“120 Miles on a Bike”

Wednesday, August 25, 2021
That was the headline bestowed on an “Off the Beat” column I wrote as a college student and occasional stringer for the southwest suburban Star-Herald newspaper, Aug. 26, 1976 (Page 10, to be precise). Here for historical purposes is the full text, lightly edited. Because I’m a little smarter now.

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

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

And lived.

Despite the 20 mile-an-hour winds from the north, large trucks and small compacts alike edging us off the highway, broken glass and dead skunks in the middle of the road.

IT WAS originally a “let’s get some exercise and discover America” proposal.

I got the exercise–even if Roger, in much better shape and with a much lighter bicycle, had to wait for me to catch up (puff, gasp, wheeze) every two or three miles.

And we discovered America, too.

Two of them.

ONE AMERICA is full of friendly people like the nice grocer in Ashkum (“Where you folks comin’ from and goin’ to?) who sold us lunch (a quart of milk and a box of Pop-Tarts apiece) and let me—a bearded, hippie-type stranger—change clothes in his restroom; the curious high-school kids in Onarga; and the friendly, courteous and curious gas-station attendants in Paxton, Loda, Buckley, Kankakee and all the rest.

I confess: Before undertaking that Illinois odyssey, I had visions of middle-American lynch mobs riding Roger and me out of town on a rail.

It just didn’t happen. People are nice. But there’s another America. And it’s not so nice.

Something happens to all those nice grocers, gas-pumpers and gawking kids when they get behind the wheel of a car or a truck.

I tell you, they’re killers.

FINGERS AND TOES aren’t enough to count the number of times Roger and I nearly lost our left ears to vehicles passing us without giving us even half the leeway they would have given the smallest of cars.

(You’ve got to understand that bicycles—especially racers—can go sprawling any which way if they hit even a little pebble.

(So the gravel shoulder along most of Route 45 is unnavigable for two-wheelers. But there's nowhere else to go when those passing cars barrel past.)

Fortunately for cyclists, we’ve got a little more highway savvy than the average animal wandering down the street.

Lots of our furry friends get cut down mercilessly by that other, sinister, motoring America. Mashed animal, it seems, lined our path, from Urbana all the way to Orland Square.

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

You’ve never looked fear in the eye until you’ve bicycled toward side-by-side cars zooming at you 55 miles an hour on a curving, two-lane highway.

That strip of shoulder may have been pitifully narrow, but Roger and I were glad we could cling to it as those motorists motored merrily along.

Had we been driving a Volkswagen, you might be able to slide us into your toaster today.

BUT WE made it.

Once we rolled our bikes into the comfortable haven of my garage and showered, Roger and I slumped on a couch, heaving sighs of relief.

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

The answer is yes.

I discovered America, all right. But I’m not sure I like all of it. It’s a strange society, split by this gas-powered schizophrenia.

For all its commitment to cutting down on fuel use, America still doesn’t provide the basics to its bicycling public.

WE WHO pedal don’t waste fuel and put far less wear and tear on roads than our gas-guzzling fellow travelers.

But we’ve still got to look far and, unfortunately, not so wide to find roads with even a token strip of pavement—not gravel, mind you—that we can call our own.

In a nation where the highway death toll has long since exceeded the number of citizens dead in all our wars, I think it’s time we took a long look at bicycling as one cure to our motor madness.

In the meanwhile, I’m risking the perilous trip back to Champaign with my bicycle.

The bike will be strapped to the trunk.

I hope we both make it.

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