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Midnight Riders

Cycling Through the City by the Light of the Mercury Vapor Moons

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One friend of mine didn't want to go on the Insomnia Cycle because he thought the broken glass and bumps of city streets would make the ride too slow. Another said I'd have to cycle so fast through unsafe neighborhoods that I wouldn't see a thing.

But at midnight, I left them watching Cool Hand Luke on TV and took my new 12-speed down to Buckingham Fountain to sign up. The idea of staying up all night to break in a new bike was appealing, especially since the flier said something about "watching the sun burst into the new day over the lakefront" at the end of the ride. I've always enjoyed that strange, uplifting coffee-jag feeling that comes at sunrise after a whole night out; since I never get up early enough to see the sunrise, I figured this was a good chance.

The first Chicago Insomnia Cycle took place in the mid-1960s, said Howard Richards, who organized the event for American Youth Hostels. "Somebody got the idea that it would be a good idea to have a bike ride in the middle of the night--and it just progressively grew."

I hoped to find a big mob, so I could find out what it felt like to take over city streets with bicycles, like racers do on TV, but there were only scattered bunches of cyclists. Richards said it was "a light night--only about 100 total, about half what we had last year," and he's not well satisfied.

"Saint Louis gets up to 10,000 on theirs," he said. "That's the biggest of the Insomnias." But he expects to see Chicago's grow: "The kettle's on."

The 100 participants arrive at different times, so they're splintered into bunches of 5 to 20 that depart at irregular intervals. I join a group of about 15 that leaves the fountain at 1:15. We'll try to ride fairly slowly, so we won't get back before dawn. "In the last couple years," said Richards, "we've attracted some pretty fast riders, and that defeats the purpose of meeting at dawn."

We set out headed north through Grant Park, and then take Monroe Street west. It immediately becomes apparent that we won't need the headlights we had been required to have; they can't hold a candle to the intense orange of the mercury-vapor streetlights.

At Monroe and Michigan we pull up alongside a couple of cars filled with kids out for a night on the town. They're whooping and hollering from car to car, celebrating the warm night, and when they see us they redouble their efforts. They turn right onto Michigan next to us. The driver of one, a convertible, races off like a madman at every green light, but has to stop quickly for each red, so we keep catching up. They act as our unofficial escort, shouting "Go, go!," attracting the attention of everybody on the street.

I worried that we would face a lot of traffic, especially on Michigan and on the bar-busy near north side. But pedestrians and motorists clear out of our way and stare in wonder at such a motley crew of cyclists rambling through the streets at such a late hour.

And we are a mixed bunch--from muscular young men and women on sleek racing bikes to middle-aged health freaks on mountain bikes to a slightly bulging woman with long, black hair who's ferrying a Chihuahua in her handlebar basket. The dog is, she says, an experienced rider.

Traffic lights and stop signs slow us down through the near north side, and we don't really get going till we reach the long, straight stretch of Lincoln Avenue. There's a good deal of traffic here, but generally drivers let us have the right-of-way, and sometimes passengers or passersby even grant us a smattering of applause.

Our best reception comes on Lincoln, where, as we pass a sidewalk cafe, its 30-odd patrons burst into applause as we pass, as if they had rehearsed. Everybody speeds up, and for a moment a kid on a new bike dreams of the Tour de France, of pulling up to the front of the pack at a crucial moment, just where the crowd is thickest and loudest . . .

But a long, bumpy stretch on Addison brings me back down to reality. A short jog on Elston takes us up to Pulaski, where I pull up alongside a young guy on a good bike. He says that he is Alan from Indiana.

"And where are you from?" he asks me.

"Chicago."

"Sorry to hear that. Nothing personal, but I sure wouldn't want to live here."

He lives somewhere beyond Gary, and just doesn't like the city a whole lot. A nice place to visit on a warm summer night, though--and he notes that Pulaski Road, where we're going by the Bohemian National Cemetery, is an OK place to ride: "It's gotten nice and quiet here all of a sudden."

We take Devon east to get to the lake, now riding as a compact peloton. At the North Shore Channel bridge, some teenagers are walking along.

"Hey, where's your helmets?" yells one. "That's dangerous!" She's right, since we're speeding along at a good clip.

"Well, where are your helmets?" responds a cyclist.

"We're not riding bikes!"

After 16 miles of lighted streets, the darkness of the lakefront bike path is a shock. "Just don't veer off to the left too far," warns a Chicago biking veteran as we head south on the path that hugs the shore. We have to go slow for the first time since the near north side. Fishermen, kids, and couples are scattered about, listening to radios, washed by the glow of the full moon that's lolling just over the city.

As we pass Montrose Harbor it's almost like being in the country: no traffic, only the speeding rush of wind, the chirping of crickets, and occasional birdcalls. I scan the horizon for signs of dawn, but it's still dark: these city birds, I conclude, must be up all night.

Just north of Lincoln Park our numbers grow as we overtake another group of cyclists. Emboldened by our increased size and by the knowledge that we're nearing the end, we speed up, sweeping fast along the curves of Stockton Drive and then down the Inner Drive and Michigan Avenue again. The route map prescribes a detour, so we turn right off lower Michigan onto lower Wacker. We can take over the entire street here, for there's no traffic at all.

Lower Wacker Drive is a pretty bumpy street, and the jolting adds to the excitement, especially since it's dark enough that we can't really see what's coming up. And it's hot, too, since we've lost the breeze.

Sweating buckets and flying along at a bone-shaking pace, I'm happy to see the green lights that line Wacker north of Monroe. Around me there are whoops and hollers of amazement.

We come up into a deserted Loop and find a Grant Park that is empty and dark, not a glimmer over the lake--we've ridden too fast--and it becomes clear that the green lights on lower Wacker will be the only light we'll see burst into the new day today.

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