Class, Race, and Sharing Space on the Lakefront Trail

A road bike rider passes other cyclists on the Lakefront Trail south of Fullerton. Photo: John Greenfield
A road bike rider passes other cyclists on the Lakefront Trail south of Fullerton. Photo: John Greenfield

After what seemed like an endless winter, it looks like it’s finally warming up in Chicago. This also means more people out, and more people on bikes.

On Sunday, one of the warmer days in the last few days, my friend texted me about her long bike ride on the Lakefront Trail. While she was happy to be indulging in a ride on one of those elusive warm days, she remarked how she had forgotten how overwhelming it could be amidst all the people going at varying speeds, particularly among the ubiquitous spandex-wearing white men.

The Lakefront Trail has a special place in my heart, particularly because it’s arguably the reason I started becoming comfortable riding long distances. In college, I lived a few blocks away from the trail in Hyde Park. Over four years, riding on the trail was my study break, whether alone or with my usual college companion Anton.

In addition to being a peaceful place to ride, I also find it to be one of the more fascinating places in Chicago to see culture, race, and gender unravel. I would say the 18.5-mile path is on par with riding the Red Line from one side to the city to another. The first time I rode north of downtown with my friend, I had to get used to dealing with men on bikes who seemed to prioritize maintaining their heart rate above safety or respect for others. When not moving fast enough for their liking, I was called a “knucklehead.” It sure gave my friend and me a laugh.

In such a crowded environment as the Lakefront Trail on the Near North Side on a nice day, it can feel like a battle over who is entitled to more space than others. The Lakefront Trail separation project, which wrapped up last year, improved the situation somewhat by providing separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists. [Notably, that project was bankrolled by $12 million from hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois, after he emailed Mayor Rahm Emanuel to complain about the state of the trail. -JG]

But it it didn’t eliminate the dynamic of competing with other cyclists for space. There’s an unspoken hierarchy on the trail, in which the slower you go, it seems, the less entitled you are to space. It doesn’t feel like it’s OK to casually meander on two wheels.

I think that’s why I always preferred to ride on the Lakefront Trail on the South Side. It was easier to feel some sense of solitude, without any pressure to keep up with bike traffic speed. That isn’t necessarily because a smaller percentage of people like to ride bikes south of downtown, but rather because the population density is lower and there are fewer access points to the trail.

Speed and its association with entitlement to space is a multi-layered issue intersecting with class and gender, because lightweight road-racing bikes are expensive, and it’s typically white males we see moving at lightning speeds on the trail. For me, it goes back to challenging the mainstream idea of who “true cyclists” are. When I ride my bike near my home, in Little Village or North Lawndale, I see Latinx or Black residents riding in mountain bikes and I remember just because they’re riding on the sidewalk or they’re going slower than me doesn’t mean they don’t deserve as much recognition as cyclists.

Granted, the Lakefront Trail represents a convergence of all types of cyclists. From the Lycra guys to young people on fixed-gears, from tourists on Divvies to families with young children, it’s one of the few spaces in Chicago where people can ride bikes without the danger and stress of interacting with car traffic. It is one of my favorite parts of Chicago and I think many would agree it’s theirs too.

Within the convergence of people sharing space on the trail, there needs to be intentionality. Perhaps it’s also necessary to move beyond the concept of a trail being a space we must move through as quickly as possible. Rather, the trail, however long or short a stretch or it you choose to experience, is a space where you can escape from motorized traffic. It’s a space to find peace and joy.

Many of us in Chicago, especially on the South and West Sides live in neighborhoods where safe streets for biking are hard to find. That makes car-free spaces like the Lakefront Trail so important, and that’s why it’s vital to always consider whether we are making room for others as we ride.

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  • johnaustingreenfield

    Probably my fault if that was confusing, since I was the copy editor. I’ve tweaked the language to make it more clear.

  • mike w.

    Reader realizes “Humans are involved.” Sighs, shrugs… rides off down a side street…

  • hopeyglass

    what up @johnaustingreenfield:disqus? this seems pretty hateful! Just a thought.

  • Jenna Olson

    re 4:
    you mean every other cycling article out there?

    though I’m all for everyone paying attention on the LFP and being courteous to others. Pedestrians rarely pay attention on that path.

  • rohmen

    I’ve personally not seen a lot of articles “defending” the Lakefront Lance crowd. Quite the opposite, actually. The lycra crowd is pretty universally panned in terms of LFP-use in all of the Chicago publications I’ve seen, whether it’s the Trib, or something like Streesblog.

    So much so in fact that I think anyone in lycra on a road bike on the LFP is presumed to be an a-hole, though I think that reputation is entirely unfair when compared to the reality of a small number of road bike users that are acting truly dangerously. While there is a segment of roadies acting dangerous on the path, and they should be called out, there’s also a segment of users on the path that are going to get upset that roadies are passing them at a higher speed regardless of how safely the roadie is doing so. There’s a bit of the later in the feel of this article, IMHO.

  • Jenna Olson

    I meant most cycling articles in magazines, e-zines, or wherever, are written for a Lakefront Lance type of cyclist, whether that cyclist is actually on the Lakefront or not.

    I get it… those kinds of publications are trying to sell bicycles, accessories, and other gear. But cycling is so much more than that. I personally want everyone to feel comfortable cycling, whether they are in Lycra or not. I feel like most of the people commenting on this thread, want that as well. Just that last part re: 4 above kinda came off the wrong way to me.

