I moved from the bike friendly University of Illinois community, Champaign-Urbana, IL to the mean streets of Chicago 2 years ago come Labor Day 2011. This move was the source of a great deal of angst for me as I could not imagine myself being able to train with any consistency or effectiveness. Despite the large number of racers I know who live in the city and that I’ve been racing with for years, I was used to the largely rural roads surrounding Champaign-Urbana where I could literally go on a 5 hour training ride and encounter only a dozen vehicles the entire trip.
I knew it could be done though and I was determined to not let the move to Chicago be the Waterloo for my competitive cycling days. I have a good friend and former team mate who won the Masters Nationals 30-34 road race championship in 2000. It is possible to be an urban bike racer, and also be very, very good at it. You just have to adapt to the environment.
Here are some bullet points in no particular order of importance that will help you if you are a racer based in a large metropolitan setting.
- Find and use the bike lanes. Most metropolitan areas have designated bike lanes. I was pleasantly surprised after my move to Chicago by how many miles of bike lanes there are and how well most motorists pay attention to people on bikes. True story – I was actually pulled over by one of Chicago’s Finest on a frigid February morning, on a snow packed road for driving 200 feet in the bike lane in order to get around the line of cars at a stop light so I could make a right on red. No bikes were present, there was a blizzard going on, but the police officer made sure I knew to stay out of the bike lane with my car.
- Pay attention and ride defensively. Never assume that a motorist sees you even when you make eye contact. Follow the rule of the road. Don’t be one of those riders that weaves through traffic at stop lights, running through stop signs and rolling through red lights. Remember you’re not a bike messenger, you’re trying to get somewhere you can train. There is ALWAYS somebody in a car that will be pushing to beat the stale yellow light or attempting to beat the green turn arrow. Relax, wait your turn and make your way to clearer roads safely before you begin to “train”.
- Do not attempt “interval” training in heavy traffic. It’s virtually impossible to ride defensively when you’re riding on the rivet. City streets are fraught with peril, bumps, pot holes, inattentive motorists in a hurry, cracks and pedestrians walking across the street while texting. Your interval training can wait until you’re in the clear.
Bike paths and bike lanes are NOT for training. They’re designed for commuters and leisure riders. Use bike paths and bike lanes as a means to get yourself TO your training roads, never AS your training ground. I will ride occasionally on the Lake Michigan Bike Path on days when I need to go slow and recover. The path is notorious for attracting large crowds of cyclists, pedi cabs, runners, in line skaters, and tourist who despite the presence of 50 feet of concrete or grass on either side of the bike pack insist on standing in the center of the bike path to take photos of Chicago’s beautiful sky line. Despite this, I am never ceased to be amazed by the number of athletes, riding full bore, head down in their aero bars trying to “train” in this setting. I once witnessed a guy blasting down the bike lane plow directly into the back of another cyclist who had stopped to greet a friend who was riding in the opposite direction. The guy in the aero bars never saw the stopped rider. He was checking his computer for his wattage output or heart rate I assume. He certainly wasn’t looking where he was going. I also had a friend relate a story of how an angry cyclist yelled at his 11-year-old son who was riding on a Forest Preserve bike path. Seems my friend’s son had made the mistake of getting in the way of this jerk who was “training”.
- Try, if possible, to time your rides when traffic will be lighter. You’ll practically never have roads completely to yourself but traffic outside of the city center will tend to be much lighter early in the morning and in the summer, after rush hour. Midday in my neighborhood on the Northwest side of Chicago is also a pretty decent time to ride.
- Find the most direct path out to the suburbs and use the lighter traveled roads for your training. If you go on group rides, be safe and obey traffic rules. Nothing makes motorists angry and aggressive more than a group of 50 cyclists “racing” on the shoulder of crowded roads during rush hour and blowing stop signs.
- Use the urban sprawl to your advantage. Try doing 20-25 pedal stroke jumps or seated “stomps” out of the numerous stop lights and signs you encounter on your way out of and back into town – but be wise about staying out of the way of heavy traffic when doing so and make sure all the cars at the intersection have stopped before you go. Pick a moderately heavy gear like 53×17 and do the first 20 pedal strokes from the standing start as hard as you can. A workout like this will help increase your acceleration for sprints and attacks.
- The fact is, you’ll need to allow yourself more time. When I lived in Champaign-Urbana, I could do a 100k training ride in under 3 hours. In the city and suburbs, 100k takes about 20 minutes more due to the stopping and starting and another 10 minutes or so of stationary time waiting for lights to change. Be realistic with your time and expectations when you’re planning your training time
It is possible to be a competitive cyclist at a high level if you live in an urban environment. You just need to ride defensively to make sure you get to more open roads in one piece before you begin your actual “training”. I know that the first and last half hour of my rides are going to be interrupted by stop and go traffic. I have learned to adjust, and use the stop and go to my advantage to do stomps and jumps. I also make plans once or twice a month to pack my bike and drive out to some place that allows me to go on long uninterrupted rides just to keep my sanity.
Good luck and stay safe!