RAIL (not as in railroad) although we did crisscross many railroad tracks, stands for Ride Across Illinois. One day. 170 miles. You ride a bike from the Quad Cities to Chicago (or at least to Oak Park).
Bill Watson is a cyclist who lives in River Forest. He is a community activist with a cycling focus. Bill connects people and advocates. So when he told our Lake and Harlem cycling group about the inaugural RAIL North route across Illinois, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
Bill said he would be driving a SAG wagon (support vehicle for cyclists) along the route, so we knew we had an out if problems developed.
RAIL is put on by a company called Bicycle Illinois. There is also a RAIL South from St. Louis to Vincennes, Ind. Another route goes from Hammond, Ind., to Kenosha, Wis., for a tri-state trifecta. So the idea of RAIL essentially is to cross a long expanse of Illinois in one day.
Let's face it. Illinois is not Colorado; there are no mountains. It isn't California either; you can't see the Pacific Ocean from here. But Illinois is unequivocally flat and has lots of lightly-used rural roads.
But 170 miles? I was skeptical. Would the body stop working at some point? Would this ride look like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow?
We arrived in Moline, Ill., and stayed in a hotel across from the John Deere corporate headquarters. At 4:30 a.m. the alarm sounded to herald the start of our journey. After all, if you plan on riding 170 miles in one day, you better start early.
At the pre-ride meeting, the Race Director helped us strap a GPS gadget to our handlebars. The route was preprogrammed to make navigation easy.
The group was small - about twenty cyclists. The weather was humid, dark and overcast.
So we rode and rode along our Rail road. Along the Mississippi. Through rain. Through a stiff crosswind. By corn and soybean fields, and more cornfields. Through depopulated small towns.
We had rest stops every 30 or 40 miles. The SAG vehicles would leapfrog ahead and set out a spread of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grapes, oranges and Gatorade.
One cyclist was drinking only water which was not a good idea. On a long ride you need calories. After our ride was completed, one friend estimated he burned 8500 calories on the day.
A group of cyclists in their thirties were well ahead of everyone until mile 60. Ah yes, the exuberance of youth! Our group of 50 year old greybeards pulled even. Then the "youngsters" sat in our slip stream for the next forty miles before they fell off one by one. By mile 110, our wizened group was all alone and bearing down on the metro area. On a long day of cycling, a steady and sustainable pace is key.
At mile 135, we reached Wayne's World aka Aurora, Illinois. It felt like you could almost see Chicago from there, even though we still had 35 miles to go and it was mid-afternoon.
We tooled through Naperville, Glen Ellyn and finally arrived in blessed Oak Park late afternoon. No more pedaling.
We were tired, but it was a good tired.