Ever meet a bugcatcher? How about a bunch of guys who decide to roller blade 100 miles in the middle of a tropical storm? How about a group of total morons who surf off of Assateague Island in the middle of that same storm? Or a group of about 6500 people knee-deep in mud and a torrential downpour, munching on apple pie topped off with ice cream?
This is just part of the charm of the Sea Gull Century, an annual 100 mile bicycling rite of passage in Salisbury, MD. I was there, and learned that we humans, despite our bad press, can be pretty decent if somewhat silly.
My story starts in the Lehigh Valley, where I live among real cyclists with quads as thick and hard as oak trees.
At T-town's Velodrome, Team Fuji and other hot shots display their cycling prowess to the oohs and ahhs of the assembled multitudes. I've been there, swilling down espressos, wearing my Team Ireland cycling jersey and cap, and dream of winning a criterium.
I'm pretty sure that's where I convinced myself that I could do a century (100 mi. ride).
You see, I'm not really that fast. I am daily reminded of that as I am constantly passed on bike commutes by geriatrics and little kids. Further confirmation came a few months ago during my unwitting participation in the Phillipsburg criteriums. I signed up for the "citizens" (i.e., slackers) ride, not knowing it was actually a 3 lap race. When I found out (too late to drop out) and surveyed the field of competitors and their sleek road bikes, I forgot my T-town dream and revised my goal to just finish the damn race without being lapped. Team Ireland would hold its head high.
The race started, and I was comfortably in the rear, waiting for the right moment to make my move. Suddenly, I saw a cyclist weaken. Some septuagenarian on a rickety old mountain bike was faltering. I seized on his weakness and passed him with a flourish. Then, somewhere during the second lap, I noticed a woman whose derriere was so large she should have been required to ride with a "Wide Load" sign. I challenged her, attacking (that's a cycling term) as we turned into a very slight incline. I nipped her. "Ha Ha. Eat my dust! I eat health food!," I gloated to myself and then I was suddenly lapped by the leader. Well, at least I didn't finish last. Team Ireland could ride slowly from that race in pride.
But Team Ireland would not fare so well in the annual Lehigh Valley century, called the "Gap Gallop." The tree trunk legs cycle up and down Delaware Water Gap, Wind Gap, Little Gap, and just about every damn gap you could imagine in a 100 mile trip. The word "Gallop" suggests it is ridden fast. These guys are essentially racing up and down mountains for 100 miles. Team Ireland is not ready for that.
I was about to give up on my century dream when I discovered the Seagull Century, also called "Belgium by the Beach." It is promoted as both a fast and very flat course throughout the Eastern shore of Maryland from Salisbury to Assateague (aka Ass-Fatigue) Island and back. I heard Team Lardbutt would be there. Lance Armstrong recently retired, so I just might have a shot at this one, and started to spruce up my Fuji for that fateful day in October when Team Ireland just might briefly lead the peleton (more cycling lingo).
You know, we've had a pretty dry summer. Occasionally, rain has been predicted and skies would grow menacingly dark, but that's pretty much all that would happen. So when forecasters began predicting lots of rain during Seagull Century weekend, I properly ignored threats of heavy rain and winds.
On the day before the race, as I began my pilgrimage to the Eastern shore in my beat up '95 Jeep Wrangler, undeterred by heavy rains that lasted the entire trip. The heavy stuff obviously came a day early, and I would have a dry ride the next day.
The first order of business upon arrival was to participate in the pre-ride meal, where we load up on carbs in anticipation of a very demanding event. In addition to pasta, there were tacos, pork chops, pizza, wings, fries, and I think I even saw one slice of multigrain bread sitting forlornly in a corner. The pre-race health food I liked most was the ice cream. Now I'm lactose intolerant, and can't handle things like that, but I figured it would not affect Team Ireland during a 100 mile ride where it is important to be well-nourished. I was joined at dinner by some very nice cyclists who had trekked in from Ohio, where they work as Forest Service Rangers. They were staying at the local Y, something I did not think was possible. They were traveling on a tight budget, which dispelled my belief that most cyclists are rich bastards with expensive $3,000 toys. Another surprise was the average age of these folks. They're mostly old farts like me. After the feast, I waddled to my hotel room, and was lullabied to sleep by howling winds and pouring rain.
