Road Warriors

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

Aug 23, 2000 at 4:00 am
Farmers gather at the Fountain Inn to sip beer, play cards and talk about the price of corn, soybeans and wheat. When the Rams play, the regulars bring covered dishes and Rick McClellan, who bought the tavern a few weeks before the 1993 flood, supplies the fried wings. First-time visitors are invited to join in bar conversations and included in rounds of drinks bought by people who've lived in these parts all their lives. A sign at the rural roadhouse welcomes patrons to downtown Fountain, Ill., a blink-and-you'll-miss-it enclave about 20 miles from downtown St. Louis.

The Fountain Inn seems like a friendly place -- unless you arrive on a bicycle.

A sign at the door warns cyclists that no bike cleats are allowed in an effort to preserve the new floor -- cleats, which are made of metal or hard plastic and attached to the soles of bicycling shoes to improve pedaling efficiency, can gouge or scratch floors. The floor has aged, but the sign remains up. Ask regulars what they think of cyclists, and get ready for an earful: They hog the road. They use the bathroom and ask to fill up their water bottles, but they don't spend much money. They don't know the difference between a courtesy honk and an angry blast and are too quick to flip the bird at local motorists who paid for these roads with their taxes. They look ridiculous in their garish spandex clothes.

The Fountain Inn is ground zero for a longstanding feud between locals and cyclists, an overwhelming number of them from the St. Louis area, who come to Monroe County for its scenery and two-lane country roads that pass through forests and fields. Hard feelings that lingered for years blew up on Dec. 13, 1998, when Norma Browne-Gerner of St. Louis and a couple of friends walked into the Fountain Inn to buy some candy and soda before continuing their ride on the Bluff Road, which parallels the Mississippi River.

As the cyclists entered, James L. Dillenberger was sitting at the bar drinking whiskey and 7-Up. Those who know him say Dillenberger is a fanatic when it comes to neatness. The tools on his workbench are organized like a surgeon's scalpels. He is the only farmer in Monroe County known to have waxed his combine. Dillenberger is a large man, standing well over 6 feet, but locals say he isn't the fighting kind -- at least he wasn't until Browne-Gerner and her riding companions showed up.

Words were exchanged between Dillenberger and the cyclists. Folks at the Fountain say it's not unusual for remarks to be made when cyclists in funny-looking clothes walk through the door. It became a case of one thing leading to another, and as the cyclists left, Dillenberger says, Browne-Gerner spit on his 1997 GMC pickup truck. Browne-Gerner has denied spitting but has said that even if she did, it didn't justify what happened next.

As the cyclists headed down the Bluff Road, Dillenberger got into his pickup and gave chase. When he caught up, he jumped out and tried to pull Browne-Gerner off her bicycle. He didn't succeed, but he didn't give up. He got back into his pickup, put it in gear and intentionally struck her, causing a herniated disc that has required two surgeries. Browne-Gerner, a former St. Louis County police officer who works as a security consultant for AmerenUE, says she can no longer ride a bicycle for long distances.

While Browne-Gerner lay beside the road waiting for help, Dillenberger returned to the bar and ordered another drink. Rather than arrest him, sheriff's deputies wrote up a report and let prosecutors handle it. Initially charged with aggravated reckless driving, a felony, and misdemeanor assault, Dillenberger pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving last November. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $250 as result of his plea bargain. At his sentencing, Dillenberger told the judge he'd consumed five drinks before encountering Browne-Gerner, but he later denied that his drinking played a role in the incident. He also told the judge he was taking medication to control manic depression, a condition for which he has been hospitalized three times. Some locals rallied behind him. A tavern owner in Maeystown put up a banner to show her support.

Aghast at what they considered a light sentence, some cyclists called for a protest ride through the county, but those plans were canceled at Browne-Gerner's behest. At the time, Browne-Gerner was asking a Monroe County circuit judge to order Dillenberger to pay $88,960 in restitution for medical expenses and lost wages. In January, the judge rejected her request because Illinois law, at the time of the incident, barred restitution in misdemeanor traffic cases. Now Dillenberger is facing a lawsuit filed by Browne-Gerner, who is seeking more than $75,000. Rather than face a Monroe County jury, Browne-Gerner's attorney, Gregory Shevlin, sued Dillenberger in federal court in East St. Louis. A trial is set for December.

Citing the pending legal action, Shevlin and David Nester, Dillenberger's lawyer, declined to make their clients available for interviews.

Determined to show that what happened to Browne-Gerner was an anomaly, cyclists in May held what they dubbed a "harmony ride" through Monroe County to demonstrate that cyclists and motorists can get along. The ride drew more than 100 cyclists, and no problems were reported. Organizers urged cyclists to write "Harmony Ride" on dollar bills and spend them in local businesses to show that cyclists can boost the economy. None of those bills found their way to the Fountain Inn, where McClellan taped up his own dollar bill behind the bar to show what he thinks.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Cyclists have done more than buy food. During the 1993 flood, cyclists helped fill sandbags in a futile attempt to keep Valmeyer dry, says Yarbrough, who organized the winery ride. When the floodwaters receded, cyclists held a benefit ride and donated a significant amount of money to the local Lions Club, he says. "A lot of people in positions of power don't understand how much help the cyclists have been in the past," Yarbrough says.

People who hold the power in neighboring Randolph County, where there are plenty of farmers and cyclists and no shortage of roads without shoulders, report no problems. Sheriff Benjamin Picou can't recall a single complaint about cyclists. "I think Randolph County is pretty pro- bicycle," he says. "We have a lot of riders. A lot of times, they'll have escort cars with them. No problem at all. We like to see them come through. They're all pretty professional, the ones that come through here. They've all got helmets. A lot of times they'll stop by and they'll tell us where they're from. We'll strike up a conversation with them and chat with them. It's interesting to find out where they live and how long their tours are."

Indeed, Picou, who grew up on a farm, says he has more problems with farmers who clog roads than he does with cyclists who get in the way. At least once a day, Picou says, deputies have to close a narrow Mississippi River bridge at Chester so farmers can get agricultural equipment across. "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. They seem to hold up more traffic than the cyclists do. If it's the agriculture people griping, they need to check their own backyards."

Hendershot, who lives in Randolph County and commutes to Waterloo, says she doesn't get upset when she gets stuck behind a tractor that can add 20 minutes to her trip. "I understand that," she says. "They have to do that. That's part of their job. I don't act like an idiot and try to pass them at 90 mph." She wishes farmers and other motorists who use the same roads as cyclists could show a little more patience. "We have to share the road," she says.

Back at the Fountain Inn, McClellan contends it's the cyclists who need to learn to share. He recalls the time three cyclists moved from single file to three abreast when he tapped the horn of his motorcycle to warn them he was about to pass. "They tried to run me off the road," he fumes. "What's that all about?" Then there was the time he came around a curve and found a trio of cyclists standing on a bridge looking down at the creek -- if there'd been a car coming the other way, McClellan says, he would have had no choice but to take them out.

"I don't mind that the bicycles come here, but they need to respect the people more than they do," McClellan says. "We're not all bad; they're not all bad. But riding down the middle of the goddamn road, flipping people off? Some of them don't make any sense."