About 1,700 bicyclists are expected to descend on the state's roads today for the first leg of a 350-mile tour through Maryland.
The bikers will ride 45 to 70 miles a day in the week-long, sixth annual Cycle Across Maryland Tour. Most riders will camp on designated school fields or in gymnasiums along the route.
For the first time in the tour's history, cyclists will be allowed to ride their bikes across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
The riders will have overnight stops in Largo, Millersville, Centreville, Salisbury and Crisfield, and conclude the trip in Berlin.
LaDonna Smoot, 18, said training for the bike tour has taught her lessons she can apply to life.
"If you don't stay paced, you won't make it," said Miss Smoot, a June graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
She said cycling has taught her to "keep your mind on a goal like it's the finish line."
Miss Smoot is with a group of 19 teen-agers from Baltimore and Montgomery counties participating in the CAM Teen Challenge, a program that uses the physical and mental rigors of long-distance cycling to motivate youths in danger of dropping out of school, according to its director, Don Fair.
Miss Smoot and the other teen-agers have trained together on NTC weekends since April to prepare.
If they complete the tour, they can keep the bikes they are riding which were donated by the Cycle Across Maryland Tour Corp.
"They can earn the bike," said Mr. Fair. "That's the carrot."
For other riders, the carrot is less tangible.
"It's kind of a personal challenge for me," said Tina Richardson, a 35-year-old integrated circuit designer from Silver Spring. "I get a good feeling from completing it."
The good feeling may also be sentimental, since she met her husband, Scott Richardson, during the 1992 CAM Tour. He is a 39-year-old state trooper.
Meeting new people and making friends is one of the best parts of the tour, according to Sue and Jack Peck of Wellsville, Pa.
"It's just a different kind of happening when you sleep with 300 other people in the same room," said Mr. Peck, 58, who will be camping indoors along with his 55-year-old wife.
"You never meet nicer people," said Rod Selig, 38, a machinery mechanic from Pasadena. "The only thing unfriendly about biking are the hills."
Donna Anderson, 46, of Laytonsville and Brian Hillberry of
Severn, both first-time participants, met yesterday at Leonardtown High School when he helped her set up her tent for the first night's sleep-over.
"It's a real good atmosphere," Mr. Hillberry, 30, said. "You just kind of meet friends to survive."
Also helping riders survive will be vehicles following the group to pick up riders who cannot continue.
Ham radio operators riding along, Mr. Hillberry among them, will radio for help in case of emergencies.
Participants each paid a $175 to $200 registration fee.
That does not include meals, and riders must provide their own camping equipment.
The BikeMobile, a moving repair shop, accompanies the tour. The shop will provide free labor, but the cyclists will have to pay for parts, according to BikeMobile owner Bryan Chaney of Woodlawn.
Mike McGee, 43, will have more personal support along the tour. His wife, Diana, 36, will be driving the route all week in a minivan with their children, Mike and Heather. The McGee family plans to meet at the end of each day and stay overnight in motels.
"Meeting these guys at night makes it all that much better," said Mr. McGee, a bicycle shop owner from Pasadena who is riding in his fourth tour.
Hildegarde Bender, who gave her age as not quite 60, said the tour is part of her plan to cycle in all 50 states.
"I want to bike across the country some day, but I can't do that until I retire," said Mrs. Bender, who teaches high school English in Medina, Ohio.
Pasquale Romagna, the tour's oldest rider this year at 79, has a simple strategy for cycling success.
"Just keep going till you come to the finish."