Category Archives: Cycling

Taking advantage of a break in the winter weather

As I write this, it’s Sunday the 21st of January.  After some arctic cold that has made it hard to get outside this month, the weather finally changed. This week I could barely contain my excitement at having a weekend with riding conditions warm and dry enough to get outdoors.  I decided to ride in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve near Poolesville, MD.  Then I sent out an invitation to a big group of riders to join me. Now not everyone could make it – some were traveling, some had transportation issues, some were dealing with injuries, and some had other plans, but 6 of us rode together Saturday morning. The temperatures reached into the 50s by the end of the ride, and we took advantage of the break in the weather to take a conditioning ride. The plan was to stay together, pick a direction, and ride without a set plan or a cue sheet.  We call it “cueless and clueless”.  That means we make adjustments to the ride as we go. The goal was 30-40 miles of riding to stretch out our legs.

I’ve ridden in the Ag Reserve many times, but I’ve spent less time there in winter than any other season. The muted colors, and the lines of sight past bare trees and across fields usually obscured from view were a welcome experience. The sense of distance was welcome, and birds that winter in the area were active at the edges of the fields. We chose a direction and changed our minds when it suited us, and we enjoyed the day as we got our miles in.  In the end, it was only a little over 37 miles, and that isn’t much by the standard of later in the year, but for January, it’s a good distance. What was great was our comraderie as we rode.  Since I wanted this to be a “no drop” ride, we stayed together for the most part, and the social part of the ride was terrific. We spent some time afterward talking and celebrating a fun and successful ride.

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Taking a break at the Dickerson Store.  

Today I rode from home. I didn’t go quite as far as I did on Saturday, but I managed to work my legs a little more, and I needed to get another ride in to work the legs more.  Riding alone isn’t quite as fun as riding with friends, but in the end its important to get out and get your legs used to the work.  The only drawback to winter rides is dealing with road salt.  I found quite a bit of it on the down tube of my bike, among other places.  You have to take the time to clean the bike carefully in the winter. In my estimation, the state of Maryland dumps enough salt on the roadways in the winter to thoroughly poison the Chesapeake Bay every year with the salty road runoff. Then they spend the other 9 months of the year trying to keep the Bay clean.  It makes no sense to me, but with any luck, the state will cut back on its road salting habit. In the meantime I hope the weather will continue to be moderate enough to allow me to ride outside.  I prefer riding outside to an indoor workout every time!

 

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Resolutions

Another year, another set of resolutions. It’s very cold outside on New Year’s Day, and despite this, I’ve already started thinking about resolutions. Yes, they involve cycling. That’s because it has a direct effect on my health. The older I get, the more I think that the time I spend on the road cycling with my friends is an investment in a long and healthy life.  As it is, I’m working out in the gym, but eventually the thaw will come, and I’ll be back on the roads, where I feel the most free.

Since life is a precious thing, I’m going to do what I can to improve the quality of my life. So my goal is to continue to ride and celebrate with my cycling friends.  I’d also like to ride at least half a dozen Century rides – and I’m already signed up for the first of them! I’m also going to see if I can find a ride that I haven’t done before to try out this year.

These are modest goals, but they’re achievable, and they’re things I believe in. They’re the kinds of resolutions that make sense to me, and they’re an integral part of the quality of life that I look for.  2018 will be another joyful year if I keep them.

How much does your bike weigh?

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I get this question occasionally. In fact I was asked again recently. The people I ride with don’t ask about these things much, but sometimes new riders or people who know I cycle seriously will ask, and it’s an interesting topic of conversation. Among cyclists, it’s a loaded topic.

The answer in real terms is about 18-19 pounds.  That’s light enough for me. Most people think the bike is very light, particularly when they pick it up. Bike weight is important because you have to overcome the forces that work on you as you pedal.  The classic example is riding up hills.  All other things being equal, the less weight you have to take up that hill, the easier it will be. It has an affect on other aspects of riding as well. So being large means that I have to apply more force to move myself and the bike. Physics can be cruel.

