It's raining off and on. The temps are hovering below 50. People driving by likely have their car heaters on. Windshield wipers wiping. Radios humming.
But Joyce Mast pedals down Green Street on her way to her campus job. She's not chilly in a black wool sweater under the rain-proof nylon jacket. The bike helmet keeps her hairdo intact. And as she will tell you, rain or not, she loves – that's a big L-O-V-E-S – not having to go to work inside the box of a car.
"I love being outdoors," she says, bending over to practically scoop the big word "love" up off the floor.
"I love it when it rains, when it snows. Everything. I just love it."
So the garage on her home in west Champaign is a storage area for her two bikes: the one she uses to get around C-U and a touring bike that she uses to coast all over the United States, Canada and even Ireland.
She has no car – and can't conceive of wanting one. The large wire basket over the front tire carries groceries. She knows the safest routes around town. And at night, she has lights on her helmet and bike.
But what if it's icy? Snowing? Blizzarding? Way below zero? Really, really windy? Does she call for a ride?
She looks a little incredulous. "No," she says. "I bike then, too.
"I suppose if I got really desperate, there's a bus that goes right over there. I could put my bike on the bus. ... But I bike because I love biking. I love to be outside."
25 miles a day
Mast isn't the only biker committed to two-wheeling. Countless local riders use bikes for touring, getting to work and also for racing.
Sherry Weaver of rural Urbana estimates she puts in about 25 miles a day, riding on the country roads south and east of Urbana. Weaver's a horsewoman and rides daily, but she wanted some additional strength-building exercises so she began biking.
Like Mast, the exercise has become pure enjoyment. She doesn't hope she has time, she makes the time.
In slippery, freezing weather, she forgoes her daily rides, but heat and rain don't discourage her.
For years, she commuted from her small horse farm on Curtis Road to campus, and she still prefers to bike to her Urbana church on Sundays.
She purchased a Ford 250 in 2002, mainly to haul her horse trailer. Since then, she's put just 20,000 miles on it.
"I just like to see the countryside," she said. "I live and breathe agriculture, and I love to be outdoors.
"I've got a favorite spot by the Salt Fork, and I hang out there for a while, and I watch the birds and deer, and whatever."
And she doesn't hurry.
"I love to go slow," Weaver said.
Sights on China
Weaver's not a traveler, preferring to log miles within a day of her own comfortable bed, but Mast has taken nearly 20 long trips, including touring all around the Great Lakes, Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois and the Painted Desert in Arizona.
Mast took her first long trip to Washington Island in Door County, Wis. – about 900 miles round trip.
"When I turned 39, I said, 'I'm not getting any younger,' so I took my tax return and I bought a bike. I bought all the equipment. I just loved it. It was wonderful. When I got back, I said this is what I want to do."
When her daughter Celina, now nearly 40, turned 16, they took their first trip of about 500 miles. Since then they've biked cross-country, sometimes taking their bikes along on the train. Once they shipped their bikes to Maine, and rode up the coast to Nova Scotia. Mast hopes to tour southwest China as well as the Columbia River Gorge.
Mast says biking is easy to start. And there's no better terrain than the surrounding prairie.
Susan Jones of Urbana, president of the Prairie Cycle Club, agrees.
"It's very easy to get started and the 'learning curve' is like the terrain," Jones said. "A person can get from being able to ride 3 miles to being able to ride 30 miles without having to deal with things like hills."
Mast's in a group called Champaign County Bikes that works on political and educational issues. The group offers a map of Champaign-Urbana with bike routes marked for safety, and it seeks safe bike paths when new streets and subdivisions are planned.
"There's something beautiful, something simple about being on a bike," Mast said.
"Another thing," she said, her face lighting up. "If you go on a bicycle trip, you can eat ENORMOUS quantities of food!"
And if you're wanting to get to know someone better, ride a bike.
"It's the best way to have a relationship," she said.
Finding a ride
Just like in cycling, some of the best deals for buying a bike come off the beaten path.
In St. Joseph, Del Hillman, a retired University of Illinois employee, fixes older bikes as a hobby and sells them on Saturday mornings just south of the St. Joseph exit on Interstate 74.
"I'm right there across from the Dairy Queen," he said.
Hillman gets the bikes at area bicycle swap meets.
"Then I dismantle them and restore them," he said. "I put an awful lot of work into them."
Mainly, he sells single- and three-speed Schwinns for about $150-$200, like the 1966 classic he's ready to sell when the weather turns warm.
Hillman spends the winter fixing the bikes – he has about 40 ready to go – and then on sunny Saturdays that aren't too windy, he heads to the streetside to sell them, usually staying about five hours until he ends at about 2 p.m. He plans to start selling in the next couple weeks, he said.
