With the mercury beginning its precipitous fall, some of us will alter our lifestyles in very significant ways. For one Chicagoan however, it will be business as usual. Dottie Brackett, famed blogger behind Let’s Go Ride A Bike, will continue cycling around the city in rain, shine, sleet, and snow. funsherpa sits down with Dottie to find out how she survives year round cycling, and debunks some bikie misconceptions.
Cycling Chicago with Dottie Brackett
F: Why write about bikes? What fascinates you about the topic?
D: Interesting question, I had not thought of it from that perspective: that I am fascinated by bikes. The word “fascinated” is accurate, but I would modify “by bikes” to be “by the simply bicycling lifestyle.” A few different factors intersect to create and sustain this fascination. First, the bicycle is an aesthetically perfect creature. Taking pictures of bikes and noticing others happily riding bikes brings beauty into my life, unpolluted by the notion of beauty forced on us by the media. Second, bicycling is fun. Whether the sun or the snow is in my face, the experience always makes me feel alive, like a child again. Experiencing such a simple thrill every morning and evening as my commute is priceless. Finally, the bicycle represents the sort of simple life that we often have to forgo to live in the city. Careers are stressful, relationships are complicated, and we are urged to reach for bigger, better, more. The simplicity of the bicycle allows me to use my own two legs to accomplish the simple and pleasant task of getting from one place to another.
These three factors come together to foster my love for the simple bicycling lifestyle, and, in turn, I want to write about the topic to share my experiences with others. The idea of bicycling for transportation is only now reemerging in the States after a long hibernation. More people are starting to consider the bicycle, and by showing them that I am a regular woman who gets around on my bike wearing regular clothes, I show them that they can do it, too. That message is the basic concept behind the website that my friend Trisha and I created.
F: Can you share with us some common misconceptions about the Chicago biker?
D: The biggest misconception is that we are a pack of outlaws. “The Chicago biker” could be anyone – gender, race, age and profession are all up for grabs. We are human beings with parents, spouses, children and friends, who simply want to get from one place to another safely on our own two wheels. I certainly do not fit into the stereotypical mold, and most people who know me in a professional capacity have no idea that I ride my bike everywhere.
F: Drivers usually think of bikers as a nuisance while bikers seem to dread the crazy Chicago drivers – how can we all have peace on the road?
D: Peace on the road would require a fundamental shift in how everyone perceives the city and his or her place in it. With so many people squeezed into one area, we cannot be selfish. Being in a rush is never a reason to put someone’s life at risk. I always defer to pedestrians, and drivers should defer to bicyclists, because the person with the greater power for harm bears the most responsibility.
A driver may think that a bicyclist is selfish simply by riding in the street, because the driver may have to slow down to pass the bicyclist safely. There is nothing I can say to a person like that – our mind sets are too radically different. That said, the vast majority of Chicago drivers are very kind. For every driver who honks at me or cuts me off, there are 500 drivers who treat me like a human being, with patience and respect.
F: You are a year-round biker. How difficult was it to transition to biking in cold or unpleasant weather? Do you ever miss having a car?
D: My winter cycling habit always shocks people. I want to spread the word that it’s no big deal. Really. I grew up in North Carolina, so I’m no snow bunny. Last winter was only my second Chicago winter and my first winter bicycling. A year ago, I did not know whether I would be able to continue through the winter, but I loved cycling and couldn’t imagine my daily life without my bicycle. I decided that I would take it one day at a time and see what happened. As the weather grew colder, I added more layers. Snow boots. Heavy duty gloves. Ear muffs. Scarves. Wool socks. Geeky safety glasses. I realized that instead of freezing, I was actually overheating: since my body warms itself by pedaling, I need fewer clothes for my 7 mile bike ride than for my wait on the el train platform. Also, I bought studded tires and never worried about ice.
The beauty of winter cycling is remaining connected to nature. For most people, Chicago winter weather is cold, cold, and more cold. A winter cyclists is tuned in to all the subtle changes in weather: which direction is the wind blowing, is it foggy or sharp, snowing or clear, warm (15 degrees) or cold (0 degrees)? As a bonus, the lakefront is stunningly gorgeous in the winter and the park district keeps the trail plowed.
I never miss having a car. If someone offered me a Mercedes and free parking downtown, I would reject the offer in favor of my bicycle. I find that a personal car is completely unnecessary for my city life. Plus, I no longer pay for a car loan, gas, insurance or city sticker, and I make money by renting my garage space to a neighbor.
F: Lets say you worked for a marketing firm tasked with getting Chicagoans to switch over from cars to bikes – what would you do?
D: I would use all the tactics that automobile advertisers use. They show the car as sexy, safe, freeing, fun, attractive, normal, necessary. In my experience, these adjectives describe bicycling more accurately than driving, especially in the city. Bicycling delivers the kind of freedom that car advertising promises. We need images of successful and happy people on bikes dressed nicely, going on dates, smiling and laughing. Exposure to such images, like those on Copenhagen Cycle Chic, is necessary to show the public the possibilities that the bicycle presents. Most women here have no idea that riding a bike with a skirt and heels is easy; that bicycling does not have to be a sport; and that the bicyclist does not have to get sweaty.
F: What makes a bike ‘sexy’ to you?
D: Flushed skin, fast heartbeats, fresh air, healthy bodies, strong legs – what’s not sexy about bicycling?
F: What are some of your favorite bike paths or routes?
D: The Lakefront Trail is by far my favorite cycling route, with Lake Michigan on one side and the skyline on the other – and no cars. I also enjoy Ravenswood from Addison north; it follows the Metra tracks and therefore there is little cross-traffic. Most city streets are perfectly fine for cycling, except major routes such as Ashland, Irving Park, Sheridan and the like.
F: Aside from biking, what other things do you enjoy doing in Chicago?
D: I’ve always longed to move to a big city, as far back as I can remember. I don’t take it for granted now that I’m here, and spend a lot of my free time exploring different neighborhoods. Each area has distinctive characteristics, so I park my bicycle and wander around on foot to check out the stores and cafes. Millennium Park is a favorite destination of mine and I always know I’ll have a nice day hanging out there.
F: What neighborhood do you live in?
D: I live in West Lakeview, and there is so much goodness all around me. Dinkels Bakery, Pho’s Hot and Spicy Thai, Four Moon Tavern, El Tapatio Café and a little further up the road, Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Haystack Vintage and the Book Cellar.
F: Where are the biker ‘hang-outs’ in the city?
D: The idea of “biker hang-outs” goes back to misconceptions. I am not a member of any biker gang; most of my friends do not use bicycles as their primary form of transportation. Some places you can find me hanging out after a ride are the ballet, the Shakespeare Theater, thrift stores, book stores and coffee shops