BLOOMINGTON — Francesca Erb is the big wheel of the McLean County Wheelers bike club. She’s serving her first term as the group’s president, the second woman to hold the position in about 30 years.

With the 8th annual McLean County Bikes Change Lives Give-Away getting under way, the 55-year-old Erb looks forward to helping others find what she’s found on a bike — good health, companionship and a look at the Illinois countryside that only bikes can give.

During a recent interview, Erb, a systems analyst at State Farm Insurance Cos., contrasted the relatively peaceful places to ride a bike to the lack of places to ride in places where busy traffic makes riding hazardous. On a recent trip to the nation’s capital, she and husband Jerry discovered people on two-wheelers were confined to trails, which are extremely congested because so many cyclists and pedestrians have no where else to go. In McLean County, cyclists enjoy fairly traffic-free country roads near Bloomington-Normal and Constitution Trail, the Twin Cities’ linear park.

 “I think (bike riding in McLean County) is absolutely fabulous. … Here, you venture out in the country and in a mile or two it’s quiet. You are on good roads and never see a car. Even on Constitution Trail you can ride up to 20 miles without ever leaving the trail. Having seen other places where it is precarious at best to ride a bike on the road, this is a great place to ride,” Erb said.

Members of the McLean County Wheelers ride a variety of bike styles. Some use hybrid bikes like the ones the group gives to selected people each year during the giveaway. Applicants write brief essays on what they want to accomplish and how they think a bike can help. Many of the applicants have health issues, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, being overweight or high cholesterol. Others just want to fight aging or get in better shape.

The Wheelers have given away more than 50 bikes since the program began in 2005. Bikes are donated by the bike club, the Friends of Constitution Trail, Vitesse Cycle, Bloomington Cycle & Fitness and Wilson’s Cycle. People have had their doctors lower doses of insulin or heart medications. Some have gotten off medicine entirely. Many others have shed the pounds they wanted.

“Bikes do change lives,” Erb said. “And maybe it’s not a dramatic change, but it’s reaching a personal goal. When you see people ride three or six miles for the first time and tell them they’re going to ride far longer than that, they look at you like you’re crazy. But then it’s not so long before they are riding 15 or 20 miles.”

With hybrid bikes, riders sit upright so they can see where they’re going easier. That design makes the hybrids a good choice for riding in town and on Constitution Trail.

Most Wheeler members ride sleeker road bikes designed to go faster over longer distances.

The Erbs ride the most unusual sort of bike, recumbents. They sit low to the ground with pedals out in front of the cyclist, who sits upright on a wide, comfortable seat. They were introduced to the odd-looking two-wheelers about 20 years ago when Jerry Erb saw someone riding one on Constitution Trail and ran after them to ask where they got it. He learned a bike company that manufactured and sold recumbents also sold directions to do-it-yourselfers like him so they could build their own recumbent from two conventional frames.

Jerry Erb, who now works at Vitesse Cycle, built a recumbent and enjoyed the ride. Later, he bought recumbents for himself and his wife, who’d been riding a road bike. They’ve been ‘bent advocates ever since and attend rallies that attract other recumbent riders. The style, which includes three-wheeled “trikes,” is gaining popularity as aging baby boomers need more comfort and balance. Recumbent bikes also are very aerodynamic and so fast they are responsible for setting human-powered land-speed records.

The Erbs have been involved with the McLean County Wheelers for about 15 years, Francesca Erb said. Cycling clubs are a great idea for companionship on group rides. Members also know the safer, most scenic local rides and share information on places to go to enjoy rides away from home, she said.

Clubs also challenge and motivate the members. For example, she said, someone may comment they completed the Hilly Hundred, a challenging two-day ride around the countryside near Bloomington, Ind. Someone might say:

“‘Wow, that sounds hard but like something I might want to do one day.’ I think that’s what the bike club is about — to get everyone to their riding goals,” Francesca Erb said.

Bikes Change Lives Giveaway

What: The McLean County Wheelers sponsor an annual bike giveaway to help people reach fitness and/or personal goals. Bikes are donated by the club, the Friends of Constitution Trail, Bloomington Cycle & Fitness, Vitesse Cycle and Wilson’s Cycle.

How: If you are over 18 years of age, write a brief essay on your personal goals and how a bike will help achieve them. Email the essay by April 9 to mcleancountywheelers@gmail.com or send a letter to McLean County Wheeler’s Bike Give-Away, Box 947, Bloomington, 61702-0947.


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