FROSTBURG -- At 8:30 this morning, more than 1,000 cyclists will begin pedaling toward College Park in the fourth annual First National Bank Cycle Across Maryland(CAM) Tour.
This year's six-day, 350-mile tour is the most challenging since the inaugural event in 1989. The tour will conclude next Saturday afternoon in College Park.
The college town-to-college town route ambles through the Allegheny, Blue Ridge and Catoctin mountain ranges with stops in Flintstone, Hancock and Middletown before it leaves the Appalachians for Winfield, Olney and College Park.
It is a marked departure from last year's tour, which began in Solomons and followed a low-elevation course that kept the Chesapeake Bay to the rider's right all the way to the finish line in Easton.
Cycle Across Maryland's executive director, Pat Bernstein, said that the more difficult course is an attraction.
"Cyclists are attracted because it's more difficult. People who are into cycling like the hills," she said.
Yesterday was registration and orientation day on the campus of Frostburg State University. The activities took place in a pesky rain that gave participants a chance to run through their inclement-weather drills.
The day had the tone of a festival, with cyclists from the previous tours renewing friendships, musicians performing in the background and merchants selling goods. Rain gear drew the eye of unprepared entrants.
Some cyclists arrived aboard a specially chartered MARC train that departed from College Park, taking the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad's route.
Despite the routine of sleeping in tents, rising early in the morning and riding an average of 50 miles a day, some consider this week a separation from the mundane.
"I did it last time and it was the best vacation I've ever taken,"
said Dale Johnson of Rising Sun.
"I'm from Iowa and I never rode in RAGBRAI [the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Iowa]. I'm a conductor and I'm taking a group to Italy, and we start rehearsing Aug. 3. So I felt I needed a break," said Kerry Krebill of Bethesda, who conducts the Alexandria (Va.) Choral Society.
The highlight for many participants will be the second leg of the race. Despite being half the average distance of each leg of the tour, this 25-mile segment will cross three major obstacles -- Polish Mountain, Town Hill and Sideling Hill -- with climbs of 1.5, 1.1 and 2.4 miles, respectively.
Those choosing the better part of valor may elect a 60-mile detour from the official route that avoids the mountains by traveling the C&O Canal to Hancock and includes the Paw Paw Tunnel.
Accommodations for cyclists range from tents to school gymnasium floors to bed-and-breakfasts. Community groups at the end of each leg will provide morning and evening meals to those who purchased meal plans.
This year's entrants more than double the number of cyclists who pedaled in the first CAM-Tour in 1989.
The Cycle Across Maryland tour will stray into Pennsylvania on the first leg's route to Flintstone and into West Virginia during the third leg to Middletown.
On the tour's final day, entrants will cycle into Washington, D.C., on Rock Creek Parkway, pass the White House and rise out through the Northeast quadrant to reach College Park.
This year's tour will emphasize Western Maryland history. Organizers have noted such landmarks as the National Pike, C&O Canal, Antietam Battlefield and Catoctin Furnace in their guidebooks.
As part of the tour, the "CAM Teen Challenge" pairs "at-risk" students from Baltimore and the Eastern Shore with cycling mentors, who have helped the youngsters train since April. Organizers hope that participation in the event will have a positive effect on the youths.
Proceeds from this week's event will benefit a bicycle helmet distribution program for 1,200 elementary school students in Maryland.