Windy city wheels: Bicycling in Chicago

It is supposed to be one of the USA's best locations for cycling, but James Daley had a rude shock in store

Published December 13, 2007 by 

It is supposed to be one of the USA's best locations for cycling, but James Daley had a rude shock in store

Ask any Chicagoan and they'll tell you that their city is the best for bicycling in the United States. Although Portland in Oregon now tends to come out on top in most national surveys – praised for its miles of cycle paths and community bicycle projects – biking in Chicago has been a major part of the city's life for almost 150 years, with the first records of the sport dating back to the 1860s.

By the turn of the 20th century, cycling was so popular that there were more than 50 bicycle clubs – and today, more than a century later, the city claims to be investing millions of dollars a year in improving facilities for bikers.

As my namesake, Mayor Daley, proudly puts it on the Windy City's website: "As part of our effort to make Chicago the most environmentally friendly big city in the nation, one of our main goals is to promote environmentally friendly lifestyles. Bicycling is a great way to get around Chicago. It's fun, fast, healthy and good for our environment."

All this sounded very promising, and helped to put Chicago right to the top of my destination wishlist in the US. While I've always enjoyed taking bicycle holidays in remote and scenic countryside, I'm much more of a city-dweller at heart, and love nothing more than exploring new metropolises on two wheels.

I finally made the trip in October (which this year was unseasonally mild for Chicago), and booked myself into a hotel which, like the Mayor, also shared my name: The James. This was not the reason I chose it, however. It was The James's "Explore" package, which caught my eye – a deal which included two bikes (fitted with GPS navigation systems), two messenger bags (filled with bottles of water and energy bars), breakfast in bed, not to mention a room in one of Chicago's hippest boutique hotels.

If you haven't yet been to Chicago, and you like big cities, you must go. The architecture is spectacular, the restaurants and nightlife are fantastic and, for a big city, the people are hugely friendly. And I'd heartily recommend The James too, if you can spare the cash. The Explore package starts from $309 (£150) per room per night which, although not cheap, is not extortionate once you've taken the breakfast, bike hire and overall coolness of the hotel into account.

Sadly, however, if you're expecting to be wowed by the city's bicycling infrastructure – as I was – then you might find yourself slightly disappointed.

When my wife and I arrived to claim our bikes at the hotel's reception, a concierge hurriedly took us aside for a health and safety talk. After rolling out a large map of the city, he explained that most of Chicago was lethal for bikers, adding that two of the hotel's previous guests who had braved the streets on two wheels had ended up being delivered back to their room in an ambulance.

His advice was to head straight down to the lakefront which, he suggested, was really the only safe place to cycle. And the ride down to the lake was certainly a little hairy.

Bike lanes are few and far between – and often fairly useless anyway – in Chicago. Furthermore, the city's drivers are not particularly considerate.

As someone who has spent several years navigating the Elephant and Castle roundabout in south London during rush hour, it was no worse than I was used to. But my wife, who was relatively new to city cycling, was a little less comfortable. Life was not made any easier by the fact that our bikes had clearly not been serviced in a long while, and mine spent the whole time crunching through its gears. Furthermore, the bike GPS systems, which the hotel website had boasted, were nowhere to be seen.

Down on the waterfront, however, it finally became clear why Chicago has won the accolades for cycling that it has. Miles and miles of trail stretch out in both directions along the lake, offering beautiful views both of the water and the city. To the south, the path takes you past Navy Pier, through Grant Park and alongside Soldier's Field, while to the north Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast await. If it's warm enough, you can even stop for a swim.

Ultimately, Chicago is probably not somewhere you'd go simply for the cycling – as perhaps I'd thought that it might be – but, for bike enthusiasts, there's certainly enough to keep you interested for a day along the lakefront.

And if you're an urban cyclist who likes to moan about the lack of investment in cycle lanes and bike routes in your local area, a visit to Chicago will certainly put your complaints into perspective. While it might be one of the best cities for cycling in North America, the infrastructure across most of the city (lakeshore aside) still falls a long way short of the facilities in most cities back home.