    Cycling is for racing & Lycra dudes (and dudettes), sure, but also for commuting, fitness, pleasure riding with family/friends, touring, bike-camping, and more. It’s best when the community is as united as it can be (vs. divided).

  • Anne A

    Someone who doesn’t know you or your riding skills may not be comfortable with you making a close pass. Please respect that and give people a little more space. A few extra inches can make a big difference.

  • Anne A

    Please don’t be part of the problem.

  • Anne A

    Whether you’re walking, riding a bike, skating, etc. (whatever your race, ethnicity or gender), being mindful of where people are around you, giving them some space when passing and slowing/stopping if needed is really helpful if we’re all going to get where we’re going without crashes or injuries.

    If you ride fast, be mindful that everyone else on the path may not have your level of comfort with respect to riding or passing in close proximity. A few more inches of space can make a big difference. If you’re walking a dog, keep the leash short and don’t let your 4-legged pal be a tripping hazard for other people. A little courtesy goes a long way.

  • Anthro

    Exactly what makes these drivers a**holes? Car ownership? Driving instead of using transit (which is often not a choice for may commuters)? Using LSD instead of surface streets?

  • SANNSTO

    (1) You insulted me with a personal attack in your first response, so your “hate speech” complaint is a tad off the mark;

    (2) Criticizing the author, for denigrating white men as a group, to make a point about bike trail safety, is not “hateful”

  • johnaustingreenfield

    SANNSTO, please dial it back — your last comment is bordering on a personal attack on the author, which violates our comment moderation policy: http://chi.streetsblog.org/about/comment-moderation-policy/ Further comments along these lines will result in a ban from commenting.

    Moreover, you’re just plain wrong here. Lynda isn’t arguing that all white guys, or even all white guys in Lycra, biking on the LFT are jerks. She’s saying that, in her experience, the people biking too fast for conditions and/or being impatient with slower riders on the LFT tend to be white guys in Lyrca.

  • rduke

    >So much so in fact that I think anyone in lycra on a road bike on the LFP is presumed to be an a-hole

    This is absolutely true, and I’m tired of being prejudged based solely on what I wear, a desire I thought the whole intersectional feminism thing was supposed to support.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I agree. There’s presumably a reason why the standard on the street is giving three feet of space (even if we rarely get it).

  • Mark Twain

    The moderator here removes public opinions of an article attempting to gas light. Why is that, John?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Let me be the first to say that jerks in Lycra on road bikes on the LFT (ILORBOTLFT) represent a very small subset of all people ILORBOTLFT, and therefore people ILORBOTLFT, including white men, should not be stereotyped as being jerks.

    However, it does appear that ILORBOTLFT make up a fairly large subset of reckless and rude LFT cyclists. And I’d agree with Lynda’s assessment that jerks ILORBOTLFT tend to be white guys rather than women or people of color.

  • matoubrown

    “When I ride my bike near my home, in Little Village or North Lawndale, I see Latinx or Black residents riding in mountain bikes and I remember just because they’re riding on the sidewalk…doesn’t mean they don’t deserve as much recognition as cyclists.”

    I completely disagree with this statement. Bicycling on sidewalks is prohibited because it is dangerous to pedestrians. It’s contradictory to bemoan the admittedly bad behavior of some bicyclists on the LFT, while supporting the similarly bad behavior of bicyclists in neighborhoods.

  • hopeyglass

    ^ THANK YOU.

  • Hey I own and drive a car regularly on LSD. Emissions first and congestion second is what makes us a**holes. So yes you understand perfectly. Even if I were driving an electric car I would still qualify.

  • I am merely suggesting that those you refer to should be removed to a confiscated from cars lane or lanes of LSD.

  • rduke

    and what meaningful knowledge or conclusion can I draw from that observation?

    It’s still discrimination based on appearance and clothing, and it’s still wrong, no matter how much your prejudices may or may not jive with reality.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    In my opinion, the issue of reckless riding on the LFT is more of a gender than an ethnicity/race issue. Age-group can also be a factor. “MAMIL” (middle aged males in Lycra — or in jeans) captures both age and gender. And, yes, MAMILs can definitely be a menace on the LFT. However, groups of young, teen or college-aged daredevils/rowdies on fixies (also mostly male — though of many different ethnicities/races) can also be a menace. Economic class could also be analyzed as a factor. And while income group can of course align with ethnicity/race, it doesn’t de facto have to, and in a city like Chicago, there are lots of times it simply does not. Yes, rich folk can be, and often are, a pain-in-the-you-know-what, but the real issue with economic class is our late-Capitalist society’s acceptance — even promotion — of radical, destabilizing, inhumane, unjust, and unsustainable income inequality or wealth disparity, not rich people per se.

    If Roadies or would-be Roadies want to “train” on the LFT, then they need to get shiny backsides out there at 4 am. Then, they can sit around and drink lattes for breakfast, reminiscing about their PRs and FKTs. If trickster-hipster fixies want to daredevil their way, at high speeds, through crowds of people or of cars, they should only do so virtually on the video games they love so much :).

    Endangering others is always bad. The responsibility of everyone on the LFT and on Milwaukee, the 606, and in other and all public places is to keep themselves, and everyone else, safe, secure, and — hopefully — happy.

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