Chicago bike shops welcome new wave cyclists

A biker commutes through the Pilsen neighborhood/Flickr

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Thanks to 200-miles of bike lanes, the newly renovated Lakefront Trail and more than 130,000 spots to park and lock your bike, Chicago consistently ranks among America’s most bicycle-friendly cities, according to ratings in Bicycle Magazine. But that friendliness wanes if you’re black, Latino or a woman looking to ride.

Yes, we have Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Streets for Chicago 2020 Plan to increase the number of bike lanes citywide. And Divvy’s bike share D4E plan awards a $5 membership to qualifying low-income riders. But, still, a race and gender gap persists.

Only about 30 percent of bike commuters in Chicago are women, and even fewer are people of color, according to the 2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey. A Chicago Sun-Times data analysis shows most rides through the Divvy bike share program are concentrated downtown or on the North Side.

And Chicago Police Department data shows traffic tickets issued to cyclists are disproportionately concentrated in Black and Latino neighborhoods, usually for something as minor as riding on the sidewalks. Additionally, security fears, especially after dark, often deter women, while poorly maintained roads and fewer bike lanes make it less enticing to ride in black or Latino neighborhoods.

Cycling culture has long been linked to white, spandex-clad men with enough money to pay for fancy equipment and race entry fees. But a fresh cadre of bike shops are positioned to change the face of cycling and push aside the gatekeepers. Literally. Check out some Chicago shops run by and for people of color and women to promote pedaling for anyone who wants to ride.

Working Bikes Cooperative
Little Village
2434 S. Western Ave.

Working Bikes believes bikes empower disenfranchised populations—giving them freedom, independence and access that they may otherwise struggle to obtain. This volunteer-run, non-profit claims abandoned bikes or soon-to-be discarded bikes donated by community members, refurbishes them and distributes them to communities in need. They don’t only work in Chicago, either. You’ll find their bikes everywhere from Gary, Indiana, to Egypt.

West Town Bikes
2459 W. Division St.
Humboldt Park

This West Side shop does more than just sell and repair bikes for area residents. It brings recreation and affordable transportation to a traditionally under-served area and provides work for at-risk youth and young adults in the area through internship and after-school programs.

Blackstone Bicycle Works
6100 S. Blackstone Ave.

While this Hyde Park institution does sell and repair bikes, it’s best known in the neighborhood for its Earn-a-Bike Program. Kids work 25 hours in the store—starting with repairing flats and progressing to more difficult tasks—and then pick a refurbished bike plus a new helmet and lock to keep for their own use. Those who stick around for more work can move their way up to paid positions and apprenticeships.

Irv’s Bike Shop
1725 S. Racine Ave.

The shop’s been in the same location for 40 years, and the current owner Enrique Ortiz started working there at the age of 11. Irv’s Bike Shop, named after the store’s original owner, started when the area was filled with Eastern European immigrants. Since then, it’s become a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, reflected even in the ownership change. But the name and reputation—as much community center than bike shop—has remained the same despite changing demographics.

BFF Bikes
2113 W. Armitage Ave.
Lincoln Park

This North Side option was Chicago’s first wholly women-focused shop when it opened in 2014, welcoming women of all skill levels into a sport that’s often dominated by men. In addition to being a full-service bike shop, BFFsells bikes and apparel that’s designed specifically for women. The shop hosts group rides for women to train with their peers.

Photo at top: A biker commutes through the Pilsen neighborhood. (Flickr)