Racers want the lightest possible equipment, but I don’t race. Light weight comes at a price.  The lightest bikes are the most expensive to produce, they are also more fragile because of that weight saving, so a rider as big as I am can ride a superbike, but I  would put some serious strain on it, and unlike top end riders who race on a superbike, I’m far less aerodynamic. Think of it like using an expensive Ferrari supercar to pull a trailer.  You might have the horsepower to do it, but it wasn’t what the car was designed for. So even if I had the money to ride a superbike, I’m hardly the guy to take advantage of the performance gains it may offer.  Having said that, it FEELS nice to ride an expensive bike.  You can’t deny it. So as far as I’m concerned, I think people should ride the nicest bike they can afford.  You’ll want to ride it, and that’s important.

I ride a high quality aluminum framed bike (pictured above). Carbon fiber frames are more expensive, exotic and lighter as a rule, but high end aluminum and low end carbon overlap in price, and even in weight, and high end aluminum is less expensive to produce, so for the same price you can get better components (drivetrain, shifters, brakes) than you can on a carbon frame of similar weight.

My wheels are actually custom – built for strength.  I have no illusions about the utility of low weight components for my riding style.  I rely on power.  Power is torque and strain on my bike.  Material strength is more important to me than weight at this point.

Bike weight doesn’t mean much to me, and my next bike is likely to be heavier than the bikes I currently ride, since I’d like to ride a custom steel bike. Steel is denser than aluminum, so steel frames tend to be heavier, but I’m sure the advantages of a bike built to suit me and my riding style will be worth a little extra bike weight.

 

Big Cycling Events

My first century ride was at the Seagull Century in 2006.  I’ve ridden every Seagull since then, with the exception of 2015 when the event was cancelled due to a hurricane coming up the coast. The Seagull is one of the largest century rides in the US.  There are larger rides, such as the “Hotter than Hell Hundred” in Texas, but the average century ride will have less than 3000 participants, and the Seagull typically draws more than 7000, particularly if the weather is good. It’s a flat ride, and while that presents it’s own challenges, the lack of hills makes it popular to a lot of riders. Big events draw a wide range of people and they create some unusual riding conditions.  You’ll often see both the best and worst of cycling on display at events like the Seagull, and this year was no exception. Big events can be dangerous environments. I have friends that don’t like riding the Seagull.  It’s flat, which means you’re constantly pedaling, not coasting, and it puts stress on your contact points with the bicycle – hands, feet and seat. But it’s also a fun event with a lot of activities and despite the crowds, it can be a great time.

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From left to right: Amy, Carmen, Stephanie, Carol, Myself, John S, John K and Ron at the Assateague Island rest stop during the 2017 Seagull Century.

I have the good fortune to ride with good friends.  We all know the risks we face, and how to minimize them. We communicate well, we ride within the conditions, and we know our limits. This doesn’t come by accident. We have experience that has been hard won and passed among us through stories, lessons and advice over many years. We’re aware of what to do, what not to do, and what to avoid. This year we had a first timer with us. Amy had never ridden a century, but before she started she already had more information about what to expect than most new century riders and many experienced riders.  Even so, she had questions afterward, and they were good questions. Between the experience and the information, I think she has passed the “beginner” phase, because she has the information she needs and the experience to know how and where to apply it.  In this post I’m going to try and relate a few things about the art of cycling, and I should state for the record that my knowledge is not comprehensive, though it is extensive. We’re all still learning.  I’m going to talk a lot about my ride at the Seagull this year, but much of what I’ll relate will apply to large events. They’re unique in many ways. Some of those unique elements are good, and others less so.

There is limited room on the typical road to accommodate cyclists, traffic control can be a thorny problem at big events, and a big event draws everyone from the least experienced newcomer to the seasoned bike racer, and if you’re not aware that there is an art to the game, you won’t learn it at a big event.  The difference in styles between the riders in limited spaces expands the chances for accidents and makes being alert and careful much more important than many riders realize. Many riders, through no fault of their own, make elementary mistakes simply because they’re not used to riding events at all, much less events with so many other people to cope with.  There are places where you can expect to see problems at a big event.  Here are 4 of them:

  • The start
  • The early miles up to the first rest stop
  • Crowds around rest stops
  • The last quarter of the course

