A great ride does not have to be epic to be satisfying. Here in Illinois, there aren’t many big hills to climb or winding roads to follow. So we have to make our rides interesting rather than the other way around.
One of my favorite summer routes is best done in the evening after work. It involves a long, straight trip out to Dekalb County and back. The route is rolling in some parts, flat in others. It cuts through corn and soy bean fields for the most part. There are crumbling old barns that once held cattle and hay. I pass the old high school where my running career got started.
Departing from Geneva after leaving my car in the Metra parking lot for my wife to drive home on her commute back from Chicago, the straight ride catches onto Keslinger Road, which crosses the area’s big retail strip on Randall Road. After that, it’s all country riding.
Keslinger goes up and down like the roads of Brittany in the north of France. I focused on full pedal strokes, but the wind was healthy from the northwest. Some of those climbs were difficult. That is the key area in which I struggle in cycling. Long, slow climbs uphill into the wind. I suck air and tire out every time. Only by focusing heavily on a full pedal stroke do I get anywhere. It’s a mystery why this is so hard for me. But my theory is that a long torso does not help in those circumstances.
There were moments of true flow along the way. I passed the Richardson’s Electronics plant, the company where my father got a job in 1970 that brought us all to Illinois in the first place. We saw all our stuff packed in a big Mayflower van and climbed into the back seat of our 1967 Buick Wildcat. There was a little brother in the front seat and the three older brothers in the back. Then we cried and cried as we drove onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike never to return home to 1725 Willow Street Pike again. We huddled together in the back seat singing Beatles songs, lamenting the rich life we were leaving behind.
Such ancient history still pales next to the reason why the rolling hills on which I rode even exist. They are the deposits of glaciers long ago. On top of the gravel fells prairie loess, a rich palette for seeds that propagated one of the world’s great grasslands. Over millennia the soil grew deep and black. Sometimes the prairie burnt clean away, but that was only the surface. Below ground, roots ten feet deep held the secret of next year’s growth, and the next.
People that lived here for centuries burned the prairie on purpose. In fact it is estimated there was so much burning across the face of North America it actually kept the naturally cold climate in check. When those tribes that did the burning were wiped out by European aggressors, the climate actually cooled, leading to the period known as the Little Ice Age when Northern Europe froze in its tracks. Manmade climate change is real. It has happened before. Winters are not nearly as severe here in Illinois as they were just forty years ago when we first moved to the territory once known as the Prairie State. B
ut the prairie’s now gone. Not from burning, but from agriculture. Only 1/10th of one percent of the original prairie remains. The rest was wiped out by the plow.
Yet I rode past a preserve called Merritt Prairie out in Dekalb County. It sits on a steep rise in the landscape. Perhaps that is why some shred of the prairie remains. More has been restored in that site through propagation and restoration. At the base of the hill is a wet little seep where small patches of sedge remain. Once the prairie ecosystem was massive, complex and unimaginably wide. Now it is constrained to locations where either people or time forgot about it.
I well recall wandering the edges of railroad tracks with my late teacher Robert Horlock. He was an original in many respects, and loved the notion of restoring the prairie. But in order to salvage or save prime examples of prairie botany, Horlock and his associates Dick Young, Gerould Wilhelm and others had to learn where prairie remnants remained. They’d ferret out prairie remnants during the summer months, then gather seeds at opportune times, freeze them in sand over the winter months and prep them for planting come spring. These would be parsed out to prize students who would plant them in “prairie plots” which actually served the opposite purpose of a graveyard.
Had I learned some of this history when we first moved out to Illinois, it might have helped add some allure. As it was, my brothers and I embraced the avian life and became lifelong birders as a result. You enter the realm of interest through your own portals, always.
The long ride out to Route 23 in Dekalb County crossed through several townships. That meant different types of road. Some were smooth and wonderful. One cheap township did the classic ‘chip and seal’ and for four miles I rode on rough roads with strips of gravel on either side of me.
Somewhere on that country road the asphalt came back and I was riding on the far edge of the road. Traffic is never heavy out there, but there are a few commuters who drive east to work and back again in the evening. They come barreling back into Dekalb on their way home.
It was quiet for a while. Then suddenly, a car roared past within a foot of my left shoulder. There was no reason for it. No approaching traffic. No hazards to separate. Either that driver did not see me, was driving distracted while texting, or wanted to intimidate me by buzzing me on the bike.
