[This piece also runs in Newcity. All photos courtesy of LGRAB, except where noted.]
Dottie Brackett is the Martha Stewart of the Chicago bike scene. Often spotted cruising the streets on her stately black Dutch bike or sprightly robin’s egg blue Rivendell, elegantly dressed in a skirt and heels, she belies the notion that urban cycling is only for sweaty guys in Lycra or skinny jeans. Since early 2009 her blog Let’s Go Ride a Bike (LGRAB) has shown thousands of people in Chicago and beyond how easy it is to use a bicycle for transportation and look good doing it.
The blog, co-written with Brackett’s Nashville-based friend Trisha Ping, who handles web design and ad sales, follows the women’s everyday adventures on two wheels. LGRAB’s breezy prose, splashy photography, reviews of classy commuter bikes and handy how-to tips have attracted an international readership, drawing about 2,500 pageviews and dozens of comments per day.
But Brackett hasn’t just created an anonymous online bike “community.” She’s a key figure in promoting a real-life cycling sisterhood in Chicago, leading monthly Women who Ride picnic brunch rides, plus female-friendly cruises to cupcake bakeries and cocktail lounges. These events allow women to hang out and share bike stories and advice in a relaxed, supportive environment.
Last week I caught up with Brackett, a 29-year-old attorney, over drinks at Four Moon Tavern (1847 W Roscoe) in her neighborhood, Roscoe Village. She discussed the blog’s history, her favorite local bike shops, the “sexist” artwork outside the bike corral at Pitchfork Festival, ways male cyclists can improve their style game, and much more.
How did you get into bicycling?
I didn’t even own a bike until three years ago. I hadn’t had one since high school. But when I moved to Chicago a few years ago I saw a lot of people on bikes and that’s something I hadn’t really seen in a city before. Then Trisha somehow got the idea to start riding her bike again. She just dragged her childhood bike out of her basement. And she was telling me, “Oh, it’s really easy,” since she only had to ride two miles to work.
I decided to give it a try, but first I’d need a bike. I went down to Roscoe Village Bikes with my husband Greg [called "Mr. Dottie" on LGRAB] and we thought we’d just get bikes to explore different neighborhoods on the weekends. But I asked the owner of the shop, “I’m thinking about riding to work. I work downtown. Is that even possible?” She said, “Oh yes,” and pulled out the Chicago Bike Map and showed me I could just take a side street straight to the Lakefront Trail and take that directly to my office. So the next week I rode to work for the first time. It was magical that I could get all the way downtown just on my bike.
Why did you and Trisha start LGRAB?
Trisha and I would email each other about our bike commutes since neither of us had close friends who rode their bikes to work. We emailed each other a lot; we still do every day. She would tell me about her commute and if anything strange happened. And I would tell her about mine and send her pictures of the Lakefront Trail. So we were sort of doing a blog just between the two of us.
There were some blogs that we loved like Girls and Bicycles in Canada and Copenhagen Cycle Chic, and we thought there wasn’t much else out there at the time just about people riding, especially women riding, so we decided to start the blog. And that’s how it started, sort of just as a way to communicate with each other. But the more we wrote, the more people started reading and it developed from there.
What was your goal in creating the blog?
At first we didn’t really have a goal. We never thought it would get big like it is now. But we definitely developed one over time. So now that goal is to show how easy it can be to ride a bike, and to get people not to be so intimidated by the idea, and to get more people on bikes.
It is easy to ride bikes but at the same time there are lots of obstacles. What I try to do is be completely honest about what happens when I’m out there riding. Blogs like Copenhagen Cycle Chic [with photos of stylishly-dressed people posing with bikes] are great but they definitely give an idealized version of riding a bike.
So if you see those types of pictures and get excited and get all dressed up to go ride your bike, and then a driver cuts you off, tries to “right hook” [take a right turn in your path] you or honks at you, then you might say, “Well, forget this.” But by writing about how these things happen to everyone and how to deal with it or how not to deal with it—I get mad sometimes and yell back at the driver so I’m not a total role model—I try to present a realistic picture.
