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Icicle Bicycles: Active Trans Celebrates Winter Cycling

5:50 PM CST on January 29, 2018

Photo: James Porter


January 20, 1985 remains the coldest day in Chicago history, at a bone-chilling 27 degrees below zero at O’Hare Airport. It was a bit warmer than that on January 26, 2018, when around dozens of people gathered in front of the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, drinking coffee and eating Eli’s cheesecake. While the severity of winter in the Windy City have ebbed and flowed over the last three decades, winter bicycling is a definite fact of life here nowadays. Last Friday’s Winter Bike to Work Day, hosted by the Active Transportation Alliance, celebrated that fact.

“Today is a celebration of cycling in Chicago and it helps bring the community of cyclists together,” said Active Trans executive director Ron Burke. “It’s also to show people who don’t bike [during the winter] that it’s attainable. We understand that people who don’t bike much, they’re probably not going to start in the winter. Still, this is a chance to show everyone that cycling is so mainstream now.”

“When we first started doing this event, years ago, all the media would show up,” Burke said. “It was like ‘Oh my God, look at all these crazy people!’ Now they don’t come at all, because it’s just normal. That’s actually progress, right? We see winter biking as a normal thing. Its not some crazy thing that only weird people do. Average people do it.”

Active Trans staffers at the event. Photo: James Porter

To that end, Active Trans chose the anniversary of Chicago’s coldest day as the best time to highlight the fact that year-round cycling is becoming mainstream. “The idea was, alright, if we’re going to do a Winter Bike to Work Day, we picked the coldest day of the year, because we’re tough,” Burke said. “People come from all over. Every year we do this, you’ll see people coming from the South Side and the North Side, the far-out suburbs. It’s amazing how far some people bike.” Burke pedals in from Oak Park himself.

“The biggest change we’ve seen in the years we’ve been doing this event is that even ten years ago, winter bicycling was relatively rare,” Burke said. “10-15 years ago, when I’d be riding my bike in the winter, people would stare and gawk at me. This little girl once pointed at me: ‘Mama, Mama, look, that guy is riding his bike in the winter!’ That used to be unusual.”

“The combination of better bike infrastructure, Divvy bike-share, getting more people who hadn’t tried it before…there’s kind of a strength in numbers,” Burke added. “When you see a few people biking on the street, I think it encourages other people to give it a try. Cycling has grown a lot over the last ten years. We see that reflected in the number of people who are winter bike commuting, who are coming to this event.” Burke said he even notices “the people who are biking right by this event because they’re going to work, they don’t have time. And that’s okay! Cycling today is far more mainstream than it used to be.”

Photo: James Porter

Burke said that even with Chicago’s sometimes-nasty winters, “I don’t recall a year where the streets were so bad that we just cancelled it. There are people who have studded tires. If it’s right in the middle of a snowfall, that could be trouble, because it takes a while to get the streets plowed. The turnout is not as high when its ultra-cold. Some years the Eli’s Cheesecake is frozen solid, like an ice cube.”

Active Trans member Mike McEwen has showed up for the event for the last for five years, partly because the location is so handy. “I bike everyday to work anyhow, and I work near here,” he explained.

This was David Bates-Jefferys’ first year at the event. He moved to Chicago two years ago from western Massachusetts, which he said was was voted home of the worst drivers in America. Even though he currently has a car that he uses sporadically, for the most part he either rides his bike or commutes via the ‘L’ train. “I think Chicago is extremely easy to bike around, especially with the Metra, being able to take bikes on there now... It also helps that its extremely flat.”

Kelly O’Brien, a Schaumbug native who currently works at the female-focused shop BFF Bikes in Bucktown, said she loves the sense of freedom she gets from cycling. “This is my first time coming to this event, and I’m enjoying riding around [Chicago] recreationally and commuting. Bikes are kind of my life. I love seeing all these people out here, supporting the cycling community, with all these different companies and brands supporting us as well. [Revolution Brewing, REI, CLIF bar, NUUN hydration, DIVVY sponsored the event.] There’s a lot of camaraderie -- everyone knows each other. We all have common interests, and we want the same safety for everyone.”

Besides, O’Brien added, “As long as there’s cheesecake, I’ll go anywhere!”

This post is made possible by a grant from the Illinois Bicycle Lawyers at Keating Law Offices, P.C., a Chicago, Illinois law firm committed to representing pedestrians and cyclists. The content is Streetsblog Chicago's own, and Keating Law Offices neither endorses the content nor exercises any editorial control.

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