By Christopher Cudworth
There is a bike route from my house that takes a straight route out of town to a largely flat, well-paved road heading straight west, a great stretch of road for solo or group rides. Even the gravel trucks from the quarry west of Route 47 respect the cyclists. Kudos to them.
The road slides into a patiently smooth downhill, then turns right on a state highway with a wide, clear shoulder. There is a beautiful climb out of a small valley onto one of the many corn plateaus in our region; open expanses of flat land broken only by the occasional gravel-filled prairie kames dumped thousands of years ago by glaciers that formed the northern Illinois landscape.
Up and over
Turning right, the route dips and swerves past a series of lower kames, but if a bit of hill climbing is needed, the route passes a local treasure named Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve, a lump sticking up from the Illinois landscape. A one-lane blacktop road loops through and over a 150-foot high “mound” covered with deep old woods. It is shady there in summer, green and cool, a welcome respite from the white-hot sun on some days.
The small road twists along a bottomland that in wet years smells of swampy deliciousness and fresh, rich flowers. Then the road turns abruptly, climbing grades of 10 to 15 degrees broken up by flatter stages where the cyclist can recover. At the top is the steepest pitch, a short, lung and leg bursting bit of road that puts you back in an honest place whether you are fit or fat at the time.
Plunging down the south side of the hill, you must be careful not to launch onto the open road again or risk being flattened by traffic. But when you turn left again toward home on a rolling road, the legs inevitably feel strengthened by the climb just completed. It’s like that extra blood needed to make it up the hill sticks around to do some extra work. Then it’s possible to crank it up to 25 miles an hour, slip through the biggest intersection in farm country on Hughes Road and head toward home on a short slope where speeds of 35mph are possible.
The Big Road
Then the road dips and lands you on a major thoroughfare called Fabyan Parkway. Again, the shoulder is ample the entire way so it is not a dangerous road to ride, though cars are moving fast. With luck the first traffic light will read green and one can cycle down another hill at 25-30 mph as long as there is no traffic nudging into the parkway from the country club homes on either side of the road. One learns not to take the intersection for granted, because SUVs and Mercedes often have an impatient urgency to them.
Out of the valley
A series of climbs then follows as you climb out of a small valley where Mill Creek trundles toward the Fox River, crossing under the road. The route zips past Peck Farm Park, where casual cyclists like to ride the 4-mile paved loop around the 150-year-old farm house with its slowly-filling lake.
The Walmart Criterium
Back into town you go, up a final hard climb and toward the giant Walmart complex where a short bit of fun awaits. The street turns right, then left, the right and left again. On quiet days this is an excellent place to practice your bike handling and cornering. One learns to savor and indulge on this smooth outlot road, cranking the pedals to gain speed and cornering with practiced control.
Then up you go again past the Sam’s and across Randall Road, the busiest danged road in the county, the epicenter of commercial enterprise and tax revenue for towns from Aurora to Algonquin. It is rare to find a green light here, so you pause, take the last sip of fluid and serve as a curiosity for drivers in the cars next to you. They sometimes sneak a glance at the odd creature in the bike kit, sweating now or bundled in tights and jacket on cool days.
Breaking the speed limit
Across the road you go and through the stop sign when there’s no sign, because an opportunity lies ahead to break the 25 mph speed limit on the winding road through a subdivision. As traffic design goes, this is the absolute worst road in the area. It was built in compromise with residents who did not want a through street from the movie theater and Randall Road back into town. But it is still used that way out of necessity. Yet the road is too narrow for its purpose, and its winding method of getting around houses is just silly. If a Jeep or God Forbid, a Hummer decides to park in front of one of the houses the entire lane is blocked off for car or bike. And it happens often. So you must anticipate that if you are cycling through, and separate hazards or risk being squished by circumstance.
Racing home or chilling out
The last mile home is uneventful, a time to gather your wits if you’ve ridden hard, or try to save up the mental notes and creative bursts earned during a casual ride.
The route is 20 miles total, a perfect allegory for everything cycling has to offer. Hills, both up and down, smooth roads the entire way, beautiful scenery with deep woods and even restored prairie in sight along the way, and the inevitable Illinois corn and soybean fields you can watch planted, growing and harvested until the ground lay sullen and tilled the winter months.
For variety, all one has to do is reverse the course and all the downhills become uphills. The wind can affect the course most interestingly, throwing headwinds and crosswinds and tailwinds into the mix. Weather too. I once tried to sneak a 20 miler on a February day that started out with a light mist and 60 degrees only to change to a brisk wind and horizontal rain by the 10 mile point. It was all one could to do get home without hypothermia. Forced to stop at the Randall Road traffic light, I stood shivering with the bike, grateful there was only one mile home.
The route is an allegory for everything cycling has to offer here in Illinois. One needs that kind of route, to know exactly how long it will take to ride, and to make a challenge on days when you are feeling frisky and fast. My record is just under one hour for the loop, including a trip over Johnson’s Mound. That was a good day.
There have been many other good days on that sweet ride. There have been bad days as well. Another allegory for riding, and for life. You can never tell exactly what you’ll get until you head out the door. And that’s what makes it so exciting to run or ride.
Tomorrow: What makes a great running loop.