Monday, June 23, 2008

Symbolic power

Oh, the power of symbols to create meaning, to motivate action, to perpetuate myth, to write history. I knew that bikes as transportation would be convenient in Chicago, but I have been taken aback a bit with how relatively safe it is and how accommodating motorists are. In the primary downtown “Loop” and in the surrounding urban neighborhoods, there is a logical network of roads that have bike lanes, signified by the ever-present cycling stamps in the road. I find the motorists have a unified respect for the space. It’s not even as if the bike lane makes the total lane very much wider—simply the presence of the road stamps commands a respect for bikes even during rush hour.

Now the tone clearly changes when I ride on the streets without the stamps. Even when the total lane size is the same as the stamped streets, the motorists do the honk-speed-close-call antics that I am more accustomed to.

A wide range of cyclists occupy the streets, especially the stamped roads. Of course the fixed gear riders (and fixies in training) are the most skilled, daring and fastest on the road. Then there’s everybody else. It’s the true “people’s streets” where riders mirror the total population. Nearly everyone wears street clothes, and there are frequently undeclared little competitions of speed and stop-go skill though intersections, though I doubt many people would admit to “racing.”

I have taken my time to get to know the subtleties, to learn the traffic patterns and light cycles. The lights stay yellow for only an instant, and there is no delay in the greens on adjacent roads. On many side streets, motorists even seem to like drafting behind a good cyclist because of the way the cyclist approaches the many 4 way stop signs. Cycling allows for a much more fluid “rolling stop” than can be done with a car, giving a bike an advantage of getting through the 4 way quicker, often towing a drafting car that skipped its wait turn.

Team logos carry similar symbolic power. I mean, how could I go wrong riding with a team called XXX Racing? The XXX on black conveyed such a sense of experience and safety on the Saturday group ride, that I stuck closely to the front where the concentration of XXX rode. It was true, XXX riders held perfect lines in a highly technical (loads of stop-go, holes, surface changes, traffic) 25-mile stretch from Wicker Park to Highland Park suburbs. They have almost choreographed movements that pull a large group through the 4-way stops (mentioned above) and I was grateful to have so much urban training from riding in Norfolk.

I appreciated their two verbalized rules: Double pace line always and no gaps allowed. When we got to Highland Park, it started to rain, but that did not stop about half the group from going on a longer route, so I kept going. We passed lots of other group rides, but as far as I could tell, this one was distiguished by the fact that we rode directly from the city. I got 71 miles, and it sure felt better than the 75 dirt miles I had done a week prior. (Note also that they have two versions of their jersey, Black and White as well as a colored one like the two at the top of the photo.)


Anonymous said...


nPlusOne said...

Make sure you get your Garrett's Popcorn while in the city. Yum!