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Student bikers on campus: Bring on the cold

(Handout )
December 19, 2012|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | RedEye

Most Chicagoans would probably agree that getting around the city during the winter is far from enjoyable. But there are some Chicago college students who would disagree; they bypass the CTA or cars for their bikes--regardless of cold, sleet, or snow--and genuinely like doing it.

Kara D'Evelyn, for example.

The 22-year-old sophomore at Shimer College, a small liberal arts college on Illinois Institute of Technology's campus, traded her mountain bike for a road bike when she moved here from the West Coast.

D'Evelyn, who bikes to campus from her apartment in Pilsen, said her first experience biking through the winter last year wasn't bad once she learned how to dress for Chicago's temperatures. She said insulated vests, a windbreaker jacket and wrap-around earmuffs protect her from the city's wind-chill. And now that she's invested in all that money in winter gear, she said she's looking forward to a big snow.

"I kind of want an apocalyptic snowstorm to happen," D'Evelyn said. "As long as I don't have to go to work that day, I will be very happy to ride in it."

D'Evelyn missed Chicago's record-breaking blizzard of 2011, but University of Chicago physics major Rafael Suarez didn't.

The 23-year-old has been biking year-round for years, so biking through the blizzard didn't bother him.

He said the snow was already coming down when he left his apartment the evening of Feb. 1, 2011, to pick up groceries--and he kept biking north when he found out the store closest to campus had run out of canned soup.

 "Drivers would pull up next to me and go, 'You're the man!' " Suarez said. "By the time I got back home, I had to pick up my bike across my back because the snow was in 3-foot drifts."

Suarez said he gets around campus much faster by bike--it allows him to leave later for class too. He said winter biking isn't as scary as people think it is as long as you remember to ride slow and avoid making sudden turns. Suarez said that since he's a winter biking veteran, most people on campus don't think it's a big deal anymore--but sometimes his friends will still bring it up when introducing him to new people.

"They'll be like, 'Oh, you'll like him--he's crazy. He bikes during the winter,'" Suarez said.

But he said that he and his friends who bike in the winter don't feel like it's that out of the ordinary.

"We don't feel crazy," Suarez said. "We feel like this is logical. When you're on a bike, you're going so much slower, so you can really relax and enjoy the city. It's just--better."

Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Ethan Spotts recommended that cyclists new to winter riding remember three L's: layers, light, and limits. He suggested checking out the Salvation Army or thrift stores for discount clothing and gear--and to always bring an extra pair of socks, gloves and headgear for long rides. Spotts also emphasized the need for brightly colored clothing and lights during a season when drivers aren't expecting bikers to be out on the road. Spotts said he wears so many lights that once a few passersby told him they thought he was a police officer.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's great if you think I'm the police,'" Spotts said. "That means you can see me."

Most importantly, Spotts said riders new to winter biking need to set limits for themselves. He told a story about a female biker, a senior citizen involved in Active Trans, who bikes 8 miles to work every day, year round--except on the days the thermometer goes below 20 degrees. On those days, she'll take the bus instead.

"If you feel comfortable and know how to dress, if you're prepared--then by all means, bike in those lower temperatures," Spotts said. "But know your limits. It's OK to take a day off."

Carmen Aiken, a 25-year-old master's candidate in UIC's urban planning program, said her favorite part of biking in the winter is how it bonds cold-weather riders.

"When you're riding in the winter and you pass another cyclist on the street, you give each other this look like, 'Yeah, we're doing it!' " Aiken said. "It's like you get this weird insta-cred for being out in the cold."

D'Evelyn and Suarez shared similar feelings about Chicago's community of winter biking enthusiasts.

"There's this kind of awesome camaraderie when you're on the streets riding back home at 3, 4 in the morning," Suarez said. "There's this feeling between people who are out this late, and it's this cold, and we still have this far to go--and it's like, 'Isn't it amazing?' "

Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.

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