When you ask somebody where they’re from, and they say, “I’m from Chicago,” chances are they’re not from Chicago. They’re from St. George or Wilmette, Illinois, or Gary, Indiana, or one of the other hundreds of towns and villages with names as diverse as the people who settled them, that were slowly eaten up by Chicago, to form something greater: Welcome to Chicagoland.
Elliot lives in Edgebrook, on Chicagoland’s North Side, with his wife and two kids. A bike technician at the REI store in Northbrook eight miles away, he’s a year-round bike commuter. His garage is dedicated to his bicycles, and to his fledgling bike bag company. In other words, he’s a bike guy. On the muggy day in September, we gave Elliot a Novara Barrow and let him show us Chicagoland on two wheels.
First, coffee. Rolling through sleepy neighborhoods filled with townhouses, we make our way to the Other Brother Coffeehouse where pastries and a cortado start us in the right direction, on to Winnetka.
Winneka: the second richest town in the United States. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’ve been here before–”Home Alone,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Uncle Buck” and “The Breakfast Club” were all shot in and around Winnetka. Coasting down the street you begin to understand why. Mature oaks line generous avenues, the smell of fresh-cut grass fills the air, all manner of dogs are being walked. We pass French chateaus neighboring Prairie-style modern mansions, classic Tudors and small estates, some perched atop lazy berms, others half obscured behind heavily wooded driveways.
We visit in September, with highs in the low nineties. It’s hot out. But not that hot: Two months ago, it was one hundred and ten degrees, with eighty percent humidity. And in the dead of winter, it wouldn’t be unheard of for temperatures to dip to negative fifty degrees, factoring in wind chill from the harsh gusts whipping off Lake Michigan. If you’re keeping track, that’s a 160˚ swing!
Sure, it’s bike-friendly here, with nearly 100 miles of protected bike lanes and a non-existent topography—but that’s not the problem, is it? “Weather is the number one challenge to riding in Chicago. It’s four seasons with a vengeance out here,” Elliot says. And yet, he bikes through it all. “I know it sounds cliché, but my garage is a toolbox, and my bikes are the tools. I have a different bike and a different setup for every riding condition.” From the slush of salted roads in winter to the unrelenting heat in summer, a couple different setups are key. “I’m riding a roadie most days, but I’ve got a bike setup with fat, five-inch tires for when it freezes, fenders for when it’s wet out. Good lighting, always. And just give yourself time, if you’re going to be a daily rider here, you have got to be prepared.”
Normally, Elliot would continue east to work at REI. But for the sake of today’s ride, we continue on, taking the long way around.
Leaving Winnetka, we enter the North Branch Trail, named after the north branch of the Chicago River along which it winds north-south for 17 miles. We head north six miles, toward the Chicago Botanic Garden and the trail’s head.
Glassy-smooth, the paved trail meanders through old-growth forest. Coasting in shade, the sounds of our Novaras whirring beneath us, we find ourselves quiet. “When you’re riding, you just get on and forget. It’s meditation. All your stresses go away,” Elliot says. The fact that when he’s not being a bike mechanic at REI, Elliot is a stay-at-home dad with his two kids, aged 9 months and 3 years, probably has something to do with his zen approach.
Reaching the trail’s head we turn east and continue along lightly trafficked suburban streets before reaching Lake Michigan. It’s not the ocean, but it sure feels like it. The lakefront is busy with bikers, joggers, inline skaters, sunbathers, dog walkers, hacky-sackers and picnickers. It’s crowded compared to the trail, but the bike lanes are moving, and so are we, with the promise of food and drink in our near future.
Chicagoland has a long and storied history of beer making, and beer drinking for that matter. So it’s no surprise that its craft-brewing scene is thriving. Elliot takes us to Smylie Brothers Brewing Co., known for their pale ales and their smoked meats. The wood-fired pizza looks good, but the smoked turkey sandwich looks better. Add to that a double dry hopped IPA, and we end up full, talking about the day and looking over pictures we’ve taken. Riding back to Elliot’s, we take our time, enjoying the sun as it hangs low in the sky. Again, we coast, bellies full, legs tired—the perfect way to end our day in Chicagoland.
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