The Great Peanut Bike Tour
The Great Peanut Bike Tour - September 2000
It was a long drive - six and a half hours - to Emporia, Virginia - and when we got there it wasn't even where we wanted to be.
We got a late start because we were waiting for the Fed-Ex truck to arrive with Jeff's new sleeping bag (his old one was 25 years old and spewed feathers everywhere), and because I was visiting my allergist to discuss a long-lasting sinus ache and deflect his very low opinion of camping (I believe his exact words were, "My God, you probably sleep with your windows opened too!" To which I could only sheepishly agree. He was visibly appalled. Suffering, it seems, is the only part of Buddhism I've mastered.) So, with our late start, we arrived in Emporia after dark. As we approached the Jellystone campground, I suggested that we stay at a motel for a night to avoid having to pitch the tent in the dark - and to get a good night's sleep before we started. Which turned out to be a very wise choice if for no other reason that the Jellystone campground in Emporia was not where we wanted to be. It was listed on our registration forms and it had caught Jeff's eye, but it was not where I pre-registered. and it was not where the Great Peanut Bike Tour was based. We would have gone to the wrong place.
In the morning (after downing what might have been the best buttermilk biscuit I've ever had), we realized our mistake and headed down the road to the next town, Skippers, Virginia and the Cattail Creek campground. The campground was just starting to buzz. It was 9 AM and the festivities didn't officially start until noon, but big festival tents were rising around us and a small herd of people were beginning to mill around. We checked in and were directed to the overflow area to camp, but we didn't quite understand. Cattail Creek probably has about 30 "regular" campsites. For the 600 or so people camping there that weekend, tents go anywhere and everywhere. We were expecting - and looked for - a big field to camp in, but in fact it was just woods and people camped wherever they felt like it. Being early, we had few examples to follow and decided to take the advice of a many time peanut tourist, John, and camp in the limited space behind the store - not in the woods, but on a nice flat grassy piece of turf. It ended up being a nice choice - except perhaps for the overnight dew that drenched our tent (and thus us) every night.
As we pitched our tent, we watched John unload from his pickup truck: a sun shelter, a picnic table, a large tent, and chaise lounges. We were feeling grand because we had pillows (a camping rarity for us.) Everybody was really friendly and I was constantly amazed how strangers would just walk up to us and strike up a conversation. It was like that that we met Albert from Florida, Glenn from Kansas, and Bob from Pennsylvania (not far down the road from where we live.)
Near noon, we moseyed over to the registration tent where a small group of people are were mildly surprised to find that there was no registration going on. We waited, and waited, and at 12:30, "the judge" arrived and demanded we give him "seven minutes with nobody botherin' me and I'll be good to go." So we all waited, and then picked up our rider packets and were ready for the first days' ride.
The judge, incidentally is the president of the Emporia Bike Club that puts on this event every year. The judge is friendly, fun, and knowledgeable, and I don't doubt for a moment that he is in a large part responsible for the success of this event that for 4 days more than doubles the population of this small town. I also don't doubt that his political clout as a judge contributes to the huge support we got from the community and the services such as police - who had a large presence and also sported bike racks on their cruisers for the weekend to help SAG.
The First 25
The first day is a Thursday and because the rides don't start until noon (or when the judge arrives) the only ride option is 25 miles. But it's a nice 25 miles, and a good way to get acclimated to the area. Very gentle rolling hills, friendly company, and rough-paved (tar and chip) roads.
We rode right past the first rest stop, but stopped at the second, which, like all of them, was marked by a huge cutout of a peanut wearing bike shorts and a helmet - with the name of the hosts. It was right there in the yard of a volunteer's house - and she had music playing and had baked all sorts of home baked goodies. I'd never seen a rest stop on a bike tour like this - - usually they're almost institutional in their distribution of bananas and Gatorade - - but this was like being at a friend's picnic. It turned out that all the rest stops were like this. Volunteers were given a budget, and for 20+years they've been going all out and trying to have the best, most hospitable and most memorable rest stops around. Some of them are such legends they even have names like "The Watermelon Pickle Stop" and "The Cucumber Stop." They seem to have as much fun as we do. At registration, a list of rest stops was distributed with the names and addresses of the hosts. Apparently, a good many people send them Christmas cards each year.
After our short ride, we returned to the campground and waited in line for what would be the only hot shower we had all weekend. There were 3 showers in the women's bathroom, and I assume 3 in the men's. Divide that into the number of sweaty cyclists (I'd estimate 1200, and maybe half of them were camping) and you can see the problem.
For between $4 and $7 you can eat in the mess tent (Vegetarian options available every night). And I recommend that you do. The food preparation is sub-contracted to various ruritan and church groups who make a small profit on the deal, and in return manage to provide home-cooking and regional specialties like grain fed catfish and hushpuppies or chicken barbeque with spicy "special sauce" for the masses.