In any case, I raised my middle finger at him and shouted an expletive. It was a shitty thing to do, passing so close to me so far out in the open. The vehicle kept going, climbed past the prairie I just mentioned and disappeared over the top of the hill with a last glimmer of the windshield.
I’d noted the type of vehicle in case I saw it along the way. And sure enough, it sat parked in a farm driveway seven miles further up the road. I was sorely tempted to go let the air out of the tires. But having a long history with mean farm dogs and the bites they can impart, I thought the better of it. Plus you never know who will emerge with a gun pointed at you and anger in their heart.
One can die a thousand ways, it seems. That driver could have hit me and left me in the ditch bloody and dying under a prairie sun. The flies would reach me first if my phone was thrown out of my kit pocket. If buried in grass, the rest of the passing vehicles might never see me. Then the thirst would take hold as blood drained from my body. I’d grow faint and tired. The pain would settle into a dull throb, then shock would slowly take out the consciousness.
I might be discovered by another cyclist the next morning. The cool night air would have dried the blood over my bare skull. Open wounds would have sealed. Skin would be pale, perhaps a little blue. I would still be alive, but just barely. Calls would be made to 911. The ambulance would come tearing out from Dekalb, but it would be too late. The fellow cyclist that found me would sense some change in energy. A bird would call, mysteriously. Because that’s what birds do when someone dies.
That’s how it might have been if the driver had been one foot further to the right, or miscalculated his aggressive little feint at pushing me off the road. But as it was, I was not struck. Which is surprising, in some respects. Because a recent issue of Bicycling magazine states that 41% of people who ride at least four days a week have been struck by cars. That’s 4 in 10 cyclists. Struck by cars. All because people are too arrogant, selfish and concerned about their goddamned right to own the road because they (fucking) pay taxes and don’t want to slow down, move over or take thirty seconds to get around a person doing something good for themselves.
That’s the world we live in. 4 in 10 drivers are too stupid to know the difference. I’ll state it here plainly: even stupid cyclists aren’t really at fault most of the time. Not when the odds are 4000 lbs to 150. Cars should always defer to cyclists. Always. No exception. There is simply nothing so important, not even a stop sign or law so important, that a driver can’t err on the side of caution.
So I get why my wife sometimes worries when I ride out there alone. She’s a long rider too. We try to avoid high traffic areas. But as yesterday’s little experience proves, there are no guarantees.
When I turned back east with the wind at my back it was a relief in many ways. That wind had blocked my way for 24 miles straight out to Dekalb. Later while looking on Strava I learned that I’d averaged maybe 16 mph the whole way. Not too impressive.
But who cares? With the wind at my back I was tearing it up, going 30 on the downhills and thinking about the guy from the Bora team that had been in the breakaway in the Tour two days earlier. He rode a Specialized S-Works bike that looked exactly like my Venge right down to the white letters on a matte black frame.
So I was inspired, and alive actually, grateful to be riding more easily.
There was just one problem. I was running low on fluids to drink. Yet I knew that 12 miles ahead lay the Purple Store in Kaneville. So I parsed my Gatorade yet still ran out with three miles to go before the store. I was thirsty and feeling the effects of hammering along at high speed.
The sweet young kid at the store had to remind me there was a $5 minimum to use my charge card. So I threw a couple peanut butter cream inside Clif bars on the counter and it came to $10.50. Score.
It was hot before I went in, but the breeze had shifted suddenly to the northeast off the lake. So I’d lost my pure tailwind but the roads were still straight and true. It was just 13 miles home from there.
On Seavey Road just two miles from home I noticed some beautiful horses in a fenced pasture. So I pulled the bike over and took a photo. Then I bent down and grabbed some rich green grass and held it up for them. A rich bay came trotting over, then a darker horse and its healthy, growing foal. I got nuzzled by horses with their soft noses and snuffling nostrils. It was delightful.
Back home I showed Sue the video I’d made of feeding the horses. She knows horses well, having grown up a rider, grooming them and all. “That’s nice,” she said on looking at the crazy little exchange I’d captured on my iPhone.
That last bit had felt like some needed unwinding. The world is insane right now. Only horses and fields and long straight roads feel normal to me. It’s too bad that more people don’t get that, and that assholes in their cars have to destroy the frail illusion of joy that cyclists try to create. For themselves. And for the world. We don’t hate the world or view it as our property. We just want to enjoy the long unwinding road.