Freedom on two wheels: On local streets and nearby trails, H-F cyclists find ideal environment for their favorite pasttime

A bicycle, in our increasingly complex world, remains a relatively simple machine.

Few simple machines, however, offer us such freedom when we climb aboard.

Bikes have only a handful of moving parts  pedals and chains, sprockets and wheels  but make the most of their simplicity like few objects in our lives. We take our seat, start pedaling and can travel near or far. Using our own muscles we can cover mile after mile without, blessedly, the need for any digital devices. And it’s a means of transportation that has relatively little adverse effect on the environment compared with autos and other engine-powered modes of transportation.
 

  Graham Bolkema, Jon Walsh and
  Nate Steiner cruise through
  Butterfield Park in Homewood
  during a cold ride on Feb. 9. 

  (Photos by Eric Crump/H-F 
  Chronicle)
 

It is remarkable that these simple machines are largely unchanged from the two-wheelers introduced in the late 1800s, says Homewood resident Steve Buchtel, who has been a state and regional leader in the recreational cycling movement for more than 20 years.

“There have been no profound advancements in the bicycle for the last 100 years,” says Buchtel, who now works as “the events guy” at GoodSpeed Cycles in Homewood.

Until last September, Buchtel was executive director of Trails for Illinois for six years. At that organization, he actively promoted connecting communities throughout the state with an interconnected, multi-use public trail network. He also promoted the use of trails for recreation and transportation.
 

  Steve Buchtel shows where
  the battery pack is located 
  on an ebike while showcasing
  the bikes for Goodspeed 
  Cycles at the Homewood 
  Farmers Market in 2018.

 

For 15 years before that, Buchtel worked for the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Bicycle Federation. He was a planner at the Active Transportation Alliance and helped implement recreational trails in Homewood, Oak Lawn, Tinley Park, the Palos area and other nearby towns. He has been a leader of the development of the Cal-Sag Trail, which is now partially completed, extending to the Lemont area.

Since the mid-1990s, Buchtel has been involved in, and witness to, the rise of recreational cycling for adults. Locally, he has worked with hundreds of people who have discovered that riding bikes is not just for kids anymore. It’s easy. It’s fun. And it’s good for you.

Homewood and Flossmoor, Buchtel says, are ideal locations for anyone interested in riding a bike, whether they want to ride around their neighborhoods or head onto trails for a 30-mile workout. Homewood and Flossmoor are older suburban communities that were built around train stations. Virtually all the neighborhoods in both communities are connected to each other by a system of bike-friendly streets. You can ride your bike to the local train stations from anywhere in Homewood or Flossmoor, Buchtel says.

Not all communities are so accessible for cyclists. A suburb with newer homes, like Orland Park, mostly has subdivisions connected by heavily traveled main drags, like LaGrange Road or 159th Street, and those thoroughfares are definitely not bike-friendly.

“It’s a lot easier to get around by bike in Homewood or Flossmoor than it is in Orland Park,” Buchtel says.

Homewood has a bike lane system — Buchtel designed it and worked with the village so it could be implemented — on streets with more traffic, like Dixie Highway. The area around the 183rd Street Metra viaduct remains the most challenging location for cyclists in Homewood. Most bike riders prefer to use sidewalks at the viaduct, and some walk their bikes across the town’s busiest street.
 

  Jon Walsh, Nate Steiner and 
  Graham Bolkema take a break 
  at the edge of an icy lake in
  Izaak Walton Nature Preserve
  during a ride Feb. 9.

 

In planning Homewood’s bike lanes, “the tricky part was connecting the east and west parts of town,” Buchtel says. The original plan called for a tunnel under the Metra tracks just south of 183rd Street, but that feature of the bike system obviously never came to fruition.

“I wrote the plan,” Buchtel says. “The village did what every well-managed town does and did the easy things first.”

Buchtel says “it may be time” for the village to re-examine the original bike plan and whether it might someday be possible to have a tunnel under the Metra tracks. For now, though, 183rd Street remains something of a choke point for cyclists. Buchtel points out, however, that it is possible to walk bikes through tunnels at both Homewood Station and Flossmoor Station.

Flossmoor has no official bike trail system. Buchtel says it’s a community that does not need designated bike trails since the streets are already “narrow and curvy and bike-friendly.”

“I wouldn’t put bike trails on those streets,” he says.

Buchtel gives credit to two main developments in the last 25 years that have made it possible for today’s surge in recreational biking.

First, cities have been at the forefront of the biking movement, and Chicago has led the way by adapting streets for bicycle use. Buchtel says Chicago is now one of the best cities in the country for cyclists.

The second factor is the development of bike trails all around Illinois, Wisconsin and other Midwestern states, and the fact that more connections between the trails are continually being added. The Cook County and Will County forest preserve systems have made it possible to ride safely on a number of paved trails.

The Thorn Creek Trail, which was completed two years ago by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, is especially important for cyclists from the H-F communities, Buchtel says.

“Access to a couple hundred miles of largely car-free cycling has never been so convenient to H-F residents, and for people from around the region to visit us by bike,” he says.

Buchtel calls the Thorn Creek Trail “fantastic” for the H-F biking community.

“You can head out 187th Street across Halsted, turn left into Glenwood at the boys-and-girls school (Glenwood Academy) and hop on the trail northbound or southbound,” he says.

Going south, the Thorn Creek Trail links to Old Plank Road Trail, and that, in turn, leads to the I&M Trail near Joliet and the Centennial Trail, which links to the Cal-Sag Trail. To the east, the Thorn Creek Trail has links to the Pennsy Greenway going north, which leads to the NW Indiana trail system with links to Chicago, the Dunes and Crown Point.

GoodSpeed has emerged as the unofficial center of the H-F area’s cycling scene. It is a full-service shop that sells quality bikes, clothing and gear, does repairs and offers rides and services for cyclists with a wide range of skill levels. 

“Everyone at GoodSpeed has to be able to do just about everything, but my title is Events Guy,” Buchtel says. “We want to build a community of cyclists, and we think the best and most fun way is to invite people to great cycling events.” 

He adds that all the shop’s principals live in Homewood or Flossmoor, including owner Graham Bolkema, who moved from Dyer, Indiana, so he could have an easier trip to work by bike.

Events for 2019 are all on the shop’s website calendar at goodspeedcycles.com.

Buchtel was asked if people with no bicycling experience ever come to the store wanting to start cycling.

“It’s actually more common than you think,” he says. “They usually want to learn because of two main reasons: Either they want to get exercise, or someone they love rides a bike and they want to ride with them.”

Whatever the case, first-time bike riders “are almost always inspiring,” Buchtel says.

Many people who have not ridden since they were children buy bicycles.

“They have to learn how to ride a bike as an adult, which is more complicated than you would think,” Buchtel says.

Eventually, these newer adult riders learn all about their bikes, and that, too, is great to see.

“They’re empowered,” he says.

  Graham Bolkema, left, and Nate Steiner bike down 
  the hill adjacent to Willow School. 

 

 

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