It’s Like Tribalism and Other Observations on Event Rides – Susan Weaver
With five event rides under my belt, I don’t quite qualify as a junkie. Still, in early November 2004, I was already thinking about the coming year. I dug out my dog-eared copy of Adventure Cyclist with 2004’s list of events and took a longing look at it’s A to Z sampling of everything from Alaska’s Great Highway Ride to Cycle Zydeco.
I was feeling slightly deprived because I hadn’t managed a “big ride” in 2004. I even tried to persuade Joe, my husband and sometime accomplice on these ventures, to squeeze in a late-season event in South Carolina — the three-day Festavelo de Charleston in December. I’ve never been to historic Charleston, and I was enticed by the shrimp and grits, the Elvis and Beatles impersonators, the eight ride options, the last chance for warm weather before the Pennsylvania winter set in and, last but not least, the 800 like-minded souls who come to eat, sleep, and breathe cycling together for a few days.
Maybe next year, I thought, as the sun set on a cold afternoon and I daydreamed about rides past, pulled up another website, and prepared to make some phone calls. I was doing this for two reasons.
One, I’m planning my own new adventure for 2005. Two, I’d been asked to reflect for Adventure Cyclist on these events and offer a few tips to accompany this year’s list. If you’re wondering whether these rides are for you, I want to tell you about their appeal and dispel a few misconceptions. If you’re a “big ride” veteran, perhaps I’ll pique your interest in an event you haven’t tried, or maybe you’ll just enjoy “going along for the ride.”
Why we do it.
A tremendous variety of events are offered, but probably just a handful of factors draw us to them and influence our decision. The social connection is one.
“It’s like tribalism,” says Jerry Norquist, describing the camaraderie among riders at Cycle Oregon, where ninety percent of the 2,000 cyclists are returnees from a previous year. Norquist, Cycle Oregon’s director, says that it’s just fun for event participants to be around other cyclists and the congenial volunteers.
For me, from the moment I park, there’s an atmosphere I love including clicking freewheels, bright bike jerseys with funny names, and bicycles of every description. Best of all, the people are kindred spirits with stories to swap. Whether there are a few hundred riders or a few thousand, when you arrive in camp or wait in the dinner line or take part in evening activities, it’s easy to make friendships that last the week or beyond.
On the smallest of “big rides” six years ago, the group connection was remarkable. The mid-August event on Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI) started literally under a cloud as Joe and I set off to pedal the perimeter of the tiny island with forty-three other riders and the Atlantic Canada Cycling staff. That day, it sprinkled on and off as we cycled over rolling hills, past potato fields and their distinctive red earth, and even redder farm buildings against a gray sky.
At a provincial park, our group set up camp around the puddles just in time. As steady rain began to pelt our fly, Joe and I shoved our duffle inside the tent and crawled in. There was no picnic pavilion so we dug into our bike bags for the remains of our lunchtime hoagies and ate them silently. We were bummed. We heard little from outside the tent, and Joe figured — at 7:30 in the evening — he’d just turn in.
Had we been on a bike tour by ourselves, that’s what we would have done. But something made me crawl back out of the tent. Tony, one of the day’s companions, had strung a tarp nearby and was humming and slicing onions for pasta sauce. I joined him. Two other couples emerged from tents and came over. Tony said he was making lots of spaghetti and asked where Joe was.
I poked my head in our tent. Joe, never one to turn down pasta, rallied. Soon we were twirling spaghetti on our forks and laughing and talking.
One couple had brought potatoes. We boiled them as a chaser and recalled the old folk tale about a soldier who made stone soup when villagers claimed there was nothing to eat. In time, one contributed a few onions, someone else a carrot, and another some potatoes, resulting in stone soup enough for all.
While rain drummed on the tarp above our heads, we traded stories about past bike tours and who knows what else and began to anticipate sharing the days ahead. As the week progressed, occasionally one of the six of us would laugh and recall our growing friendship that rainy night that we fixed “stone soup.”
To me, the potential for discovery wherever I ride is just as important as socializing.
Borders beckon. The ultimate “big ride” in this country is coast-to-coast, that seductive lure that led to the founding of the Adventure Cycling Association thirty years ago. Today another way to cross America is with an event organizer such as Cycle America or Big Ride America.
Short on time? The coastal theme is popular with many rides. The year after the PEI event, Joe and I signed on with the same organization for a ten-day bike trek up the coast to the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, where Vikings established their first known settlement in North America a millennium ago. The peninsula, with its two national parks, is a place of spectacular contrasts: mountains, stands of sweet-scented pines or bare wind blasted trees along rugged shore, seabirds on the rocks, fjords, and a riot of wildflowers in Newfoundland’s short growing season. We combined that event with a car rental and traveled on our own through old fishing villages and historic St. John’s at the eastern end of the province. The wild coastal scenery and the unforgettable people we met made it one of our favorite vacation adventures.
