“120 miles by bike”



It was the title of an “Off the Beat” column I wrote as a student and occasional freelance writer for the southwest suburbs. Star-Herald journal, August 26, 1976 (page 10, to be precise). Here is the full text, slightly edited, for historical purposes. Because i am a little smarter now.

Now that the numbness has left my fingers, the calluses have left my legs, and the dust has been washed from my hair, the story can be typed:

How my friend Roger and I cycled over 120 miles from Champaign-Urbana to Orland Park via Route 45—[with me] on a 10-speed Raleigh Record, in just 14 hours and 15 minutes.

And lived.

Despite the northerly winds at 20 miles an hour, big trucks and small compacts drive us away from the freeway, broken glass and dead skunks in the middle of the road.

IT WAS originally a proposition “let’s exercise and discover America”.

I did exercise, although Roger, in much better shape and with a much lighter bike, had to wait for me to catch up (puff, gasp, wheeze) every two or three miles.

And we also discovered America.

Two of them.

AMERICA is full of nice people like the nice grocer from Ashkoum (“Where are you from and are you going?) who sold us lunch (a liter of milk and a box of Pop-Tarts each) foreign hippie type —Change clothes in their toilets; the curious high school students of Onarga; and the friendly, courteous and curious gas station attendants of Paxton, Loda, Buckley, Kankakee and everyone else.

I admit: before embarking on this odyssey in Illinois, I had visions of mobs of Central American lynchings riding Roger and I out of town on a rail.

It just didn’t happen. People are nice. But there is another America. And it is not that beautiful.

Something happens to all those cute grocers, gas pumps and stunned kids when they get behind the wheel of a car or truck.

I’m telling you, they are killers.

FINGERS AND TOES are not enough to count the number of times Roger and I almost lost our left ears to vehicles passing us without giving us even half the leeway they would have left for the smallest car.

(You should understand that bikes, especially riders, can extend in any direction if they hit even a small rock.

(Thus, the gravel shoulder along most of Route 45 is not navigable for two-wheelers. But there is nowhere to go when these cars are blasting past.)

Fortunately for cyclists, we are a bit more road savvy than the average stray animal on the street.

Many of our furry friends are being mercilessly slaughtered by this other sinister, automobile America. A mash of animals, it seems, lined our path from Urbana to Orland Square.

IN A NUMBER of instances, Roger and I almost joined them:

You never looked the fear in your eyes until you’ve ridden your bike to side-by-side cars that whisk you away at 55 miles an hour on a twisty two-lane highway.

This shoulder band might have been pitifully narrow, but Roger and I were happy to be able to hold onto it while these motorists drove happily.

If we had driven a Volkswagen, maybe you could slip us into your toaster today.

BUT WE did.

Once we rolled our bikes into the cozy haven of my garage and took a shower, Roger and I collapsed onto a couch, heaving sighs of relief.

“Well,” he asked me in his most sarcastic drawl of Glencoe, “did you discover America today? “

The answer is yes.

I discovered America, okay. But I’m not sure I like it all. It’s a strange society, divided by this gas schizophrenia.

Despite all of its commitment to reducing fuel consumption, America is still not providing the basics for its cycling public.

WE WHO pedal does not waste fuel and wear down the roads much less than our gas guzzling travel companions.

But we still have to look far and unfortunately not that wide to find roads with even a symbolic strip of sidewalk – no gravel, mind you – that we can call our own.

In a country where the number of highway deaths has long exceeded the number of dead citizens in all of our wars, I think it’s time for us to take a long look at biking as a cure for our auto madness.

In the meantime, I risk the perilous trip back to Champaign with my bike.

The bike will be attached to the trunk.

I hope we both get there.



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