I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a cyclist.
I like it, but in the past, I haven’t bicycled enough for it to feel anywhere near as comfortable as running or swimming.
That’s slowly starting to change, though. I’ve been riding recently with a group of women who are fun to be with and who nicely don’t ride so fast that I can’t keep up with them. I’m feeling much more confident about cycling these days.
It turns out that riding with a group is one of the best ways to become more comfortable with cycling. Prairie Cycle Club has rides for various levels of cyclists at least four days each week, led by experienced riders. 
“It’s the ride leader’s job to develop a route, so you can sit back, relax and see some new places along the way,” said Lorrie Pearson, president of Prairie Cycle Club and one of the women I’ve been riding with recently.
Anne Robin has been the co-leader of a Monday night group ride for 20 years, as well as a bicycle commuter. The Monday night ride is a social ride for cyclists who can maintain an average pace of 12 to 15 mph for 20 miles or so.
“We really try to keep track of people and make sure we don’t drop people and don’t leave them behind,” Robin said. “A big advantage of group riding is safety. If you have a flat tire, you have people there to help you. You won’t get lost if you don’t know the terrain, and you can learn new places to go.”
I’ve asked Robin, Pearson and a couple other local cyclists to recommend their favorite rides. And you can choose from several routes on the C-U Across the Prairie Ride on Saturday.
A note on route choices: Most cyclists choose where to ride based on what direction the wind is blowing. They start out riding into the wind, so they aren’t hit with it in their faces when they are tired and 20 miles from home.
And one word of caution: It is starting to get dark earlier in the evenings. Make sure you’ve got a light on your bike. (I only recently added a light to my bike, after a couple of rides that ended at sunset.) And wear a helmet.
Here are some suggested cycling routes:
— Jay Jimenez, Urbana: Jimenez is a regular cyclist and triathlete who will be competing in Ironman Louisville this weekend.
“My absolute favorite route in the summer is when the wind blows from the east. We will head out from Urbana to Sidney, then loop home through Philo. It’s about 25 miles. Sometimes, we stop at the Dairy Barn for a treat. My favorite part of that ride is the goat farm on 1100 N and 2000 E. There are these two beautiful Great Pyrenees that run along the fence with us. There is a nice little spot on 1100 N that is a bridge over the river that is really pretty.”
Jimenez also recommends a ride to Sadorus from either Meadowbrook Park (35 miles round trip) or Zahnd Park (22 miles round trip). For longer rides, he continues into Ivesdale and on to Bement and Monticello. To the north, he rides from Zahnd Park into Mahomet and by Lake of the Woods, via Rising Road and Lindsey Road north to County Road 2176, then back on County Road 19.
“For my long rides in the 80- to 100-mile range, I like to go to Arthur,” Jimenez said. “The roads are nice, and Arthur has nice little shops to stop and refuel. Love the cinnamon rolls ... but you can’t get ’em on Sundays!”
— Rick Francis, Champaign: Francis is a longtime cyclist who has been riding with Prairie Cycle Club since 1997 and has been a ride leader since 2001.
Francis said popular rides to the east include riding to Homer Lake and Sidney, or Flatville and Gifford to the northeast and back through Thomasboro or on High Cross Road. He also recommends riding to Seymour, Centerville and Mansfield, with a stop at a country store there.
“The area between Mahomet, White Heath and Monticello is by far the favorite of everybody,” Francis said. “There are lots of trees, some hills, curvy roads. Very different from the flat cornfields in the other direction.”
Another frequent route is to Ivesdale or Pesotum, and Francis and his cycling buddies will sometimes go to Villa Grove or, for a 50- to 60-mile ride, to Tuscola via Pesotum. A more challenging ride is to Block, a collection of houses southeast of Philo. Francis rides through Philo to get there and then back through Sidney.
“The route to Block is actually very hilly, and some guys I ride with feel it is the best view in the county,” he said. “Philo-Block-Sidney is only a 30-mile round-trip ride from Meadowbrook, but because of the hills, it is one of the tougher rides.”
— Robin, Champaign: Robin says it is easy to use a small town in the county as a goal or turnaround spot.
“Homer Lake is a fabulous destination,” she said. “We’re really well-situated because we’ve got these relatively low-trafficked country roads and we’ve got interesting things to see if you just go out there and look at them.”
Robin said good roads to ride include Duncan Road to the south, near Pesotum, where it has very little traffic, and Curtis, Rising, Barker and Bondville roads. She did not recommend riding on Staley Road, particularly north of Illinois 10, because there is quite a bit of traffic and no shoulder.
She also said cyclists should be careful at corners when the corn is tall and blocks the view of traffic on intersecting roads.
— Pearson, Champaign: Pearson just rode from Madison, Wis., through southern Wisconsin this past weekend — the day after she ran a half marathon!
She recommends using the Illinois Department of Transportation website for bicycle maps for each county, at www.dot.il.gov/bikemap/state3.html . The maps are color-coded in terms of traffic volume and speed.
Google Maps also has a bicycle feature. Go to http://maps.google.com/biking  and find bike trails or choose the bicycling tab when searching for directions in order to get a bike-friendly route. Champaign County Bikes developed a map of Champaign-Urbana city streets with similar color coding as the transportation department map. Find it at http://champaigncountybikes.org/images/CUbikemap.pdf .
Prairie Cycle Club’s annual C-U Across the Prairie Ride is Saturday.
Cyclists can choose from a 10-mile ride in town with a ride leader or 28- or 35-mile rides. Or they can combine the two longer rides for 63 miles.
Rides leave from the pavilion at Crystal Lake Park in Urbana. For more information, visit www.prairiecycleclub.org .
Photo: For many bicyclists, riding in a group with a leader is a much more relaxing way to go. Photo by Robert K. O'Daniell/The News-Gazette.