Shore Girds For Invasion Of 'Spokeheads'

October 08, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

SALISBURY -- It is officially called the Sea Gull Century, a looping bike ride through the rural flatlands of Wicomico and Worcester counties that aficionados tout as one of the top

100-mile tours in the United States.

But to some cheeky locals, today's arrival of up to 4,000 hard-core two-wheelers intent on pedaling the course signifies something different -- the climax of the annual invasion of the Eastern Shore by "spokeheads."

Cyclists from more than two dozen states, the District of Columbia and Canada are signed up to crowd Salisbury State University's campus for the start of a back-roads tour past golden corn fields, dark woods and the pony-trampled sands of Assateague Island.

Dressed from head to toe in bicycle apparel and their bellies filled with high-carbohydrate energy foods, many of the cyclists will be trying their first 100-mile course. For those not up to the demands of 100 miles, a metric century, or 63-mile, tour will be laid out.

"A century ride is kind of the monumental achievement for bike riders," said Joseph K. Gilbert, university vice president and the tour organizer.

As the popularity of bicycling has grown in the last two decades, the appeal of the Eastern Shore's flat terrain has found new devotees for a simple reason. "It's easier than riding uphill," said Gil Clark, executive director of the Baltimore-based League of American Bicyclists (LAB). "Some people love hills and some people hate them. If you're one of the people who hate hills, you'll like the Shore."

Riding bikes on the Eastern Shore is so common during warm-weather months that stores along the most popular routes cater to cyclists by offering quick-fix bicycle repairs as well as cold drinks and snacks. One church in Talbot County puts out a container of water in its front yard especially for thirsty riders. The two-wheeled tourists are a boon to some businesses. The Sea Gull Century, for example, will fill all 1,000 hotel and motel rooms in Salisbury, making the tour the city's biggest single-day event.

So many people preregistered for this year's tour that room bookings overflowed to Princess Anne, Cambridge, Pocomoke City and Ocean City, said Lewis Carman, Wicomico's director of tourism.

But not everyone on the Eastern Shore is pleased with the arrival of "spokeheads," an irreverent term for helmet-topped riders who wear tight-fitting Lycra outfits -- called "sausage pants" by locals -- and who frequently slow down motor traffic by pedaling in the middle of the lane.

"I think the bicyclists are perceived as being rude and having an unfriendly attitude," said Helen Chappell, a Talbot County writer who lives near part of a popular bicycling route that runs from Easton, through Oxford, across the Tred Avon River and up to St. Michael's.

In a local-theater production of Ms. Chappell's stories set in the fictional Eastern Shore town of Oysterback, local characters drew chuckles from audiences when they advocated an open hunting season on bike riders.

Ms. Chappell said sentiment against the riders is commonplace among her friends, whose customary xenophobia -- anybody not born on the Eastern Shore is considered a foreigner -- has found a new target.

Bicyclists, she said, wear funny clothes, spend more money on their equipment than some locals do on pickup trucks (high-tech bikes can cost between $3,000 and $4,000) and gawk at the countryside. "We should go over to Potomac or Roland Park or whatever hole they come from," she said, "and I think we should drive around their neighborhoods and make snide comments about how charming and urban everything is."

Kathy Pusey, office manager for the Salisbury State University public relations department, said riders in previous Sea Gull Centuries made her nervous when they passed by.

"You have to be extra careful as a motorist," she said. "You wonder why they have to ride in the middle of the road."

She said the tour won't bother her this year. By what she called "a happy coincidence," she will be away today on a boating trip.

Mr. Gilbert, who accepts criticism of bike riders good-naturedly, said Sea Gull Century participants are reminded to bicycle safely and courteously. This year's event will let riders begin the course anytime they like, a new feature that Mr. Gilbert said should ease the congestion experienced at the starting line in past tours.

No large tour is completed without a few mishaps, with the most common problems being bike-on-bike pileups resulting in bloodied knees and bent rims. Last year a rider was killed during the last leg of the Sea Gull Century when he apparently pedaled past a stop sign and struck the side of a moving vehicle.

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