This is a common sense list, and it applies to any event, but at a big event like the Seagull Century, problem areas are multiplied by the sheer number of riders. The chance for trouble if you’re not careful is much greater than at smaller events. At the start, riders stand or mill around looking for friends. Some are eager to leave, others are lost, some are looking around for people or frantically calling or texting others to find them. Some are socializing. In short, it can be a maze of distracted people.  My team met before the start, and got going together. It takes some coordination, and we had to slowly make our way from the campus of Salisbury University where we parked to the place where we found open road ahead of us.  Rides are usually “show and go” and many people will leave early to avoid crowds, but some will socialize as they gather, and the chance to get split up or stopped is good. The lesson from experience is to go slow and have a plan.

The early miles of a big ride like the Seagull Century are always tense. Legs are fresh, riders are excited, and adrenaline flows. Some want to complete their ride in 5 hours, some just want to finish. Some ride side by side and talk with their friends, leaving much less room to pass them safely. Others find themselves charging ahead as though they’re racing, forgetting the way they trained and using more energy than they might otherwise. It’s a chaotic time. My friend Carol has a talent for finding open spaces between knots of riders at the start of the Seagull.  We trusted her to find us a clear path, and she rode at a strong pace. Riders begin to string out after a few miles, but there are still an abundance of them. Not everyone will let faster riders pass. Not everyone will pass safely. This year, the first segment of the ride was through a mist or very light rain. That created problems as well. By the first stop, the rain had ended, and the roads were starting to dry.

Rest stops are another trouble spot. They are choke points, with riders slowing and stopping, getting in each other’s way, forming queues for water, food, bathrooms and bike service if it’s available.  Most riders won’t skip a rest stop, and most will charge into the first rest stop while still feeling strong. The general chaos as riders stop and go is common to any rest stop, but the more people, the more chaos.  Getting what you need and starting again without cooling down too much is important. In our case, we had become separated by the first stop, but we managed to regroup, resupply and get out without any delay. When we got going again, there were still a lot of riders on the course with us, but the riders thinned out because of the rest stop congestion. It felt like we had more room to ride in. By this time the riders on shorter courses were also separated from the Century riders, and riders were settling into a pace. Managing rest stops is an art, but if you’re careful, you can make it through even the most congested rest stops without accidents.

In the final miles of a century, riders have usually become so tired that they lose focus. The final 25 miles of the course is another place where you have to pay attention. By this time your body has had to refuel and if you’re not eating and drinking enough as you go, the chances of you losing focus and crashing increase. I heard about a crash that required an ambulance in the final miles. It wasn’t a surprise to me. With a lot of tired riders close to each other, mistakes are easy to make. Thankfully, by the end, the road tends to be more open.

The Seagull gets it’s share of accidents because of the sheer number of riders.  These are usually avoidable. Entering the second rest stop, volunteers asked riders to dismount and cross the train tracks at that point because of large gaps there.  One rider apparently crashed trying to ride over it rather than dismounting. We saw a crash on the road between the second rest stop and Assateague island, with a rider going down after touching wheels with another. One of the riders with the rider who crashed turned his bicycle perpendicular to the direction of travel to look back at her, partially blocking the road. That wasn’t the way to help. Inexperienced riders often make mistakes when riding in the middle of groups, because they seldom train in groups. You have to be careful around them.  Finally, what you’ll find at big events are people who try to draft others without knowing the first thing about drafting or riding etiquette. The pros make drafting look easy. So too many clueless riders think it’s easy.  It isn’t. Neither are these events races. They shouldn’t be approached like one. A lot of riders end up trying to save some energy by wheel sucking – which means they cling like a leech, without saying a word, as if they have a right to be there, or they’re just doing you a favor by riding close behind you without saying a word. They form up lines without a clue as to how fast they’re going, and they sometimes burn out early in the ride – all because they think they know what they’re doing. They’re not interested in pulling you along – only saving energy by following. Do they introduce themselves and ask if it’s okay to ride along with you? No. They think they’re doing fine. The best thing to do is drop them. Ride them off your wheel. I like to show them all the courtesy they show me when they latch on to my wheel without communicating.  Which is essentially none, but you have to understand that most of them are just ignorant. They don’t even realize they’re being rude. Big events like the Seagull concentrate these lost souls.

