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MAKANDA - What better way to see Illinois than by the seat of your padded bicycle shorts? No better way than a six-day ride between Cairo and Chicago.


According to the 40 cyclists taking part in Bicycllinois (bi-sick-ill-in-oy), that is.

The Bicycllinois group started its journey at the southern most tip of the state, Fort Defiance, Sunday afternoon - thus hitting some of the state's hilliest terrain on the first day.

"Today is the toughest day," said event organizer Rob Layton.

But it is not the longest day. The cyclists will average 84 miles per day, and face a 103-mile leg from Champaign to Kankakee. Support vehicles transporting food, luggage and parts were on hand to attend to any problems or needs.

While they won't be burning gasoline on their 494-mile trip, the bicycle riders will be devouring their own fuel. One perk of the trip is the food is "all you can eat" and the selections were chosen by a dietitian.

"We are the anti-Atkins eaters," Layton said of the carbohydrate-heavy menu.

It was just after 2:30 p.m. Sunday when the first riders peddled into the Makanda Valley. Karen Connelly of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Nick Berect of Melrose Park unclipped their cycling shoes and reached for their water bottles, once their wheels came to a halt at the Makanda Boardwalk.

"Think we got lost," Connelly said, explaining their early arrival. The duo headed into the garden of the Rainmaker Shop as the rest of their group gathered in Makanda Park.

The two had just met that day.

"I think that is one of the nice things about this trip is that most people come solo," Connelly said. "On many tours people sign up in groups."

Berect said the mix of the group was a surprise. About a third of the riders are from out-of-state, the ages range from 18 to 65 and one-third are women. Besides just a quick drive through, Sunday was Berect's first time in Southern Illinois.

"This area is challenging and beautiful," he said of the region.

He laughed at the timing of trip, which started on the same weekend as the Tour de France.

Instead of the Alps, the group was planning to battle through Giant City State Park Sunday evening, before arriving at Carbondale Middle School, where they will camp and shower.

When the group finally arrives at the end of their journey " the plan is to arrive at Buckingham Fountain in Chicago's Grant Park on Friday - they will be able to retreat and rewind at the Hilton Towers.

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