over this
    concrete structure that was built at least 40 years ago. It was old 25
    years ago.

    The nearest arterial road to me is so full of holes and patched it makes this section of trail (the part for riding) look like the German Autobahn. It is slight better than worst early spring rides through this section. Only because there isn’t any heaving concrete. But it doesn’t fixed half as well. I have to dodge and jump holes with my road bike but also my cars get a sliding feel as I brake to make the turn on to the side street. Each winter it gets worse. They didn’t even patch this past spring. Next spring it is going to be really bad.