Bill Lang, who for decades has been a member of the Joliet Bicycle Club, is one of the Making Trails Count survey volunteers that you might have talked with if you ride the Chicago Southland’s Old Plank Road Trail. Before early September, the last time I had seen Bill was in the late ’90s, when our bikes crossed paths at a Folks on Spokes ride.
Since 2008 when a tumor on his spine ended his ability to ride an upright bicycle, Bill has been surviving cancer. He was able to ride a recumbent for a few years until more aggressive treatment impacted his sense of balance. While still mobile, he uses a walker now to steady himself.
Bill’s always been a high mileage guy - before the tumor, 5000 miles was a typical cycling season. While the pace is slower, he’s still keeping a rigorous schedule of outdoor physical activity, clocking in the miles - and tracking them with his wireless cycling computer which he mounted near the hand grips of his walker. The tiny sensor that typically would be mounted to a fork blade or seat stay instead counts the rotations of the magnet glued to the walker’s 4” wheel, calibrated appropriately.
As of early September, Bill had walked 161.6 miles since June 1, average just above 1 mph.
Bill dispatches most of those miles along the Old Plank Road Trail and the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Hickory Creek Trail. “I told my doctors over and over, ‘Quality of life - that’s what I’m after’,” says Bill. He insists that the daily trail walks are a key component to his survival, and to his emotional well-being.
I had stopped at Bill’s house in Mokena on a wet Saturday to drop off the Making Trails Count survey kit, and planned to scoot home after getting rained out on my own survey shift. He asked me how things were going with Trails for Illinois, and I told him how much work, and how much fun, GITy Up! (our overnight bike camping ride) had turned out to be.
Bill replied, “Yes, they’re always a lot of work. I’ve led dozens of overnight bike trips for different groups, all over the Midwest. I believe that we live in one of the best areas for bike touring in the world.” He leaned against the wall a little, and over the next hour began spinning tale after tale of overnight, bike touring adventure through a state that most Illinoisans sadly wouldn’t recognize, or maybe even dare imagine. River towns, 1000’ climbs, dramatic bluffs and stately forests, memorable landscapes accessible by bike in any direction from Chicago.
Bill’s rule for his overnight bike trips was that they begin at his front door - Bill’s home has always been his trailhead. Often times, the first leg of the ride was a local trail toward an Amtrak station, in Joliet, or maybe Kankakee or Plano. Amtrak’s Illinois service allows roll-on bicycle access for a small fee, and Bill used it to jumpstart many of his tours.
Mostly they didn’t camp, choosing instead local motels and B&Bs. Bill described ferry rides across the Mississippi, climbing ornery knobs in Central Illinois at 3 mph in his granny ring, of festivals and wine tastings.
I’ve felt from the beginning of this job that Illinois has, right now, a network of multi-use trails and quiet roads equal to much of what Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin boast. Promoting the state’s trail experiences is in our mission - GITy Up! is one way we’re fulfilling it.
I stood entranced, listening to Bill and feeling more and more confident that Illinois is ready for us to help raise it up as a trail-based touring destination, and that with efforts like GITy Up! and even Making Trails Count, we’re doing the right things. If more Illinoisans can experience what Bill has, their quality of life will rise, our rural economies will improve, and interest in connecting our trail networks will grow.
Bill said he has traveled the region for years giving presentations on his bike tours to different groups. I asked him if he’d share some of his writings and photos, and he has. If you follow the “Read more” link below, I’ve posted my favorite, a trip that used train, ferry, trail, and farm roads to cross Illinois and visit three of our neighboring states. I defy you to read it and NOT begin scheming how to sell a similar trip to your spouse.
When he took this trip in 2006, cancer hadn’t struck yet, but Bill was recovering from heart surgery. I leave you with the final journal entry from that trip:
I feel like I have just woken up from a long sleep. Again, I feel good. So I am on the bike again going places, and planning for trips again. [Bill’s wife] Char is much happier with me now that I am feeling better. I love doing these self-contained rides to different places in the mid-west. I feel that we live in the best cycling area of the country, and perhaps the world. We have so many choices of roads and places to ride, many options like riding Amtrak, ferryboat rides, quiet smooth very low volume traffic roads through beautiful farmland and quaint, friendly towns. Life is great!
Follow the “Read More” link below to read the full entry about the trip.