I wrote this story back the early 90’s. I had read an article in the Chicago magazine, describing a bicycle trip from Chicago to Milwaukee. I was just about to turn 40, and inspired by that article, I convinced my son Jeremy (about 14 years old at the time,) and my younger brother Jim and his friend, that this would be a fun trip to try. An early version of this story appeared in a local cycling club magazine.
(Author’s note: All quotes are from “Pedal Pushers” by Geoffrey Johnson, Chicago magazine, June 1989.)
Pedal Pushers: Part Two
(or: The Reality of Bicycling)
“If you live in Chicago and can bike with some ease to Lake Forest and back, a ride to (or from) Milwaukee is certainly within your range.”
(There are four of us. None of us have made any bike trips of more than 15 miles within the past year. But what the heck, we all have new bikes.)
(In the brilliant light of early morning, Lake Michigan hangs from the sky like a curtain. White sails and silver wings coast across this bolt of blue, and along the shore earthbound cyclists…mimic that fluid motion.”
(The sky is overcast. The temperature is 63 degrees. Lake Michigan is as grey as the low rain-threatening clouds, and is just as devoid of any signs of life. It’s 7AM, and the forecast is for scattered showers.)
“Choose your starting point according to the time of year. During the dog days, the wind – if there is any – is generally from the west or south, so Chicago to Milwaukee is the more logical route. But in spring or early summer, try riding down from Milwaukee.”
(Ignoring the advice of the article, we start northward from the Planetarium on a Sunday in early June. Decked out in t-shirts and shorts, we expect to keep warm from the body heat built up from the exertion. We’re already an hour behind schedule.)
“On the [Chicago City Lakefront Bike] path, waterfront traffic thickens as joggers, roller skaters, and barefoot bathing beauties multiply. ”
(One of the reasons we chose to ride to Milwaukee instead of from Milwaukee was to avoid this pedestrian ‘rush hour”. There are a couple of skaters and a few fellow cyclists. There were no bathing beauties.)
“In Chicago (beyond Hollywood ), the heavy traffic on Sheridan makes side streets like Greenview and Glenwood a better route.”
(We again decide to ignore the column’s advice. None of us are North-siders. And our fearless leader forgot to pack any maps. So we decide that it would be too easy to get lost if we stray from the main roads. After the lakefront path ends, we stay on Sheridan up to and on through Evanston, despite several light post traffic signs and sidewalk stencils indicating that bike riding is prohibited on streets and sidewalks in many spots. What are we supposed to do, ride across people’s lawns?
We are making good time. Other than a close encounter with the rear-end of a CTA bus and a near rear-ending from an unobservant driver on a curve, we have little problem with urban traffic.)
“…in Evanston…only a seawall of pale rocks lies between you and the water.”
(Less than fifteen miles into the trip, the thunderstorm hits. The only glimpse of the Lake now is by the illumination of lightning bolts. The downpour is heavy, making Sheridan Road a wading pond in sections. Thunder is felt as much as heard. Falling tree limbs seem to be a greater threat than cars, as the weather is too violent for any sane person to venture out in. Still, the forecast is for “scattered showers,” so, soaked to the core, we pedal onward, seeking the sunny break in the weather that will dry us out. We are “at one with nature.”)
“A side trip to one of the North Shore’s lakeside parks is worth the extra mileage – Lake Forest’s Forest Park, for example… Flying past the handsome houses on Sheridan Road…..the cyclists tick off suburbs in a countdown to the city.”
(We are working in the opposite direction, remember. Away from the city. And we’re not in the mood for “the extra mileage.” But the storm softens to a hard, cold drizzle. And much of the area is beautiful, even in the rain. The houses seem enormous, especially to our Southside riders who grew up in an area where kids could walk between neighboring homes and touch each building just by stretching out their arms. Even the lawns here are bigger than many city parks.
Not mentioned in the article are the frequent hill sections – steep down-hill slopes that immediately turn into equally steep up-hill slopes. Usually with hair-pint turns at the bottom, and numerous randomly placed hidden driveways on either side of these potential “valleys-of-death.”
Gravel has washed out onto the pavement, making things more challenging for our three riders on touring bikes, whose tires are hard, narrow and prone to damage and control loss with encounter with any obstacle thicker than a nickel.
But there’s no slowing us down. Literally. Because our rain-soaked brakes are now quite useless.
Our fearless (and elderly) leader, on a heavy mountain-bike that outweighs the touring bikes by a good twenty pounds, roars to the lead on the down-hill slopes (totally out of control and praying fervently that he can make the curve at the bottom). But then he is easily passed by the rest of the riders on the up-hill slopes as he strains agonizingly against the toll that years of bodily neglect have laid on him. After a half-dozen or so of these ordeals, he is usually found far to the rear of the pack anyway.)
“…there is a foul, manmade smell that stays with you [from Waukegan down] until Great Lakes Naval Center.”