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At the finish line with John S. We earned our beer!

Despite the dangers, my friends rode well.  We were together for much of the ride, but Amy, Carol and Stephanie all had injuries to care for by the end and we split up and got to the finish in smaller groups. I finished as strong as I could with John, and we all gathered at the beer garden afterward. It was a fun ride, and a good experience with good friends. One thing I have to say for my friends is that we know how to celebrate!

Cycling along the Coast of Maine

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Portland Head Lighthouse

For the third year running, I have gone to South Portland Maine in early September for the Maine Lighthouse Ride. This is a century ride that begins and ends at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, and over the course of 100 miles passes 9 lighthouses as it winds it’s way along the coast from Portland south to Kennebunkport and back again. This ride is the most scenic and enjoyable experience on my cycling calendar.

The ride is gently rolling, and while there are a few climbs that will make you work, the hills are either short ramps or gentle grades and all have corresponding restful descents. The sum total of climbing for this ride is approximately 2600 feet over the course of 100 miles. The average recreational rider can manage this ride with appropriate century training and preparation, and shorter options are available. The ride itself is well supported, with road markings and signs that are easy to follow.  Route maps are available for GPS computers as well. Riders can rent road bikes from bike shops in and around Portland if needed. That’s all the technical information any rider needs; what really sets this ride apart is the scenery and the experience.

The ride begins on the Campus of Southern Maine Community College in view of the Spring Point Ledge lighthouse at the entrance to Portland harbor. Riders go to the Portland Breakwater (Bug) Light, and move away from the waterfront in South Portland along the eastern trail. Riders are asked to start at particular times based on the distance they’re riding to help ease congestion at the start, and there will be some congestion as you ride out, but despite this the early miles will reward you with some fine scenery, and it’s worth the patience required as you go through South Portland.

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At the rest stop in Kennebunkport

Be patient and careful until you find open road where you can safely increase your speed. The ride itself is run by the Eastern Trail Alliance, so it’s no surprise that this century is run on some of it’s trails.  Faster riders will want to get to the front of the pack at the start time, but it pays to be very careful, patient and keep your phone cameras available. Photographers should be very careful not to obstruct other riders when they stop for a photo, since some of the areas you’ll ride through are narrow, particularly in the early miles.

The route continues inland, heading toward the causeway over the Scarborough marshes. This is a two mile section of compacted sand and gravel pathway, and while that might not be easy for narrow road bike tires, (pro tip: make sure your tires are in good condition before you arrive) the surface poses little problem if you ride it at a slow speed (10-12mph). Volunteers will be nearby to help you if you need it. While crossing the marshes, take a moment to notice the water level. You’ll ride through twice, and chances are that tidal conditions in the marshes will have changed by the time you return to cross the causeway again.  After the marshes, the ride takes you to the first rest stop at Old Orchard Beach.

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The beach from Fortune Rocks

The next leg sets out through Old Orchard Beach before heading west through the towns of Saco and Biddeford and into the countryside until you reach Kennebunkport. This marks the southernmost part of the ride. After a stop outside Kennebunkport, riders go through the town and head north along the rocky coast, meandering along around the inlets and marshes. At this point you’re rewarded with views of mansions, harbors, inlets and rocky shores. Shrub roses grow in the sandy soil by the roadsides, and those that aren’t in bloom display a riot of colorful rose hips. The route winds along the coast past Fortune Rocks, back through Old Orchard Beach and across the Scarborough marshes again. You’ll go to Cape Elizabeth, and through Fort Williams Park to Portland Head Light before you return to the start.

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Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse

All along there will be places where you can view and photograph the lighthouses. You might miss one or two if the weather isn’t clear, but they’re out there, and the route passes them. Goat Island Light, Wood Island Light, Cape Elizabeth Light (East & West), Portland Head Lighthouse, and the Ram Island Ledge Light. The coastal scenery never disappoints.

