The Chainlink

Sometimes We Cyclists Bring It On Ourselves

By Brett Ratner

I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with some friends and fellow Chainlink members in Barrington Hills for a bit of riding.

If you haven't ridden there before, you're in for a treat. Rolling terrain, scenic horse farms, natural prairie restorations, and smooth roads. To sweeten the pot, the area is easily accessible by Metra's Northwest Line (get off at the Barrington stop). And when you get hungry and thirsty, you can swing by The Onion Pub & Brewery for refreshments.

If there's a downside, it's that many residents of Barrington Hills have been vocal about their dislike for cyclists, and in reaction to this, the village decided to crack down

Specifically, police have been patrolling and ticketing cyclists for violations like rolling through intersections and impeding car traffic by riding three abreast. In addition, peppered through the village are ominous-looking signs stating that local ordinances require you to ride single file.

If that's not bad enough, recent proposals to add bike lanes in Barrington Hills were met with significant public resistance via a grassroots anti-bike campaign.

This ain't Copenhagen, son.

So, with the sun shining, I was looking forward to some nice riding, but also bracing myself for potential unpleasant interactions with local motorists and law enforcement.

As I typically do for leisurely weekend adventures, I wore non-cycling-specific clothing, and grabbed my commuter/touring bike with panniers. The bags allow me to easily carry locks and tools, plus extra layers of clothing and rain gear should the weather turn sour. It's neither light nor aero, but it's a setup that lets me feel comfortable both on and off the bike.

We spent several hours pedaling through the area, making sure to stop at intersections and ride close to the shoulder when cars were present.

To my surprise, our encounters with motorists were more than amiable. Perhaps recognizing that we were doing our part to share the road, they responded in kind by slowing down, giving us lots of space when they passed, and some offering friendly waves as they went by.

As it turned out, the only unpleasant encounter of the day was with a pair of cyclists.

With our bellies full of The Onion's excellent chili and chicken wings, we were lumbering through the final 10 miles of our trip.

Working our way up a slight incline, the aforementioned cyclists passed us, and shortly thereafter, we caught them at a stop light.

I'd describe them as affluent dudes in their mid 40s on high-end road bikes. Both were tall, fit, and looked like earlier in life they played high school sports like football. One was wearing those knee-high compression socks favored by triathletes. The other was wearing a replica polka dot "King of the Mountain" jersey.

If I was the type who might silently judge a fellow rider (no comment), I might describe them as a couple of "Freds." I'm just saying this hypothetically.

As it turned out, I was being judged as well.

"What you got in those bags?" Mr. Socks mutters at me, punctuated with a smug expression behind his mirrored Oakleys.

A little shocked, I tried to ignore the question, and change the subject. "They have some really nice roads out here," I responded.

He wasn't letting it go. "Are those for your kids? They look like little kids' backpacks." He followed this with a chuckle, presumably to congratulate himself on his biting, middle-school-level sarcasm.

The saddle bags that caused all this trouble (photo by Chainlinker Tenzin Will) 

In his defense, my Arkel GT-18 panniers are a cartoon dinosaur graphic away from looking like a child's backpack (due to their size and shape). But at this point, I was paralyzed, trying to wrap my head around why a person I don't know is confronting me at a stoplight, trying to make me feel badly about having carrying capacity on my bike. Do my bags offend him? Am I a horrible person for not wanting stuff bulging out of my pockets, or for wanting space to potentially take home a growler of beer? What is his end game here? Is he trying to be funny but is just socially awkward, or is putting people off balance his way of getting the upper hand in life?

Completely flummoxed, all I could muster at this point was an awkwardly-worded response. It was a fumbling, meandering sentence about "roadies always trying to start something."

He and Mr. KOM responded with an uncomfortable laugh. He also seemed to backpedal a bit, but still wouldn't let it go. "Are you going on a trip?"

I responded with another dud, something about that I "left my Tri bike at home."

At this point there was a break in the cars, and they pedaled off, against the traffic light.

After they disappeared over the next hill, I literally spent the next hour thinking up sweet burns I could have laid on him if I had my wits about me.