Under the mess tent are long tables, and each night we just plunked ourselves down in the middle of a different group. There's no shortage of conversation starters. Almost everybody is wearing shirts from other rides they've done, so all we needed to do was ask about that ride and we knew we'd get some good stories. Everybody has a story.
One night, we found ourselves across from a woman (Author of "A Woman's Guide to Cycling," Susan Weaver - who was covering this event for the January Adventure Cyclist magazine) who we discovered lived in Allentown, the next town over from us. As we were reveling in this coincidence, the person next to Jeff announced his son is a junior at Lehigh University - my alma mater, and in our home town. Small world. Most of the people we met were from the east coast - primarily Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia. But some people traveled pretty far to be there, too.
After dinner there were stories or music around the campfires, and then marshmallows to be roasted. The evening entertainment was not well attended, but it was still a nice touch. And - they provided these awesome sticks for roasting marshmallows - which thrilled me. Next year, I must remember graham crackers and chocolate!
Crowds increased for Friday and we had a choice between a 25 mile route, a 50 mile route, and an 82 mile route. We figured we had no place else to be, and decided to try our luck on the 82 mile Lake Gaston route - everybody said it was the best ride. And so we took off early with Bob and Glen and really enjoyed the day. The scenery couldn't be beat, there was virtually no traffic, and very gently rolling hills to keep it interesting without being exhausted. We stopped at virtually every rest stop (and there were plenty) - not so much because we needed rest - but because they are the social pinnacle of this event.
At several of the rest stops we saw a Christian missionary group that called themselves "Wheel Power." (Motto: "Any denomination as long as you're Born Again.") They were out riding really nice bikes with carbon wheels and "spreading the word." Apparently they do many of these rides and they even had their own SAG wagon, which at first I thought was evidence of their limited faith, but then remembered their Boss was a carpenter not a bike mechanic. You can't be too careful.
Judy, one of the missionaries, was towing a B.O.B. trailer behind her tricked out carbon bike - and in the trailer was a small cage for her puppy, Pedals - who she let out at every rest stop and seemed to really be enjoying the trip.
You think that's strange? One night at dinner we heard a tale about a woman who rode Bike South this year towing a baby goat behind her. It takes all kinds.
And speaking of religion, I was amazed how many times we'd ride through neighborhoods of trailer homes and creaky shacks and find a huge immaculate (no pun intended) church the size of a city block right there in the midst of it all. I guess we all have our priorities. On the topic of priorities, many of the trailers also sported satellite dishes.
North Carolina Metric Century
For the ever increasing crowds on Saturday, we had the option of the Virginia Metric (100 kilometers = 62.35 miles), the North Carolina Metric, or a 25 mile route. A few brave souls did the double metric (both of them combined - 125 miles). The buzz was that the North Carolina Metric was the best, and so it was our choice. And it was great. It was a third day of wonderfully clear skies, quiet (although sometimes ill paved) roads, plentiful rest stops, and virtually no hills. Glenn was riding his recumbent behind me when he remarked that I hadn't shifted gears for the last 50 miles. And he was probably right. We were riding slow - and it was REALLY flat. I mean, the other days had some small hills, but I don't remember a single climb on this ride.
It's probably the terrain and the camping that best explains this group of cyclists. The easy terrain makes the ride accessible to tandems, recumbents, 3-wheelers, 3-seaters, alley-cats, kids on BMX bikes, and even a few home made bikes. One guy even sported a home made helmet, which is going a bit too far, I think. And it's probably the camping that keeps away the Freds. If you don't know, Freds are cyclists who dress in the shorts and jerseys of pro teams they don't ride for, ride really tricked out bikes, but are anything but serious cyclists. They usually weave dangerously, disobey traffic laws, and thankfully get dropped on the first hill. I can't recall seeing a single Fred the whole weekend. These were real tourists - not racer-wannabes. Like us, most were interested in enjoying the miles at a comfortable pace, and talking endlessly about their bikes, the rides they'd been on, the people they'd met, and the things they'd seen. Almost nobody asked about anybody's job back home. It was really nice and honest feeling.
The Great Peanut Tour
We had to be a little careful about time on the metric century because at 2:45 there was a group picture. They gouged us for $10 for the picture, but it's worth it. Jeff was wearing his cow spot jersey (people kept calling him the Gateway box) and is easy to spot amid the large crowd.
Then, at 3:00 we left for the 13 mile "Great Peanut Tour" which the weekend is named for. There were no cues for this ride, and we were instructed to follow the arrows and the mob. (All the other rides had cues, but they often didn't match our experience - fortunately, the arrows on the road never lied to us.)
