If you're going to stand around a hotel lobby wearing spandex bicycle shorts and overlong shirts with pockets on their backsides, you might as well do it with a bunch of people dressed exactly the same way so the hotel employees will be the ones who look silly.
Comfort in numbers may be the reason that Bike Virginia attracted more than 500 riders this year, only the third year of this bicycle tour's existence. Another reason, said tour director Alan Turnbull, of Williamsburg, is that Bike Virginia did a better job of letting riders like me know it was there.
Bike Virginia is a nonprofit tour through parts of the Old Dominion, and this year's event was the largest by about 400 riders. "We hope to have 1,000 riders next year," Turnbull said.
Such numbers reflect the growing popularity of bicycle touring. An Iowa tour, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and known by its acronymn RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), is in its 18th year and will have about 7,500 riders when it starts a one-week, 495-mile run on July 22. More than 6,000 were turned away.
Many other states also have tours. "Cycle Across Maryland," scheduled for Aug. 5-11 this year, will start in Havre de Grace and end a week later in St. Mary's City. Hundreds of riders are expected.
Bike Virginia lasted five days, from June 23 through June 27. We pedaled from New Market to Front Royal to Leesburg to Warrenton to Fredericksburg to Ashland. The route, on paved back roads, covered almost 300 miles, more than that for those who chose on the third day to take the longer, 104-mile option. That is called riding "a century," and is one of bicycling's manhood (or womanhood) tests. I chose the 55-mile alternative.
We crossed the Shenandoah River and the Rappahannock River and various tributaries of both; we climbed two rather difficult mountains and a sometimes seemingly endless number of lesser obstacles; we saw some of a beautiful state's more spectacular scenery; we saw development pushing hard at the fringes of the Washington area; and we had absolutely splendid weather that just began to turn hot and sticky on the final day. The temperature never topped 85 and many of us were sitting by the pool by the time it really got hot.
More than half the riders spent the nights in campgrounds; the rest of us stayed in hotels. We almost overwhelmed the food-providing capabilities of several of the communities along the way, but they managed. Chambers of Commerce, church groups, United Way volunteers and volunteer firehouses set up rest stops and watering holes, and profited therefrom.
A typical day's ride started at 8 a.m.; most of us were off the road by 2 p.m., after an extended lunch break. There were riders from 30 states in ages ranging from their low teens to their low seventies, but about half of the riders were from Virginia, including many from Northern Virginia.
George and Marylyn Mathison, of Hendersonville, N.C., were riding one of the five or six tandem bicycles. This one was a bit unusual because the handlebars were fitted with a basket, which was fitted with a canopy that provided shade for Muffin, a toy Manchester terrier.
The Mathisons ride a tandem, Marylyn Mathison said, "because that way we can't get lost from each other. It's an equalizer."
A tandem is "more efficient, it goes faster," said George Mathison, a retired tool and die maker. And indeed, especially on downhill stretches where the weight of two people on one bicycle creates considerable motion, the Mathisons were swift. They crisscrossed the United States in 1987 on that bicycle, they said, and rode 4,581 miles. Muffin went along in the basket.
Eddie Atkinson, of Virginia Beach, was riding in his third Bike Virginia. "I've always ridden a bike," he said. "Bicycling got real technological and I like that stuff, and it's good exercise."
Today's bicycles are a far cry from the fat-tired Schwinns of old, with their single-speed rear hubs and coaster brakes. Atkinson's Centurion had carbon fiber tubes, the best in the new pedals that lock onto the new shoes, and a spiffy set of gears. Bicycles with up to 21 different gears were common.
Most of the Bike Virginia riders were on touring bicyles, the kind that have thin tires and "dropped" handlebars; a few, including myself, rode the mountain bikes that have become so popular in recent years but are really too heavy and too big-tired to be efficient over a 50- to 60-mile day. On a long mountain grade, however, they have their advantages.
There were occasional annoyances. I was climbing a hill south of Purcellville in Loudoun County. Four children -- two boys and two girls, the oldest of whom couldn't have been more than 6 -- were playing on a bluff above the road.
"Any pretty girls in your group?" one of the boys shouted.
I told him there were a lot of pretty girls.
Atkinson, who was riding behind me, laughed. One of the little girls hurled a rock at him, just missing.
Atkinson passed me, and not for the last time.
The most serious accident occurred in the first 15 miles of the first day, on an old covered bridge near New Market. The bridge was at the bottom of a hill, and most riders tended to approach it at fairly high speed, 20 mph or more. One man fell and fractured his wrist; another dislocated a shoulder; and at least two other people suffered scrapes and bruises after falling on the wet wooden planking.
There was a giant pothole on a Fauquier County road, concealed in a pattern of sun and shade, that collapsed one rider's front wheel when he hit it. He was bruised and shaken, but got up and built a stick structure around the pothole to warn the rest of us.
There were an uncounted number of lesser spills. Almost everybody, aware of the statistics that show most serious bicycle head injuries happen to people who do not wear helmets, wore a helmet.
It was assumed if you signed up for Bike Virginia that you could handle a 50- to 60-mile day, and most people seemed able to do that, although at widely varying speeds. I had no trouble the first day, but was exhausted at the end of the second, probably because I wasn't sufficiently careful about drinking lots of water. I had no trouble the rest of the way, but the route got flatter and easier as the days went on. This was my first tour, but I have been riding for about five years and I stepped up my weekly mileage considerably in the two months preceding the tour and took a couple of 50-mile rides to make sure I wouldn't embarrass myself.
Riders paid a registration fee of $90; of that, $10 went to United Way. Investors Savings Bank of Richmond provided an undisclosed amount of money to underwrite the tour and help throw a party at Mill Park in Fredericksburg on the last night.
Riders purchased their own food and paid for their hotel rooms if they stayed in hotels. Bike Virginia staffers trucked the luggage between campsites and hotels, made sure the rest stops had water and marked the routes with distinctive yellow signs that made it easy to stay on course without having to do extensive map reading.
Bike Virginia monitors also followed along in vans to pick up cyclists who just couldn't continue and to provide emergency road service for major breakdowns. Most riders carried tire repair kits and pumps so they could fix their own flats.
Most riders followed the rules of the road, but there were the inevitable jerks who rode abreast at great danger to themselves and their fellows, ran red lights in Front Royal and insisted on stopping in the middle of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail between Purcellville and Leesburg without first giving a hand signal to warn the dozens of bikers behind them. You can see the same thing every weekend on the Mount Vernon trail.
John and Katie Hunnicutt, of Arlington, were among the many couples riding. They had taken bicycle tours in France, "where we were a little more coddled," John Hunnicutt said. This trip, Katie Hunnicutt said, convinced her that it was time to see more of America. "We went through countryside on this tour that would match anything we've seen in Europe," she said.