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Community Bike Rides

The Tour de Illinois: Riding the perimeter of the Prairie State on Chicago’s West Side

Last Sunday, about 50 riders drew the outline of the Land of Lincoln by bicycling along Chicago's Historic Boulevard system.

Last Sunday’s route map. Image: Robby Kanyur, used with permission

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

"The goal today is to trace the outline of the shape of Illinois," said Kenny Labbé, a Chicagoland resident who rides bikes and is the announcer for the Chicago Cross Cup, to a few dozen people at the start of a ride last Sunday afternoon.

The winding 17-mile route, which organizers dubbed the "Tour de Illinois," started and ended in Humboldt Park and traced the state's outline. The route took riders across the West Side, through a handful of neighborhoods and through parks along Chicago's Historic Boulevard system

Ride coordinator Kenny Labbé discussing the plan and sharing safety best practices with participants. Photo: AJ LaTrace

"Everybody look out for each other," Labbé said. "Don’t be aggressive, but be assertive. You have a right to be there. We are not blocking traffic. We are traffic."

Pedestrians shouted and drivers beeped their horns in excitement about the group passing by Parson's Chicken & Fish on Armitage Avenue in Logan Square. Photo: AJ LaTrace
A state outline as Strava art

The idea to design a route shaped like Illinois started as an inside joke, but quickly gained interest across social media and spread through word of mouth. The weekend’s unseasonably warm weather certainly helped. Roughly 50 people participated in the ride, Labbé told Streetsblog.

Labbé said the inspiration to do the map came after seeing a social media post where a cyclist shared a bike ride that traced the outline of France within Paris city limits. Apps like Strava have popularized offbeat rides that trace a shape or outline of objects, animals or places via GPS tracking.

And after putting out a challenge to fellow cyclocross folks in a Facebook group, Labbé didn’t have to wait long. "I was like, 'Hey, I’ll give $3 to anybody who does the shape of Illinois inside of Chicago and $5 if you include landmarks."

Fellow cyclocross racers Robby Kanyur and Matthew Scott presented a design to the group after riding the route during Presidents’ Day weekend to get a feel for it. "I did get them back and they got paid," Labbé said jokingly of the $5 reward he provided to Kanyur and Scott for the route.

A ride through Illinois in Chicago

But more than looking like the outline of the state, the route offered a contrast between Chicago’s lush, sprawling parks and some of the city’s industrial corridors. To a non-Illinoisan or for someone visiting our city from downstate, the ride offered an up-close look at Chicago’s neighborhood fabric, vernacular architecture, and the diverse residents who make up the city.

And that was kind of the point, Kanyur told Streetsblog. "It's almost the perfect illustration that in following the border of the state, we saw a cross section of all these things — culture, economy, neighborhoods, and architecture — along the path less traveled."

The group passing by the historic St. Mary of the Angels church in Bucktown. Photo: AJ LaTrace

"Even if we hadn't drawn the outline of Illinois with that route, that’s a ride I’d do again," Kanyur added. "It passes a lot of interesting landmarks and goes through the majority of the major parks on the West Side: Union Park, Douglass Park, Garfield Park, and Humboldt Park. And it passes [the nonprofit bike shop] Working Bikes, which is a cornerstone of the Chicago bike community."

Throughout the route, residents across various neighborhoods cheered on the ride. Some people on foot shouted "Happy Sunday!" (possibly inspired by the "Happy Friday!" cries that are common on Chicago's monthly Critical Mass ride) back to bike riders, while drivers beeped horns in support.

Labbé, who helped coordinate with others to ensure safety while passing through intersections and keeping the group together, highlighted the excitement that greeted the ride.

"When people literally call out to you and wish you well — that’s the kind of energy we crave in a city," he said. "What we see is the humanity and we see that everybody just wants to be happy on a Sunday night. It’s their neighborhood and we're just passing through and everybody was feeding off of each other's energy."

The ride passed by The Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, which was packed with other bicyclists and pedestrians on the unusually warm day. Photo: AJ LaTrace
Open source bike advocacy

Another key theme that Labbé and Kanyur highlighted was that Sunday’s ride was loosely organized. While Labbé took the lead initially with picking a date and time, there was no real leader and no formal affiliation with any groups or clubs. And while the route originated within cyclocross circles, the pace was kept to a moderate 12 miles per hour to accommodate all types of cyclists. 

"This was not a training ride," Kanyur said. "This was just a bike ride. We went out on a beautiful day and we rode bikes together."

The map is available out there for anyone to ride and enjoy, solo or otherwise. And there’s nothing stopping anyone else from sharing a unique or fun route with others or planning a group outing, he added. 

One couple rode a tandem during the 17-mile ride around the city's West Side. Photo: AJ LaTrace

There certainly is a safety-in-numbers factor when it comes to bicycling in groups, particularly on arterial roads and boulevards, Labbé said. But there should also be a focus on having fun, and being outgoing and friendly to bystanders, while out with a group, he added.

"While this all started out just trying to trace the shape of Illinois in Chicago, we connected with some of the communities," Labbé said. "We engaged with people on the side of the road asking us what we were doing. 'We’re riding around Illinois!'"

And Labbé emphasized that simply going for a ride together is particularly empowering because it highlights the fact that that people on bikes have as much right to be on the road as anyone else. "I meant what I said: We’re not blocking traffic. We are traffic." 

Editor's note: I've bicycled the entire actual perimeter of Illinois in several sections, using our state's relatively extensive and bike-friendly Amtrak system to access parts of the border. Here's a write-up of a trip from Golgonda to Cairo, the southernmost town in the state, via Amtrak to and from Carbondale, from Streetsblog Chicago cofounder Steven Vance's and my previous website Grid Chicago. - John Greenfield

More photos of last Sunday's ride by AJ LaTrace

Passing by the freshly renovated historic Cook County Hospital. Photo: AJ LaTrace
The group riding through Pilsen at dusk. Photo: AJ LaTrace
Church steeples rise over Pilsen. Photo: AJ LaTrace
Passing into Little Village and heading towards Douglass Park. Photo: AJ LaTrace
The ride entering Douglass Park for a break and a group photo before turning lights on and finishing the route. Photo: AJ LaTrace
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