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Only 11 percent of Chicagoland residents ride transit to work.

Chicago’s bike touring legend George Christensen will be honored at Ride of Silence

Chicago’s bicycling community lost a champion last month.

George Christensen, a former bike courier who rode thousands of miles each year and traversed entire continents by bike, eloquently chronicling his adventures along the way, was tragically killed while riding in South Carolina. He was 73.

On Monday, April 22, Christensen was on his latest epic bike trip, traveling up the Atlantic coast from Orlando, Florida and visiting Carnegie libraries – another one of his many passions – along the way.

He was riding westbound on Highway 34, a few miles southeast of Ridgeway, South Carolina, when a semitruck driver, also traveling west, struck the back of his bike.

Christensen died at the scene. The South Carolina Highway Patrol is investigating the case.

He will be commemorated this Wednesday, May 15, during the Chicago Ride of Silence, an annual, global event to raise awareness for the need for safer streets and memorialize those who have been killed or injured while riding.

The remote start of the ride will depart at 5:30 p.m. from the Lakefront Trail at Queen’s Landing, east of Buckingham Fountain at 501 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The official ride gathers at 6 p.m. at Dickens Greenway Plaza, 300 W. Dickens Ave. in Lincoln Park.

Christensen was a person of wide-ranging interests and intellectual curiosity. His penchant for immersing himself in his passions was documented in a 2006 profile by Jeffrey Felshman in the Chicago Reader.

Felshman wrote, “In 1975 [Christensen] sat through every inning of every game in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. In 1991 he made 73 deliveries in one day, a record for Chicago bike messengers at the time. Last spring he attended 70 movies in 12 days.”

Reflecting his love for film, he volunteered at Chicago’s Facets Multimedia and the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado each year.

Of all these feats of endurance, Christensen became best known for lengthy bike tours that took him around the globe, sometimes on difficult roads and under extreme conditions.

In an article last month announcing Christensen’s death in Streetsblog Chicago, John Greenfield wrote, “Just two weeks ago, when I was traveling by car in a location where year-round high winds make bicycle touring seem like a thankless task, I thought of George Christensen, an old bike messenger colleague of mine. I told my companion that, impressively, Christensen had done the same route on two wheels more than 20 years ago.”

Christensen’s longtime partner Janina Ciezadlo told Streetsblog that “George…was a legendary touring cyclist, going everywhere from Oman to Madagascar to Iceland. He was an inspiring, encouraging ambassador of the bike. He wanted everyone to ride. He lived simply and devoted himself to cycling.”

 

 

“He visited the Tour De France for almost 20 summers and followed the course [by bicycle],” Ciezadlo added. “He was an expert on its history and culture; he died with a plane reservation for this year’s Tour. Much of his touring life was centered on visiting and documenting all the Carnegie libraries in the world. Photographs of these beautiful early 20th century buildings can be found on his blog. He loved libraries.”

The photo above shows one of the Carnegie library buildings Christensen photographed on his last trip, in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Christensen inspired a generation of cyclists to follow their hearts.

“I first met him in the mid ’90s,” recalled Marcus Moore, owner of the Near North Side bike shop Yojimbo’s Garage. “We were both messengers, and back then he was a legend in the trade. He would work hard on the streets of Chicago for half the year, then travel with his bike the rest of the year. George was inspirational to messengers, many who felt they didn’t have lots of choices. But he demonstrated how to focus and meet goals through his quiet achievements.”

In 2002, Chicago Critical Mass cofounder Jim Redd took a bike trip with Christensen from Minneapolis to Chicago, attempting to hew to the path of the Mississippi River. In his article about the journey, “Travels With George”, Redd marveled at Christensen’s purposeful thrift and its deeper implications.

“Throughout our trip, I have been humbled by George’s frugality – his ingenuity in squeezing maximum benefit from minimum expense. How else could he travel so much on [a few] month’s bike messenger pay?… While I am oohing and aahing over the beauty of nature with ample cash in my pocket, George is scanning the roadside for Marlboro box coupons.”

Christensen’s friend Craig MacDonald said he also learned bicycle “touring tricks” from the veteran cyclist, “such as how to choose a tent, how to organize panniers, and how to find a suitable wild camping site as the sun was setting. George had his routine down so pat that he could be in his tent reading a book and eating within about three minutes…Likewise breaking camp in the morning. He would always be waiting for me to get myself packed up for departure after what always felt like a little too short of a night on a little too-hard ground.”

After news of Christensen’s passing was announced on his Facebook page, fellow long-distance cyclist Rick Oberle commented, “He was an extraordinary cyclist and ultra-extraordinary person. He has inspired me to travel thousands of miles by bike in his style – that would be 100 percent self-sufficient, often not having a clue where the next stop would be. Life is an adventure, not an itinerary, he taught me to say.”

“But don’t take my word for the person that George was,” Oberle added. “Read his most enlightening, insightful, and introspective blog. His stories from the road were rarely about bike riding, but rather about people he encountered, things that happened in places he visited, and insights you could only get from traveling the way he did.”

 

 

A recent post on Christensen’s “George the Cyclist” blog, which he posted the day before he died, describes the pleasures to be found simple moments. He wrote about enjoying a slice of pizza gifted from a mini-mart owner in Georgia, waiting for the fog to lift in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, reuniting with old friends from the film buff scene, and taking an after-meal stroll.

Unhurried entries are broken up by the occasional photo of a stately Carnegie Library or, by contrast, his small gray tent tucked in a copse of trees or a thatch of bamboo. Christensen’s vivid, good-humored prose reflected his attentiveness to the world around him and his appreciation for the people in it.

In the Reader profile, Felshman described Christensen’s dissatisfaction, after graduating from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, with idea of a full-time, year-round job that would keep him from the extensive travel he craved. He took a job as a bike messenger after college and stayed in the field for decades.

Christensen told Felshman that, because it was rare to see a gray-haired bike messenger zipping through the Loop, sometimes office workers were concerned for his well-being, especially during inclement weather.

But it was Christensen who felt sorry for the workers trapped indoors. “I feel like I’m out there riding around the Loop asserting my freedom, going by buses with all these people that are comatose and people sleepwalking down the sidewalks,” he said. “And I’m intensely alive out there, alert and sensitive to every little stimuli.”

“George was such a light and brought a calm presence wherever he went,” said his partner Janina Ciezadlo recently. “I am very fortunate to have gotten to know him… I am hoping to join the Chicago Ride of Silence in his honor.”

In addition to Christensen, the Chicago Ride of Silence will memorialize the following people who were fatally struck in the past year while biking on Chicago streets. To learn more about them, click on the links for Streetsblog articles on their cases.

• Donald Heggemann, 59

• Joshua Anleu Buendia, 16

• Józef Strus, 67

• Ron Mendoza, 43

• Rick Lomas, 31

 

By Sharon Hoyer

This article is a collaboration between the Active Transportation Alliance and Streetsblog Chicago.

 

Photos:

Top: George Christensen in May 2013 in the south of France while following the Tour de France by bike. “George couldn’t resist a dumpster dive and this one had a bike in it, doubly tempting,” recalls photographer Andrew Fatseas. The frame stayed in France and is now on display at a nearby bike shop.

Third photo down: A photo of Christensen’s touring rig on a mountaintop in the Philippines, posted in 2014. Photo by George Christensen via Facebook