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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, September 30

Gapers Block

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The kids and I just had a big bike crash. The crash, while momentarily bad, was really great. We all biked to a nearby shop to buy some ballet shoes, and on the way home, Win stopped suddenly, I crashed into him, both bikes fell over, and both boys and myself crashed to the ground. Ben was in the bike seat, and helmeted of course, so he was uninjured, although a little scared. Lou had the wherewithal to stop well in advance of the pile up. Win was scraped, and mostly upset because he had caused the accident. I am probably looking at months of acupuncture to correct the damage to my tailbone, and I have a big bloody gash on my leg, but whatever. Did you read the part that said "We all biked to a nearby shop"? That's the good part! Everyone (except the young'un) is now up and riding! We are free to fly about the neighborhood. Van free, car seat free, look at us crash on the sidewalk, free!

Everyone has had the chickenpox over here, so we've been house-bound and stir-crazy. Because of the unrelenting whining, I've been unable to string one thought to another, and the need to get outside and breathe some non-pox air had the boys and I heading for the park for a refreshing change of scenery. Lou had taken to her bed. We covered the mirrors so she wouldn't have to look upon her poxed visage, and she was working the invalid role hard.

I planned to ride my bike to the park with Ben in the bike seat, and Win would ride his scooter. As we were walking past his brand spanking new bike that not only took a bite out of the August budget, but also has been taking up prime real estate in the living room, I said, "Hey, let's get your bike out and give it another try."

He was violently opposed to the plan; early attempts at riding had taken him into the side of the parked van because he couldn't figure out the brakes. The bike came inside after that, and no amount of pleading or pep talks on my part would get the bike back out. I wasn't going to be a hard ass about it, because I didn't want him to be stressed out about riding, and, well, insert pathetic parental justification for not forcing a kid to do something difficult here. But that was before I was locked in a house with three sick kids in the last weeks of summer, so frankly, nice-mom had left the building.

"Look," I said, "you are going to learn to ride that bike. We are going to take it to the park, and you are going to ride it."

Grumbling and whining all the way, we got the damn thing to the park. He didn't believe he would ever be able to brake properly. It wasn't going to work. He would be the only kid on the planet unable to learn to ride a bike.

I read somewhere that a kid had a better chance at learning to ride a bike on grass. It made sense. He already had his balance and knew how to pedal; the problem was he didn't know how to stop and got panicky. So, the grass worked pretty well. It was slower going than the sidewalk or the path through the park, but within two minutes he was smiling and confident about using the brakes. We moved over to the cinder track. That was even better, smoother, yet still a slow surface. He rode about 30 feet and stopped a few times. I told him to try riding a little farther next time, and away he went, pedaling his heart out all the way around the track. It was a heartbreaker of a scene.

Later that day, we got the bikes out again to ride out and surprise Dad at the train with the new two-wheeling skills. Riding behind Win I realized that this was the best thing that happened all summer. Lou, always a late bloomer, got herself going on her bike this spring, and now that both kids are flying solo, the city is our oyster! Except for all of the cars and insane people, we can bike anywhere we've got the stamina for. I pictured us hitting the very next Critical Mass ride. That's probably going to have to wait a bit, though I'm sure there are plenty of kids out there riding with the pack.

One thing I hadn't figured on is that there is more to learning to ride a bike than just getting up and going. And stopping. Particularly for young urban riders, there are a lot of nuances that take some time to develop. For example, they need to learn when to stop and walk across an intersection, and when to bike through, or how to safely ride in the street, including the look-behind neck swivel manuever. What does one do when people are hogging the sidewalk or bike trail? What if they don't understand your language? What if they are listening to their iPod or talking on the phone and don't hear you? What if you are too painfully shy to speak at an audible volume, particularly to strangers? (The answer to this one is get yourself the universally understood bike bell.) How do you get across a busy street where there is no light? How and when do you ride single file? What happens when some big kid wants to "borrow" your bike? Do you wear your helmet even though no other kid on your block does? Besides the usual hand signals, what about the one that clearly says "back off motherf@*%er"? How do you instill that kind of bad-assery into a delicate flower of a child?

Back in the day, I biked everywhere I went. I thought nothing of biking in traffic, I was careful and quick, and made sure that people could see me. I did stupid things though, like the time I was biking home at 2am, flying across the bridge on Webster near Finkel Foundry. I thought I looked, but obviously didn't before cutting across to turn left, and I got nailed by a car. I wasn't hurt too bad, but I realized then and there that no matter how careful you think you are being, it can only take a second, and one chance, to get yourself into some trouble. I witnessed a hit and run driver plow into a 14-year-old girl biking on Milwaukee Avenue last summer. Not only did the driver not stop, he ran a red light trying to get away before someone could get his license. How do you prepare for that? She was okay, but shaky and scraped up.

Everyone who has biked in the city has a similar story, many with much worse outcomes. Accidents definitely happen. Let's all take a moment to knock wood, and think about all of the glorious rides we've had, instead of these downer accidents, like the time you just weren't ready to go home and sleep after seeing a great band, so you rode around all night with your pal. Or the time your then-boyfriend tried to grab your handlebars and knocked you off your bike, signaling that, in fact, it was true love. Or just think about how great it feels to get from A to B without having to drag a giant hunk of machinery with you.

My kids are going to have to do some major parentally supervised biking before they will be turned loose on the Chicago streets. To be honest, I can't imagine them biking in the street. How old do you have to be before you can't get away with riding on the sidewalk anymore? Is it when you no longer refer to a bike as a "two-wheeler"? Could we make it be? My daughter, bless her heart, is quite possibly the slowest, shakiest biker to hit the city. Butterflies pass her, and fly in a straighter line. How in the world will she ever be able to ride to an all-ages show in a few years? Practice on her part, and trust on mine is what it's going to take. I have no doubt that one day they will all strap on their helmets, stow their gear into futuristic, ergonomic packs and ride out into traffic, bravely and with ass-kicking attitude, just like dear old Mom and Dad.


There are loads of bike trails in the city that are great for the beginning biker. One park where we have had lots of fun with wheeled items is Shabonna Park. The park has a track circling and intersecting a long field that is perfect for a bunch of kids to ride around and around and still stay in view of the grown-ups. Don't be fooled by the map: the parking lot to Shabonna is located off of Cornelia, from Oak Park Avenue, just south of Addison. There's an awesome old-school metal twisty slide there as well, and a really nice indoor pool.

I recently met Chris from Rapid Transit bike shop flying a kite at the beach with his kids. I asked him what advice he had for folks starting out with family biking, and he highly recommended the trail-a-bike as a safe option for biking with kids in the city. If you are looking to support a family owned bike shop, stop in and check out their bikes and their family biking gear.

We were looking to purchase a good bike that could be ridden by more than one kid, and we couldn't be happier with the Jamis Laser 2.0. We bought ours from our neighborhood bike shop, Barnard Schwinn, where you can get all sorts of bikes, including one of these.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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