Not every “big ride” takes you to the edge of the cycle-able world, but there’s something to explore in every event here. What sort of discovery suits you best — the grandeur of the scenery unrolling beneath your wheels, a nostalgic connection with Smalltown, USA, or a trip into history perhaps?
In the heartland, still going strong in its thirty-third year, Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is “a celebration of Iowa,” says director T.J. Juskiewicz. “It’s going to towns you wouldn’t see if you were just zipping by on the highway. The people come out to welcome riders like you wouldn’t believe.”
By now Iowa’s small-town hospitality toward RAGBRAI’s 10,000 or so cyclists is famous. There are no catered meals. The event is the ultimate progressive breakfast–lunch–dinner because, in towns that are passed through, almost every organization sells home-made snacks and meals served with free smiles and encouragement. Because riders always gobble down pie, churches especially bake pies of all kinds, maybe by the hundreds. Individuals, too, come out to greet the traveling party. An enterprising ten-year-old at a farm en route may have her own Kool-Aid stand; a farmer who just likes to visit may give out free water and offer to photograph riders with his baby pigs.
Host towns are also responsible for nightly entertainment — equally homegrown — ranging from local band concerts and singing contests to something called Pasture Bingo (don’t ask).
Another draw is that many events are rich in history. On the laid-back Katy Trail Ride, with no more than 300 cyclists, you can explore old river towns along Missouri’s famous trail, a former rail line for the Kansas-Missouri-Texas Railroad. Consider immersing yourself in Cajun food, music, and dancing on Cycle Zydeco, where the four-day ride takes in a plantation and the Historic Register town of Grand Coteau. That’s just a hint. History buffs can check out other ride websites for more ideas.
We all have friends who can’t imagine cycling twenty-five miles, let alone the full length of an event. Often these rides are challenging, with daily distances of sixty, seventy, or eighty miles, and a century day thrown in for bragging rights. Some rides, such as Cycle America’s Pedal the Peaks in Colorado, incorporate climbing and altitude as well. And that’s not even mentioning the weather.
In Newfoundland, rain and headwinds for most of an eighty-mile day might have tempted my husband and I to sag, but just as we saw the support vehicle at about sixty miles, along chugged the oldest member of our party, an eighty-four-year-old retired Air Force general from Florida. He pedaled all the way to camp, and we did too — a feat Joe and I remember with pride.
A word about rides with shorter options: what challenges one rider may be an easy day for another. Don’t hesitate to select a shorter event if it feels right for you. It may leave you with more energy to enjoy the evening entertainment. A few years ago, I rode the Great Peanut Tour in Virginia. Riders of all ages, including families with children, found the variety of rides it offered perfect because they suited everyone’s abilities, and its loop rides from a single campsite meant setting up camp only once. After all, it’s your vacation.
Event rides typically combine the draw of destination and challenge with good support. “Some people say they’ve always wanted to ride the Pacific coast,” notes Amy Robertson of the California Coast Classic. Its support, she adds, make that journey more doable for many. The eight-day Classic travels 500 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles on dramatic, winding Highway 1, where giant forests meet undulating cliffs that plunge to quiet beaches and the sea. Held in late September when vacation traffic has lessened, the ride provides five support vehicles plus three cars with signs alerting motorists to the 170 or so cyclists on the road. As another safety measure, all participants are issued bright green jackets. “They call us the green train,” says Robertson.
Informed route selection also promotes safety, says Norquist of Cycle Oregon, which has a new route each year. “The course is picked with a great deal of care,” he says, adding that choosing a route is a challenge in his state. “A lot of roads in Oregon didn’t have much traffic ten years ago. But they do now.”
One variable you may consider is the ride’s layout. While some riders like the idea of a border-to-border adventure, others prefer loop rides to linear routes because shuttles from finish to start are unnecessary.
One inescapable factor is the number of riders. A ride that’s the size of a small town is going to feel very different from a medium-sized ride of one or two thousand, which contrasts, in turn, with the feel of a group that’s a few hundred or smaller. Except on the tiniest events, there will be lines to wait in, people milling about and getting in the way, showers possibly running out of hot water, or the caterer running out of vegetarian entrées. Something will happen for someone to complain about, so consider your tolerance for crowds and regimentation. A sense of humor and an outgoing nature, along with picking a group that’s the right size for you, will help you enjoy your big ride.
