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May 21, 2022
Chicago, the bustling city at the south end of Lake Michigan, appears in many poems and novels, stars in the setting for countless movies and showcases some of the most iconic architecture anywhere. Perhaps less well known is Chicago's pivotal role in biking culture, one that continues to the present day. This might be a surprising position for a place that is notorious for cold and windy winters, but such is the reality of this always vibrant and interesting urban environment.
The roots of biking in the Windy City go back more than one hundred years to around the mid-1800s. At this time, the infrastructure for biking wasn't fantastic as the streets tended to be a sloppy mixture of mud, cobblestones, and horse manure. This was a time before automobiles when horses ruled the world of land transportation. Still, politicians talked about the rights of bicyclists and even campaigned for improvements to biking.
Most of the biking at this time was done on the outskirts of Chicago, and mostly by upper-class society members who had the leisure time to explore this new activity. Around the turn of the 19th century, the city completed a bike path that ran from Edgewater to Evanston along Sheridan Road. Though biking activity would ebb and flow for the next hundred years, often taking a backseat to the automobile industry and concentrating on children, Chicago would always remain at the forefront of biking culture.
At one point, peaking near the end of the 19th century, Chicago could claim that two-thirds of bikes and biking accessories were manufactured in or near the city. The famed Arnold, Schwinn & Company was formed in Chicago in 1895. A few interesting facts reveal some of the flavors of this time.
Manufacturing companies continued to make improvements on the bikes they turned out. Mass production lowered the costs, bringing in more middle-class bikers, and lighter technology allowed more female riders. Female bikers received criticism for engaging in an activity that allowed for questionable dress and unchaperoned activity between men and women.
From the early days of biking, Chicago has always had a strong biking culture. By the late 1890s, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the city had over 50 bike clubs with more than 10,000 members. This community used its numbers and clout to lobby for improvements to biking such as smoother street surfaces, safety enhancements and bike paths. At times, politicians such as Carter H. Harrison II, in the 1890s, Richard J. Daley, in the 1970s, and Richard M. Daley, in the 1990s, championed biking causes.
Both Daley majors played a strong role in advocating for improvements in biking in and around Chicago. Many of their accomplishments (with strong support from the biking community) remain beneficial today:
Despite its unpredictable weather and heavy traffic, Chicago remains one of the best cities for biking according to many bike advocacy groups. Serious riders, casual riders and families can all find an enjoyable niche to explore the city and its neighborhoods on the bike of their choice. Contact us at Sixthreezero to find out how we can help new and experienced riders add a personal chapter to Chicago's biking story.
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