A couple of summers ago, my beau and I biked through Chicago from Logan Square to the Chicago Botanical Garden and back. It was a magical day: perfect weather, great company, and a lot of adventure.
We didn’t have any maps to guide us other than Google Maps and a vague idea of where the bike trails go. It turned out Google Maps was an excellent guide for taking us through the city. Once we figured out how to find the trail heads, we were golden.
The best part, at the end of a very long day, was coming back through Northwestern University’s gorgeous campus on the coast of Lake Michigan. We were a little lost, trying to find the trail head, when I looked up and saw the pristine Baha’i temple ahead, an imaginably ornate white dome bathed in pink against the bluest sky.
We pedaled in wonder, with the city and waterfront bathed in pink, until the sun set. We were exhausted, euphoric, and grateful to be witness to such a golden moment.
But back to Google Maps.
This trip was great fun, but in hindsight it felt reckless not to bring any other kinds of navigational equipment. We had our cell phones and our wits, and that’s all.
Rural bike trail.
City bike trail.
Doubling down on our recklessness, we repeated this plan — nothing navigational but our phones — on a trip in Elkhart County, Indiana, that Fall, doing a sixty mile loop including the Pumpkinvine Trail, a rural rail-to-trail line through Amish country. On both trips, the Google Maps app gave us clear directions which included the best route for cyclists, using designated bike trails when possible.
Tip: get an inexpensive stem mount to hold your phone for easy use while in the saddle. Your friends will make fun of it until you lead them home.
A guy I know wears an American flag jersey on his distance rides, and has anecdotally reported a sharp decrease in aggressive road incidents with angry drivers. Also, I once read that one of your best safety measures on the road is to ride without a helmet, with a mess of long blonde hair trailing behind you. If that isn’t loaded symbolism, I don’t know what is.
One London lady’s commute to work got weird this week when a man got incensed at her request for him not to walk in front of her while she crossed the street — which seems wise — and he chose to chase after her and push her off of her bike into traffic. Lucky for her, it was caught on her GoPro. She submitted the video to police, and the man turned himself in after the video went viral. A friend sent along this essay about biking and feminism, written in response to this London woman’s story and the number of people cheering her attacker on social media:
The first time I cycled from my front door to the sea (a ride of about 65 miles thanks to a particularly poor map) I stood on the beach, looked out at a bending blue horizon and realised that I had reached the very edge of the country using nothing more than my thighs, sweat and gears. I felt like Tessie Reynolds, the 16-year-old girl who shocked 19th-century England by cycling from London to Brighton and back in eight hours, wearing knee-length breeches. I felt like Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst cycling around Manchester and London agitating their female comrades. I remembered the words of the American suffrage campaigner Susan B Anthony: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling: I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
From suffragettes to midwives, Olympians to resistance fighters, commuters to campaigners, the history of the bicycle runs like a dual carriageway alongside the history of feminism. Cycling put us in trousers, let us pass messages behind the frontline, stood us on podiums, helped us mobilise in the streets, took us out of our conscribed domestic sphere and taught us the thrill of having the wind in our eyes. Despite the warnings from AD Shadwell published in 1897, our wombs did not fall out, we did not suffer dementia and we avoided the “bulging eyes” and “tightened mandible” that characterised the dreaded (and entirely fictional) “bike face”.
And we are good cyclists. Many of those victim-blaming on Twitter were keen to point out that cyclists jump red lights, cycle on pavements or hog the road. To which I say yes, sometimes, we do. The mayor of London does, the prime minister does and probably I have too. Primarily because I don’t want to be accidentally crushed by an HGV – one of the few road casualties that disproportionately affects women, too timid to overtake on the right or pull ahead, out of a driver’s blind spot. But the urge to push a woman off her bike while calling her a mug and shouting in her face has very little, if anything, to do with road hogs and red lights.
I’m still not certain why cycling is reserved an extra-special level of hatred that other modes of transportation are not. I think many people see cyclists as a sub-culture, and perceive people with gear (even so little as a helmet) to be road warriors, and believe road warriors don’t respect the rules of the road, so why, it follows, respect a person on a bike?
His film, BIKELANTIS, is an exploration of how cycling changes communities. The documentary explores more than 20 cities and looks at bike shops, bike sharing, city planning, competition, advocacy, bike touring and many other topics affecting cyclists nationwide. BIKELANTIS envisions a bike universe with a strong sense of community that is part of a healthier, creative lifestyle with global capacity for compassion between neighbors, and ultimately bike friendliness. Lafayette, Indiana, is featured as a vibrant cycling community where biking is evolving into a community force.