The weather can vary widely. You can expect cool mornings, heat or rain. Southern Maine in early September is on the cusp of a colorful Autumn, and you’ll find the trees starting to turn color in places. Come prepared for differences in temperature between start and finish. You can expect good route markings, good support, and post ride food along with locally brewed craft beer. Portland provides many other distractions – you can browse the shops and restaurants along the Portland waterfront, take a boat ride through Casco Bay, or drive 20 minutes North to Freeport and the L.L. Bean Home Campus to shop the outlet stores. The salt air, the scenery and the fellowship among the riders and volunteers make this a memorable event. Enjoying the coast of Maine by bicycle is a unique and rewarding experience.

Getting Serious

Everyone I know has said it at least a few times, for a variety of wants: “It’s time to get serious about my…”
It’s an all purpose lament that could be brought about by a desire to get in shape, lose weight, save money, change jobs, finish a project, work on a hobby or anything else that we feel the need to accomplish.  I’ve told myself that I’ll get serious about a number of things, and as I have, life has interrupted me.

No sooner did I get cleared to ride again after my surgery than I had a family tragedy.  My father passed away at 83. This was expected, but such news is never welcome. So it was that my time to get back into shape was delayed. Still, when life calmed down I got back on my bicycle in a sincere effort to get back into shape. What I discovered was a pleasant surprise. In the run up to surgery, I discovered that I’m diabetic. That was a shock, but managing it has had a welcome effect: I lost 20 pounds.

My first event after I’d come back, for which I had virtually NO preparation, was the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride. It had been 5 weeks since I’d been on the bike for more than a few short miles.

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Eagle Harbor stop at Pax Legacy.

I wouldn’t have missed that ride for anything, because I love the event, but I was worried about fitness, and I was prepared to ride 40 miles instead of the full 64 simply because I wasn’t sure what I was actually capable of, and even 40 sounded tough. I thought I’d see how I felt.  To my surprise, I felt good. I rode the entire 64 miles and  enjoyed myself.

It seems that two things were actually working in my favor.  The first was the weight loss. 20 Pounds is more than the weight of a modern bicycle.  I haven’t lost all that much strength, so climbing hills was actually not as much of a chore as I might have thought.  The second thing was base mileage.  When you ride consistently, you build up a fitness base. This begins to erode when you have to take time away from your exercise, but it doesn’t completely go away, and building back up isn’t quite as hard as building that base in the first place.  My base miles were still in evidence, so the transition from inactive to riding more serious mileage wasn’t quite as difficult as I thought it would be.

June and July went by without any serious training headaches.  I was slowly building back up, and feeling positive.  Meanwhile some of my friends, who also have had difficult years, were feeling the strain. Where I had lost weight to compensate for my lack of training, they had gained weight due to injuries or circumstance, and were struggling to get back to the fitness level that they had last year.

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Halfway through our ride.

With a cycling trip to Maine coming up in September, as well as other events in the fall, they felt it was time to get serious too.  So it was that we made an effort to get miles under our wheels.  The big test came last weekend on a trip from my friend’s residence in Chevy Chase, across the Potomac into Virginia, (meeting another friend on the way) and cycling up the Washington and Old Dominion trail to Purcellville.  A round trip of 105 miles.  I don’t usually enjoy the W&OD trail.  As a former rail bed, it’s largely straight, and it’s used by a lot of people and can be quite crowded, which is often difficult.  However this time it wasn’t too bad, and we kept a steady pace.  We all ended up feeling better than we thought we would.  It ended up being a good ride.  Unsupported rides are often interesting – you stop when you need to.  This ride was a straight out and back trip – since the trail is straight, it wasn’t the kind of ride I most enjoy, but I did need the miles, and the company was excellent.

At this point, the effect of our getting serious about our mileage has been a test of our fitness and some positive feedback.  In a few weeks, we’ll be riding events we love, and using the time we have until then to get serious about our preparation is starting to give us results.

