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Cycling Wed Jun 15 2011

South Side Riding With Major Taylor Cycling Club

major taylor ride.jpg

Bobby Mitchell, Elihu Blanks and DeWayne Ferris (left to right) fix a flat tire / Photo: Christopher David Gray

By Christopher David Gray

I pulled my red Montgomery Ward cruiser bicycle up the stairs at the 79th Street Red Line station on a Saturday morning last month and hit the road.

I pedaled down quiet streets past Simeon Career Academy and west on 83rd Street, to the Dan Ryan Woods in Auburn Gresham and the start of the Major Taylor Trail.

The air was cool but not cold and I didn't pass another cyclist in three miles.

The Major Taylor Cycling Club awaited me at a parking lot in the Dan Ryan Woods, checking tires and equipment for a 14-mile ride to the southern city limits and back. The group of mostly black cyclists formed three years ago and remains one of the few of its kind on the South Side.

"We're trying to heighten our visibility so people are aware of us," said Peter Taylor, one of the core members of the club.

In February, the Chicago Department of Transportation released its first bike count survey, based on data collected in 2009 at 26 sites around the city.

The data showed some impressive cycling statistics: 14 of the locations had more than 200 bikers a day, and on one stretch of Milwaukee Avenue, 22 percent of all vehicles were bicycles.

But on the South Side, the statistics painted a much different picture. Not a single location south of north Bridgeport had more than 200 cyclists a day, and the nine lowest rider totals were all on the South Side, with fewer than 60 cyclists a day.

On my ride to Dan Ryan Woods, I passed the survey area with the fewest riders in the city, Damen Avenue near 83rd Street. Damen has bike lanes, even that far south, but the Department of Transportation counted only 10 riders a day at that intersection.

"The South Side is far less dense than the North Side. Businesses are more spread out," said Melody Geraci, the deputy executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance and a South Shore resident. "Destination-based cycling does not have as much demand there."

There are very few bike shops on the South Side outside of Hyde Park. Large neighborhoods like Bronzeville, Chatham and Roseland don't have any bike shops at all, making it difficult to fix a flat or get basic accessories.

The risk of theft in certain high-crime neighborhoods and a lack of cultural familiarity also play a part in keeping ridership lower.

The international fame achieved by the trail and the club's namesake, 19th-century African-American cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor, was a long time ago.

"Particularly in African-American communities, riding a bike is just not cool. We're trying to make riding a bike cool," Peter Taylor said.

He said he learned to ride a bike when he was three years old at his father's insistence.

"From his perspective, riding a bike was one of the coolest things you could do, and he never learned to ride one."

One thing that helps riders on the North Side is the simple presence of other riders. Drivers are more accustomed to seeing cyclists, and cyclists feel part of a larger community.

"You feel a lot more protected when there are other cyclists around," Geraci said.

Strength in numbers is part of the motivation behind the Major Taylor Cycling Club.

DeWayne Ferris, the club's president, said riding with a group provides riders with people to look out for them. On our ride last month, a woman got a flat tire, and several of her fellow riders were available to fix it in 10 minutes.

"Our big thing is just getting ourselves out there so people know who we are," Ferris said.

Fifteen or 20 club riders showed up that May Saturday for one of the first group rides of the season. The course followed the Major Taylor Trail, which the Chicago Parks District opened in 2007 to connect Dan Ryan Woods with Whistler Woods across the Little Calumet River at 134th Street.

"The trail itself is an old Conrail line for Rails to Trails," Taylor said. "The trail itself is very much a work in progress."

The trail actually runs in two sections on either side of Beverly. At 95th Street, the trail jogs on the sidewalk before heading south down Prospect Avenue to 105th Street. It reconnects with the old Conrail line behind Julian High School on the edge of the Morgan Park neighborhood.

While the old Conrail line presumably went through Beverly, the city has no plans to connect the two segments with a trail.

"Trying to get the very different communities to coordinate something like that is just not a priority," Ferris said.

The trail starts at 81st Street in Auburn Gresham, a middle-class black neighborhood of bungalows, and the houses got bigger as we headed south into Beverly, a more affluent, mostly white neighborhood. The stately homes on Prospect could easily have been on the North Shore.

The trail also has been plagued by poor maintenance, with glass and trash often littering the trail. Taylor said he called the Parks District and informed them about the day's ride, and the district responded. The grass was freshly cut and the trail had been swept just days before. Signs for the ride were posted all along the trail. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Taylor said.

The second half of the trail passes through Morgan Park and West Pullman, and the houses trend smaller and more modest as we headed south.

As we reached the end of the city, more grass had sprouted in the cracks of nearby sidewalks and the shrubbery became more overgrown.

Just before the bridge over the Little Calumet, a small field, freshly tilled, appeared west of the trail.

One of the problems South Side cycling faces is that unlike the North Side, where neighborhoods like Lincoln Square, North Center and Ravenswood bleed seamlessly into each other, the South Side is much more of a patchwork quilt, where stark racial and socioeconomic differences frequently keep residents segregated.

But Geraci has hope -- and on one recent Saturday, our multiracial group of cyclists fulfilled her vision.

"I think cycling in particular can be a really cool bridge across communities," Geraci said.

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