Group bicycle rides gaining traction

Organizers say group rides are attracting more interest, spurred on by warmer weather and cabin fever.

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Bike lanes and street parking are features of a new extension of South Lake Shore Drive on the south side of Chicago, Ill., Wednesday, October 23, 2013.

Group bike rides are attracting more interest, spurred on by warm weather and cabin fever.

Sun-Times file

Mel Leverich first embraced biking as a safe alternative to public transit during the pandemic. Now, it’s a huge part of her life.

“I was no longer comfortable taking the bus, so I bought a bike,” said Leverich, 32. “I hadn’t owned a bike in a long time. ... It’s very much improved my life.”

Leverich was soon regularly going on rides with friends and using the bike on a near-daily basis.

She casually looked for a more organized biking group to join. Not finding many options, she made her own.

“I just didn’t know of any that were on the Far North Side, where I live, and there also seemed to be a need for it,” Leverich said. “I know plenty of people who aren’t comfortable riding alone or who need a reason to get out and ride, so it just seemed like a good opportunity.”

North Side Bike Ride hosted its first “low-stress, low-speed” biweekly group ride on March 6.

northsidebikeride.jpeg

Eight people joined North Side Bike Ride’s first group ride last week.

Courtesy Mel Leverich

Organizers say group bike rides like these are gaining traction, spurred on by warmer weather and cabin fever.

The Southwest Collective sometimes had as many as 40 cyclists show up for its monthly rides since the pandemic hit, said Dixon Galvez-Searle, head of the nonprofit bike group.

“I mean, people have been itching for something to do outdoors, together, in community with each other, for a long time,” Galvez-Searle said. “I think people gravitate towards that at any time, but especially now.”

A study by PeopleforBikes Coalition, based in Boulder, Colorado, reported the number of recreational riders increased by 6% after the pandemic hit in 2020.

A Chicago Family Biking group neighborhood ride in 2021.

A Chicago Family Biking group neighborhood ride in 2021.

Courtesy of Rebecca Resman

“There was just like a really big bike boom when so many things were shut down, and so many other options were limited,” said Lesley Tweedie, owner of Roscoe Village Bikes. “We saw a big uptick in 2019 to 2020. And 2021 was also really a strong year. So I think that that interest carried forward throughout the pandemic, and I’m thinking we’ll see that in 2022.”

Organizers and biking activists argue the increase in riders needs to be met by better riding conditions.

“We have definitely seen an increase in organized rides in the spring and summer,” said Kyle Whitehead, managing director of public affairs at the Active Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for transportation.

Whitehead said the Active Transportation Alliance is responding by pushing for better bike infrastructure — particularly for protected bike lanes.

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen this surge in cycling on the street despite the fact that cycling infrastructure is, for the most part, substandard,” he said.

Charlie Saxe founded the Skokie Bike Network last year to create a home for Skokie riders who would otherwise have to join clubs in Evanston or other surrounding areas.

He said he hopes creating a more robust biking community could make the activity more accessible for families intimidated by riding on busy roads.

“I think that inhibits people from biking to various destinations beyond their own neighborhood,” he said. “We’re really trying to encourage people, especially families or kids, to use their bikes for transportation around town and just feel comfortable doing so. We’re trying to find ways to point out various routes that people can take to go places and we’re trying to promote the facilities to make things more accessible to cyclists.”

Chicago Family Biking, a volunteer-run organization, hosts rides in neighborhoods across the city.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of people that are interested in biking with their family, which is fabulous,” said Rebecca Resman, the founder of Chicago Family Biking.

In March 2020, Resman said she was on pace to host about 50 rides. COVID-19 forced the group to hit pause, and in 2021, the group hosted about 20 rides.

“This year, we think we’re going to grow substantially and that’s really because there are now so many more families and … we’re going to be recruiting volunteer ride organizers in all communities that are interested in the next month or two,” she said.

“We’re hoping to pick up where we left off, but now we have the privilege of more members online, as well as people that started biking with their families,” she said.

The organization’s Facebook group has about 4,000 members.

“The exciting part of the pandemic is that we have more people that have started biking, and that’s kind of your first interaction, right? … We reel them in and before you know it, you have someone that just started biking two years ago and now they’re leading bike rides with 75 kids with a soundtrack, like Darth Vader’s theme song, playing over a loudspeaker,” Resman said.

Cyclists ride by Buckingham Fountain during the Bike the Drive event in 2013.

Many people rediscovered bicycling after the pandemic hit in 2020.

Sun-Times file

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