The line to enter the designated parking area snaked around the corner, down the street. Waiting would have put us about 30 minutes behind so we parked nearby in a restaurant lot, already inhabited by cars with bike racks.
My stomach quivered. Anticipating riding the Civil War Century, I was a bit nervous. I’d only done one century ride two years ago, on a relatively flat terrain. This one, organized by the Baltimore Cycling Club, promised steep hills. Though I’d been riding practically every weekend all summer, often 50-60 miles, I hadn’t done 100 miles in one day.
The ride, in its 11th year for the club, begins in Thurmont, Maryland and weaves back and forth across the Catoctin Mountains, (home of Camp David), through scenic state parks and forests, south to the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md and up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania before returning to the start. We were excited to combine history with new geography for cycling. The club offered five rides ranging from 25 to 100 miles; and a bailout at the 63 -mile point, which still required an 11-mile ride back to Thurmont.
We arrived the night before, opting to stay about 20 minutes away outside Frederick. We might have been the only cyclists in the hotel but we weren’t the only athletes. It seemed the entire hotel guest list comprised contenders for the Tough Mudder, scheduled at a farm also the next day. Having a friend who’d recently participated in this extreme obstacle course, designed by British Special Forces, I was familiar with the event, and though appreciate that people enjoy challenges, can’t quite understand the motivation that would send one jumping into ice water, treading through fire, scaling steep walls, or running about 12 miles through mud. With each trip up or down the hotel elevator (only three stories), I met more Tough Mudders, men and women, mostly in their 30s-40s, who marveled when I said we were hoping to cycle 100 miles. Everyone picks their own poison, I guess.
We had every intention of riding the century. We began by 7 am when the course opened. We’d eaten breakfast in our hotel room—hardboiled eggs, oatmeal, fruit and coffee. I had packed some sandwiches and a bunch of fruit energy bars in case the rest stops were crowded or we wanted to snack in-between. We had plenty of water. We figured we could complete the ride by 4 pm. I worried about the weather report that called for heavy rain in the afternoon.
The first 25 miles began with gradual hills and high humidity. There’s great camaraderie on a group ride, suddenly you have a bunch of new best friends. You trade tidbits about where you’re from, the ride conditions, and of course, the weather. And there’s a lot of time with no chatting, especially when climbing uphill.
One long and steady ascent ended at the first rest stop, the Civil War Correspondent’s Memorial, a 50-foot high stone arch erected in 1896. It was a welcomed rest.
The next 25-mile leg seemed much easier. Dense forests provided shade, and muscles now sufficiently warmed, the climbs seemed mellower. We rode through apple orchards, past farms, and enjoyed the panoramic views. We arrived at the 2nd rest stop, within a volunteer fire station, and enjoyed the variety of fresh fruits, along with our sandwiches. Water bottles refilled, we began the third segment.
Along the way, a young woman asked me if I planned to do the entire 100 or opt for the bailout. I said, “if the weather holds, we’ll do the whole thing.”
Then we heard a slight rumble. Thunder.
Then we saw a flash. Lightening.
Minutes later, as we crested a hill, it started to rain. Little drops, no big deal. Then larger drops. Ok, we’ve ridden in the rain before. It’s not fun, but you do what has to be done. Suddenly those drops turned into sheets of hard, driving rain accompanied by fierce winds that moved the water like rivers across the road. I felt my bike lift; I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Soaked in seconds, I dismounted and walked with a few other cyclists. I could barely see in front of me. A bunch of riders were huddled under a tree, I joined them, though why I don’t know. The trees didn’t prevent the rain; there were no farmhouses around to offer hot chocolate and shelter.
After a bit, everyone decided we couldn’t just stay there so we began walking en masse, about 12 of us. Others coming up behind dismounted and the group grew.
The rain and wind subsided enough to ride; we gingerly avoided the bits of fallen tree limbs in the road.
Then the group stopped. A tree had fallen across the road, and we had to carry our bikes across. I wondered if maybe I’d signed up for the Tough Mudder after all.
Back on the bikes, another mile, another fallen tree. This time, we had to crawl under it, angling our bikes on their sides under the trunk.
There was no question about finishing. It seemed forever before we reached the bailout at mile 63. By now the rain slowed, but we were freezing wet and water collects inside bike shoes, without draining.
Our ride completed, about 75 miles instead of 100, I had to have the complementary ice cream offered by the bike club, even in the rain. We returned to the hotel where I stuffed our shoes with crumbled up newspaper to absorb the water, hung up the wet jerseys and shorts, and happily sunk into the hot tub, where a few of the Tough Mudders were already nursing their bruises. We shared stories.
I thought of the Civil War soldiers who fought in all kinds of weather, riding horses across these mountains, camping in tents. No hot tub, no hotel hair dryer to dry boots. I can only wonder what they’d think if they knew the terrain they tread now hosted athletic events like this ride and the Tough Mudder.
We ate in Frederick that night. The county seat, it’s a fun and funky place founded in 1745 by English and German settlers. The next day, not a cloud in the sky, we drove to Gettysburg to ride the route we didn’t do. There’s a 15-mile route for cars, buses and cyclists that brings visitors to the main sites, mostly memorials erected by the many states. It’s sort of a military sculpture garden.
Seeing people dressed in Civil War uniforms and period attire reminded me of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic, , an excellent book that describes the passion people have for the Civil War and the dilemmas it posed.
We’re kind of hooked on this century idea and are looking into one for next year. It’s a fun way to see a different part of the country. I like the idea of one in Maine, that gives free socks when you register, and serves lobster rolls for lunch. After all, it’s all about the food.