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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar 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.