Can't find him? Just ask around town "for the bicycle guy," he said.
Other local bicycle sources and resources:
— Bikeworks Sales and Service, 1103 W. Main St., Urbana
— Durst Cycle and Fitness, Urbana and Champaign, www.durstcycle.com
— That's Rentertainment, www.rentertainment.com
— The Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign www.thebikeproject.org
— Champaign Cycle Co. www.champaigncycle.com
— Prairie Cycle Club www.prairiecycleclub.org
—Champaign County Bikes www.champaigncountybikes.org
— Kohlmann's Bike Shop, 802 Westfield, Champaign, 352-6348
A few path suggestions
The paths and pavements of East Central Illinois are filled with great rides for both solo and groups of pedal-pushers – if you know where to look. Susan Jones, president of the Prairie Cycle Club and vice chairwoman of Champaign County Bikes, has events and everyday rides to recommend:
— May 17, Monticello Lions Club ride (www.monticellolions.org/lions-bike-ride.php). "The scenery around Allerton is wonderful. I do advise people riding shorter routes that it can seem like a long way to the first rest stop so to bring snacks."
— May 30, Habitat for Humanity's Tour de Builds (www.cuhabitat.org). "Starting in Champaign and featuring routes to their locally built houses. ... There are neat things to see along the way that you miss from a car, like horse farms and llamas and where Lincoln paused on his travels."
— Aug. 15, C-U Across the Prairie ride in Mahomet (www.prairiecycle club.org). "We like to ride out there because the terrain is different – there are hills! – and there is a nice variety of routes to choose from."
— For everyday rides, she recommends two loops. The first starts from Countryside School in Champaign and loops south and west before returning. For a route map, go to www.resourceroom.net/cycling/bonifaceride.pdf. The second ride, in Urbana, starts at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, heads east to Philo Road, then south and west, then north on Race Street. Both loops can be tailored for distance.
For a list of local rides, go to www.champaigncountybikes.org and click "maps." Group rides through the Prairie Cycle Club begin April 18.
Popular new Townie model was designed for comfort
In 2009, the hot item on the bicycle sales floors appears to be a new bike that looks like it's been ridden down asphalt roads in the 1950s.
Called the Townie, it's touted as being comfortable. You can sit on the seat and touch your feet to the ground. The ads call it a "flat-foot design." The tires are wide and some are super-fat. The width of the saddle seat accommodates a range of bottom sizes, and the seat angle keeps the rider more upright. The handlebars are high, too.
It's light with an aluminum frame and has hand-brakes or coaster brakes; gear speed options range from one to 21.
"Everybody – old and young – is buying the Townie," said Dan Sochacki, a mechanic and sales associate at Durst Cycle on Mattis Avenue, Champaign "It's comfortable, and it has a forward pedaling position – good leg extension. People really like it."
The Townie's the best-selling bike in the shop, he said, and the frames fit one size. It has options for men or women and comes in dozens of colors. A quick scan on the Internet for reviews from those who purchased the Townie looked mostly positive.
They're made by the Electra bike company (www.electrabike.com/) and start at about $400 and go to $1,000 or more with options.
A smaller version for kids is also available.
The Bike Project gives hands-on lessons
Flat tires, bent rims or no basket and too much to carry?
Or no bike to ride at all?
No problem. At The Bike Project of Champaign-Urbana, anyone can learn to maintain, fix or make better their bike – or buy a refurbished used bike.
"We will teach you what to do," project co-founder Barry Isralewitz said. "We won't do the repair for you."
The staffed open sessions are free the first visit, and then people are asked to join the cooperative. Membership costs $25 a year for students and people who are low-income and $40 a year for everyone else.
For that, "you get all kinds of stuff. You get access to the shop about 20-50 hours a week (depending on the hours of the Independent Media Center). You get discounts," Isralewitz said. "The big thing really is the membership-only discount on frames for the Build-a-Bike program."
With the Build-a-Bike program, members learn from volunteer teachers how to build a bike from the frame on out, buying any necessary parts at wholesale cost, and with a final cost that tends to be below the price for the Project's refurbished used bikes, he said.
Build-a-Bike also gives members access to the widest selection of frames, which can also be donated to the shop.
"It's often a great deal," Isralewitz said. "We can't repair 1,000 bikes, but 1,000 people can."
The Bike Project has a free orientation class today at 1 p.m., and another will be scheduled for mid-April.
The Bike Project is in the basement of the Independent Media Center at 202 S. Broadway, Room 24. Find the open hours schedule and more information at www.the bikeproject.org.
Amy F. Reiter contributed to this report.