While Manny is no longer with us, his dream to uncover and redeem this Bikelantis-Utopia lives on. Manny was an artist, philosopher, visionary, and adventurer. Because he found beauty where it’s often overlooked, his film is uniquely precious and powerful.
We are committed to completing this very important film, and seek your contribution to financially assist the post-production process. These finishing funds will provide every audience with a film that encourages each viewer to #livelikemanny, and strive for a better way of living together. BIKELANTIS reminds us of our own potential to inspire and be inspired, and to create positive change.
With your help, the film will be completed and available for screening by the end of 2014.
On a personal note, as mentioned above, Manny was a real cheerleader for the Greater Lafayette area, and helped us brainstorm what this site was going to be long before it ever started. He was one of our first writers and collaborators, and many of us had deep, personal relationships with him that are sorely missed. He passed away unexpectedly this Spring.
Because of this, this is a pointed request for you to come out and celebrate him and his vision with us, and help make this movie happen. There will be live music, a cash bar, and activities for children as well. Entry is free, but a donation is suggested.
There are so many pieces out there about riding with young kids, but not many about riding with older kids, so when I started riding with my older child, a young teenager, I felt like we were on the steep end of the learning curve. The Big Kid learned to ride a bike when he was little, had no issues with balance, distance, or speed, but I found that street riding in a more serious way was an exercise in parent-child anxiety. I was constantly yelling, “STOP!” “GO!” “WATCH OUT!” “OMG!” and freaking out about nearby drivers, intersections, and near-accidents, which inspired a serious lack of confidence in BK.
Confidence and safety go very much hand in hand on the road. The two things I noticed that were crucial to his success as a new cyclist were:
If riding bikes with a toddler is about having the right gear, riding bikes with a teenager is about having gear that is both for safety and for confidence.
Convincing him that a helmet was a necessity and not a fashion item was the first hurdle. Admittedly I was not the best role model until we started riding on a regular basis. Once I had some real solo experience on the road — and with the aggression of drivers — we wore helmets. No excuses, no exceptions.
Another crucial step was finding a bike that fits his body. Teenagers seem to grow inches overnight. They are constantly growing. Can’t keep this kid in shoes or jeans. While he once was fine on a youth bike, very suddenly he was too tall for it and required an adult bike — but still one small and light enough to fit his frame. We went through several used bike configurations* before finding one that was comfortable that he could navigate with feet on the ground at stops, and that he could start easily at intersections. That said, some cool lights, some bike stickers, and a helmet that didn’t make him feel dorky were pretty important too.
KNOWING THE RULES OF THE ROAD
At some point I realized that in order for him to feel confident on the road, I had to get myself to a level where I was confident and knowledgeable myself. I started reading bike blogs, paying more attention to the local biking advocacy group, and asking annoying questions at my local bike shop. I also had to learn the local laws of the road and get familiar with using turn signals and taking the lane.
As I learned these rules, I’d pass them on as we were riding together. With practice, BK began signaling his movements and taking the lane alongside me. He knew what to to at stop signs and stoplights and when a car was approaching in any direction. He got comfortable in bike lanes on busier stretches of road, and began to learn the side streets in our section of town. I haven’t given him carte blanche freedom to go wherever he wants by bicycle, but I’m confident in his skills.
OTHER RELATED OBSERVATIONS
This time riding together has made us closer. This is the time we have to be fun and playful together, to race, to joke, to tease one another about our skills (i.e. “Mom is so slow”), and leave behind stern conversations about life and school and household responsibilities.
The confidence = safety factor was never clearer to me than the day we added another teen to our bike crew that didn’t have the experience we do. The addition of an inexperienced, hesitant rider to our group made us all less confident and more jumpy on the road. Over the course of the ride, BK and the other teen were commiserating about how to ride, where to go, and what to do, which bolstered the other teen over the course of the outing. BK got to be the authority and teach his buddy some of what he knew. It turned out to be a really fun day. Which is to say, as I always do, that it’s beneficial to all to build one another up rather than leave one another behind.
