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MATTOON -- Part of Peterson Park was transformed into a campground Sunday afternoon as 130 bicyclists set up tents for the first night of the 2019 Grand Illinois Bike Tour.

Ed Barsotti, chief programs officer for the Ride Illinois nonprofit group that organizes this tour, said 105 other cyclists opted to stay overnight at the Suite Dreams Hotel in Mattoon.

The tour group of 135 total bicyclists began the ride on Sunday in Tuscola. They are scheduled on Monday to bike from Mattoon to Effingham for two nights at Larson's Landing at Lake Sara. Then, they will travel from Effingham to Charleston for two nights at Lake Charleston before returning to Tuscola on Friday. Each day will include side trip opportunities.

Barsotti said this is the 17th year for Ride Illinois' fundraising bike tour and its first visit to East Central Illinois. He said Ride Illinois, which works statewide for better bicycling conditions, has been helping develop community bicycle plans in Mattoon, Charleston and Effingham, so the group decided to bring its tour to this region.

"The biking on the farm roads here is just fantastic," Barsotti said, adding that cyclists from large cities appreciate the low traffic and great scenery. "That's why people do these bike tours."

Ride Illinois' 2019 tour group is comprised of bicyclists from 22 states and from Ireland, Barsotti noted.

Those from out-of-state include Tim and Nancy Bakolakos of Canby, Minn., who joined with other tour participants in setting up their tents on the grassy field north of Peterson's playground. Tim Bakolakos said they have been going on multi-day cycling tours for approximately 15 years and this is their second Grand Illinois Bike Tour.

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Nancy Bakolakos said they enjoy traveling by bike in different states, and her husband added that the scenery is better from this vantage point. Tim Bakolakos said they typically bring their tent on tours, so they appreciate it whenever they get to spend two nights at the same campsite.

"The layover is nice because we don't have to move the tent everyday," Tim Bakolakos said.

Grand Illinois Bike Tour staff members hauled luggage for the camping cyclists in a trailer and placed these bags on the lawn in front of Peterson's picnic pavilion on Sunday. They also set up a bike mechanic station, a service that was used by cyclists Nancie Coogan of Northbrook and Anne Cothran of Chicago.

Both Coogan and Cothran, who were with a small group from the Evanston Bicycle Club, said that this was their first Grand Illinois Bike Tour and that they have found the event to be well organized.

Cothran, a veteran of other multi-day rides, said her hometown of Chicago does not have a lot of hills, so she was glad that the tour started in the flatland of Amish country on Friday. Coogan said this will hopefully be the first of many multi-day rides for her, but she will spending the nights in hotel rooms.

"I am looking at the tents and I am thankful I have a cool hotel room to go go," Coogan said.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @TheRobStroud

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Rob Stroud is a reporter for the JG-TC, covering the city of Mattoon, Lake Land College, Cumberland County and areas including Oakland, Casey and Martinsville.

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