Once a year, Evanston shuts down Ridge Avenue and opens it up for a few hours to bikes and families for our city’s version of Bike the Drive. Like Lake Shore Drive, Ridge is otherwise closed to bikes, and one would be very brave and/or stupid to bike it. Ridge is extremely narrow for four lanes of traffic, but that is what it is designated for. Even in cars, drivers are constantly encroaching on adjacent lanes simply because there is so little room and the avenue does a bit of curving and angles periodically. On each side of the street there are signs all the way from Howard on the south to Emerson on the north clearly announcing that bikes are not allowed on Ridge. Ridge is nonetheless the most obvious north/south thoroughfare through Evanston, so yes, occasionally you will see cyclists ignoring eleventy zillion signs and braving the mortal perils of Ridge as well as the occasional Evanston motorcycle cop and the corresponding ticket.
But once a year, Evanston puts together a top-notch family cycling event called Bike the Ridge. The whole avenue is closed to auto traffic and gets covered in cyclists young and old. Along the way there are mobile mechanic stops, school fund-raisers, free water-bottles and other giveaways and a giant rally/party at a park between Oakton and Main Street complete with bands, food trucks, farm stands, a bouncy house and all manner of bike-related and family friendly entertainment. Since we moved from Portage Park to Evanston in 2009 so Jackson could attend Park School, we have made Bike the RIdge our family biking event. Cycling is a central component of my life, but though I regularly bike commute to work, ride in fast group rides or with friends on training rides up and down the north shore, gravel rides on the DPRT and conduct bike tours all over the city and nearby suburbs, biking with the family is a rare treat.
In 2008, I took an old jogging stroller for large kids to Alex Wilson at West Town Bikes to try to make a bike-trailer for Jackson after having discussed doing so with him for several months. Alex is the founder of West Town Bikes and one of the most knowledgeable bike people in the universe. He is also a genuinely great person who has done so much for Chicago cycling and tons of young people in Humboldt Park, West Town and Chicago in general. Alex also taught me a great deal about bike advocacy, how to overhaul hubs, how to build wheels as well as how to conduct one’s self in pursuit of a better biking environment in and around Chicago. He taught me about always DOING. Always continuing to do more bike stuff and not to be deterred by pitfalls and personalities, just keep going. Who else would I seek help from but Alex?
After doing some initial work on the trailer, Alex recruited Todd Allen to assist in completing the Jackson-trailer. Todd Allen is also a world-class genuinely great person, cycling advocate as well as being a recumbent bike, bike trailer and bike cargo genius. With Alex’s and Todd’s innovative work, we were able to make a bike trailer that would allow our son, with all of his various special needs, to enjoy a bike ride.
The trailer had its limitations. It was very big and bulky so merely transporting it was an adventure in and of itself. Even in our lift-van, the thing would barely fit. Riding with it attached to a bike without substantial weight in it was all but impossible, quickly bouncing itself to toppling and even disconnecting from the hitch. On an early excursion with the trailer we learned the hard way that both wheels of the trailer had to hit any uneven pavement at the same time or the trailer could topple. Sadly, we learned this to the detriment of Jackson’s ear and face which got scraped up and required stitches when the trailer upended and sent Jackson to the tarmac. Even if you had smooth pavement, the trailer could not handle sharp turns so many bike paths were actually too winding for the trailer and the condition of Chicago area streets and the many potholes that one would encounter and the probability that one wheel could go into a rut while the other was at grade was too great a risk. I am pretty sure Chaney would have had a heart attack if I had ever attempted to ride with Jackson on the streets anyway. My original goal was to bike in Chicago Critical Mass with my son, and take him on my tours, but the limitations of the trailer would never allow this.
Still, special needs bikes and trailers can cost tens of thousands of dollars and this was a luxury we could never afford. Further, most of the models out there are only designed for standard wheelchair users. Jackson uses a tilting wheelchair due to his dysautonomic reflux, and very few of the special-built bikes for disabled passengers would accommodate any tilted position. Those that allowed a wheelchair to get straight aboard generally have too small a foot-print for a tilting wheelchair. Therefore, though the trailer was hardly perfect, every so often with the right circumstances present, it allowed us the opportunity to bike with our son.
Bike the Ridge is our special event. We didn’t need any crazy scheme to get to an ideal place involving multiple vehicles simply to go for a bike ride. Instead, one brief morning each September we could bike to the end of our block, turn left and enjoy a lovely two and a half mile stretch of smooth pavement, no cars and the company of thousands of other cyclists. Some years Jackson would laugh and laugh. Some times he could go for a number of runs up and down Ridge. Some years he would get lulled to sleep and some years he would howl up and down the avenue. Zoe would enjoy the day just as much as her brother and us in her bike seat. In subsequent years, she would do little stretches on her Strider, and later her bike in addition to runs in the bike seat when her little legs got too tired.
This year, Bike the Ridge came when Jackson was in his second week in the Pediatric ICU at Lurie Children’s Hospital. It was Chaney’s night in the hospital so Zoe and I were together in the morning. After our morning routine, we hit Ridge bright and early just after they had closed the street. We started at 9:10 and there were already hundreds of cyclists riding the Ridge. The sad milestone of the first Bike the Ridge without her brother was offset somewhat by being the first time Zoe biked the event on her own. All in all, her little legs carried her just shy of three miles. We got to hit the park, eat some orchard grown apples, listen to the School of Rock bands do their best Elvis Costello and Beatles impressions, jump in the bouncy house and get some books from library bike before remounting and heading home. It was both elating and sorrowful. I was so happy to watch my daughter have fun on her bike and so proud of her being able to bike so well on her own, but very sad that Jackson and Chaney weren’t with us. While she was jumping around in the bounce house, I was tearing up thinking about Jackson, and the myriad of wires and tubes he was connected to 12 miles southeast of us.
After the event, we went downtown so Zoe could spend some time with her brother. This is Jackson’s second long hospitalization in the last 4 months, and as hard as this ordeal is for him, Chaney and I, it has been equally difficult for Zoe. She misses her brother so much. She misses having both sets of parents together, and family dinners, breakfasts, time with her brother, and a reliable routine. She has handled it like a champ. She has grown up to surpass every developmental benchmark of her brother, but she has never stopped thinking of him as her older brother, in every sense that it means. Watching her with her brother that afternoon, and watching her bike the Ridge that morning made me so very proud. Instead of being the strong parent that is helping her get through this difficult time for all of us, she was the super kid that pulled me along.
Cancelling the Tour of Edison Park and Norwood Park
As we continue to pull for Jackson to get well and get home, I will also have to cancel this Saturday’s Tour of Edison Park and Norwood Park. I will keep everyone updated about the need to cancel any future events as warranted. Refunds will be given to all who pre-registered, or they can opt for two free passes to future rides. Purchasers of fall and winter season passes will receive two free passes for the two rides missed so far that can be used on any ride in the future.