Eastern Shore becomes `bicycling mecca'

7,000 to ride this weekend in the Sea Gull Century

October 12, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- Lured by flat terrain, small towns and picturesque scenery -- not to mention a boatload of pie a la mode -- 7,000 riders are expected to converge here today for a bicycling weekend that has taken on a life of its own.

In 14 years, the bike ride that began as a low-key outing for Salisbury University students, faculty and staff has turned into the Sea Gull Century, the biggest 100-miler on the East Coast.

The way Jim Phillips remembers it, he just about died that first time, pedaling his way through 50 miles of countryside on a lark dreamed up by a bunch of fitness-minded colleagues.

But they all had so much fun, they decided to double the distance and do the whole thing in cooler fall weather.

"That first one was on a long July Fourth weekend," recalls Phillips, Salisbury's security chief. "There were eight or 10 of us who work out regularly on our lunch break, and we figured it was a natural for a 100-mile ride, a century ride. It gave us a good excuse to train every day. Somewhere along the line, we named it after the university mascot."

The event has become a seasonal boon for the tourist industry, pumping $2.5 million into the local economy every October, according to the university's economic development research group.

This weekend, hotel rooms in Salisbury and elsewhere in Wicomico and Somerset counties are booked solid. Restaurants will be overflowing and some bicyclists and their families are staying as far away as Cambridge, Easton and Ocean City.

Those with prime rooms close to the starting and finish line at the university, or in posh inns elsewhere in the region, booked them well in advance.

Theresa and Edwin Kraemer, who own the Waterloo County Inn near Princess Anne, say repeat guests reserve the weekend at the six-room, circa-1750 bed-and-breakfast a year in advance. "This weekend, we could book 50 rooms if we had them," says Edwin Kraemer.

Rated by several bicycling magazines as among the top 10 events in the country, the Sea Gull has the topography a rider loves.

"That's it for everybody -- it's flat," says Mike Klasmeier, program director for the League of American Wheelmen. "It's been described as a corn/soy bean/corn ride because that's what you see a lot of. But it's a beautiful ride."

In fact, the Sea Gull is two rides. One is a traditional 100-mile route that starts and ends at Salisbury University and includes a scenic circle around the Pocomoke River State Forest, Assateague State Park, Berlin's historic downtown district and acres of fertile farmland.

The second is a 64-mile (100-kilometer) course that features river scenery as well as the leafy campus of the event's co-host, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

"This really is a bicycling mecca," says Buzz Carragher, a self-described "old man" of the sport who has owned Salisbury Cycle and Sport since 1976. "It's flat, traffic is sparse, it's beautiful."

Another reason for the Sea Gull's success, say Carragher and others, is the organization of the event, which its sponsors have honed to a science over the years.

Riders still talk about the string quartets that have played at rest stops along the route. And few are likely to pass up the ice cream and pie -- 182 gallons of ice cream and 790 apple and cherry pies that will be trucked by the university's food service department -- at two rest stops this year.

The event pretty much pays for itself and raises $30,000 for Habitat for Humanity and Helmets for Kids. Many riders also arrange pledges for donations to charities by soliciting their own sponsors for the ride.

The ride -- not a race, sponsors note, although hard-core cyclists can do 100 miles in about four hours -- has become almost too popular.

The logistics have become more complicated, dependent on dozens of volunteers who work at information stations and rest areas, drive support vans or handle registration. Worrying about the safety of riders and inconvenience for local drivers on narrow back roads, Sea Gull officials have cut off registration at 7,000.

Salisbury University officials have sometimes groused that the event doesn't involve enough students, but organizers say the Sea Gull gives thousands of visitors, many of them from Baltimore and Washington, their first glimpse of the 144-acre campus that is registered with the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta.

"This might be the largest century ride in the country, certainly in the mid-Atlantic," says Phillips. "We've had so many people who wind up sending their kids here for college after seeing the place on the ride. We hear that year after year."

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