By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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The short route is mostly within Monroe County. Riders opting for the longer loops will travel about 10 miles on Monroe County roads before entering Randolph County. The roads in both counties are indistinguishable -- narrow country lanes with virtually no traffic and no shoulders.
This is not a race, and folks depart when they're ready. Few ride alone. Rather, they bunch up in groups ranging from two to a half-dozen riders as they meander through the countryside. Such group riding can be risky business. A few miles from the start, a woman hits another rider, falls and breaks her ankle. Faster riders call out "On your left!" as they overtake slower ones who ride two or even three abreast. When a car approaches, riders shout "Car up!" or "Car back!" and move aside to make room. But this doesn't happen very often. Outside Waterloo, a rider traveling slightly less than 15 mph encounters fewer than a dozen cars in the three hours it takes to complete the 40-mile loop. Ride organizers have painted "Gravel" on the pavement to warn of approaching danger -- for a bicyclist, riding on gravel-strewn roads, especially in turns, can be a bit like playing basketball on a court littered with BBs. Savvy riders make use of the warnings and get out of packs to make sure they won't get caught up in a crash if someone else goes down. When riders reach a high-speed highway, which they must travel for less than a mile, they go in single file and cling to the shoulder, which is about a foot wide. No one tells them to do this. They're simply exercising common sense. All in all, this ride seems pretty safe.
Many riders pause in Millstadt to buy Gatorade, bottled water or snacks at a gas station, where the clerk couldn't be friendlier. "Good luck," she says to those who look a bit tuckered. "Hope you make it." Ten miles from the finish and just a couple of miles from the Monroe County line, folks at the Knotty Pines Tavern show no signs of hostility toward cyclists, who either sit in the shade outside drinking water or come in for a bit of air conditioning and liquid carbohydrates (a.k.a. beer). A guy named Mike who comes here all the time says he doesn't have any problems with cyclists. Anyone who'd intentionally hit one or try to run a cyclist off the road is an asshole, he says.
Back at the Waterloo Winery, the starting and finishing point for this ride, a couple dozen cyclists sit in the shade sipping wine and beer. It's a little past midday now and sweltering, too hot for most cyclists to linger. They jump in their cars and head home. An ambulance carts away a cyclist suffering from heat exhaustion. For the most part, it's been a successful venture, both for the riders and the winery: no serious injuries, no reports of road rage, a respectable turnout despite predictions of thunderstorms. Donald Ware, a St. Louis attorney, says this has been a typical day for cyclists who ride in Southern Illinois.
Ware, 73, is a cycling nut. He owns several bicycles and is fresh back from RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), one of the nation's biggest bicycle rides, sponsored by the Des Moines Register, a daily newspaper. He's ridden in Europe and plans to bring his bike along on a business trip to California a few weeks from now. Locally, he does most of his riding in Illinois and doesn't hesitate to head for Monroe County. Motorists in the St. Louis area are way more aggressive than they are in Monroe County, he says. "This is far and away less dangerous," he says. "Much, much better."
Yes, there are some hotheads in Monroe County, and Ware can understand why. Much of the resentment, he thinks, stems from stereotypes. Locals who've eked a living from the land for decades think of cyclists as rich doctors and lawyers -- in a word, snobs. Suburban sprawl also plays a role, he thinks. Monroe County is growing fast -- the county had 22,000 residents in the last census, and county officials predict the number will top 28,000 this time around. A lot of the newcomers are commuters who work across the river. Ware thinks some longtime residents feel threatened by new ones who don't share their way of life, and those feelings spill over to cyclists, who are viewed as outsiders.
Susan Hendershot, who owns the Waterloo Winery with her husband, Mark, moved here six years ago after living most of her life in the St. Louis area. She said she's never felt unwelcome. A chamber-of-commerce board member and president of the local tourism board, Hendershot says cyclists are an important part of a burgeoning tourist economy in Monroe County. Granted, cyclists may not pause for more than water on hot days -- who wants to eat a full-blown meal when the temperature is pushing 90 and there are still many miles to go? "But they may come back someday," she says. "And they do." And when they do come back by way of automobile, they spend a lot of money in local shops and restaurants, Hendershot says.