All this said, before I sat down to write this post, I googled a lot about teenagers and bikes and found that most of the top stories online are of drivers targeting teen cyclists for violence nationwide. Kids are shot at and run off the road for the offense of sharing the lane. This is terrifying. It both underlines the need to educate the greater public about cyclist safety and road rights, and emphasizes the pervasive social enmity we have against teens and older children. Even living in a bike-friendly — or bike-friendlier — community, we have experienced some scary interactions with angry and/or ignorant drivers that remind me that no matter how safe and knowledgeable we are out there, we are always at the will of the people behind the wheel. My job as a parent is to make sure that BK knows how to minimize that risk on the road as a cyclist, and later as a driver as well.
If you’ve considered riding bikes with a toddler, you know the needs and options for outfitting yourself for a ride can be overwhelming. When wee Baby Cletus turned about a year old, I located a helmet that fit her head and promptly began sourcing iBerts on Craigslist. I liked the idea a lot — baby rides in front between your arms, you can talk and communicate with each other without yelling into the wind. It worked great last year when she was still small, but it didn’t work out all that well this year, now that she’s big, she hit the terrible twos, and has big opinions.
This year my knees bumped up against the iBert seat and I had to pedal with my legs akimbo. My chest kept bumping into the back of the girl’s head, and she took that as an invitation to play the fun game “Head Butt Mom in the Sternum While She Struggles to Pedal Uphill.” Back on Craigslist, I found a gently used Schwinn cart that I can pull behind the bike. It’s the best thing that happened to us this summer.
I’m not racing, I’m not riding trails, we’re looking to get out of the house and see the world. My bike isn’t that great. My friends with money and willpower are riding around on $2K road bikes, but a Craigslisted Wal-Mart Schwinn does all right.
If you’re like me and get embarrassed and apologetic about your uncool bike from the big box store, remember: The best bike for you is the one that fits your body and your lifestyle. Does it feel good? Good. Don’t let the bike snobs side-eye you out of a ride.
We don’t use anything fancy. A bike, good helmets, a headlight and a flashing tail light in case we’re riding at dusk, and a smallish backpack to carry my phone and wallet. I spent maybe $200 for the complete set-up, a mixture of used and new. Once it’s all set up, it just sits in the garage taking up all my parking space, ready to go.
Note: If you don’t have storage, garage, or shed space handy for gear, be prepared to find space not only for a bike but something roughly the size of a small armchair.
The cart is pretty fantastic. The aluminum frame is covered with colorful canvas and has reflective lights attached to the front and back. On the outside, two large flaps lift up in the front and back to give you access to the child seating area and the “trunk.” These attach securely with snaps and velcro. The “trunk” is large enough to carry a couple of bags of groceries or a large tote bag. The seating area can fit 1-2 children and has a five point buckle for each child. Each child has access to a spandex cup holder and a little pocket for snacks and toys. The front flap can be used with open air mesh, or with a second solid plastic flap in case of rain.
Here’s what Baby Cletus discovered very quickly. She can either ride on the front of my bike and cuddle/headbutt mom, or she can ride in the rainbow chariot with a snack, a drink, and an entourage of stuffed animals. Which one do you think won out?
Baby Cletus doesn’t like to sit at home and she is happiest outdoors. Riding bikes is perfect for her needs and temperament. She has a routine she likes to do to get ready for the ride: shoes, snack (cereal, dried fruit), drink, toy(s), bike hat (helmet), all of which provide plenty of entertainment when we’re on a boring stretch of road.
We talk about everything we see on the ride, including birds, dogs, cats, trucks, construction equipment, funny sounds, fountains, trees, flowers, road, rocks, you name it. I usually try to have a destination for our rides, like a small park or a business or landmark. Living near a university campus means there are a lot of restaurants, fountains, statues, and businesses nearby. A ride to the library is always pleasant. Occasionally we pick up another neighbor kid and ride around (which is an extra 60+ lbs for me to haul and quite a workout).
Biking is the magic touch for her. Baby Cletus can be quite a handful and sometimes going out is a crapshoot as to whether or not you’re going to have to apologize to a restaurant/library full of people for her dramatic toddler displays of temper! discontent! and indignation! But these bike rides? She loves them! Which is why we do it almost every day. There are places to see, people to meet, and many fountains to run through. We go places by bike, and we’re happier for it.
About Lauren Bruce
Lauren Bruce is the founder of the award-winning blog Feministe, and co-founder of local magazine Think Lafayette (RIP 2011-2016). She loves Twitter, bikes, kids, animals, cooking, yarn, gardening, politics, and the auction hustle. For more, see her bio and greatest hits.