Greater Peoria’s long-lasting love affair with the bicycle has been home to successful bike clubs, trail systems for over a century.
The Greater Peoria region is home to some of the finest bicycling trails in the entire Midwest. While many clubs, trails and businesses exist today that are devoted to cycling, central Illinois’ long love affair with the bicycle can be traced back to the early 1880s, thanks to regional historians and early members of the Peoria Bicycle Club (PBC).
The club was founded in 1881 after Harry Rouse and Fred Patee, business associates with George W. Rouse and Sons farm implement company, decided to go into the fledgling bicycle distribution business (the high-wheeled bicycle had been patented only a year earlier). In 1895, Rouse, Hazard and Company opened a large factory in Peoria Heights and began manufacturing bicycles.
Sales of the high-wheelers were brisk, and soon after opening the factory, the success of the endeavor became apparent through the number of Peorians seen getting around on the tall bikes. Rouse and Patee, energized by the brisk sales of their bicycles, decided to begin sponsoring races and formed the Peoria Bicycle Club. The club’s earliest meeting place was at Rouse and Sons, located at 110 S. Washington Street in Peoria, according to author Steven Streight’s “Bicycle Fever: Peoria Bicycle Races From the 1890s to the 1990s” (1990; Ruppman Marketing Services).
Active membership “was open to any male person, eighteen years of age, of good moral character.” According to Streight’s account, the club forbade “gambling, Sunday pool playing, Sunday card playing, and ‘scuffling and all boisterous and ungentlemanly conduct or language.’”
The PBC consisted of over 450 members at its peak, noted Ed Hall in his “History of the Peoria Bicycle Club,” prompting a move to bigger headquarters. These locations included churches, the First National Bank building, the library, private homes and the downtown Lightner Mansion.
“Chicken runs” became a popular fraternal pastime for the club members, whose longer outings would sometimes culminate with a chicken and mashed potatoes dinner at Crawl’s Inn (now The Railsplitter) on Galena Road in Mossville and, later, Webb’s Inn in Chillicothe.
The PBC was initially formed as a racing organization, and as cycling gained popularity, bicycle racing took off in Greater Peoria. Peoria’s Lakeview Park was once home to national “Grand Circuit” bicycle racing tours, with thousands of Greater Peorians packing the (now razed) grandstand.
Eventually, the popularity of cycling waned both on the national and local levels. By the turn of the 20th century, Rouse had passed away and the original PBC began a slow decline in membership, due mainly to the advancement of new transportation technology.
“As the number of autos increased rapidly, just so did the pleasure of a bicycle ride likewise fade,” according to a Peoria Journal Transcript article, “for the dust of the unpaved roads had been suffocating to the point of ruination of the rider’s lings, long before any larger vehicle had made this situation infinitely worse.”
“Many factors contributed to the decline in cycling. By 1899 the US market was flooded with bicycles. The wealthy elite moved onto other pursuits, taking their money with them,” added Streight in his outstanding Bicycle Fever history of the PBC.
CYCLING CLUBS, TRAILS CARRY ON TRADITIONS
The early Peoria Bicycle Club’s constitution decreed their objective was “the promotion and cultivation of cycling, social intercourse among its members, and the improvement of roads.” Little has changed in that regard since the 1880s (other than the inclusion of females!). Bicycle organizations that promote the same goals are in existence in Greater Peoria today. These groups include the Illinois Valley Wheelm’n, the Peoria Area Mountain Bike Association (PAMBA) and Bike Peoria.
“Bike Peoria is a nonprofit organization that does advocacy for trail development, started in 2014,” said Mark Beiser. “We do some local lobbying with the city council and the county board for trail development and work to make Peoria a safer place to ride. Out of that organization sprang the Bike Peoria Co-Op. It’s a place where people can learn about their bike, and get help fixing their bike.”
Bike Peoria offers monthly breakfast rides on Saturday mornings, and on the first Friday of every month typically hosts 9pm night rides, both open to the public, according to Beiser, a Peorian who helped found Bike Peoria and the Bike Peoria Co-Op, located at 612 W. Main Street.
Unlike in the final days of the original PBC, many safe, paved trails and dedicated traffic lanes are now available to cyclists throughout the Greater Peoria region. Central Illinois regional trail linkages include the Rock Island Trail, Pimiteoui Trail, River Trail of Illinois, Pekin Park District Trail, Morton Community Bikeway and Washington Recreational Trail.
In fact, there has never been a better time for both paved and mountain trail riders to explore what the Greater Peoria area has to offer. This is according to Joe Russell, who has run Russell’s Cycling and Fitness in Washington.
“The area is so much better than in the past for cycling opportunities for three reasons. We cycle for fitness and to stay off medicines. Between our trail systems and our secondary roads, we have that opportunity,” Russell said.
“Secondly, mountain biking is a sport where we can go and ride trails, like at Farmdale Park, where there are 1,500 acres. The local mountain bike association, PAMBA, has trail systems in six parks in the tri-county, and there aren’t any better places to ride in the state. The other thing is that we are seeing groups ride out to other towns via secondary roads, which are like bike paths if you avoid the ‘drive times.’ These routes are fantastic”
Russell, 63, envisions his future “retirement” job as hosting tri-county bike tours for out-of-towners, including groups from the Chicago area. “They’ll come for the trails, and stay for all of the fine hotel and dining options,” said Russell. Before that day comes, however, Russell said he will continue to offer the latest in cycling technology to his customers to encourage more riders of various fitness levels.
“I quit asking the question 20 years ago what was next, because the next is already in the works. We’re going to continue to see bikes that require less maintenance, and we will see a continuation of the trend of more comfortable bikes that allow more people to ride and stay healthy. We’re also seeing lighter bikes, made of metal alloys and plastic that provide even a better riding experience, with more power, energy and responsiveness,” said Russell, whose shop has also been selling pedal-assist electric bikes and recumbent bikes for many years.
A visitor to Russell’s shop, located at #10 Valley Forge Plaza, can pick up maps of all existing trail systems in the area. These maps include four local routes consisting of around 90 total miles of secondary roads connecting Washington with surrounding communities. On Saturday mornings, groups of riders meet at Russell’s Cycling and Fitness to embark on an organized ride (call the shop at 309-444-2098 for more information).