Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Embrace local.  Explore often.

Bike Touring in Oriental

Sunset at Oriental marina

Ever thought about bike touring in Oriental along in the Inner Banks of North Carolina? If so, check out the Cycle NC Spring Coastal Ride.

That darn coronavirus interfered with fun times this spring. I had planned to write about the 2020 Cycle NC Spring Coastal Ride to be held April 24 – 26 in the charming village of Oriental, North Carolina. As an experienced bike tourer, I was looking forward to viewing a bike tour through the eyes of a beginner. Our personal group would have consisted of three experienced bike tourers and two cyclists new to overnight touring. We’ve all done day-long rides together, but this would have been the first multiple-day tour for my sisters.

So, like many adventurers this spring, I’m pivoting and writing instead about a past event – the 2017 Cycle NC tour held in Oriental.

Why ride a bike tour? I suppose the answer is different for everyone but for me, it boils down to:

  • It’s a fantastic way to experience a location. Good and bad. You see the kindness of locals and experience the common humanity of town folks and other riders. But sometimes it can be a culture shock – not every driver appreciates navigating hordes of cyclists on their normally sleepy roads and sometimes you ride through areas outside your norm – puppy mill breeders, compound-like properties, or what looks to be a backcountry meth lab. 
  • Supporting a local economy warms my heart. Yep, the big chains provide jobs. But it’s the non-chains that give the tour meaning. Eating at a family restaurant and listening to the local gossip (just be careful you don’t sit in Big Bob’s “table”). Handing over some cash to the local scout troop in exchange for an overpriced can of pop. Or even better, going back for the second piece of homemade pie at the “church ladies“ rest stop. 
  • It’s outside. All-day and night. Enough said.
  • You get ideas about other bike tours you should try. Everyone has a favorite they are willing to tell you about. 
  • The license to eat all day long without a second thought. Calories are fuel and you don’t want to bike on an empty tank. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…quit judging the four pieces of peanut butter fudge clutched in my fist…)

Cycle North Carolina (Cycle NC) is one of the events hosted by the nonprofit North Carolina Amateur Sports. NCAS stated purpose: “operates with the goal of promoting health and wellness for all ages and skill levels through organizing best-in-class sporting events that enrich the quality of life and enhance economic well-being of North Carolina communities”. I’d paraphrase that as “do good for people and local towns”. 

The Cycle North Carolina offers three events a year:

  •  Coastal Ride (spring)
  •  Mountain Ride (summer)
  •  Mountains to Coast Ride (fall)

We’ve ridden all three events at least once. We don’t have a favorite as they all have a different flavor. 

But we’ve ridden the Coastal Ride at least four times in 15 years, probably because it’s easy to commit to it during the fall registration period. Still in tip-top cycling shape but facing shorter riding days (darn sun goes down so quick in October) we yearn for something to look forward to in the spring. 

All three events offered by Cycle NC rotate through various locations. Logistics and geography dictate that the Coastal Ride is based in one of three locations each year: Oriental, Edenton, or Washington (aka Little Washington). The riding terrain is similar for all three – rural, mostly flat, windy, and bound to show off a river or inner-coastal waterway.

Hands-down, we favor Oriental. Billed as the “best village in North Carolina” or if you are a yacht person the “sailing capital of North Carolina”, it offers a laid-back, small-town yet moneyed attitude. Its boat population (2700) is three times the number of fulltime town residents.

Part of the Inner Banks, Oriental sits along the banks of the Neuse River (think BIG river) before it flows into the Pamlico Sound. Continue east across the sound and you’ll skip across the Outer Banks before hitting the Atlantic Ocean. The location translates to “really good sunrises” and “probably you will see dolphins frolicking in the Neuse River as you drink a cup of coffee in the riverside park”. 

Logistically, there is only one real road, highway 55, into town. Stoplights are limited. Front porches with rocking chairs and a kayak tucked up under the back deck appear to be a town mandate. 

A bike tour can be one of several types. The week-long Mountains to Coast ride is always point-to-point; you camp at a different town each night. Fortunately, the Coastal Ride is always a spoke-and-wheel ride. You camp at the same location each night (aka tent city) sparing you the pain of early morning tent tear-downs. 

The other upside to spoke-and-wheel rides? You can ride as little or as much as you want. The organizers plan a variety of set riding routes from 5 to 100 miles. Some folks ride a 30-mile route in the morning and go out again in the afternoon for a shorter ride if they feel like it. Other riders go all in and choose the longest route available each day. The routes have rest stops stocked with water, electrolytes, PB&J sandwiches, and cookies (homemade if you are lucky). 

