Why 2020 was such a great year for biking in Chicago

Greatly reduced traffic opened up streets to cyclists like never before. Biking was a great escape during a ridiculously stressful year — and a way to seek adventure when major travel was out of the question.

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Downtown was void of cars at times, especially during spring lockdowns.

Dave Newbart/Sun-Times

The year 2020 was awful, but there has never been a better time to bike in Chicago.

What made biking so enjoyable in 2020 was the combination of greatly reduced automobile traffic, decent weather and the vastly improved biking infrastructure in the city and suburbs. What’s more, with so much canceled or closed, biking became a way to escape during a ridiculously stressful year — and a path to adventure when major travel was out of the question.

The most unnerving part of biking in Chicago has always been the street-clogging traffic.

All that vanished in March. As pandemic stay-at-home orders took effect and businesses, offices, schools and other institutions shut down, the streets opened up to cyclists like never before.

Traffic in the city, particularly downtown, plummeted by as much as 60% last spring and still remains considerably below normal, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

To be sure, we all wish the coronavirus never came and we can’t wait till it’s gone.

But there is no describing what it means to seasoned cyclists to have access to major streets that were basically off limits previously. While it’s true that a spike in reckless driving led to more traffic deaths, I still felt way safer this year with far fewer vehicles to look out for — though I continue to stay on high alert and take my normal precautions.

On one downtown jaunt in April, my daughters and I rolled up to a stoplight on State Street, looked around and realized we were the only ones headed in any direction. By Macy’s. At lunch hour. On a weekday.

At the same time, I was able to take more advantage of the region’s new or redone biking infrastructure that has been years in the making. While the Chicago area has a long way to go to match some other cities — think Boulder, Colorado, or Portland, Oregon — it finally feels like the playing field is being leveled.

The city installed nearly 30 miles of bike lanes in 2020, twice as many as last year and one of the largest amounts in the past decade, CDOT says. Fifty miles of existing lanes were repainted, five times the amount done last year. Chicago still needs to install more protected lanes — just 2.7 miles were added this year — but we now have 352 total miles of bike lanes, including 50 on the South Side.

The nearly 7 mile North Shore Channel Trail along the Chicago River — where the spectacular 312 River Run was opened late last year, followed by the Lincoln Village Pedestrian Bridge in November — now connects much of the North Side with off-street trails in the northern suburbs.

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The Saharan dust storms made for spectacular sunrises in Chicago this summer.

Dave Newbart/Sun-Times

My bike and I saw it all, thanks to 2020.

We had lots of company. Some cities saw spikes in biking in May of up to 138% over last year, according to Bloomberg. While Chicago saw a more modest 34% increase, bike shops sold out of inventory and used bikes were hard to find.

Newbies took to the bike lanes, too, with the bike-sharing Divvy service setting a record in August with more than 600,000 trips taken.

An escape

Daphnay Sagaille, a 32-year-old consultant from Bronzeville, helped launch Street’s Calling Bike Club in April as a way for cyclists to get out of the house and stay active by biking routes that ended at Black and Brown businesses suffering during the economic downturn. The group now has 1,200 active riders in Chicago and chapters in three other cities.

Biking is “a great way to release stress . . . [and a way] to escape the issues that most of us deal with,” she says.

For me, hopping on my bike to chase views of the spectacular sunrises and sunsets caused by the Saharan dust storms in early summer was a huge mood elevator.

And with any hope of an exotic vacation canceled, some rides transported me to what felt like a world away from the city.

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The Burnham Nature Sanctuary at 47th Street and Lake Shore Drive

Dave Newbart/Sun-Times

During a mid-summer ride to the Burnham Nature Sanctuary at 47th Street in Kenwood, I found myself alone on a boardwalk, surrounded by wildflowers several feet high. It was hard to believe I was only steps from Lake Shore Drive.

Rides in the 42-mile Palos Trail System in the southwestern suburbs — exploding with fall colors —replaced trips to pandemic-challenged Wisconsin, our normal go-to spot to enjoy changing seasons.

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Fall colors were peaking during one of my trips to the Palos Trail System in the southwest suburbs.

Dave Newbart/Sun-Times

Of course, not every trip was postcard-perfect.

A planned jaunt to Wolf Lake with a planned pitstop at Calumet Fisheries near the 95th Street Bridge — made famous when the Bluesmobile jumped it in “The Blues Brothers” movie — ended early when a fellow rider’s tubeless tire blew and couldn’t be fixed with a standard patch kit. After an hour at a stiflingly hot auto body shop in East Side — where workers and even customers took tries at fixing it (“you just have to melt the patch with a lighter”),a paleta vendor appeared as if out of a mirage. Standing on blazing-hot asphalt next to a stack of tires, I was more than happy to buy a round of frozen treats. (My friend ended up having to take his bike and its still very flat tire home by bus.)

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GPS art created by Uptown’s Mark Langenderfer using the Strava app

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Bizarre milestones

Maybe it was feeling cooped up by the pandemic, but some of us cyclists took on quests we might not have attempted previously — or achieved milestones that might not have registered in other years.

One weekend I pedaled by news legend Bill Kurtis’ 65-acre manor in suburban Mettawa. Weeks later, in Beverly Shores, Indiana, I coincidentally went past the summer home of his former CBS News-Channel 2 co-anchor, Walter Jacobson.

Mark Langenderfer, an Uptown engineer, told me he started creating pictures with his riding routes, using the GPS on his Strava athletic training app. These included a dinosaur eating another dinosaur, which took a full day and more than 70 miles of riding, and more recently, a Christmas tree, with ornaments, that required more than 80 miles of pedaling over two days.

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Cyclist Mark Langenderfer created this GPS art earlier in December.

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“If there was ever a year to experiment, this was it,”says Langenderfer, 54, who also led rides for Windy City Cycling Club, an LGBTQ riding group.

He pedaled more than 4,500 miles this year and said he “would have gone crazy” without his bike. My total was maybe a tenth of that. But the effect on my psyche — at least while sitting on the saddle, outside, with the area’s beauty racing by — was very much the same.

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