What are some of your favorite local bike shops and why do you like them?
Roscoe Village Bikes was so supportive when I first started biking and they’re owned by a married couple and a totally independent shop, so they’re great. I really like Rapid Transit in Wicker Park. Again, I think it helps that one of the owners is a female and some of the mechanics are women, but even the male bike mechanics are great there. Boulevard Bikes [where the author works] is also a good one and I love their selection of bikes. And there are the three European-style bike shops: Dutch Bike Chicago, Copenhagen Cyclery and J.C. Lind Bike Company. Those are all good too.
What developments in the local bike scene are you most excited about?
Gabe Klein [the new head of the Chicago Department of Transportation] and the mayor. I keep reading articles where they’re quoted and they’re just so bike- and pedestrian-positive, it’s like a dream. It’s good to see the words but it’s also good to see action, like the new protected bike lane on Kinzie. I was amazed how quickly that popped up and it’s beautiful, and I’m glad to hear there’s another one coming in on Jackson. I think protected lanes are the best way to get more people riding.
In the bike community, the Critical Lass ride [a monthly, ladies-only pub cruise] that Ash Lottes started is a great thing because some people like Critical Mass and some people don’t, but this is great for both kinds of people. It’s really mellow, it goes on really quiet side streets, it’s all women and it’s totally friendly. I’ve been going on it every month.
Critical Lass – photo by Serge Lubomudrov
Do you ever ride in Critical Mass or do you not really care for it?
I love Critical Mass. I think it’s really great in Chicago. From what I see, bikers, drivers and pedestrians, almost all of them seem to be acting very positively. I’ve been on Critical Mass maybe three times. It’s been probably a year and a half since I rode in Critical Mass and I don’t plan on going on any soon, but I think it’s a great thing because it raises awareness of cycling.
Are there any special challenges that face women cyclists?
I think the only real challenge that faces cyclists just for being women is personal safety. It’s more of a concern for women no matter what our mode of transportation. You always have to be more aware of that, and in some neighborhoods that aren’t Lakeview or Lincoln Park it can be more dangerous for women in general. I have a friend who will not ride her bike to work because to get to the Lakefront Trail she needs to go through a neighborhood she barely likes driving through, so she’s certainly not going to ride her bike. That’s an equal concern for men but personal-safety issues are always more of a challenge for women.
Chicago gets a bad rap for being a fashion-impaired city compared to the coasts. Any ideas on how local cyclists can up their style game?
I think people should just wear whatever they usually wear to bike unless they’re going a long distance and need to wear cycling-specific clothing. That said, I see a lot of women on bikes who are looking really nice, but I think I’ve only ever seen one man biking in a suit on a bike. Not that people need to ride bikes wearing suits. But it’d be nice to see more than just jeans and a t-shirt, and if you’re going to some sort of event why not spiff it up a little?
One thing I don’t like is to see a plumber’s crack in front of me. Especially if I keep passing him, if he’s a guy on a bike he’ll keep trying to pass me, even if he has to struggle to do it, so it’s hard to get away from. And a lot of big, bulky backpacks—that’s just unnecessary. More men should use racks and panniers, or even baskets. So it’s things like that—I see a lot of guys huffing away with their backpacks and their plumber’s cracks. I wouldn’t mind a little spiffing up from that.
I’ve always thought of you as a person who always wears a bike helmet, so I’ve been surprised to see you riding without a helmet recently. Does this reflect the fact that people in Europe generally don’t wear helmets for bike commuting?
My ideas about biking in a helmet haven’t changed. It’s more the environment in which I’m cycling, because I’m taking quieter routes nowadays. I still wear a helmet ninety-eight percent of the time. I think people should do whatever they want but for me personally in Chicago there’s so much going on that I just want a helmet, whether it will ultimately work or not.
Lately I’ve just been taking super-quiet side streets to work so on mornings when it’s almost ninety degrees already and I’m on my way to the office I like to put my helmet on my handlebars while I’m on the side streets but then put it back on while I’m on the larger streets. I feel like the heat is the bigger threat at that time and there’s just so little going on on the side streets.
