>By Barry M. King Reprinted courtesy of Delmarva Quarterly
Peter Batchelor, a septuagenarian with a five-year-old knee, rode his bike 140 miles across English countryside some 57 years ago and he’s been cycling distances ever since. Debbie Hammert, mother of three, is in training for her first 100-kilometer ride. Both will be among an estimated 6,000 participants riding in the 17th annual Sea Gull Century on Saturday, October 8.
Sponsored by Salisbury University, the Sea Gull Century is the biggest cycling event in the Mid-Atlantic, according to Bob Carson, past vice president of the League of American Bicyclists and veteran of many Sea Gull rides. The flat terrain, low-traffic back roads and great hospitality have contributed to the event’s popularity.
The inaugural Sea Gull Century in 1989 boasted 68 riders, most of whom were members of the University’s bike club. In spite of its tremendous growth the Sea Gull maintains “an excellent reputation for being a well-run event,” said Carson.
Nowhere is this more evident than at rest stops scattered along the way. Cyclists can chow down on treats like pie and ice cream to replenish their carbs while listening to live bands that restore their spirits for the next leg of the ride. “It’s these seemingly small touches that always generate rave reviews and promises to return,” said Amy Waters, event coordinator.
Participants test their endurance on either the full 100-mile century or the 63-mile "kilometer century) route. “Both are popular, with about three-quarters of the riders doing the longer circuit,” said Waters, who directs an army of over 100 volunteers, many of them University students.
Talk with Sea Gull Century veterans and picturesque scenery is high on their list of attractions. “Cycling through the Delmarva Peninsula when the morning sun is breaking through the mist is something one does not easily forget,” said Batchelor, a semi-retired professor from North Carolina State University, who will be riding in his seventh Sea Gull event.
Century riders travel across open country roads as well as through the primeval Pocomoke State Forest. They pause on Assateague Island to drink in a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and, finally, rest in the shade of mature cypress trees at the pristine Adkins Mill pond, its vine-covered mill a reminder of a by-gone century.
Hammert’s husband, Mark, riding in his 10th Sea Gull Century in his quest to capture the 1,000-mile flag, agrees. “The charm and beauty of the Eastern Shore make seven or eight hours of riding worth it.”
Hammert will have the benefit of her husband’s experience. He rode in his first Sea Gull wearing tennis shoes, a sweatshirt and their son’s helmet. Only later did he find out he had worn the helmet backwards.
“Everyone was giving me funny looks and pointing at me during the ride, and I had no idea why,” laughed Mark.
He persuaded his wife to attempt the century in part because the event has always fallen on or near their wedding anniversary. So this year the Hammerts will celebrate their 25th by sharing the tranquil beauty of Eastern Shore vistas. But each will have his and her helmets, donned correctly, vows Mark.
The Hammerts, from Woodbine, MD, are one of many husband-wife teams riding together this year. John and Jeanne Fisher are traveling from Mount Prospect, IL, for their first Sea Gull Century. John’s first century ride ever and Jeanne’s second, they were convinced by friends who have done the Sea Gull to try because, “the ride is flat, relatively easy for a century and also quite beautiful,” said John. Since both are busy professionals and John does a lot of traveling, they have found riding together a means of “getting away from it all and also getting some exercise.”
Cycling isn’t always romantic. The Fishers’ training routine includes waking at 5:30 a.m. on weekends for a 16-mile ride along the banks of the Chicago River to the Chicago Botanical Gardens. There they enjoy a light breakfast before returning home. Their training was suspended for two months, however, when Jeanne suffered a fall from her bike in May, breaking both arms.
The rider who may be traveling the greatest distance to participate this year is Bryce Rhymer, a resident of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The 69-year-old , who has ridden in various centuries for 20 years, is returning for his third Sea Gull ride. He is drawn back by “the excitement and feeling of being part of a large cycling group like the Salisbury event.”
Delmarva’s reputation is growing as a premier East Coast cycling destination. Counting centuries and charity fundraising rides, at least 15 organized cycling events are scheduled throughout the Peninsula from Dover, DE, to Nassawadox, VA, between April and October this year. Many are attracting record numbers, said Carson. In addition, smaller touring groups sojourn on the Shore from early spring through late fall.
The increase in popularity of cycling Delmarva in the past five years has prompted the Wicomico County Convention and Visitors Association to develop bike touring packages with local hotels, according to Sandy Fulton, director of tourism. As part of this effort, bike trail maps of the Lower Shore for routes ranging from eight to 100 miles have been created and are available online at www.wicomicotourism.org.
Adding up to a boon for the regional economy, the Sea Gull Century alone brings in almost $1.5 million spent on food, lodging and assorted services, according to Memo Diriker, director of BEACON, the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University.
Batchelor again looks forward to riding in the Sea Gull Century. “It is truly an exciting and memorable event. Just think about it—where else can you get a sense of camaraderie, have fun, keep fit, and at the end of the ride hear some great music and drink a beer or two?”
“I intend to ride as long as I can,” said the 71-year-old, who still takes regular 75-mile summer jaunts from his North Carolina home in Raleigh to Lake Gaston. He is currently shopping for the same model road bike used by Lance Armstrong, whom he considers a great American hero. Batchelor, of course, offers his own brand of inspiration.
Barry M. King is a freelance writer who lives in Salisbury. "