Why Southern Illinois Should Be a Hotbed of Cycling…And Why it Never Will Be

here I am photographing the photograher at 3S3M this year.

I did 50 miles on my own Sunday morning, and as my mind often does when I’m riding alone my mind wandered to various topics.  One thing I got stuck on was just how great riding in Southern Illinois is.  The more I thought about it the more I though, “Man Southern Illinois should be a hotbed of cycling.”  Let me tell you why.

We have hundred of miles of roads just like this.

First off we got good roads.  My route on Sunday was 40 miles of painted highway and 10 miles of oil and chip backroads.  For the first 30 miles I saw 13 cars and the few that did pass me did so with plenty of room.  My 50 mile route had almost no flats, it was almost always climbing up or down, but it also avoided the bigger climbs of the area.  If you want flats we’ve got them too, you can ride hundreds of miles are rarely find a significant hill if you go North.  But if it’s challenging climbs you want its possible to make a century with more climbing then the 3 State 3 Mountain Challange if you cross the state East and West in the hills.

Besides roads we’ve got good excellent trails.  Sunday I was lamenting the fact that I can’t really ride trails in the summer.  I can, but my skin is very sensitive to poison ivy and ticks which keep me off the trail.  For those that can handle it the trails are often in excellent condition all summer long and make for epic Mountain Biking.  Recently the US Forest Service has built miles and miles of new benchcut trails.  If people knew about these trails Southern Illinois would become a destination.  We even have a 60 mile rail trail which is very popular with people who occasionally ride bikes.

So we’ve got excellent places to ride, but we also have several bike shops in the area, we’ve got an excellent mountain bike club in the Shawnee Mountain Bike Association and an equally awesome road bike club in the Continental Cycling Club of Mt. Vernon, we’ve even got a very active randonuering club.  We’ve got decent weather that’s not to cold in winter and too hot in summer.  So what’s holding us back?

Not really talking about this kind of critical mass.

Despite all these great assets we have several key things that keep Southern Illinois from being a cycling destination.  First off, critical mass, see most people are basically sheep, they see enough people doing something they think it must be good and they want to get on board.  You can nearly count the cyclists in Harrisburg on one hand.

Secondly is the socio-economic status of our population.  Cycling doesn’t have to cost a ton of money, but its a lot more expensive than jogging.  The truth is out area is depressed, opportunities are scarce and many of those with much ambition or ability get out while they’re young.  Traditional outdoor activities like hunting and fishing thrive in Southern Illinois, which is great too, but we could use more variety.

Thirdly we have no big well ran organized rides to bring people in.  There are only a few organized rides in Southern Illinois and most of them are either dead or dying.  There was an opportunity to create a big two-day event a few years ago but that got turned into a race.  Don’t get me wrong a race is great for people who race and not a bad thing for cycling in the area, but a big well organized and publicized event like the Hilly Hundred would have done alot more in the long run to promote Southern Illinois and cycling in the area.

Forthly, is back to the terrain.  I’ve spent alot of time in the Smoky Mountain National Park, and there are many places where you would be hard pressed to tell a difference between the Shawnee and the Smokys, except for one important detail: mountains.  We just don’t have the big, long mountain climbs that people, myself included, get excited about.

There are probably lots of other reasons why cycling will never be a mainstream activity in Southern Illinois but here’s an even bigger question, So What?  It seems to me that when cycling starts to get real popular in places you start to see conflict.  Battles to restrict riding, battles with motorists, battles to keep trails open and battles with other cyclists who are going to slow or too fast, listening to their ipods, cutting you off and just making a mockery of your leisure time.  Maybe its best if there are just a few of us enjoying the hidden gem of Southern Illinois.

About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
This entry was posted in Barn Door Cycling, lifestyle, Rants, Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Why Southern Illinois Should Be a Hotbed of Cycling…And Why it Never Will Be

  1. Shon says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. Just found it a few days ago. I’m relatively new to serious biking, and I live in So. IL, so, of course, I’m interested in local biking. I do wish cycling was a bit more popular here – if only so there were more organized group rides. I’m fortunate to have a few friends that are experienced road riders, so I do get together with them. I’ve also driven to Mt. Vernon to ride with Conti a few times (great group, BTW). Most of the other rides that I know about are on Wednesday nights, which I can’t do…. Still, I really love biking here in So. IL – lots of variety! Keep up the great work on your blog!

    • Matt Gholson says:


      We’ll have to get together for a ride sometime. Gkad you’re enjoying the blog.

      • Shon says:

        That sounds great. Starting summer break soon (I’m a teacher as well), so should have a more flexible schedule.

      • Shiom says:

        Going to ride the Beautiful Southern ride tomorrow. I read about your experience last year, but several friends are planning on going, as well as some from the Conti group. So, it should be a good time… I hope.

  2. Jim Russell says:

    And of course we have people who will drive around the Wal-Mart parking lot for 15 minutes looking for a closer parking spot so it is unnecessary to walk an extra 30 feet. They don’t make good cyclists.

  3. Steve says:

    I had my reply all ready to go until I read your last paragraph, which was basically my reply. It sounds like you’ve got a great situaton – a fantastic cycling environment without any need to share it!

  4. Dave Mailander says:

    Matt, I’ve always thought it would be fun to work with a local HS or Middle school in the promotion of an intramural racing team for road, mtn, and or TRI. If you can get young people involved and away from the monitor, it can only improve your community. One of the biggest issues I suspect is cost and insurance. Some youth teams have thrived though, but mostly via private efforts.

  5. Matt Gholson says:

    Yeah, for sure. I was asked by one parent about coaching cycling once, but I didn’t pursue it, the powers that be would have no interest and honestly it would be tough to get enough kids around here to make it work.

    Tri’s are getting popular so maybe someday in the future that could be explored.

  6. Great blog! I too live in southern Illinois and wonder why more and more people will not get into it. I just rode 70 miles the other day around Giant City state park and east of it and it was an awesome road biking ride. I try to get more people into it but no one ever wants to give it a try. I am always looking for others to ride with… 🙂

  7. Brian says:

    Thanks for writing the blog on cycling in Southern Illinois Back in the day, like many, I lived and rode there while attending SIUC. If memory serves correctly, it is exactly as you describe: rolling, bucolic, scenic, laid back. Your report seems to indicate that nothing much has changed. Good thing? Bad thing? I’ll let others be the judge of that.

    I have a question for you that requires a little backgound. I presently reside in St. Charles, MO and divide my riding time between three geographic zones: St. Louis, the Metro East area and rural St. Charles county. St. Louis is an urban area. Urban cycling offers advantages and carries risks that are beyond the scope of this blog. The Metro East area offers a plethora of paved trails and is a delight, although it can take me a while to get there. Rural St. Charles county is the closest and most accessible of the three. It is also the most hazardous to my health.

    The fine suburban folk who call rural St. Charles county home are united in their hatred of cyclists. Ask them. They’ll tell you. We (the cyclists) are the anti-christ. We are the drug dealers and perverts that corrupt their children. We are heinous criminals and terrorists. We are all that is wrong with America. “You have no right to be on the road”, is a quote I’ve heard more times than I can count… with the spicy parts removed for clarity.

    Has any of this poison made it down where you live?

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