Road Warriors

In Monroe County, Ill., some visitors are more welcome than others

The bill has "Whore-Money Ride" written on it.

Monroe County doesn't have a monopoly on motorists who dislike cyclists, but its citizens, particularly farmers, have a reputation for being unusually vocal. A few miles away from county signs telling cyclists to share the road and keep to the right, a storage shed on Bluff Road is spray-painted with messages that include "Ban Bikes on Bluff," "Ride Other Roads" and "Not Just a 'Farmer Thing.'"

Do the math, and the rancor in Monroe County seems a mystery. The roads are not well traveled. Bluff Road, for example, handles between 2,000 and 3,000 cars per day, far below capacity for a two-lane road with a 55-mph speed limit, says Ron Polka, Monroe County highway engineer. "A highway like that could have 8,000, 10,000 cars a day and still not be a problem," he says. But what visitors see as a rural byway locals see as a major north-south thoroughfare.

The sign at the entrance of the Fountain Inn.
Jennifer Silverberg
The sign at the entrance of the Fountain Inn.
Randolph County Sheriff Benjamin Picou: "On the regular roads we have, there's always somebody out with loads of hay, agricultural equipment or something they're pulling down the highway.... If it's the agriculture people griping, they need to check their own backyards."
Jennifer Silverberg
Randolph County Sheriff Benjamin Picou: "On the regular roads we have, there's always somebody out with loads of hay, agricultural equipment or something they're pulling down the highway.... If it's the agriculture people griping, they need to check their own backyards."

Over the years, the county has added shoulders to the northern section of Bluff Road in an effort to make room for cyclists. "If you know the history of Monroe County, there's some people who wish we didn't do that," Polka says. "There's probably some people who wish we'd put barbs on it." The idea was to provide enough room for cyclists to get to roads that connect with less-crowded levee roads running closer to the river. Today, the aggregate shoulders are broken up and littered with gravel -- hazardous at best for someone on a bicycle, especially road models with drop handlebars that aren't intended for off-road use. Farther south, the shoulder gets even worse, consisting of crushed rock or grass. "There's no place for a bicycle to go," Polka says.

But that hasn't stopped the cyclists from coming to Monroe County and irritating some locals. Farmers say bicycles get in their way when they're driving combines and tractors between fields during planting and harvest, the same seasons when cycling is most popular. They complain that cyclists trespass on private land and too often don't pay attention to other traffic. Even when cyclists are courteous, they can be a pain. Monroe County has long been a mecca for large rides, and getting a 16-foot-wide combine around a string of a dozen or more riders, even when they ride in single file, can be impossible on roads without shoulders.

John Valentine, a patron at the Fountain Inn, says whether roads have shoulders shouldn't make a difference: Cyclists need to make every effort to get out of the way of motorists. "They should move as far to the right as practical," he says while nursing a beer. "I wouldn't have a problem with that." McClellan, the Fountain's owner, concurs. He says he resents doctors and lawyers from St. Louis who come here on bicycles but won't drink beer from a can or eat a cheeseburger fixed in a microwave.

That resentment of cyclists is reflected in county ordinances. Monroe County is one of a handful of Illinois counties that require permits for organized rides. Until the permit ordinance was amended on July 17, groups of five or more riders needed a permit from the county sheriff. Although the amended ordinance raises the threshold to 50 riders, it adds several new restrictions: No more than 300 riders can participate in organized rides on county roads. They must wear identifying numbers and provide their names and addresses and the serial numbers of their bicycles, requirements aimed at helping sheriff's deputies identify cyclists who flout traffic laws or cause other problems.

County Board Chairman Robert Rippelmeyer says the previous five-rider limit was ridiculous -- it could have put some families at odds with the law. "We did consider not having anything at all, just abolishing the ordinance and do nothing and let them ride," he says. But commissioners decided permits were a good idea; law-enforcement officers would know when and where to expect heavy bicycle traffic. "It was just a matter of keeping track of where they were," he says. "We were having some complaints about their behavior." Permits, which must be applied for 30 days in advance of a ride, also minimize the likelihood that cyclists will find themselves on roads under construction, Rippelmeyer says.

Tom Yarbrough, bicycle-program manager for Trailnet, based in Missouri, says television and newspaper reports on the Dillenberger episode prompted commissioners to change the ordinance. "It wasn't until just recently, when all the media got involved -- that's what made things change," says Yarbrough, who's organized rides for years in Monroe County, a handful of which have attracted more than 1,000 riders. "You can't plan a ride in Monroe County without somebody thinking that there's a problem over there because they read about it in the newspaper. The cycling, the people, the roads -- nothing had changed in Monroe County, except it got a lot of media attention. The media attention drove people to get involved."

At least in theory, the impact of the new permit ordinance seems minuscule. It applies only to roads under county jurisdiction, and there are only seven such roads, including Bluff Road, in Monroe County, Yarbrough says. Most roads are controlled by the county's road-district commission, which denied several permit applications this spring and summer before cyclists convinced the powers that be that the county ordinance didn't authorize the road-district commission to deny or grant permits.

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