(None of us had thought to nourish ourselves before the ride, a little hint the article failed to mention. So, famished, we pulled into the MacD’s across from the Great Lakes Naval Station, just as the rain stops. Still, there’s no sign of actual sunshine, and the temperature seems to have dropped a few degrees. Like about fifteen. Maybe it’s just the loss of body heat.
All things considered, though, we seem to be making pretty good time. We’re less then twenty miles from the state line, and it’s only ten o’clock.)
“At Waukegan, the lake…reappears, hemmed in by weather-beaten warehouses. Ferocious dogs strain at chains, defending piles of rusted junk….”
(Coming into Waukegan, we can understand why the warehouses are weather-beaten. The rain has stopped, but the winds have picked up, blowing down on us directly from the north. Even switching to low gear, the easiest one for pedaling, we find forward progress difficult against the thirty mile-per-hour wind gusts.
We don’t notice any ferocious dogs. They’re probably inside, keeping warm.
And the neighborhoods, though not as scenic as Lake Forest, don’t seem much worse than those back at home.
At Zion’s city limits, the rains come back with a vengeance. At one intersection, an old gentleman with an umbrella calls out, “God bless you!” We pull into a Wendy’s, as much to dry out and warm up as to get something to eat. We take turns in the john standing at the hot air hand dryer, pulling out our shorts and drying off our “essentials”. Our hands are cramped into pale, wrinkled, claw-shaped appendages. Our shoes have become buckets which we take off and turn upside down to bail out. The stress is starting to show. We laugh, almost insanely, at our situation. We’ve traveled forty-five miles in about four and a half hours. Not bad, actually, considering the conditions - and our conditioning. But the rain continues to fall for an hour, and it takes almost as long for us to stop shivering. While our stubborn, fearless leader walks over to K-Mart to purchase some ponchos, the others talk of mutiny.
As we continue to warm up in Wendy’s dining area, our leader convinces the mutineers to push onward to Kenosha. Milwaukee, nearly fifty miles more down the road, seems impossible. Kenosha, on the other hand, is only ten short miles ahead. And after all, he reasons, it sounds so much more impressive to brag, “Yeah, I rode my bike to all the way to Wisconsin on Saturday!” than it would to say, “We biked to Zion.” As a further bargaining chip, he agrees to call Chicago and have our sag wagon driver meet us at Kenosha’s MacD’s rather than the Milwaukee Natural History Museum, as was previously arranged. The mutineers, too fatigued to argue, reluctantly agree. Secretly, though, our determined leader hopes for a dramatic weather change and a chance to push on the last forty miles from Kenosha to Milwaukee.
There’s no sign of the rain letting up, but we’ve been Wendy’s for over ninety minutes, and the employees – and customers – are beginning to look on us with righteous indignation. We put on our shoes and our newly purchased ponchos and saddle up.)
“This is the least pleasant part of the trip, where you must compete with four lanes of speeding traffic….”
(The rain stops. The deluge begins. Sheets of water pour down. One rider loses a precious Sting cap, but we push on. Another loses a tire gauge, but we push on. One rider loses control and ends up wiped out halfway up on someone’s lawn, but the rest push on. Since this rider is the leader who talked the others into this mad folly, the others feel some justice in his predicament.
We hit a two-mile stretch of road grooved when the top layer of asphalt had been removed for resurfacing.
It has gotten so cold, and we have lost so much body heat, that we welcome the deeper puddles where standing water has had a chance to heat up and warm up our feet and ankles as we splash through them.
At the state line, the road levels off with only a few minor grades. The traffic decreases and the shoulder, non-existent through most of Illinois, is wonderfully wide and paved in Wisconsin.
Even the rain mercifully slows back to a steady drizzle.
But the north wind still blows at a steady fifteen miles-per-hour. And our ponchos, of dubious value even in the rain, are definitely a hindrance now as they catch the on-coming wind. We keep them on nonetheless as they are the only things separating our cold wet, t-shirt clad bodies from the even colder winds.
As we draw close to Kenosha, one of our bikes gets a flat tire. Or did the rider just let the air out while briefly out of sight of our leader – in his now-customary spot at the far rear? We send a “scout” ahead while the rest of us walk on. The scout returns shortly to report a McD’s about a mile ahead. He also reports that it requires almost no effort to ride southward, using his poncho stretched out like a sail to catch the wind and power his bike.
Epilogue: Kenosha has six McDonalds. This ride was done in 1990 – before cell-phones - or GPS or roller bladders instead of skates for that matter, if you noticed these missing modern details. Our sag driver found us in the sixth Kenosha McDonalds she tried. Not that it mattered to us. It gave us an extra hour and a half to dry off and warm up again. Thank God for hand dryers. We also used the time to pick up some dry clothes at a nearby Salvation Army store.
We drive back by the same route, already reminiscing. It seems much shorter by car.
The rain has stopped, but the sun never did shine on Lake Michigan that day.
"Even the casual rider...can, with great pleasure and a little grit, accomplish this 90 mile ride.”
(There was a lot of grit. In our shoes, shorts, up our backs, and in our hair. As for our pleasure, well, there was camaraderie of the kind that occurs when hardships are endured in an attitude of careless abandon.)