CHICAGO — When Brock Auerbach-Lynn moved to Chicago two years ago for graduate school, he was eager to ditch his CTA U-Pass and tackle the city by bike.
A self-described adventurer who likes to learn by doing, Auerbach-Lynn decided to throw himself into the thick of it.
"First thing was, 'Do I still remember how to bike?'" he said. "I was a little wobbly at first, but I still remembered. Then it was, 'How do I bike in traffic, and with other people?' So I just followed the crowd and tried to do what they did and hopefully not embarrass myself or do something stupid."
Auerbach-Lynn is now an avid and skilled cyclist — but he's had some wipeouts along the way.
He says that "most people are not so willing to learn on the fly."
"I think it's really helpful to have something kind of showing you: see that person? That's good behavior right there. That person? Don't do that," he said.
So, when Auerbach-Lynn decided he wanted to pay it forward, he did some Googling in search of a mentorship program, and found Chicago Bike Buddies.
Founder Kevin Swanson says the tagline "Nervous on your bike? You might just need a buddy" encapsulates the attitude of the all-volunteer program he started last January.
The idea practically fell into his lap. Swanson said he was mulling over ways to get more Chicagoans up on two wheels when a Brazilian woman crashing on his couch via "couch surfing" mentioned her work with Sao Paolo's Bike Anjo, which pairs up seasoned cyclists with "people who just wanted to start biking, for whatever reason," he said.
Swanson thought the model would work well in Chicago, too. Three months later, he launched the Bike Buddies website and held his first training session at Heritage Bicycles in Lakeview.
"I think a lot of cyclists want to see other cyclists doing the right thing, and actually behaving correctly, and riding safely, and that's how it should be," he said, after describing the flood of emails he got from interested tutors after posting his concept on the cycling message board The Chainlink.
Swanson said finding the experts was easy.
"We've had skilled cyclists kind of overflowing since the beginning. It's a lot easier to reach out to that community of people who are into biking and have been doing it for a while than it is to find people who kind of want to start, but they don't know where to go."
All of the Bike Buddies are volunteers, and Swanson covers the programs' minimal costs out of pocket from his salary as a kindergarten teacher on the West Side. The buddy training sessions he hosts at Heritage work off of a free informational booklet provided by the City of Chicago, which Swanson also hands out to new cyclists.
Shin-Yiing Yeung had only been in Chicago for a week when she spotted a flyer for Chicago Bike Buddies while shopping at her Logan Square co-op, Dill Pickle. Yeung moved here a month ago so intent on biking that she chose not to buy a car to get to her physical therapy studies classes at UIC.
A few days later, Yeung hit the road with Lisa Curcio as her coach. She walked Yeung through safety precautions and the basic rules of the road, and then they hit the pavement together.
"She let me ride behind her and explained to me what she was doing and why," Yeung said. "It's really intimidating riding here and being on a bike with all the cars, but it feels good to have a service like this. At the end of our session, I felt prepared. She taught me some tricks, like watching pedestrian signals to see when the light will change."
Yeung says she now bikes the 30-minute commute to her classes three times a week, and even hopped on board for this month's Critical Mass ride.
"As with most things, when you try it out — when you really try something new, you realize, 'All those fears I had are unfounded, and it's actually a lot more incredible than I thought," Auerbach-Lynn said. "But most people are not going to do that on their own. I think that's just a fact of human nature: change is hard.
"The [Bike Buddies] program gives you that little nudge to get you on the bike and get a good, solid start."