The Route Master
When I call him the Route Master, Charlie demurs. His beard twitches and he breaks eye contact with me.
“Others know more than me,” he says, to his glass of wine, not me.
“Not really,” says his wife, Audrey. This brings his gaze back up and to hers. We are sitting around a small, aluminum table on a cool October night. Audrey’s natural, gray hair pads the sides of a wide smile. There is over 30 years of body language saying something untranslatable. Their first date was a 65-mile bike ride—it is this kind of dedication and passion that is palpable.
“I’ll write that he’s too humble,” I assure Audrey.
“John Prince!” He begins to name his friends, the real masters of way-finding in his opinion. “Mark Nilges!”
“I mean he really knows the routes,” Audrey continues, ignoring her husband. She then makes evidence with a story about camping in a California desert. Two hours into their hike, Audrey realized the maps were gone. “Every direction looked the same. We thought we were going to die. But then he saw it, the way we came in and the only way to go out. He really just knows.”
Charlie smiles and shrugs. “Well, I do make these maps.”
He hands me one—the “Go By Bike” yellow and blue map of Champaign-Urbana-Savoy that he has brought (a box of them) to an Urbana bar. He and Audrey were some of the founding members of Champaign County Bikes and he now designs and distributes the organization’s maps around town. If you need to know where, and how, to go by bike, it’s your go-to guide.
“When I was young, my mom was a tennis pro,” Charlie says. “We traveled all over the South and East coasts of the U.S. My father made me navigate as soon as I could read. I always held the map.”
Audrey looks knowingly at me. Charlie begins to understand.
“So I’m going to call you the Route Master then,” I say.
He laughs. “Fine. Fine. Ok!”
How many years have you been cycling?
I’m 60 now, so you can pick a starting point. I was remembering all of my bicycles from that first red huffy to the bike I want to get later this week. I took my first “distance” bike ride in 8th grade on my Schwinn Continental (my father always supported my love of bicycling and got it for my birthday when I was in 7th grade).
I commuted to junior high and high school by bike until my senior year when I was able to afford a car. As an undergrad I walked to campus, and then biked to campus when I moved further away.
I started riding the countryside [in CU] using the Champaign Cycle Escape Map in the 80s until I learned most of the roads. So at least 35 years of distance bicycling.
So you must have commuted to work?
Audrey always asked me why I didn’t just walk to work–it was so close–and the bottom line is (and probably motivates much of my bicycling) that I’m too lazy to walk. The other thing is that it’s really been easy for me to commute, I live close to where I go. I have to admire those who really commute 5 or 10 or even 20 miles each way – that’s dedication and commitment!
We came very close to being a carless family last year (Audrey commutes/bikes long distance too) but we couldn’t quite do it for several reasons.
How many bikes do you own?
I currently have 5 …
(So does Audrey)
What components do you add?
A rack and some kind of pannier or bag attachment and I’m happy!
Ok, one absolute requirement – a rear view mirror! And of course I’m a big believer in lights and have been using them since they were crappy and battery intensive.
What is your favorite ride? (Place, pace, elevation levels, weather, length, etc.)
No way to really be able to pick this one out – the last tour is always memorable! I’ve done … Seattle to Glacier, a week long tour in the Catalonia region of Spain and two years ago we did the Great Ocean Road in Australia. Each of these I’d do again! Each brings back fond memories.
Where is your favorite ride in CU?
The prettiest ride is probably the Lake of the Woods/Mahomet to Allerton Park/Monticello most of which is captured by the Fritz Memorial Ride out of White Heath. Riding to/around Homer Lake would be next. There are some nice routes between the back of Homer Lake and Sidney as well.
Where do you wish you could bike to in CU, but cannot because of lack of infrastructure?
I’m one of those bicyclists who feels confident to ride almost anywhere. I’m not fond of University Ave because there are no shoulders for escape so you have to take the lane.
How do non-cyclists react when they learn about your avid cycling?
It’s interesting to think about this as the reaction has changed over time from incredulity and amazement, or “you’re crazy”, to “oh that’s nice” – mainstream acceptance.
The infrastructure and folks riding for commuting are having an impact as I see more and more drivers being increasingly accommodating around bikes.
What would you like to see more of in the CU cycling community?
People out just having fun… I’m waiting for a real Cyclovia*… Not an easy thing to do across multiple jurisdictions but when we finally get it to happen, that will be a milestone event.
*Cyclovia or Ciclovia or Open Streets is an event that temporarily closes roads to car traffic and opens them for bikers and pedestrians.
Charlie Smyth is on the Urbana City Council. He and his wife are two of the founders of Champaign County Bikes. They have biked all over the world and will continue to do so.