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“Everybody makes it out to be some kind of superhuman feat, and it’s not,” says Randy Neufeld, who has ridden his bike to work all winter, even on the snowiest and coldest days. He’s the executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, so it’s his job to persuade more commuters that bicycle transportation is a safe, nonpolluting, even fun alternative to cars. He only grudgingly admits to having taken a few minor falls or to being cut off and yelled at by angry motorists. But he readily admits that there have been more days than usual this winter when bicycle commuting’s been a drag. “Until this year I was telling people how easy it was,” he says. “It’s been a tough winter for people getting around–however they get around.”
Neufeld has ridden in the thick of rush-hour snowstorms before, but he prefers to wait until the plows clear main streets. “If it’s too deep you have to stick to the car tracks,” he says.
“I don’t really enjoy it, because when the snow’s heavy I worry about car visibility. If they can’t see well it’s more dangerous for me.”
The big snows of December forced him to ride on just plowed and salted main streets such as Ashland and Halsted when he commuted from his home in Ravenswood to his job just south of the Loop. Those streets are wide enough that even when snow forces cars to park away from the curb there’s still room for cyclists. Of course the salt is a problem. “It really wrecks your bike,” he says. “You have to just lube your chain like crazy.”
By early January city crews and a couple of above-freezing days had finally cleared the driving lanes of side streets, and Neufeld had only the cold to contend with on his 40-minute commute. One morning when it was 25 degrees, he took Wilson to Clark, then veered onto Halsted and stayed on it till he was close to the Loop. Then he “stairstepped” east and south on downtown streets until he reached CBF’s office, at Clark and Harrison. It was an uneventful trip, except that he had to yell “Heads up!” at a bunch of pedestrians who almost stepped in front of him near Union Station. He insists most winter rides are just as easy.
He says he gets plenty of incredulous looks when he rides in below-freezing weather. “I remember one particularly cold day I was just starting off for work,” he says. “I was insulated from head to toe–very toasty. This woman is walking out to her car. She’s got a dress on, hose, no pants–this was a very cold day, like 10 or 15 below zero. And she had her coat open, no gloves on. She was going out to get in her car, which she had to dust off ’cause there was snow on it. She looks at me and says something about me being crazy.” He smiles. “People are always amazed that you bike out in the cold. Nobody ever says to people on the plane to Vail, ‘You’re going up in the mountains in the snow in the middle of winter? Isn’t it cold out there?’ There’s an assumption that if you’re gonna go skiing in the wintertime in Vail you’re gonna spend a couple hundred bucks on the appropriate winter Gore-Tex clothing and equipment so that you’ll be comfortable doing that activity.”
Neufeld has gotten used to incredulous looks. He and his wife and two kids don’t have a car, though they do have seven bikes, a tandem, and a collection of panniers and carts that they use to haul things around. He built a sturdy two-wheeled cart to haul drywall and lumber when they were fixing up the house, and two years ago he built a special four-wheeled cart to move an upright piano. At Urban Bikes, a shop in Uptown that keeps unique items for gearheads, he found a six-foot chassis with four wheels, a front steering mechanism, and a differential–to which he added a platform made of plywood and two-by-fours.
Well aware that hauling a 400-pound piano might require a new riding technique, he loaded 550 pounds of bricks and a friend onto the 200-pound cart. “I’m really glad I did, because it’s a very different experience,” he says. “You have to straddle the bike and kind of slowly push with your feet. Then when you get to a speed that you can maintain, you get up and start pedaling.”
On moving day, about 15 friends met Neufeld and his family at his uncle’s home near Western and Howard in Rogers Park. They loaded the piano, screwed it to the cart, and lashed it down with heavy straps. Neufeld got the cart moving at about five miles an hour–if he went faster he would have had trouble stopping–and with his friends on bikes ahead of and behind him managed to get into the outside southbound lane of Western. He figured a four-lane street was better than a side street because cars could pass him. They took Peterson to Ravenswood to Winnemac to the alley behind his home on Hermitage. A couple of cars got stuck behind them on a narrow stretch of Ravenswood, then testily sped past. But most onlookers seemed amused. “My feats of hauling weird things on bikes would be pretty ordinary in places like India and China,” he says, “where people do things that are beyond my imagination.”
Neufeld doesn’t expect other people to haul pianos with bikes; he just hopes to coax more of them onto bike paths and city streets. “About half of adults own a bicycle and ride it at least once during the year,” he says. “And most of them may not be comfortable riding around the city on their bikes.” So CBF puts maps and how-to booklets in schools, libraries, and stores. It also holds classes in schools, workplaces, and community centers. “Encouraging bicycling in a city that is, in terms of resources and facilities, entirely designed for automobiles is difficult,” he says. “The city of Chicago’s working very hard to improve bicycling, but that doesn’t mean it’s bicycling nirvana yet.”
If Neufeld, who’s now 42, ever thinks about slacking off, he has plenty of peer pressure to keep him going–five of his eight coworkers have also biked to work every day this winter. “There’s a good feeling about your body being able to adjust and feel comfortable outside in the wintertime,” he says. “It’s a similar kind of feeling when you do cross-country skiing or other sorts of winter activities, but it’s kinda nice to have it available on a regular basis in the city.”
And he says there are moments that make up for the hassles of salt and slush and bad drivers. He remembers that last winter he was riding on Clark Street near Uptown while big clumps of snow were falling. Heavy clouds extended east to the lake, while to the west the sky was blue and the sun was shining. “It was magical just looking to your right and seeing the sun, looking to your left and seeing the snow fall,” he says. “I don’t know that you would’ve noticed it in a car, because you’d have to see the whole sky panorama.”