But I’m never comfortable when I’m not wearing a helmet. I’m constantly thinking of the worst-case scenario. I think it’s not so much the riding itself that’s dangerous. I ride eight miles an hour on my upright Dutch bike. I think it’s more the environment you’re in. If I’m on the Lakefront Trail or an extremely quiet side street I feel OK sometimes not wearing a helmet. But usually I wear them and I’m glad my husband wears his. If he didn’t I’m sure I’d nag him to wear one.
Judging from your blog, you and Greg have a fun-filled marriage. A recent post talks about riding bikes to Bistro Margot on a hot day for mussels and Lillet Blonde [an apéritif made with wine and brandy] on ice. How has bicycling enhanced your relationship?
It gives us something big to have in common. I joke he could never leave me because he could never find another woman who’s happy to go on bike dates and go everywhere without a car.
Last month you wrote a post titled “Objectification” about Ray Noland’s wood cutout of a faceless, nude woman holding her bike aloft, installed in front of the Chicago Reader’s bike parking corral at Pitchfork Festival, stating that the use of the image was sexist. You got ninety-nine comments on the post, including one from the artist. What are your thoughts on this controversy?
Well, there were a lot of people who agreed with me and a lot of people who disagreed with me. But I was really impressed by how respectful everyone was. And I appreciated that Ray Noland didn’t take himself too seriously and wasn’t defensive. He was just part of the conversation. He said that he kind of figured there would be some reactions like mine but he didn’t mean it in any sort of sexist way at all.
Photo by John Greenfield
At a forum on women’s bike fashion last year I was surprised to hear you say you buy all of your clothing used. What are your favorite resale stores?
There’s the Salvation Army near Grand and Halsted—that’s my big secret. The Unique Thrift Store in Uptown is also good.
What features should one look for in a city bike that will let you ride wearing whatever you want to wear?
Fenders are the most important—they keep mud and water off you. I have a skirt guard on one of my bikes but most skirts won’t get caught in a bike wheel anyway. A chain guard or chain case [covering the entire chain] is helpful to keep grease off. And a step-through frame makes it easier to ride wearing a dress.
Who are some of the leaders in the local women’s cycling scene that you respect?
Besides Ash Lottes there’s Gin Kilgore who helps organize Bike Winter [a grassroots which promotes all-season cycling]. Julie Hochstadter runs The Chainlink [a local social networking site with over 5,600 members]. Martha Williams does “Bike Fancy” [a photo blog showcasing "people looking good on bikes"]. Alexis Finch produces the “Thought You Knew” calendars [featuring pinups of female cyclists, benefiting the Chicago Women’s Health Center]. And there’s Emily Siegler and Maria Boustead from Po Campo [which makes stylish purses and handbags that clip onto handlebars and racks]. These are the first ones who come to mind but there are lots of fabulous women in Chicago.
A Women who Ride picnic brunch
Let’s Go Ride a Bike recommends…
Roscoe Village Bikes
2016 West Roscoe, (773)477-7550
Rapid Transit Cycle Shop in Wicker Park
1900 West North, (773)227-2288
2535 North Kedzie, (773) 235-9109
Dutch Bike Chicago
2010 W. Pierce, (773) 697-7618
1375 North Milwaukee, (773) 456-0024
J.C. Lind Bike Co.
1311 North Wells, (312) 643-1670
Bike rides and online resources
Meets at Daley Plaza, 50 West Washington, on the last Friday of every month at 5:30 PM. The next ride is August 26.
Meets at the Nelson Algren Fountain (Polish Triangle) , 1200 North Milwaukee, on the third Thursday of every month at 6 PM. The next ride is August 18.
Chicago women’s bike blogs
509 North Union, (312) 738-4367
Unique Thrift Store
4445 North Sheridan, (773) 275-8623
Thought You Knew pin-up calendar
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011. We switched to writing at Streetsblog Chicago in January 2013.
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