Economy Compared to many commercial tours, event rides typically offer significant savings. Aside from frills, such as ride T-shirts and happy hours, here are a few examples of costs and what you get for them: RAGBRAI’s fee of $110 for seven days with camping excludes meals; figure $35 a day to indulge at food stands along the way. Cycle Zydeco treats you to four days with camping and six meals for about $265 (think about next year or get on the waiting list). I rode the Touring Ride in Rural Indiana – September Escapade (TRIRI SE) in 2003 and can vouch for its being a bargain: $460 per person (double occupancy) for five nights at inviting state park lodges and breakfast and dinner buffets daily. If you camp, it’s even cheaper.
With some fundraising, you can help a charity you care about and save on your own costs. For instance, a $50 fee and a pledge of $450 to the American Lung Association lets you join 1,600 other riders for three days on the Trek Across Maine. For the eight-day California Coast Classic, the fee ($65 for early birds) counts toward the $2,900 to be raised for the Arthritis Association. This year, the weeklong Minnesota Habitat 500 travels 500 miles through historic Mississippi River towns, with a one-day option for cyclists to work on the 1,300th Habitat home to be built in Minnesota. A fee of $125 and pledges totaling $750 are your ticket to ride. As noted, some big rides offer discounts for registering early.
Concerns and misconceptions
“Can I do it?” The Trek Across Maine travels 180 miles from the mountains tains to the sea. It starts at 800 feet, ascends to about 1,300 feet, and drops eventually to sea level. Director Bob Verrill jokes, “We tell out-of-staters that it’s all downhill or they might not come!”
Joking aside, Verrill says people do call with fears about doing the distance or ending up riding alone. “Generally, they can do it. We ask them to train a minimum of 400 miles and work up to two fifty-mile days back to back a few weeks before our three-day event.”
Amy Robertson echoes those sentiments. “About sixty percent of our California Coast Classic riders are new to a multi-day ride,” says Robertson. “They ask themselves: ‘Can I ride 500 miles in eight days and can I actually raise $2,900 for the Arthritis Foundation?’ It’s absolutely possible!” says Robertson. “We set people up with a training program and a fundraising kit, and they usually surprise themselves.”
If you’re starting a training program, begin with short rides and easy gears — spin, spin, spin! Increase your training miles ten to fifteen percent a week, eventually completing rides equivalent to the longest day on your tour. Remember to prepare for the terrain as well as the number of miles and include training on hills and rollers. Repeat climbs on shorter hills and work up to longer hills without rest. Allow yourself at least one rest day a week and cut your training in half during the week before the event so you’ll arrive rested and ready to go.
Some events offer training clinics and warm-up rides earlier in the year. Two-day weekend rides are a fun way to get accustomed to longer rides on consecutive days.
There’s no magic bubble
“Cyclists seem to think they own the road when they ride together,” says Cycle Oregon’s Norquist about cyclists who want to ride four or five abreast. “We have to tell them they can’t do that.”
Organizers pride themselves on selecting “the best possible roads with the right kinds of turns and wide shoulders,” adds Greg Walsh, owner of Cycle America. “But this is a bike ride that you might have taken on your own. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. Cyclists need to be responsible for themselves and their own cycling.”
Be aware of other cyclists. Especially on the huge rides, crashing into another rider is as likely as being hit by a car. If you’re surrounded by other cyclists, you can’t stop suddenly or turn in front of other riders.
The ride is not a race
Turning the ride into a race is the best way to miss what makes an event unique. Stop now and then to take photos, investigate the unusual, discover history, and talk to locals. Favorite memories will come from those serendipitous moments, like the mom-and-pop T-shirt factory Joe and I stumbled into, getting out of the rain on Prince Edward Island. There, Mom ran the business, Dad drew the handsome graphics for the shirts, and two school-aged sons helped print the shirts and run errands. It was a slow day and Mom was very friendly, so we got a tour of the entire operation and bought a shirt (they sewed it up on the spot in the right size). We even learned about local politics and the “Dump-the-Pump” signs we’d been seeing along the road.
No TVs, no lawn chairs
“The hardest thing for first-timers is packing. What should they take? How should they pack it?” says Norquist. “On Cycle Oregon, we allow one bag of sixty-five pounds. You’d be surprised how many bags weigh over 100.” He explains that they depend on community volunteers. “It might be a local girls volleyball team that loads the baggage truck.”
Many event websites include lists of what to take and what to leave home. Do protect your clothing in plastic bags inside your duffle in case it has to sit out in the rain. And, when packing, think about that volleyball team lifting your luggage and follow the packing guidelines for your ride.
Susan Weaver has written about event rides in Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Virginia, Maryland, and Indiana for Adventure Cyclist.