July 12, 2013
There are no bike lanes here.
No Divvy bike-share racks. No Tour de France impersonators. No flocks of young professionals breezing past with suits and skirts tucked inside their panniers.
What there is, here on East 71st Street in Chicago, is Leroy Ricks' Bike Clinic.
Ricks' shop occupies a buttonhole of a room, hot in summer, that sits next to empty storefronts that used to house a tailor and a barber. I stopped by the other day to ask: What's it like to ride and sell bicycles far from more fortunate neighborhoods where biking is a way of life?
Within 10 minutes, something happened to make the answer clear: Not easy.
Ricks, a compact man of 51, was working on the bike of a regular customer, Kevin Chandler, when I walked in.
They were vaguely aware of the city's new Divvy bike-sharing program, but for now, that was for other people, other parts of town. Here on 71st, they'd be grateful for less.
"The mayor and them saying we're a biking city," said Chandler, who bikes far and wide and knows that the biking city is in other neighborhoods. "We need bike lanes."
The South Shore neighborhood needs more than bike lanes. It needs investment. Jobs. Places to play for all the unsupervised kids who tumble out of the crowded old apartment buildings just across from the Bike Clinic.
A lot of people here can't afford a decent bike, and even if they could, the money might not be worth the risk.
"Who wants to buy their kid a $200 bike?" Ricks said. "Chances are the kid won't have the bike the rest of the summer anyway."
Translation: It will be stolen.
Ricks learned the bike business in the years he spent assembling Huffy bikes in big-box stores. He wanted to sell better bikes, and on his own.
At the Bike Clinic, he relies on the grit and loyalty of cyclists undeterred by price, traffic and neighborhood crime. He has no competition, and cyclists occasionally straggle over from the nearby lakefront path.
"Don't be afraid, cyclists!" wrote one of several positive online reviewers. "No one's going to mess with you if you venture off the trail. ... Proprietor is kind, fair, hard-working dude."
But the dude's patience is often taxed.
As we talked, a guy from the neighborhood — he was wearing a "Jesus Wept" cap, backward — walked in. He had propped his bike in front of the shop. As if from nowhere, a group of young people appeared in the doorway.
Ricks has dealt with young troublemakers ever since he set up shop a decade ago. For a while, his windows were broken so routinely he learned not to waste the $150 it cost to board them up and instead just called the glass company immediately. He stopped selling the little BMX bikes the kids liked because that gave them less to desire and therefore to steal.
If a good kid comes around, he'll let him in, help him fill his tires, hand him a wrench and show him how to tighten up the handlebars.
But he offers no slack for the troublemakers.
"Twenty-one years in the military," he said. "You ain't going to let nobody run over you."
The kids in the doorway on this day, he sensed, were up to no good. He shooed them off.
"We don't let the little punks in," he said.
They left. And in the time it took to say "thief," they stole the bike that belonged to the guy in the "Jesus Wept" hat. The guy chased them for a few blocks and got his bike back.
Ricks remains convinced, though, that biking's future is getting brighter in the neighborhood.
"Lot of good people here," he said. It doesn't hurt that gentrifiers are trickling in.
"More and more white people moving out this way," he said. "I don't call them white customers. I call it green money."
He tries to educate all customers. He tells them, for example, why they don't need a mountain bike in Chicago.
"You see any mountains around here?" he'll ask.
He explains the difference between a cheap Wal-Mart bike and the $350 kind he sells, between a $50 lock and a cheap one.
Not easy, but, maybe, getting a little easier.
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