Road Warriors

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

In reality, the county ordinance has a chilling effect on large organized rides, Yarbrough says. "The requirements are much stiffer now, to the point where they've actually driven some of the bicycle groups out of the county because of the way they have to sign people up," he says. "I bet you don't know the serial number of your bicycle. The requirement that you have to have less than 300 riders makes it very difficult for fundraiser rides. They would have to turn people away. It's very hard to plan a ride when you know you're going to make somebody mad. Then, if those people go out and ride anyway, there's a possibility that the organizer would be in violation of the law. The law's a little vague that way. The sheriff is trying his best to enforce the law, but it's a little tough right now."

Rippelmeyer predicts the road district will adopt a permit ordinance identical to the one that applies to county roads. Earl Breeding, chairman of the road-district commission, isn't so sure. He says he doesn't want to regulate traffic. But if Breeding ends up with the job, there'll be no permits. "I still will not sign no permit for no bicycle riders," Breeding says. "I'm sure there are other commissioners who will go along with me." Breeding says he's concerned that cyclists will sue the road district if they fall and hurt themselves on a ride permitted by commissioners.

That's a questionable proposition, given a 1998 decision by the Illinois Supreme Court. The court ruled that a cyclist who sustains injuries as a result of potholes and other road hazards has no standing to file a lawsuit against the government. Although cyclists are allowed on roads, they are not intended users and therefore can't sue, the court ruled. The League of Illinois Bicyclists, during the most recent legislative session, lobbied to get wording into state law making it clear that roads are intended for cyclists as well as motorists, but the Illinois Municipal League and other lobbyists for local governments helped kill the bill.

Tom Yarbrough, program manager, Trailnet: "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."
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Yarbrough, program manager, Trailnet: "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."
Susan Hendershot, co-owner of the Waterloo Winery. Cyclists may not pause for more than water when riding, "but they may come back someday," says Hendershot. "And they do."
Susan Hendershot, co-owner of the Waterloo Winery. Cyclists may not pause for more than water when riding, "but they may come back someday," says Hendershot. "And they do."

Bluff Road gets most of the attention when it comes to Monroe County run-ins between cyclists and motorists and farmers on tractors. Locals say they've seen fewer cyclists on Bluff Road in the past two years, but it remains a big draw. Yarbrough says cyclists need to become more creative in planning routes and consider taking levee roads that parallel Bluff if they want to ride near the river. He prefers riding on the other side of the county. "There's lots of people who come out in small groups and ride on Bluff Road for some silly reason," he says. "That's the only road they know in the whole county. There are plenty of other roads to take. Most of the riding done in Monroe County by organized groups is done on the eastern side of Monroe County and into St. Clair County. There's much better riding over there, mostly because there's more towns over there. There's things to do. There's no towns on the floodplain."

County commissioners last year considered applying for a $2 million federal grant to build a 14-mile-long bicycle path alongside Bluff, but opposition from constituents killed that idea. Commissioners received a petition signed by more than 1,000 constituents who opposed the trail. The grant would have required $200,000 in local matching funds, and county taxpayers disliked the idea of spending their money to provide a trail that would be used by people from elsewhere. Farmers didn't want to surrender frontage for the path, and some feared the trail would draw even more cyclists to Monroe County.

Rippelmeyer saw a potential path to peace after the 1993 flood forced residents on the river bottoms to relocate -- many moved to higher ground a few miles east, creating a new community of Valmeyer and leaving behind narrow lanes between Bluff Road and the river. "I thought -- and this was just a personal thought -- since we had lost half the population down there, we could turn the roads into bicycle trails," he recalls. "That did not meet with too much approval (from the remaining residents). Their answer was 'Some of them are gone, but we're still here.' We were told as officials, 'You just leave it the way it is.'"

It's not yet 8 a.m., and the parking lot at the old Wal-Mart store in Waterloo, the Monroe County seat, is packed with cars bearing bicycle racks, most with Missouri license plates, and dozens upon dozens of bicycles. They are here for a Sunday ride through Southern Illinois farm country and will, with any luck, finish before the August sun gets too hot. Cyclists are paying either $5 or $7 to register for the ride, depending on whether they're members of Trailnet. Their money buys them cookies and bananas at the start, plus the insurance of a sag wagon that will pick them up should they break down, either mechanically or physically.

Today's ride offers loops of 21, 39 and 56 miles. Some riders on titanium models costing thousands of dollars look ready for the Tour de France. A few on steel mounts with kickstands and heavy-duty locks attached to the frames look as if they picked up bargains at Kmart. All told, there are 289 riders.

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