There were 100s of cyclists on the road with us - a rolling traffic jam. A group in front of us was having a water gun fight. Kids, old coots, once-a-year-on-a-bike types - it's only 13 miles and everybody was out. About 3 miles down the road we followed the crowd up the driveway of a large sprawling farm. We assumed that this is where the titled tour would be - but after much confusion, we realized it was yet another rest stop (a really well stocked one at that).
A few more miles down the road, we came upon a large group sitting in the grass listening to a peanut farmer on the back of a pickup truck speaking into a microphone about the wonders of peanuts (actually, he was so excited, he often missed the microphone.) He explained the eradication of boll weevils, the way peanuts grow (not like roots, as I'd thought), and the many ways Virginia peanuts are better than those scrawny Georgia peanuts. He must have mentioned those scee-rawneeee Georgia peanuts 10 times, and it was his intensity and pride about it that really endeared him to us. It came as no surprise when he held up a huge jug of peanut oil (it comes in smaller sizes, he assured us) and told us that the best hushpuppies are those cooked in peanut oil. He was both a caricature, and "the real thing."
We realized that there was no actual farm tour - and after the farmer was done, we hit the road again. Glenn decided to trade recumbents with another rider for a few miles, and we went on without him. Bob, Jeff and I were all feeling good. We had 80 miles on our legs, and 80 from the prior day, but we'd gone slow and stopped often. The sun, the atmosphere, everything - had us feeling good. So the three of us were riding together, and Jeff and I started racing up an incline (I shudder to call it a hill) - Bob was chasing us. We slowed, and Bob whizzed by us. We all rode together for a bit, until somebody broke away again, and the rest of us chased. We were silly like that until we were almost back to camp.
Lenny's Last Ride
On the morning of the last day (Sunday), in response to a missed call on our wireless phone (which we left in the car the whole weekend), I decided to check my office voicemail. There were 6 messages, the first of which was my step-sister informing me that my dad's brother, Lenny, had died suddenly on Thursday of a massive heart attack at the home of his mother (my grandmother). He was 67. The other 5 messages were from family members trying to get in touch with me.
I hung up and dialed my grandmother. Perhaps because my family tries to be so darned stoic all the time, I was unprepared for the intense hurt flowing out of her. I was sitting beside our tent, surrounded closely by other campers/cyclists, and in the bigger picture, peanut fields - - and I was bawling my eyes out. I was never close to Lenny, but I really empathized with my grandmother's pain. The funeral was in a few hours, in Miami Beach, Florida, and there was no way I was going to be there. I'm not sure I would have gone anyway, but I felt pretty lousy for being out - having such a great time weekend - and irresponsibly not even calling home. Not knowing.
I tried to reach my dad, who I knew had flown to Florida (he was on his sailboat in Trinidad at the time of his brothers' death) - but I was unable to reach him. This made me feel even worse.
I considered not riding the last day as a sort of memorial to Lenny but it didn't seem right either. I'd already missed the funeral. I was already standing in the middle of a peanut field with my cycling shorts on. I asked myself what possible good could come of not riding? I didn't have an answer, and I decided to ride. But my mind was as much in Miami as it was in Virginia.
Our Last Ride
The last day offered a 25 mile ride, and a metric century. We chose the 25 for two reasons: (1) we had a long drive home, and (2) two of the most legendary rest stops were on the 25.
The Watermelon Pickle Stop featured - surprise - pickled watermelon rinds, which we were all anxious to try. They were a little sweet for my tastes, but well worth trying. The Cucumber Stop featured raw, pickled and relished cucumbers. Cucumber sandwiches, too. All home grown, I'm sure. And more - the 25 mile route must have had 10 stops. Really. And we didn't want to miss anything. At one rest stop, I learned that homemade chocolate chip cookies that have been sitting in the sun taste like they're straight out of the oven. I ate 3 of them despite not even being a little bit hungry. In fact, I was so enthralled with the opportunity to taste all these homemade goodies, that I managed to ride nearly 250 miles over the course of the long weekend and not lose a single pound.
At one stop, I asked a fellow with a 3-wheel recumbent if I could sit in it (not ride it). The position of the seat was so low and pitched back it looked like his unsupported neck would cramp, and I was curious just to see how it felt. He instructed me in the proper way to sit, and when I was securely seated, he gave me a big, unexpected push. "Where's the brakes?" I yelled. It took a bit to get used to the under-seat steering and braking - but it was a 3-wheel, so at least balancing was not an issue. Because I could barely reach the pedals and I was nervous about riding somebody else's bike, I didn't ride far. I did, however, make a bit of a spectacle of myself trying to make a u-turn. When I got back, there was a huge crowd around all asking to ride it next. He explained he doesn't usually let people ride his bike at rest stops (in case somebody breaks something), and there were no more rides. I'd gotten the only one.
Overall - and in details - it was a really great weekend. The weather was absolutely perfect, and we were feeling strong, and everything was new and wonderful. Part of me really wants to go back again next year - and part of me wonders if it can be this good a second time around.