You don't have to go far to find cyclists around Downtown Oak Park on a Saturday morning. We asked a few of them about their experiences.
Kent Sechler came all the way up from the Midway Airport area, as he does at least once a week because he loves "these great Marion Street shops." A pilot for Southwest Airlines, who lives near Archer and Cicero, he says the shopping is better up here. "I pester your merchants year-round," he said. When we caught up to him, he was walking his LeMond bike (named for Greg LeMond, the "other" American Tour de France winner?#34;in fact, the first) browsing the Antiques, Etc. windows. Farmers' Market, he said, is another draw.
Does he think Oak Park is a bike-friendly town?
"Absolutely. It's one of the best towns in the area. The streets are wide and there are a lot of pedestrians." The presence of pedestrians, especially in places like the Frank Lloyd Wright Historical District, make motorists more aware, which indirectly helps cyclists.
Does he follow the traffic rules and regs?
"Yes. It makes your behavior more predictable to cars, especially at stop lights. It's easier for them to avoid you. You do yourself a favor by following the rules."
Does he always wear his helmet?
"I don't carry my bike down the stairs without my helmet on. Wearing a helmet is really cheap insurance."
It's easy to spot the Lake and Harlem Cycle Club members as they lounge in chairs at Cosi Cafe's outdoor tables. All the riders wear brightly colored Spandex outfits, sunglasses, and specialized pedal shoes. They've just returned from an 85-mile morning ride out past the DuPage County Airport to Udina, which has, as one cyclist puts it, "a great little general store with bathrooms and sandwiches at reasonable prices."
On this particular day, they were stopped by "Barney Fife" from Wayne, Ill., who gave them a warning for riding two abreast instead of single file.
"It's horse country," said one member. "They don't like cyclists."
"It's Kane County," said another. "They don't like Spandex."
The group varies their rides each Saturday.
"The lobbying by e-mail begins on Thursday," noted one rider.
But there are early morning rides every day of the week through most of the year.
Do they follow the rules of the road?
"Our official position is we obey all traffic laws," quipped one member of the group.
"When we don't," retorted another, "It's unofficial."
In Oak Park and River Forest, where all of the riders are from, they do follow the laws. In fact, they said they're safer than many of the cars that pass them.
"You have to watch out for old men in Lincolns," one rider said, only half joking. Fortunately, they're a big group. "We're easy to see," he said.
Oak Park is bike-friendly, a member noted, "but we're not militant. We drive cars too."
Occasionally, they get someone yelling, "Get off the road" or "Get on the sidewalk" even though, they note ironically, the latter is illegal.
Riders present on this day were Kevin Munday, Carl Schimer, Paul Winston, John Bing-Canar and Jack Crowe, all of Oak Park, and Steve Baskin, Bernie Mongiardini and Mike Newberry of River Forest.
Sam Henzel and Lisa Marinier, a 20-something couple, helmetless, were walking their bikes on the sidewalk just past Mancini's Restaurant on Lake Street when we happened upon them. They grew up in Oak Park, but now live in Forest Park, and they don't own a car, so biking is their main form of transportation.
Is Oak Park bike-friendly?
"The traffic's not too aggressive," conceded Henzel.
"Less so than in other places," agreed Marinier.
"Some people get mad about riding on the sidewalk," said Henzel. One time the beat cop yelled at them for riding on the Marion Street mall.
"But you feel safer on the sidewalk," Marinier said.
"I'd rather get yelled at," agreed Henzel, especially in the densely trafficked Downtown Oak Park area. "They can't kill me on the sidewalk."
Marinier said you can get almost anywhere as quickly on a bike as you can in a car, faster when the traffic's bad.
As for the rules and regs, Marinier said, "I don't use hand signals, but I do stop at the lights."
"I only stop if something's physically in the way," Henzel confessed.
Each has had two bikes stolen. Marinier said one was due to her own carelessness. The other was properly locked at Austin and South Boulevard.
At a table outside Starbuck's, Ed Martin of Riverside relaxes with a coffee and crossword puzzle. A systems analyst for Bank One who was snared in their recent layoff wave, Martin is a semi-serious biker who rides to various locales several times a week, but Oak Park and River Forest are definitely on his list of regular destinations. On this day, he's been through River Forest, Elmwood Park and Oak Park before stopping here.
Oak Park and River Forest are not unfriendly to cyclists, but they're "not as friendly as they used to be. No one is."
He blames "too many drivers with cell phones" who just aren't paying attention. "It's scary," he said.
He rides 30-40 miles a week, sometimes more, and does follow the traffic signs and lights. In fact, he says he abides by them more than the motorists. He says it's in every cyclist's best interests to obey the rules and regs because if one person doesn't, "motorists get mad at all of us."
At least the drivers are more polite around here. One woman in River Forest who cut him off at a 4-way stop sign tried so hard to apologize that she almost ran him off the road.
He always wears a helmet. In fact, he usually buys a new one every year because "they wear out." He has a number of bikes?#34;touring, road, mountain?#34;depending on where he's riding. On bike trails, he said, "you want a bigger tire."
Vic Lombardi is a sportscaster for the CBS affiliate in Denver, Colo. He's visiting family and likes to borrow a bike and cart his son, Dante, around in one of those attached wheeled tents. We caught up to him waiting at the light at Forest and Lake by Hobbytown USA.
With Rocky Mountain exuberance, this Golden, Colo. resident pronounces Oak Park "awesome" as a bike town, but he notes there aren't enough shoulders and bike lanes so it's "sometimes dangerous here," which helps explain why he's riding on the sidewalk.
Lombardi describes Denver as "the bike capital of the West" because it has so many bike lanes, but Oak Park is a very scenic town to bike in.
"It's easy to get around," he says. "There aren't any hills."
He describes himself as a "recreational" biker. It's a pleasant way to get around. "And I'm too lazy to walk," he said.
As for traffic regulations, he follows them if there's traffic. If not, "I blow through."
Beth Shannon and her son Liam are wrestling their bikes out of the bike rack in front of Competitive Foot at Marion Street and North Boulevard. They ride a lot to get around town, especially in the summer. The family lives down by Roosevelt Road, so the kids take their bikes up to the Lake Theatre, OPRF High School events and the pools.
"I tell the kids to ride on the sidewalks," she admits. "The streets are too narrow. Safety first."
She buys them the best locks and instructs them to lock up wherever they go. Overall, Oak Park is "pretty safe," she said, and the kids have never had a bike stolen. She on the other hand, had three ripped off, but she's more careful now and her current bike is 10 years old.
Last year she intervened to stop a bike theft and got a letter of commendation from Sen. Dick Durbin's office.
She makes sure the kids wear helmets, but generally she doesn't. Like Lombardi, when she rides, she abides by the traffic laws?#34;when traffic is present. When it isn't, she admits, "I do my own thing."