The next morning, I was a little surprised when I awoke to see it was still pouring and the winds continued to swirl. That's OK, I thought. After all, I had packed my high tech Team Ireland rain gear, including some pretty cool gloves. The heavy stuff was coming down now, but I figured it would taper when I started my ride. I rushed off for a high carb breakfast of more of the health food I had the previous night. To be on the safe side, I loaded my bike with all kinds of energy bars and Perrier (not a cycling term, but it is French).
After carefully carbing up as highly conditioned well-trained athletes are wont to do, I hopped on my bike and headed to the starting line at Salisbury U. It was still pouring, but I knew it would stop soon. I was more concerned about my stomach, which just did not feel right from all that health food. I probably just needed to pedal a few miles.
Now a century ride is not a race, but is more like a quest. You just show and go. I started around 7:15 AM, trying to ignore the winds, rain and strange rumblings in my stomach. About 5 miles into this event, I noticed I was being passed by lots of people in bicycles, tandems, recumbents, and then the strangest thing happened. A bunch of guys in roller blades zipped by. What's the deal with that? I picked up my pace and settled next to one of these fellows who had tree trunk legs very similar to the ones I see on Lehigh Valley cyclists. "Are you going the full hundred miles?," I asked one of these unusual athletes. "Believe it, baby!" He grunted, and steam blew out of his nostrils. I checked to make sure I wasn't wearing red, and timidly asked why. "I want to triple the size of my quads, baby" he snorted. Okay. Cuckoo! I got out of his way only to discover an entire gaggle of these misfits, skating their way to nirvana. "What a bunch of nuts," I though as I peddled away in the pouring rain and swirling winds.
A goofy thing about these winds is that, no matter which way we turned, the winds seemed to be in our face. Occasionally, a nice gust would blow up and it literally blew me off the road twice. The winds took my mind off the rain, which was coming down pretty hard now and actually was hurting. But these winds did not take my mind off the stomach, which now was rumbling pretty badly. I had to stop and take care of business, but no bathroom was in sight. I pulled my bike off to the side and snuck off into the woods for the pause that refreshes.
From my vantage point, I could see that people were moving pretty fast. There actually were two collisions in the short time I was taking matters into my own hands. Upon reflection, perhaps I was a little too close to the road, and certain noxious odors may have affected steering in some less experienced cyclists. Well, whatever the cause, the ambulance had left by the time I returned to my Fuji. But now I had a new problem. I had sharp pains in my feet and legs. I had brushed up against some particularly nasty nettles. I began to pluck them off, but the damn things stuck to my hands. I had to rub my hands on the grass to be rid of them. Soon after this happened, I noticed my hands were very itchy, and my eyes began to swell shut where I had tried to wipe some rain drops from them. Team Ireland was in trouble.
I popped back onto my bike and starting cycling, only to discover there was a rest stop about 1/2 mile from where I had sauntered off into the woods, with plenty of clean and dry bathrooms. I gave myself a 10 minute break to eat a bar that I had packed. When I opened my bag, I was saddened to see that my 150 calorie bar was totally soaked and had become inedible. Fortunately, the rest stop had other types of health food. I had my choice of banana bread, carrot cake, lemon poppy seed and blueberry bread. I chose blueberry, although it was hard to see it as my eyes continued to swell. I gobbled the health food and hopped back on my Fuji. Team Ireland was refreshed.
