It is against the law to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in Chicago. For adults, that is. Kids under 12 are okay. One of the many rules, instructions and pieces of advice learned while preparing for my debut ride on the new Divvy bike share program, which the city rolled out in early July.
To be honest, the idea of taking one of the communal bikes for a spin normally would never have crossed my mind. There is nowhere I need to go that can't be walked, cabbed, trained or avoided. And the whole shared bike thing has a distinct European tang to it. Something they do in Amsterdam, or Brussels, or France. Not in Chicago, that most American of cities. We Americans get behind the wheels of our Barracudas and blast down the highway. We own things, we do not share things. That's socialism.
Yes, I see a flaw in that thinking. Maybe that logic could be maintained when we were on top of the world and burning through its resources. Now, in dwindling times, well, perhaps some reconsideration is in order.
That isn't what got me studying the Divvy web site, however. Riding one of its bikes was not to be a political statement. Actually, fate played a hand. I looked out the window of our office this week and saw, directly across the street, a rack of robin's egg blue Divvy bikes. It hadn't been there before. And now it was, a personal challenge. Life sometimes serves up these go-to-Nineveh moments, and when it does, you better get yourself to Nineveh. Otherwise, you end up in a whale.
So I began planning a brief bike excursion downtown, to satisfy capricious fate and keep myself on the breezy side of whales. I read up on the Divvy system. The site is very friendly, with a map of bike docking stations, and brief helpful videos, explaining how to pay, how to unhook the bikes from their moorings (lift at the seat, not at the handlebars). It all seemed so simple. And only $7 for 24 hours, provided you break that into 30 minute rides, returning the bike to a station before your half hour is up. Ride more than 30 minutes at a time, they add more fees. If you keep the bike for six hours, you're out $102.
Wanting to be thorough — and to stay alive — I asked a devoted bicyclist pal of mine for extra advice. A professor of literature who thinks nothing of hopping on his bike and tearing across the city, I knew he'd tell me what I should know. I've ridden a bike downtown exactly once in the past 25 years — in 2000, when we were about to move from East Lake View to the suburbs, and biking to work seemed something worth doing at least once in my life—another challenge to be overcome. It was a pleasant spin on my lumbering black one speed Schwinn balloon-tire cruiser, down the lakeshore bike path, a trip that didn't turn slightly terrifying until I left the bike path and headed west toward 401 N. Wabash, the newspaper's old home. A lot of trucks in the city.
My pal's central suggestion: be alert at all times.
"Head on a swivel," his reply began. "I have a three part routine: look ahead at traffic/ground conditions (potholes), then at the parked cars for potential doorings, then in the rear view mirror for what's coming up behind me. Then front, side, rear, repeat perpetually. I've actually rewired my damn brain doing this."
No wonder I've let more than a dozen years go by since I last attempted this. He wasn't done. "And go slow," he warned — not an issue for me —"most people I know who get doored were going fast and so did not have time to stop."
If "door" as a verb is unfamiliar to you, it refers to a bicyclist riding into a flung open car door. Riders get killed that way.
Despite this chilling advice, I decided I was going to do it. On Thursday. Even thought it was supposed to be nearly 100 degrees. I can be determined, when I choose to be, and I've always thought that scuttling plans due to weather is for the elderly and the weak. I also had inspiration, a manageable goal: Skrine Chops, at 400 S. Financial. Off the beaten track for walking. But perfect for a bike jaunt. I haven't been there in months, so am Skrine deprived. The plan was, I would ride my Divvy bike across the Loop, Skrine up with a pork chop sandwich, and return. The dangers would be slight and acceptable—this is a pork chop worth risking your life for.
But I didn't want to face any more risk than was absolutely necessary. Before leaving for work, I went into the garage and dug out my bike helmet, a Bell helmet covered in dust and cobwebs. At first it seemed like a lot of bother, to bring the helmet downtown. But the phrase, "not as much bother as learning to type with a stick held in your mouth" formed in mind, and that decided it. I cleaned the helmet off with a damp paper towel and tucked it in my briefcase.
Just before lunch, a look of steely determination in my eye, I stood up, snatched my helmet off my desk and marched down to the street. On my way, I felt something unexpected: fear. Real fear. I was afraid to ride a damned bike downtown. I stiff-armed the anxiety. Too late now. Stepping into the oven-ish air was like being hit at the back of the knees with a mallet. I pressed on, crossed Orleans, and presented myself to the cheery blue-faced Divvy pylon. Clicked through various screens, dipping my credit card, giving my phone number and Zip code, agreeing that if I lose the $1200 bike I'm on the hook. (At least I assume that's what the fine print said —I couldn't bring myself to actually read it). All I had to do now was wait to receive a receipt that would give me a five-digit code to punch in and remove my bike.
I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together, anticipating the slip of paper, eyeing the blue bikes, trying to decide which one I'd pick.
"We're sorry," the screen said. "We cannot process your request at this time."
Oh. I stood there a moment. Briefly considered starting the process all over again. No, I had worked up a sweat just clicking through the screens. Maybe riding across the Loop at midday in this heat was in fact a Bad Idea. If fate had nudged me here, perhaps there had been a change in the cosmic order, and now I was being rescued, directed back upstairs. Okay then. Skrine Chops will have to wait. My helmet still under my arm, I retreated to the cool of the office, not without a certain sense of relief. I will definitely try out Chicago's Divvy bike sharing system. I am committed to doing that. Some day very soon. When the system is operational. When the fates decree the day apt for adventure. And when it's a lot cooler.