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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Illinois Great Rivers Ride

If you live in Southwestern or Southern Illinois, you may have seen this sign up on a bunch of roads.

If you're wondering what the sign is about, it's the route marker for the Illinois Great Rivers Ride. The seven-day ride begins next Sunday, Sept. 7, at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site near Hartford, and the loop ride ends there Saturday, Sept. 13.

As a resident of the metro-east counties of the St. Louis metropolitan area, I welcome the cyclists who are touring our region.

I am, however, concerned about the impression you'll get of our region based upon the first day of riding. Some of what you'll see will fit into the negative stereotypes that many people have of our region.

Next Sunday's route begins at Lewis and Clark site, which has a nice museum that you should visit. The museum is located near the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1803-04 near the museum before they took off on May 14, 1804.

Unfortunately, one of the prominent things you'll see near the site is a now-closed chemical plant which isn't very pretty at all.

The route then heads down Madison County Transit's Confluence Trail down to Chain of Rocks Road. Watch out for gravel on the trail and the road that links the trail with Chain of Rocks Road. When you get to the road, I encourage you to turn west and head to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is now a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Mississippi River that links Chouteau Island and the city of St. Louis. The smaller bridge you'll cross goes over the Chain of Rocks Canal, which detours barge traffic past the dangerous rocks in the river.

Going east on Chain of Rocks Road, you will be on historic old Route 66. You'll be going through a commercial/semi-industrial area before turning onto Maryville Road into Granite City. For the most part, you'll be going through good, solid working-class neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the route goes on Mockingbird Lane, which is truly one of the most wretched stretches of road I've ever seen. There's plenty of big bumps and potholes, and they're hard to avoid unless you go out toward the center of the road.

You get a reprieve when you hop on MCT's Schoolhouse Trail. Included are some nice views of Horseshoe Lake, a former oxbow of the Mississippi River. You'll probably also see a few crops that don't look like corn or soybeans. The odds are those are horseradish plants. The soil conditions near Collinsville make the region one of the best in the world for growing horseradish.

You'll turn off the trail on the west edge of Collinsville and then take Fairmont Avenue and Black Lane into the community of State Park Place. When you reach Collinsville Road, a four-lane highway, I recommend you make a side trip to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Visit the museum that explains the history of the Mississipian people that inhabited the region, and if you have enough energy, walk the stairs to the top of Monks Mound.

The route continues on Black Lane to Bunkum Road. Unfortunately, the St. Clair County Highway Department saw fit to put fresh oil and chip on the road last week, and the surface was extremely nasty last week, even for cars. I hope the oil and chip is smashed down enough by next Sunday for safe passage of the cyclists.

More fresh oil-and-chip awaits you as you travel on 79th and 81st Streets in East St. Louis. When you see the words East St. Louis, you most often think of poverty and crime. Fortunately, the eastern part of the city is generally safe. Frankly, I think the fresh oil-and-chip street surfaces will be a much bigger problem while traveling through East St. Louis that day than anything else.

You'll turn left onto State Street and start heading toward a big hill. Don't worry, you won't climb the hill. If you make a mistake and start climbing the hill, you'll be on Main Street in Belleville. Instead, the route turns right onto Illinois 157 toward Centreville. Illinois 157 isn't very scenic, and it narrows from four lanes to two with a narrow shoulder.

A big hill, however, does await you. You'll turn left onto Illinois 15 and climb a big hill to the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. It's a worthwhile trip, especially if you're Catholic and understand the symbolism behind much of the features at the shrine. You'll go back down the hill to Illinois 157 and head into Centreville.

On your left, you'll see a sign for the Hwy 157 Spa. If you're expecting mudpacks, massages, facials and soothing New Age music, the Hwy 157 Spa isn't your place. Some of its neighbors include PT's and Boxers 'n Briefs, two adult nightclubs. I think you get the picture.

(Fortunately, Traverse City, Mich.-area massage therapist Michelle Kuffer will be accompanying the cyclists on their trek. I first met Michelle on the 2006 BubbaFest and got a massage from her on the 2007 West Shoreline Tour. She is very good and surprisingly strong!)

Further into Centreville, you'll turn right onto Illinois 163 and start a climb into more rural parts of St. Clair County, then you'll turn right onto Imbs Station Road and get a nice bit of downhill. But when you turn left onto Wagner Road, get ready for a twisty climb that's a nice challenge. The Wagner Road hill is part of the course for Millstadt Biathlon, which also will be run next Sunday. I suspect, however, that Great River Ride participants will get to the hill well after the biathlon is done.

The route rolls on Wagner and Bluffside roads into Columbia, the Day One destination. If you want a nice view, stop by the cemetery at the top of the hill before heading down the hill toward downtown Columbia. Once in Columbia, there appears to be an additional loop that takes you into the Mississippi River valley before returning to Columbia.

On Day Two, you'll travel on scenic Bluff Road toward Valmeyer. It's a popular St. Louis-area cycling route because it's flat and because of the towering bluffs that overlook the Mississippi River. The popularity also made Monroe County a battleground between cyclists and the natives.

Cyclists were partly to blame because they often did not obey traffic signs and often rode two or more abreast on the road and refused to move over for passing motorists on a relatively busy country road. The locals, however, were guilty of over-reaction. About a decade ago, the county attempted to force group rides of five or more people to get a permit to ride through the county. Thanks to the work of cycling advocates, that policy was modified to groups of 50 or more.

You'll see signs that say "Bicycles ride to the right and share the road," much different than the "Share the Road" signs you're familiar with. To some, the signs are indictative of the attitude Monroe County residents have toward cyclists. My advice is to ride single-file on Bluff Road to minimize problems with the locals.

You'll climb up Woodland Ridge to the "new" Valmeyer. Before the 1993 flood, the village was located on the bottom land just below the bluff and was devastated by that flood. The village, for the most part, decided to move up the bluff so that it would not be destroyed by future floods.

After Valmeyer, you'll ride on rolling to flat roads to the Fort de Chartres State Historic Site. The fort was built in the 1750s by the French, and it was abandoned in 1771. Parts of the fort have been reconstructed. Nearby is the community of Prairie du Rocher, which was founded by French settlers in the 1720s.

On Day Three, the route heads south to Grand Tower. On Days Four and Five, cyclists will encounter their hilliest days, ending in Vienna (pronounced Vy-enna in Southern Illinois) and Giant City State Park near Makanda respectively. On Sept. 12, the ride heads north to Sparta and the World Shooting and Recreational Complex. On Sept. 13, the ride concludes with a trek from Sparta back to the Lewis and Clark Historic Site.

I haven't had a chance to scout the route from Sparta to Hartford, but I suspect it will give you a more favorable opinion of Southwestern Illinois than you might have developed after the first day. I do know that you'll be going through the city of Edwardsville, probably on more MCT trails, and taking New Poag Road to the Lewis and Clark site.

I hope all of you doing the Illinois Great Rivers Ride have a safe and enjoyable trip. I think this year's route will give you a surprising picture of Illinois, especially for those of you who are only familiar with the Chicago area.

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Roger 1 comments links to this post 7:51 PM


I rode the very last Great Illinois Rivers Ride and I neglected to keep a set of the cue sheets. Now I live down here in Southern Illinois and I'd like to relive some of that ride with a friend. Would you by chance have a copy you could email to me at dfm924@gmail.com. Either a photo of the sheets or an electronic copy.
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