SALISBURY -- What began five years ago as a 100-mile training ride for serious cyclists unexpectedly drew some 3,500 riders from 24 states and Canada yesterday -- and experienced its first fatality.
A 52-year-old cyclist from Severn died of multiple head injuries after apparently pedaling past a stop sign and striking the side of a moving Ford Explorer on a rural road west of the Salisbury-Wicomico County Regional Airport, police said.
State police said Charles F. MacDonald Jr. died after the accident at Mount Hermon Church and Ward roads shortly before noon as he rode on the last leg of the tour.
About two-thirds of the riders in yesterday's Sea Gull Century tour opted to try finishing the 100-mile route; the rest followed a "metric century" route covering 100 kilometers, about 62 miles.
Police said Mr. MacDonald was cycling alone and that no one witnessed the accident, which occurred in a rural part of Wicomico County.
Trooper Robert Burnett, who investigated the accident,
speculated that Mr. MacDonald may not have been aware of the oncoming truck because he was wearing a small radio and earphones. The Anne Arundel County rider was pronounced dead at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury.
No charges were placed against the Explorer's driver, Margaret Elizabeth Wilde, 24, of Salisbury.
Yesterday's fatality was the first serious accident in the five-year history of the Sea Gull Century bike tour, which is sponsored by Salisbury State University.
"This incident is very sad, but we do know that bicycle accidents are part of the risk that people take," said tour organizer Joe Gilbert. "We try hard to educate everyone who comes here about safe cycling and obeying traffic law. We're all greatly disheartened."
Despite the fatality and a number of mishaps resulting in scraped knees and bent spokes, yesterday's Sea Gull Century tour proved one thing about bicycling on Maryland's low-lying Eastern Shore.
"Flat's not boring," said Mr. Gilbert. "We have beautiful scenery here and most people love this." Testimony to that included motels in the Salisbury area being fully booked days ahead of time, he said. Late registrants were being referred as far away as Ocean City for lodging.
For most of the 3,500 cyclists -- a record crowd for the tour -- yesterday's 100- and 62-mile rides meant cruising past stretches of pumpkin patches, soybean fields and loblolly pines on a day that was forecast gray and wet but turned out sunny.
Although it was not a race, a handful of "hammerheads," or fiercely competitive cyclists, managed to make the 100-mile back roads trip through Wicomico and Worcester counties in just over four hours.
Carey Steelman, a reed-thin Denton cyclist who attends Salisbury State, was the first to hit the red carpet laid out at the finish line in front of the campus athletic center.
Despite having to change a flat tire 40 miles into the tour, his time of four hours, five minutes could not be topped by anyone. A few minutes after Mr. Steelman dismounted from his bike, older brother Kelly, who lives in Gettysburg, became the second cyclist to finish.
For others, such as Becky Allmon of Columbia, the tour began on two wheels but ended on four. Just as she and a dozen other cyclists were about to reach the first rest stop along the Pocomoke River, the rider in front of her went down.
"All of a sudden, people were toppling over each other," she said. "I went over the guy in front of me. We all ended up in kind of a pile."
With one of her knees bruised and bleeding and a wheel rim bent, she pulled out of her first cycle tour and returned to %J campus in a van.
Kevin Conrad, a cyclist from Annapolis making his first Sea Gull tour, arrived at the rest stop with a cut knee and elbow after colliding with his friend, Ray Skowronski.
Bloodied but undeterred, Mr. Conrad took the spill in stride as he waited for a repair crew to inspect his bike.
"You're going 20 to 25 miles per hour. You've got to expect things like this," he said.
Tour organizers anticipated a crowd for this year's event after Bicycling magazine named the Sea Gull Century one of the nation's 10 best rides. But even Mr. Gilbert, a university vice president, who with a small group of local cycling enthusiasts helped start the original ride five years ago, was surprised to see a throng nearly twice the size of last year's 1,800 riders.
"I was hoping we'd have a nice turnout some day," he said. "This is a little bit beyond our expectations."
There was no reason for riders to start the day hungry. The Salisbury State dining staff, alerted that cyclists like to gorge themselves with carbohydrates, had plenty of food on hand, including 2,000 pounds of bananas, 9,000 fig newtons and almost 12,000 cookies, muffins and bagels.
An hour before yesterday's 8 a.m. start, tour officials ran out of the 3,300 rider-identification cards they had printed for participants. By the time the ride had begun, another 200 cyclists had joined the pack.
Cyclists showed up with the latest in touring equipment, including bikes that ranged in price from $500 to $3,000. Riders mounted tandems and recumbents, and three college students were seen on roller blades.
Jeff and Elizabeth Toretsky, of Silver Spring, arrived with a two-seater pulling a small trailer or "bugger." Inside was their 8-month-old son, Daniel, along for his first cycle tour.
The Toretskys pedaled the first 22 miles of the ride with Daniel as their passenger before turning him over to his aunt.
"He did great," Mrs. Toretsky said. "After the first half-hour, he fell asleep."