Two Rivers Century 2016

Today’s ride: The Two Rivers Century is put on by the Wye River Upper School from Centreville, MD. The rivers are the Chester and the Corsica, and this ride has a lot going for it apart from the rivers. While the eastern shore of Maryland is not known for it’s hills, this ride actually finds a surprising amount of rolling terrain, making it one of the more interesting rides on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay. There may be no difficult climbs, but this ride has enough variety to keep it interesting. I didn’t need the small chainring when I rode it, but while it isn’t hilly, it may surprise riders who don’t expect any climbs. Since it is run in late June, there is always the chance that the ride will be hot, so hydration is always a serious consideration. Two Rivers  has a metric century option that would make a good training opportunity for later season rides, and the scenery is a mix of Eastern shore wildlife, farmland, small rivers, parks and beaches. Expect to see a variety of birds. (On the way to the ride, I saw an Osprey with a fish in it’s talons fly over the highway. This is not uncommon on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.) The routes are very well marked, including both painted arrows and signs planted at turning points along the route. This makes Two Rivers a difficult ride to get lost on. One nice feature of this ride is that by the end of it, the rest stops come more frequently. While you can always skip them if you choose to, water stops can be a godsend when it’s hot.

The Experience: This year the Two Rivers Century had excellent conditions. The morning was overcast but clearing; the day was hot but not humid, and while many of my friends didn’t ride it due to other commitments, I still had Ron and Stephanie to ride with. Ron had decided to ride this as the first of back to back centuries, and he planned to stay in the area and ride the “Bay to Bay” century the following day. I was less ambitious, and chose Two Rivers that weekend as my only event. Since the three of us are early risers, and since Centreville is relatively close to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we were able to arrive early. We set up, got our numbers, and got on the road before 7:00 am, mostly so that we could get more of the ride in before it got hot, and partly to avoid crowds. I set out in front, but my pace was a little ambitious for a man who had to ride another century the following day and a woman riding her second century. I sat up a little and we settled into a comfortable pace that ate up miles without eating up the legs. We were remarkably consistent in holding that pace, which is important to riding long distances.  Riders who surge or ride inconsistently tend to wear out. Our constant companion in the first 25 miles was the wind, but it was still cool and we knew that a weather system was coming through. I thought the wind actually decreased a little as we rode on, but we noticed it most at the start. We got to the first stop at Crumpton Park fairly early, having emptied our bottles. We were all drinking steadily as we rode, which is another good idea for riding long distances. We arrived at Betterton Beach on the Chesapeake Bay at 10:30. This stop is at the 42 mile mark, and the sun was out by then. We added ice to our water bottles before we set out again, into the farmland of Kent County Maryland. This section didn’t have much shade, but we kept drinking and held our pace as we crossed over Rte 301 into Millington. The rest stop at 62 miles was the local sporting club – the sportsmen were shooting clay pigeons – and I found myself distracted by greeting the German Shepherd Dog that belonged to one of the volunteers. This reminder of my childhood aside, we had to deal with the heat by this time, though thankfully is wasn’t too humid.  We were coming into a more shaded part of the ride, and that had it’s value to us as well. By this time, the Century and Metric rides had rejoined, so we saw more riders on the course.  We filled up at a water stop at 74 miles, and rolled into Tuckahoe Park at 86 miles with Ron having actually increased our pace slightly to get some separation from other riders. (Note: if you want to join a group of riders you don’t know, ask them if you can join them before you do. It’s polite. Otherwise drafting people you don’t know is both dangerous and annoying to those people whom you’re drafting. In short, if you don’t have friends to ride with, make some on the ride by talking. Drafting without asking is rude.) The final leg of the ride back to Centrerville was warm, but knowing we were on the last leg of our century kept us on pace. The prospect of the post ride beer and the enjoyment of an excellent day lifted our moods as we arrived at the finish at the Centreville town square. We collected our shirts and headed to the Crab Deck on Kent Island to celebrate.  This was a great day and a nearly flawless ride. The only thing that could have improved it was more friends to share it with.

Selections from my mental iPod during the ride: “Cry Love” by John Hiatt, “Political” by Spirit of the West, and “Boots or Hearts” by The Tragically Hip.

Stats: 100.12 Miles ridden, the way century rides should be – consistent and enjoyable.

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At Betterton Beach, 42 miles in. Ron needs a beer. Is that why he isn’t smiling?

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Tuckahoe State Park at Mile 86 – Closer to beer. Ron is threatening to crack a smile…

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Post ride. Not much of a smile from Ron, but we’re all satisfied after a great ride!