[This piece also runs on the environmental news website Grist.org.]
“It’s not that we don’t like straight people,” explains Jeff Rogers, president of the Windy City Cycling Club (WCCC), Chicago’s oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender bicycle group. “On the contrary: The biking community at large tends to be made up of very nice people who are very accepting of diversity in general. But gay and lesbian people have a comfort level with each other that’s different than with straight people.”
That sense of belonging is easy to see as we hang out at T’s bar, a buzzing lesbian, gay, and straight pub in Chicago’s LGBT-friendly Andersonville neighborhood, on a sunny February afternoon. A dozen or so club members, mostly women plus a handful of men, are gathered at an off-season social for Dykes Pedaling Bikes, the club’s monthly women’s ride. Ranging in age from late 20s to late 50s, they kibbitz over $5 hamburgers and tall glasses of hefeweizen with lemon slices as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” blasts on the sound system. A couple of them wear the club’s jersey, featuring a bicycle wheel, the Sears Tower, the Chicago flag, and a rainbow banner.
The WCCC formed in 1992 to get the wheels of fellowship turning among lesbian and gay folks. “Our society has opened up a lot in the last 20 years,” says Rogers, a mild-mannered financial advisor. “But back then the bike rides were a good place to meet people in a safe environment outside of a bar setting.”
Nowadays members lead mellow bike path cruises as well as speedy training rides and rugged off-road excursions. Since the Chicago area is mostly pancake-flat, the club also arranges trips to Wisconsin and Michigan for more challenging riding, plus bike vacations to Ireland and the Texas Hill Country. During the winter, the WCCC organizes get-togethers for skiing, sledding, skating, and spinning, and members also support bicycle advocacy by volunteering with the Active Transportation Alliance, which lobbies for better biking, walking, and transit conditions.
Dykes Pedaling Bikes started several years ago as a collaboration between the WCCC, the Lesbian Community Care Project (part of the Howard Brown Health Center, a local LGBT healthcare provider), and Dykediva.com, a website that promotes events in Chicago’s lesbian community. From spring to fall, the ride meets on the first Saturday of the month for a relaxed spin through Northwest Side forest preserves to the serene Chicago Botanic Gardens.
The North Branch Trail – photo by Super Gogo
Each ride draws as many as 40 women, plus an occasional man or two, since all club members are welcome to participate. “But it’s mostly a lesbian cycling group, so it’s a chance to meet other women with the same interests,” says rider Lori Pontious. She’s also working on organizing some longer, faster club rides for women, as well as winter cycling events, to attract a broader range of participants.
Susan Levin helps coordinate Dykes Pedaling Bikes, but she also pedals in predominantly straight rides like Chicago’s huge, friendly Critical Mass, with thousands of participants during the summer, and the North Side Mass, a neighborhood cruise which can draw over a hundred. “Gays and straights do social rides for the same reasons,” she says with a grin. “It’s all about meeting other people. Really, the only difference is who you flirt with. I’m outgoing enough that I’ll chat with anyone on any ride, regardless of their gender or orientation. But I met my last girlfriend on a Dykes Pedaling Bikes ride and I know people who met on the ride who are now married.”
Levin emphasizes that the women’s ride is open to couples as well as singles, and she also enjoys biking with the guys on WCCC outings like the annual 85-mile tour from New Buffalo, Michigan, to Saugatuck, a popular destination for LGBT tourists that’s been called the Provincetown of the Midwest. While she likes to pedal at a moderate pace, many of the men enjoy riding more aggressively. “The real machismo speed demons are way out in front and I never see them,” she says. “But at the end of the day we meet up for dinner and have a wonderful time.”
After the bartender buys us all a round of marshmallow-fluff vodka shots, Lisa Bigelow and her buddy Sue tell me they dig the social aspect of Dykes Pedaling Bikes. “But it’s not just a hook-up ride,” Sue insists. “That part helps bring people out, but it’s not a meat market,” Bigelow agrees. They add that all women are welcome on the ride, not just lesbians. “We don’t ask and you don’t have to tell,” Sue says.
When Dykes Pedaling Bikes started out in the mid-2000s, it took place on Chicago’s 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail, a multiuse path that has breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the skyline, but is often crowded and hectic during the summer. “I’m glad we switched to the North Branch Trail because lovely and it’s nice not having to dodge strollers and people on Rollerblades,” Bigelow says. The last straw was when two women crashed on the Lakefront Trail after someone slammed on their brakes to avoid a Segway tour group. “Two of the Segways almost went into the lake,” Sue remembers.
The women also like the North Branch Trail because it including some refreshingly hilly terrain. “One time I was about ready to punch this lady because she was yelling encouragement at me as I was walking my bike up one of the hills,” Sue recalls. “I was only walking my bike because the chain fell off.”
Munching a veggie burger at a nearby table, Drew Jemilo, a spinning instructor who founded the Chicago Razors gay triathlon team to compete in the 2006 Gay Games here, says he only rides with LGBT clubs. “A lot of us gay men weren’t into sports in high school but we got into it in our 30s and 40s,” he says. “In a gay group you might have guys who like to bike really fast, but there’s less competition and more camaraderie. It’s not a group of guys who ride to show how macho they are. It’s guys who ride more for the sense of community.”
A Chicago Razors triathlete at the 2006 Gay Games – photo by Daniel Nash
That community can be quite empowering. In 2007, a bus struck Levin on her bike, causing a concussion, a fractured elbow, a hematoma in her hip, and severe road rash that required a skin graft. The experience led her to co-found Active Trans’ Crash Support Group, meetings where cyclists can share encouragement with others who’ve been in a crash. She started riding with Dykes Pedaling Bikes in 2008 as a way to feel comfortable on a bike again. “Part of the healing process for me was going out on these non-competitive, totally supportive group rides,” she says.