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Chicago Ride of Silence: Reflections from the Organizer

Ghost bikes. Those stark white bikes that stand as memorials alongside a roadway to honor a cyclist who was killed in a crash.

In Chicago ghost bikes dot our urban landscape and serve both to remind us of our fragility as cyclists and to rally us to advocate for safer roads for all road users.

Each May as the annual Ride of Silence rolls out in cities around the world, these local ghost bikes give life to the Chicago Ride of Silence. (See photos of the 2015 Chicago ROS here.)

Chicago Ghost Bike

The organizer of the first ever Ride of Silence in Dallas, TX, in 2003, never intended for the Ride to become an annual event. However, the silence “roared” beyond Dallas and soon other cities wanted to host a similar memorial ride to honor their own fallen cyclists. In the spring of 2005, after my first year of bike commuting in Chicago, I felt compelled to start an ROS in Chicago. After too many near-miss crashes with motorists, I wanted an event that would call attention to motorists of the need to share the roads with cyclists. I also wanted to help give a voice to those cyclists I knew who had been killed or injured.

By 2006, I was the organizer of the Chicago Ride of Silence and learning what it means to be an advocate. Also in 2006 Chicago installed its first ever ghost bike for Isai Medina. The connection could not be ignored, and the Chicago Ride of Silence route has always been tied to the ghost bikes. The ghost bikes personalize the Ride for many and give the Ride a distinctive resonance that calls each of us to rally on behalf of our fallen comrades.

Over the years, the number and location of ghost bikes has varied. Some bikes endure years after being placed at a site; other bikes fall into disrepair and remain only a short time. Sometimes no bike is placed. Fellow cyclists have organized Ghost Bike Rides and have helped the ghost bikes live on virtually.

While the Ride of Silence is not a Ghost Bike Ride, I have met many of the victims’ friends and families. When a new ghost bike is placed, the route of that year’s Chicago ROS often changes to incorporate the newly placed bike. Unfortunately the route in this one single night cannot visit the locations of each of the ghost bikes now spanning the city. Yet after each year’s Ride, as I mused last year, I appreciate the community spirit that inspires the Chicago ROS because “our Ride and route honors all of the fallen cyclists throughout the years and we hope that the sentiment of this Ride carries into all reaches of the city.” 

2015 Chicago Ride of Silence Ghost Bike with Riders

I recently spoke with a colleague who was struck by an aggressive motorist who side-swiped her during her commute home last week. The motorist tried to pass her with too little room and struck her. She expressed such gratitude to me — thankful that her injuries weren’t worse and for the support she has felt from the community. Then she pointed me to the Be Kind to Cyclists campaign, and its message echoes my own passions. I listened, and my heart leapt with new hope and inspiration to continue to carry forth the message of the Chicago Ride of Silence and to be that voice for hurt and injured cyclists who are survivors and for the deceased victims and their families.

As we ride — not just on this third Wednesday evening in May but with every ride — we must respect our fellow road users. The annual worldwide Ride of Silence serves as a reminder to all we encounter on our daily travels that our roads are meant to be shared. In the universal Ride of Silence, the silence speaks volumes — we honor ALL cyclists who have fallen, and we ride to be a positive voice for cyclists’ safety everywhere.

Before last year’s Ride of Silence, I shared my thoughts about the importance of this annual event – that the Ride is to celebrate the lost lives of our fellow cyclists who died doing something they loved — riding their bike. Their memories and the connections to their loved ones remain etched in my heart forever. Their legacy is a shared part of my ride today and everyday.

Elizabeth Adamczyk, League Cycling Instructor #3731, regularly commutes to work by bike and aspires to inspire and educate more people — especially women via Women Bike Chicago — of the joy of bicycles; she would like to thank her parents who have always supported her, especially their help with the Chicago Ride Silence to make it the community event it is.

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