Then I took a step back and thought about the situation, and how it might relate to the residents of Barrington Hills. What I came up with is this: Sometimes, we cyclists are the ones to blame for our image problems.

To be clear, it's not lost on me that most vehement bicycle opponents in Barrington Hills are likely self-centered "NIMBY's" who want to drive their luxury vehicles without pesky people in their way using, you know, public roads. I really doubt any of these people ride a bike, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them get in their cars to fetch the mail at the end of their long, gated driveways. So to be honest, I couldn't care less if a pack of cyclists makes them arrive a Woodfield Mall 30 seconds later than planned.

But the flip side is this: A lot of the time, I too am a "Fred" in my own right. You'll never see me in triathlon socks (unless I was in a triathlon), and I'd never wear the jersey of something I didn't actually win, but I do wear Lycra kits and go out on the same type of high-speed, aggressive group training rides the residents of Barrington Hills hate so much. And I have personally seen drivers get frustrated (and even intimidated) by dozens of dudes and ladies hopped up on adrenaline in a pack going 30 mph, acting like we own the place.

The same can be said about Chicago's Lakefront Path, where so-called "lakefront Lances" can be spotted doing tempo rides in dangerous proximity to pedestrians, including small children and dogs.

What I'm saying is when I'm in roadie mode, riding a road bike, wearing Lycra clothes, motorists are probably predisposed to disliking me, and in some instances they have valid reasons to harbor prejudice.

But when I'm in roadie mode, guys like Mr. KOM and his buddy Mr. Socks will always treat me with utmost respect.

Then, when I go out with some friends for an easy ride and a lunch stop, dressed in normal clothing, motorists treat me as an equal owner of the road...and suddenly I'm the object of some Fred's derision.

And this is not an isolated incident. Whenever I'm wearing the costume, roadies and triathletes treat me as one of their own. But on many occasions, when I've been out on a sensible bike, dressed like literally 99% of the world's cycling population, spandex-clad people I've never met before have felt the need to offer their unsolicited opinions on my gear. 

To me, this indicates a complete lack of understanding that most of the world uses bikes to carry groceries, run errands, ride to work, and perform all sorts of tasks that don't involve dressing like a spaceman and doing intervals in an effort to boost your functional threshold power.

It also seems to indicate some insecurity. Maybe on some level, roadies in the U.S. are not entirely comfortable riding around in what's essentially underwear. And if I'm not out there dressed in my undies too, then I'm a potential threat. Maybe it's a bit like high school where we felt the need to cling to people who looked and acted the same as we did.

Anyway, I guess this stoplight conversation would be like me getting in a sports car, rolling up next to a guy in a practical SUV, and inquiring why his vehicle has cargo room and all wheel drive. "Are you crossing the Sahara in that thing?" I could ask.

So what I'm driving at is this: If cyclists (particularly competitive cyclists) want to enjoy the few areas around Chicago where there are nice roads, we need to stop being douche bags.

First and foremost, we need to find ways to get in our hard rides while also being nicer and more conscientious to drivers.

Second of all, we need to be nicer and more conscientious to cyclists of all types. When it comes down to it, just being on a bike makes us a minority in this country. It would behoove us to find common ground between cyclists rather than focus on our differences.

Lastly, if we competitive cyclists want people to not make fun of our spandex, acknowledge the importance we place on fitness, and respect our rights to legally use public roads to train, we need to acknowledge that other people have their own equally valid needs, and ways of doing things.

And if you want to judge, fine, but keep it to yourself. Better yet, shut your mouth, pin on a race number, and let your legs do the talking.

And to Mr. Compression Socks and Mr. KOM: If I see you again, rest assured I will be prepared with a full array of burns, and a burning desire to drop you on the first hill we encounter.

About the author:

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago TribuneThe Nashville TennesseanThe Nashville SceneGuitar Player, and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums, and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Smart Bike Parts on May 30, 2016 at 10:30pm

Very interesting read. Regarding Barrington Hills laws I believe they came about around 5 years ago when a vehicle pulling a horse trailer passed the cycling club Velo Club Roubaix (VCR) on either Otis, Penny or Sutton and misjudged the clearing distance and put three friends at the front into the hospital with significant injuries. As cyclists often do, they recover and then advocate for their cause. The signs that you now see are the city council of Barrington Hills reaction to their meetings with both Barrington Hills and IDOT. In my opinion, you are correct in calling out this specific town. I think the cycling community owes a great debt to the VCR cyclists who lived this event, survived same and ultimately became very important advocates for our rights.

