Off the beaten track, with friends and family

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Getting close enough to the land to smell it. Being face to face with deer. Noticing the shapes of the flowers in fields you usually speed past. Spending time with three generations of your family without once hearing: "What do you want to do now?"

That's what cyclists like Chris Shocklee Sr. might tell you when you ask why they would ride 300 miles in the July heat across Southern Maryland - or why he'd take a similar tour 12 years in a row, racking up mileage equivalent to biking from Baltimore to Los Angeles.

This weekend, riders as young as 8 and as old as 75 will take that 300-mile ride through Southern Maryland in the annual Carrollton Bank Cycle Across Maryland bike tour. With stops in such spots as Lusby, Pomfret, Upper Marlboro and Friendship, this year's 12th annual tour covers 50 miles a day for six days, starting Saturday. About 1,000 cyclists are expected to join the ride.

What keeps riders like Shocklee and his kin coming back after all those years and miles?

"When you leave before dawn, you see the sun rising over the fields out there, the mist coming up," says his son, Chris Shocklee Jr.

"Maybe a field of buttercup or mustard seed plants, a whole huge meadow of gold flowers," says his father, 72, of Olney. "You're out there away from cars, away from everyone else. You're almost a part of the landscape.

In the nine years he's taken the tour, he's seen buffalo, emus and llamas grazing and sometimes stopping to peer over the fence to watch the riders.

One morning, "it was real misty," Shocklee Sr. recalls of one morning's ride near Bowie. "All you could see was the silhouettes of the horses and the riders going around the [race] track. I'll always remember that sight." While many veteran riders start thinking about the tour a few months in advance, there are often newcomers who sign up on the first day.

"Strangely enough, there are a lot of people who have just decided a few days before that they want to ride," says Pat Bernstein, CAM's executive director. "You think you would be daunted by cycling 50 miles a day, but I know people who are not. They know cycling is kind to the body and they come with their bikes, ready to go."

Riders wake up each morning of the tour in the type of accommodation they choose - a school or university gym, their own tent or a hotel.

They eat lightly and often, snacking on bagels, fruit and fig bars, taking care to drink before they're thirsty. Every 10 miles there's a break for water or a snack.

The Shocklees find themselves taking a more leisurely pace when 5-year-old Elizabeth Shocklee joins the ride. Her father and grandfather alternately pull her trailer on their bikes.

"We tend to stop a little more frequently at lunch stops or playgrounds," Shocklee Jr. says. "It's more of a family outing than a real focused bike ride."

Even for riders familiar with the area, the tour can offer a new perspective on the landscape.

"In my work as a commercial real estate broker, I've covered every major highway in the state," says Bill Saxon, who at age 75 will be the oldest cyclist on this year's tour. "The nice thing about the CAM tour is we're always on backroads, which is so pleasant."

Riders travel two abreast, so a tour of 1,000 bikers poses an interesting sight for passers-by. Cyclists ride at their own pace. Thus, Shocklee Sr. and his son can pull Elizabeth at about 14 mph while his nephew, Joe Cluen, can speed down the "pace line" at 22 mph.

Saxon, who will ride with his 22-year-old grandson Ethan Saxon, stressed that for most involved, the ride is not a race.

"I should not be able to keep up with a young man like that," he says. "It's not a problem for him to go ahead at his own pace and meet me in the evening. I meet a lot of friends on the way."

Many tour veterans are regular riders. Shocklee Sr. rides at least 40 to 50 miles every weekend.

But Chris Shocklee Jr. was a novice to bicycling two years ago when he started training for the 1998 ride.

"The primary component ... is psychological," he says. "Physically, anyone riding for a couple months could probably do it if they're able to keep themselves focused."

CAM began offering training sessions twice a week through LifeBridge Health and Fitness in Baltimore early this month. But professional training isn't necessary.

"A lot of people say to me, 'Gee, I'd like to do it, but I can't get in shape,' " says Saxon, who jogs regularly with his wife. "Well, if you have one hill nearby, go up and down it, and there's your training."

Novice or seasoned rider, a sense of achievement often crowns the week after miles of sweat and effort.

"It gives you a very real sense of accomplishment, that you can go out and ride 100 miles in one day," Shocklee Jr. says. "It's something you can take with you, see other things you attempt more positively. Physically, it makes you feel good too."

That's not to say the ride is heavenly. The last week in July is often one of the hottest in the summer. But storm or heat wave notwithstanding, the riders head for the next town. For bike or health problems, the CAM crew follows the riders in vehicles dubbed "sag wagons."

Riders are often glad to relax at the tour's host sites, indulging in a light misting of water and massages. Often, local citizens are just as happy to see them - especially in smaller towns where the population isn't much larger than the number of riders they're accommodating. Local fire departments ensure that the town has enough water for the cyclists.

When the tour stopped in Federalsburg one year, townspeople unpacked their holiday decorations and declared the day Christmas in July.

For the night's entertainment, riders could play a sort of human bingo. The football field was divided into numbered squares on which people placed their bets. Then an airplane carrying a Santa Claus and two elves flew overhead. Whoever chose the square where the parachuting North Pole crew landed won a prize.

"That was the kind of entertainment us city slickers had never seen before," Saxon says.

Riders can also opt for off-the-road entertainment provided during the tour, including crab feasts, historic house visits, a talent contest and an estuary research tour.

Crossing different parts of Maryland each year gives tour veterans a chance to become intimate with relatively small parts of the state.

Shocklee Sr., for instance, keeps an eye out for a 400-year-old white oak near St. Michael's and the cuttings from that tree that grow in different parts of the state.

"I keep up with the progress of that tree," he says. "It was 2 feet when I began. It's grown up about 8 feet tall now."

Signing up

It's not too late to sign up for Cycle Across Maryland. Riders can register from 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday or 6 a.m.-9 a.m. Saturday at the starting point in Lusby, Calvert County.

Further information can be found at www.cyclexmd.org/ or by calling 410-653-8288.

The actual ride begins Saturday. The full 300-mile tour runs through July 27. The mini-CAM, which covers 150 miles, runs through July 24. CAM, which raises money for bicycle safety efforts, costs $275 for adults ages 18 and up, $220 for youth ages 7-17 (for non-riders who wish to take part in activities, $60). For the mini-CAM, the fees are $205, $155 and $45, respectively. Meals are extra; children 6 and under ride free. Each rider can bring along a duffel bag, sleeping bag and tent that the tour will shuttle from stop to stop.

A pre-tour bicycle inspection is required. Several area shops offer free inspections for CAM riders.

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