“It’s not that we don’t like straight people,” explains Jeff Rogers, president of the Windy City Cycling Club (WCCC), Chicago’s oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender bicycle group. “On the contrary: The biking community at large tends to be made up of very nice people who are very accepting of diversity in general. But gay and lesbian people have a comfort level with each other that’s different than with straight people.”
That sense of belonging is easy to see as we hang out at T’s, a buzzing lesbian, gay, and straight pub in Chicago’s LGBT-friendly Andersonville neighborhood, on a sunny February afternoon. A dozen or so club members, mostly women plus a handful of men, are gathered at an off-season social for Dykes Pedaling Bikes, the club’s monthly women’s ride. Ranging in age from late 20s to late 50s, they kibbutz over $5 hamburgers and tall glasses of hefeweizen with lemon slices as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” blasts on the sound system. A couple of them wear the club’s jersey, featuring a bicycle wheel, the Sears Tower, the Chicago flag, and a rainbow banner.
The WCCC formed in 1992 to get the wheels of fellowship turning among lesbian and gay folks. “Our society has opened up a lot in the last 20 years,” says Rogers, a mild-mannered financial advisor. “But back then the bike rides were a good place to meet people in a safe environment outside of a bar setting.”
Nowadays members lead mellow bike path cruises as well as speedy training rides and rugged off-road excursions. Since the Chicago area is mostly pancake-flat, the club also arranges trips to Wisconsin and Michigan for more challenging riding, plus bike vacations to Ireland and the Texas Hill Country. During the winter, the WCCC organizes get-togethers for skiing, sledding, skating, and spinning, and members also support bicycle advocacy by volunteering with the Active Transportation Alliance, which lobbies for better biking, walking, and transit conditions.
Dykes Pedaling Bikes started several years ago as a collaboration between the WCCC, the Lesbian Community Care Project (part of the Howard Brown Health Center, a local LGBT healthcare provider), and Dykediva.com, a website that promotes events in Chicago’s lesbian community. From spring to fall, the ride meets on the first Saturday of the month for a relaxed spin through Northwest Side forest preserves to the serene Chicago Botanic Gardens.
Each ride draws as many as 40 women, plus an occasional man or two, since all club members are welcome to participate. “But it’s mostly a lesbian cycling group, so it’s a chance to meet other women with the same interests,” says rider Lori Pontious. She’s also working on organizing some longer, faster club rides for women, as well as winter cycling events, to attract a broader range of participants.
Munching a veggie burger at a nearby table, Drew Jemilo, a spinning instructor who founded the Chicago Razors gay triathlon team to compete in the 2006 Gay Games here, says he only rides with LGBT clubs. “A lot of us gay men weren’t into sports in high school but we got into it in our 30s and 40s,” he says. “In a gay group you might have guys who like to bike really fast, but there’s less competition and more camaraderie. It’s not a group of guys who ride to show how macho they are. It’s guys who ride more for the sense of community.”
That community can be quite empowering. In 2007, a bus struck Susan Levin on her bike, causing a concussion, a fractured elbow, a hematoma in her hip, and severe road rash that required a skin graft. The experience led her to co-found Active Trans’ Crash Support Group, meetings where cyclists can share encouragement with others who’ve been in a crash. She started riding with Dykes Pedaling Bikes in 2008 as a way to feel comfortable on a bike again. “Part of the healing process for me was going out on these non-competitive, totally supportive group rides,” she says.
Nowadays Levin helps coordinate Dykes Pedaling Bikes, but she also pedals in predominantly straight rides like Chicago’s huge, friendly Critical Mass, with thousands of participants during the summer, and the North Side Mass, a rowdy neighborhood cruise which can draw over 100. “Gays and straights do social rides for the same reasons,” she says with a grin. “It’s all about meeting other people. Really, the only difference is who you flirt with. I met my last girlfriend on a Dykes Pedaling Bikes ride and I know people who met on the ride who are now married.”
Levin emphasizes that the women’s ride is open to couples as well as singles, and she also enjoys biking with the guys on WCCC outings like the annual 85-mile tour from New Buffalo, Mich., to Saugatuck, a popular destination for LGBT tourists that’s been called the Provincetown of the Midwest.
After the bartender buys us all a round of marshmallow-fluff vodka shots, Lisa Bigelow and her buddy Sue tell me they dig the social aspect of Dykes Pedaling Bikes. “But it’s not just a hook-up ride,” Sue insists.
“That part helps bring people out, but it’s not a meat market,” Bigelow agrees.
And all women, not just lesbians, are welcome on the ride, they say. “We don’t ask and you don’t have to tell,” Sue says.