Ride on,

Eric

Comment by John Wayman on May 26, 2016 at 8:34am

I feel like the spandex clad group ride type cyclists come in all forms...Yes, there is clearly a contingent of ex HS jocks who by their late 30s and 40s, decided full contact sports and full court basketball were simply not in their deck of cards any longer but still want to be active and competitive and possibly still pick on those who they deem targets who have bags on their bikes...Just like the skinny kid in HS with ripped up jeans, programming skills and a Misfits shirt...But unlike half way organized flag football leagues around the city, those guys are in the minority and really these pelotons are a mix of young and old, rich and poor, bike messenger hipsters, jocks, professionals, bike mechanics, tri-athletes, serious racers and hobbyists looking to stay fit who all have at least one thing in common, they like bike and love to ride...Yes, sometimes these groups do tend to take over the road...But so do double parked SUVs in front of Starbucks, drivers who don't obey the laws, Semi Trucks, Construction trucks, and pedestrians...Borrington is one thing but the bottom line is the the majority of the roads, especially in the cities, were designed and laid out and planned LONG before cars came along. Drivers tend to think roads are made for cars but really, only interstates and highways were designed for cars; most roads were designed for horse and buggies, electrified street cars and bikes...Cars came several years later. So the bottom line is that cars do not own the road and never have. And really, I think the resentment is less than the fact that they have to slow down for 30 seconds and more that we don't have to wait through red lights, we aren't impacted by traffic jams that we do treat stop signs as Yield signs (though that isn't legal in most places) and that especially in the city, or even rush hour elsewhere, we generally get to our destinations faster than cars. So all the safety concerns are really just a way for them to cock block and makes them feel less bad about spending 80,000 on an Audi that they can only manage to average at 30 mph...Yes, them having to move their steering wheels an inch to the left and letting off the gas for a second is a problem that burdens many white people in the first world but really, I think it's more about them than it is us. So nothing we can do collectively will really make this hatred go away since there will always be that one asshole who blasts through a red light while flipping off all the drivers who honk at them...We are never going to get rid of that guy any more than drivers are going to get rid of their drunk drivers, speeders, stop sign runners, texters, etc. At the end of the day, it's not too many bikes that are causing more traffic and for you to be late for soccer practice, it's too many cars!

Comment by Melanie M on April 7, 2016 at 7:55pm

I definitely think about this, and how my own behavior impacts the reputation of cyclists. I do roll through some stop signs here and there on residential/quiet streets, but I'll never go through a dedicated bike light. If you give a light and a lane specific to bikes, I will respect that even if it'd be so easy to go through it sometimes.

And then today I got hit by a fellow cyclist. Dodged enough that I didn't fall off my bike, but he was clearly at fault (swung around a bus hanging over his portion of the bike lane, but in doing so was completely in my lane and he didn't see me coming around the bus). He gave a sheepish sorry on his way but very frustrating nonetheless (he's lucky my tights didn't rip).

Comment by mschaus on April 6, 2016 at 11:00am

Thanks for sharing your experiences! While it's probably unreasonable to put your feet on the ground at every empty intersection in a sparse suburb, we do have to be reasonable road-sharers overall. I agree that people seem to appreciate that.

But a couple of Freds making jerk comments? I'd say that's not something to spend any life energy thinking about, and it's pretty clear that our goal should be to err on having community support, not impressing some d-bags. We all just need to keep riding!

Comment by Gary Gilbert on April 5, 2016 at 7:54pm

For those who don't make their way out to the NW burbs... Barrington (where the Metra station sits) is a different town than Barrington Hills and different town than South Barrington and North Barrington.  The issues have all been localized to Barrington Hills.  Riding solo or with a single partner is rarely an issue in Barrington Hills, its the larger packs of cyclists that attract most of the complaints.  Riding in Barrington is also ok, in fact there are roads in Barrington that have marked bike lanes and sharrows.

