The Big Marsh Bike Convergence

At the top of the hill where the jump lines begin at Big Marsh, I slung back over my pink Nova, joining the crowd of jump regulars ready to hit the medium and small lines and the first arrivals of the Convergence. The only sport I give my all to is spectating, and I’m great with a,“There he goes!” 

The gentleman next to me asked about the bike so I offered it to him. He bunny hopped right in front of the young and grown folks and a young woman in the group stepped forward while her neighbor asked me, “Can she go?”

We passed the bike around in the drizzle and I apologized to moms who spotted kids making their way around berms sans helmets. I asked how the ride over had been. We Keep You Rollin arrived first from Riverdale, set up near the concrete park and plaza. Soon the rides from Hegewisch, Pullman, East Side and South Deering followed, coming off the Juneteenth parade and parks farther south. The overcast skies stayed put as I observed from the bridge. I pulled on the Convergence shirt offered to me over my bare arms and one of the women watching the lines called out how I would freeze. Y’all made it! I pointed out.

“We here girl,” she told me. “We gonna be here rain or shine.”

Urbs in horto, Chicago’s city motto: City in a Garden. The Miami-Illinois people called their home  shikaakwa, a word for wild onions. Chicago is a city in a swamp, port of the Third Coast and the prairie.

Big Marsh Park is the 564th park working so Chicago keeps its urbs in horto: it’s probably fighting the hardest. Less than five miles is the State Line and Lake Michigan. US Steel’s abandoned site is just to the north, the Port of Chicago sits a bit down Stony, and the BP Whiting Refinery and it’s associated coke and coal plants are a bit farther down the coast.

The park sits in an area where predominantly black and Latinx residents live, and these residents are those most disproportionately affected by not only the blatant environmental racism present in many, many cities across the US, but lack of access to quality public transit, employment, pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and open space.

Chicago acquired the former slag heap in 2011 to return it to native marshland and create an eco-recreation park. By 2016 major donors like REI and SRAM ensured the completion of the bike park. On opening day I attempted my first ever skills course with a rigid hardtail I loved and rode to the top of “Trash Mountain”, now fenced off. Depending on the wind, the park did not exactly smell of onions.

I have no great love for bikes without Chicago, and Big Marsh Park is a place I love to be, with any or no bike. Before it was a park, I’d cut up Stony from Indiana on my road bike or route-marked the entrance for a metric century on my fixie. On a sunny Black Friday, I slouched my way through a cross race on my touring bike and retched in the back forty during a miserable short-track race on the hardtail in July.

Ride or walk a ways out into the marsh and the quiet smokestacks of recent industry watch over the grasses and water. The summer blooms chive blossoms, violets, tiny white flowers, a home for herons, geese, frog chorus, and, incredibly, quiet.

Rain or shine, which included the short track races. When the rain poured down, long before they’d start, all of us converged again under the bridge and passed around petitions from Active Trans to push for better transit opportunities in the region.

A convergence puts unrelated animals in similar conditions, evolves them together. I have spent a not-insignificant amount of time, lately, patiently explaining that the bike world represented in industry or popular media looks not much like the community I’ve known. Representation matters. It is a racist, dishonest idea that people of color “just don’t like” off-road biking. At Big Marsh, the convergence was lots of black and brown folks from neighborhoods closest to the park; eventually, the racing types appeared. Not terribly many of them. Which is a shame, as reg was a fundraiser for Friends of Big Marsh.

As the juniors pushed through the course, I watched with another local racer who’d never been to the park. It was awesome, we agreed, and I told her without the park, I’d have never begun mountain biking. This is true. The summer before I left the city, I’d put my bike on the Jeffery Express after work, alone, listening to the grass and pulling air near my scratched up heart. She was excited about the short-track and wondered: Why weren’t there any CX races there? It was, in fact, a goal to bring prestige racing there.

The 2020 USA Cyclocross Nationals will be held in Chicagoland, 30 miles west, in a suburb called Wheaton. I’m sure there are reasons for it and don’t mean to cast aspersions, but with the number of events already taking place in similar areas with the same types of people, I agree and wonder: why doesn’t the industry and community acknowledge the wider community of people on bikes?

Rain or shine the convergence showed up at Big Marsh. I want more decision-makers and gatekeepers of bikelandia to be like the kids trying jump lines and racing in the rain, making community, grilling and listening to “Old Town Road” for the billionth time. I want them to raise money for parks to for people who already love bikes into new arenas if they want. I want them to pour resources into young people who don’t have the same luck as their children who get to ride bikes like they might want.

It’ll be a trip to make it to affluent Wheaton. It is pretty harrowing to enter Big Marsh. The Bishop Ford freeway lashes exit ramps out across 103rd, the 95th Street Red Line is a ways away, the Jeffery Jump takes about an hour. Even if you make it to the sign telling you you’re almost there, well. A friend found a burnt-out car riding down Stony once and truck traffic never ends.

But it’s for these reasons that Big Marsh, and the other open spaces in and around spaces like Chicago need to be given as much interest and attention as any 24-hour-race attended to by folks in cars, any corporate-sponsored ‘cross. The founders of Chicago declared anyone should have open space access; we need to work for anyone who wants to ride a bike surrounded by whatever we call nature. We need to create real equity, show the reality of people on bikes, and if we didn’t know about spaces like this, we need to represent them, full-stop. Rain or shine. And go try your hand at short track this summer, help some kids learn about what it’s like, and don’t puke in the back forty.

Photos were taken on occupied Peoria, Miami, and Pottawatomi land.