After about 60 miles, I was beginning to think that the century ride just might be marred by heavy rains and wind, but it would probably die down soon. I was now close to Assateague Island, the highlight of the race. As I pumped my way to the island, I heard a Pfffffff and the bike suddenly became wobbly. I pulled over, and sure enough, had a flat. Being the experienced cyclist that I am, I had a spare tube, tire levers, a CO2 cartridge pump for just such an emergency. But although I am an experienced cyclist, I am an inexperienced mechanic. It took me nearly an hour to get my tire off the rim and install a new tube. And when I inflated it with my fancy CO2 pump, the tire remained flat. Apparently, I had punctured my replacement tube when I installed it. At this point, I was stuck, with no tube, no pump, and a flat tire. I would probably have to wait for hours for the sag wagon to catch up with me because there were a lot of flats along this stretch of road. Team Ireland was sidelined. I was beginning to wonder if they might never catch up with me, and some weeks later, some highway workers would find all that was left of me, my Team Ireland helmet and perhaps a slice of undigested blueberry bread.
I had nearly given up hope when I met Bugcatcher. Bugcatchers, I learned, are lobstermen from Florida. They call their prey bugs for some reason, and I'll remember that before I ever order a lobster dinner. Well, this fellow not only stopped, but changed my tire, sacrificing his only spare tube, and used his low tech but very effective hand pump to put some pressure in my tire. I never met this guy before, but he stopped in a downpour to help someone he did not know at all. In fact, he helped a few people with flats, using only his strong hands (no tire levers) to change tubes. I learned he was a coach with South Florida's Leukemia Team in Training, and he stopped to help a Yankee. Thanks to Bugcatcher, I escaped certain death. I hopped on my bike and scrambled to the next rest stop, Assateague Island.
To get to this island, you have to ride over a bridge, which is pretty high and amounts to the only thing resembling a hill in this century. But as I climbed higher on this bridge, being pelted by rain and bounced by the winds of Tropical Storm Tammy, I was certain I would be blown right the hell off if I didn't go over myself because my eyes had nearly swollen shut. Once again, I escaped the clutches of certain death, where there was a new assortment of health food to sample -- cookies. Being the highly conditioned well trained athlete that I am, I forced myself to eat a few.
At Assateague, I didn't see any of the famous wild horses. They were probably at home, watching Mr. Ed. But I saw something that resembles part of a horse's anatomy -- a bunch of total idiots surfing in the middle of this tropical storm. I thought to myself, "What kind of moron surfs in the middle of a tropical storm?" As I hopped on my bike to leave the rest stop, I nearly ran over a surfer returning to his car in his ridiculous wet suit, which looked suspiciously like a Team Ireland knockoff. We exchanged fierce glares, and then he asked, "What kind of moron rides his bike to Assateague Island in the middle of a Tropical Storm?" This guy obviously doesn't know a highly conditioned well-trained athlete when he sees one. I declined to answer him and rode off, but because my eyes had swollen shut, I rode the wrong way, right into the dunes. I made a dignified circle in the correct direction as the surfer dude taunted, "Pee Wee Herman called. He wants his bike back."
At this point, after about 70 miles, I was beginning to think it might rain all day. But I no longer cared because I knew what was at the next rest stop -- the health food I craved the most -- hot apple pie smothered in vanilla ice cream. I picked up my pace and caught up with Bugcatcher, and we rode together. We were 84 miles into the century, and the rain had turned the ground into a swamp. Your feet just sank as you walked along. But there we stood, several hundred of us, happily eating slice after slice of hot apple (and cherry) pie. And there was another kind of health food -- it's called the "hot dog." Proper nutrition is important to highly conditioned well trained athletes, so I forced myself to eat one, smothered in a peculiar health sauce called mustard.
We were in the home stretch now. Roads had become rivers and gales besieged us, but we were nearly done. I arrived at the finish line around 5 PM, nearly 10 hours after starting. Once I finished, so did the rain and wind.
I've run 8 marathons in my life, but this century was more fun than all of them put together. What I saw, with what little remained of my eyesight, were lots of grins. You could feel the positive energy. I saw that people stopped to help each other throughout this ride. Instead of the "Me first" attitude that leads to most road rage incidents, the prevailing attitude among cyclists, if only during the brief moments of the century, is that we're all in this mess together. Life throws us curves and we can deal with them best if we depend on each other. That's not such a bad lesson. Now excuse me while I have my bathroom scale checked. It says I've gained 40 pounds and all I've had was health food.