Comment by Brett Ratner on April 2, 2016 at 8:59pm

That about covers it.

Comment by Serge Lubomudrov on April 1, 2016 at 4:42pm

In case you haven't seen this ;)

Comment by Brett Ratner on April 1, 2016 at 7:55am

Thank you for all the great comments, everyone!!!

Comment by djm on March 31, 2016 at 6:49pm

Proposition:  There are all kinds of people in this world.

Corollary:  There are all kinds of people in this world who ride bicycles.

Comment by alan miller on March 31, 2016 at 5:42pm

I have been very concerned about how non-pedalers view "us".  First, I have a bell on my handlebars and I always announce myself when I am riding on the Prairie Path or Fox River Trail when I am approaching pedestrians (and pedestrians with dogs). I slow down to about 3 mph. and then speed up again. I signal when I am turning and I try to avoid busy streets.

I don't think the dinosaur juice machine users (car drivers) understand that it takes a lot of energy to start moving a bike after a full stop. I compare it to a car coming to a four way stop and having to turn the car off, stand up, then get back in the car and continue. I also have a difficult time with car passengers yelling stuff at me as they pass.

Comment by Serge Lubomudrov on March 31, 2016 at 5:29pm

I've heard a few times (the words were not addressed to me), "The fact that we both ride bicycles doesn't make us friends." I mean, there's no "us" here. I neither associate nor (as much as I can) socialize with jerks like that. Because, yes, they do bring "it" on me and the subset of cyclists I do associate and (as much as I can) socialize with.

Comment by mike w. on March 31, 2016 at 4:29pm

Fortunately, on my recent rides through Barrington Hills, i haven't seen the "no bike path" signs. i think that was basically last year's Bitch du jour . Anyway, those signs were mostly north of Lake Cook rd.

As for the Freds, i had two similar experiences on the recent St. Patrick's Ride... One felt compelled to comment that my bike "looked really heavy," and another looked over my 35mm tyres, mudguards, and saddle bag and told me that i "had a lot going on (??!)" Yeah, well, it's not a carbon wunderrad,  but it does what it's designed to do. Could we please have a little less bike snobbery?

Comment by Kevin Sheldon on March 31, 2016 at 4:17pm

If you're not racing why ride a racing bike? I really don't care what other cyclists are riding and think there's room for all types.   I too ride in Barrington Hills and see many of these "boy racer" types who think no law applies to them.   I agree that we cyclists can be our own worst enemy at times.  Great article!

Comment by SnowyMountainPhotos on March 31, 2016 at 3:57pm

In May of 2012, Gov Quinn signed into law that cyclists and motorcyclists can proceed through a red light provided that it is safe to do so, and they have waited a "reasonable period of time" defined by the law as 120 seconds. So rolling against a red light is not automatically illegal or douchebaggy. 

Comment by Phillip Robert Augustyniak on March 31, 2016 at 2:44pm

I agree with you are saying here. I see it every day, no matter where I ride in Chicago, or in the area I live.

Comment by Jeff Blumenthal on March 31, 2016 at 2:09pm

At 75 years old I just go with the flow.  Nice story and thanks for covering a nice Chicago asset of having METRA to expand riding alternatives.

Comment by JustWill on March 31, 2016 at 1:57pm

Dad jokes!

Comment by RobertW on March 31, 2016 at 1:22pm

Very nice essay.  Barrington Hills certainly has an entitled and selfish minority that will always view cyclists as a nuisance slowing them down as they cruise their Cadillac SUVs from their gaudy Trump-Like McMansions to Woodfield.    But several Barrington Hills residents also probably feel justifiably embattled  by training lines of entitled Freds like the ones you met, speeding through red-lights and riding in packs four-abreast.  My experience is similar to yours.. If you ride considerately and obey the rules, you will find most people will be considerate and friendly back at you.   

Comment by Steve G on March 31, 2016 at 1:00pm

Nice, balanced essay, Brett, and an enjoyable read. You painted the guy in a kinder light than I would have!

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