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“No one bikes in Chicago during the winter!” Part Two: Great turnout for Critical Mass Polka Ride despite 39F rain

The January 26 ride on Michigan Avenue south of Chicago Avenue, looking south. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

This post is sponsored by Ride Illinois.

As I explained in Part One of this series, my writeup of the Churros and Chill Ride on the controversial Dickens Avenue Neighborhood Greenway, the statement in the first half of this title of this title was typed with an ironic wink. But the argument that bike lanes get little or no use during Chicago's colder months, so we shouldn't fund them, is a frequent refrain by car-centric commenters on Streetsblog Chicago Facebook posts about new bikeways.

An example of what I'm talking about. (In addition, there's plenty of evidence that [see 1:15 in this clip] Chicago's protected bike lanes aren't causing problems for first responders.)

For starters, the notion that the city shouldn't invest in bike lanes if they're only used during the warmer months is ridiculous. These same commenters surely wouldn't agree that, since very few people drive to Chicago's beaches during the dead of winter, there should be zero car parking spaces there.

Moreover, the idea that no one uses Chicago bike lanes during colder weather is easily debunked. Sure, not everybody rides a bicycle year-round. But some 100 people turned out for the January Chicago Critical Mass bike protest/parade, despite a moderate rainstorm and a low of 39F.

For those unfamiliar, Critical Mass is a worldwide movement of bike rides promoting safer cycling conditions. Here in Chicago, the monthly event started in 1997, and still meets every last Friday of the month around 6 PM in Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St. all year, rain or shine. During the summer, it sometimes draws thousands of participants.

Critical Mass riders execute a “Chicago Holdup” at North, Damen, and Milwaukee avenues in Wicker Park, looking northeast, during the first monthly ride on September 5, 1997. Photo: James Warden

A longtime Chicago Critical Mass tradition is the Polka Ride, which has taken place for decades. For the first few years, the group would ride more than a dozen miles southwest from the plaza to the Baby Doll Polka Club, 6102 S Central Ave., across the street from Midway Airport. This was before climate change really kicked in, so some of these long rides were quite cold.

There the participants partied with The Polkaholics, a rock trio I've nicknamed "The Polka Kings of Chicago." The Baby Doll eventually stopped hosting live music, so the ride was moved to other parts of town in subsequent years, like long-gone Lincoln Square Lanes, which was located at Lincoln and Western avenues. Check out a montage of the 2008 Polka Ride to the bowling alley by Steven Lane below.

The Polka Ride was back-burnered when COVID-19 hit Chicago. But four years after the Polkaholics played their last indoor gig, which was the January 2020 Critical Mass destination, they were finally willing to play their first show inside a tavern since the pandemic arrived. They booked a concert on Friday, January 26, 2024 at Fuller's Pub, 3203 W. Irving Park Rd. in the Irving Park community.

Since the date coincided with the January Critical Mass, a Polka Ride route map was proposed that stair-stepped about 10 miles northwest from Daley Plaza to the venue, visiting a few notable new safe streets installations along the way. In addition to stopping at the tavern, the plan included a riverfront bonfire at nearby Clark Park.

New bikeways the route visited included:

Dearborn Street protected bike lanes on the Near North Side

• Dickens Avenue traffic diverter and Neighborhood Greenway in Lincoln Park

• The Leavitt Street Greenway in North Center.

• Belmont Avenue PBLs in Lakeview and Avondale

Maybe it was due to the revival of the Polka Ride ride, or perhaps because 39 degrees seemed downright balmy compared to the -9F temperatures Chicago experienced less than two weeks earlier. But there was a big turnout at Daley Plaza that Friday night in spite of the rain, which makes cold-weather biking especially challenging. In such conditions, good rain gear and/or fenders are key for a comfortable ride.

Here's a quick "Eyes on the Street" gallery of photos and video from the evening.

Heading north of State Street. Photo: Samantha Schneider.
Critical Mass rounds the Midcentury Modern BP station at Eugenie Street, LaSalle Drive, and Clark Street in Old Town, looking southeast. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
Riding west towards the traffic diverter from Stockton Drive in Lincoln Park on Dickens. Photo: Samatha Schneider
Riders outside Fuller's Pub, looking west Photo: John Greenfield

After the bike riders arrived, The Polkaholics sang the following shout-out to them. Michael Burton, who cofounded Chicago Critical Mass more than 26 years ago, danced along.

"Critical Mass, Critical Mass, get on your bikes and kick some ass.

Tell those cars that they have to share the road. Those gas-guzzlers have got to go!

Critical Mass, Critical Mass, you've got the greatest legs in town.

Let's make a toast to the group with the most, here's to Critical Mass!"

Then the floor filled up for The Polkaholics' rendition of "The Chicken Dance".

The party continued with more music at the Horner Park bonfire.

Photo: Samantha Schneider

A great time was had by all on the Polka Ride, despite the rainy start. It just goes to show that the notion Chicago shouldn't invest in safe bike lanes, because no one uses them during the colder months, is nonsense.

Moreover, if we build a citywide network of low-stress bikeways, and maintain them well, even more people will discover the joy of all-season cycling. Besides being a great way to beat the winter blues, cold-weather bike commuting saves Chicagoans time and money; helps them stay healthy; and reduces congestion and pollution. I'll raise a toast to that!

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