SAG wagons patrol the official routes until the designated “end” time for the day (code for the SAG driver is off-duty for a beer). A SAG wagon is a vehicle that helps out bicyclists in need. Maybe the SAG has a tire pump to help you with your flat tire, or some spare water if you are dry. Usually, the vehicle is capable of hauling a bike so you can hitch a ride back to the start if you are having major mechanical or physical issues. 

For the Oriental ride, there are a few indoor lodging options like the Oriental Marina and Inn or the River Neuse Suites. With over 400 cyclists, many of whom prefer indoor comforts, hotels sell out quickly. Forty minutes to the west, you could find plenty of lodging in New Bern but it seems the camaraderie of a bike tour is lost when you drive in each day. Plus who wants to bike all day, have a cold beer or two, and then drive? Not me.

Let’s talk about tent city. What does that mean? On a bike tour, the organizers designate a location for cyclists to pitch their tents. Sometimes it’s a college campus field. Sometimes it’s the local town ballfield. 

In Oriental, tent city is slated to be held in Lou Mac Park, a ½ acre of grassy waterfront paradise. The registration table, a string of port-a-lets, and the shower trucks set up along South Avenue and First Avenue serving as pseudo boundaries for tent city. Inevitably, the cyclists expand beyond these boundaries. Fortunately, many folks with houses along the waterfront open their front yards and let the pack of cyclists become weekend squatters.

Dad and I rolled into town late Thursday afternoon. He quickly vetoes the idea of pitching our tents in the yard next to one of the local hotels. Apparently, he hasn’t forgotten the ever-on floodlights from the hotel that kept him up all night during the 2014 event. (Family lore is a by-product of bike tours, too!). We find a spot to park the truck temporarily and stroll down South Avenue eyeing up potential spots for two tents in Lou Mac riverfront park. It’s not looking promising – the crowds have already descended and staked out areas for their arriving groups. We could shoehorn our way into a spot but Dad grimaces and keeps walking. Good call. 

Past the main crowds, we spot a house along Neuse Drive with a few tents set up in their backyard. We wander through eyeballing the situation. The owners, parked in lawn furniture on their deck overlooking the wide Neuse River, invite us to set up our tents. Already nibbling the hook, we bite when they cement the deal with “…and we have an outdoor shower you are welcome to use”. We have scored the equivalent of bike-tour gold. I assertively guard a patch of yard big enough for our two tents, while Dad fetches the truck and all our camping gear.

Dad breaks out his new tent. As we figure out how to put it together, we keep an eye on a young fellow fiddling with 2x4s and long guy wires. It’s windy and we all stake down our tents, but his lines are impeding traffic, tripping people, and consuming more space than anyone ought to. Eventually he, sort of, fixes the boards in place, attaches a hammock, and flops into it triumphantly. Shaking his head Dad mutters a few words about the kid’s lack of mechanical know-how. 

Five minutes later, the entire structure collapses with one of the heavy boards narrowly missing a cyclist napping in a neighboring tent. Fortunately, no persons or tents suffer damage. But the mood changes quickly and the nearby crowd, followed by the homeowners, let the fellow know he can’t be creating his empire in tent city. With some unkind words, the guy gathers up his supplies and stomps off to find another yard to stay in. A lesson in bike tour etiquette – it’s a crowd with rules – spoken and unspoken. Putting others in danger or taking up too much space won’t be tolerated. 

Based on past years’ tours, we head the few blocks to “downtown” to eat dinner at the Toucan Grill. The hostess, with a slightly overwhelmed look in her eye, takes our name. “It’ll be at least an hour,” she tells us. Sounds about right, so we snag a beer from the outside bar and find a spot to watch the boats. 

Tom rolls into town right about the time we should be seated for dinner. Checking in with the hostess, she shrugs and says “you are still on the list”. Huh. There aren’t many options in town for eating and they all seem busy so we buy another beer to fill the void while we wait. By 9 p.m., “hangry” has set in. 

When I peek at the list on the hostess stand, she states “We are closed – we are out of food.” Yikes! Dad mumbles something about “losing the favorite daughter competition”. I beg and plead with the hostess and she reluctantly agrees to seat us as the last table if we are willing to eat whatever they have left. Ah, the life of a bike tourer – we say yes, and thank you. Cyclists are like locusts – they invade a town and eat everything in sight but this is the first time I’ve been almost turned away in a host town.

Some cyclists bring their own food and drink from home. A cheaper solution – and you get food without begging – but we prefer to eat local. Plus we weren’t smart enough to pack food.

A meal in our belly (finally!), we retire for the night to our tents. Morning comes soon enough and thus begins the hunt for coffee and breakfast. We settle on coffee from the local cafe and then bike out of town to breakfast at Brantley’s Village Restaurant. Smart owners – they have a buffet set up. The idea seems to be – get those hungry bikers in-and-out as quick as you can. The waitresses are friendly and the local town folks seem amused by the invasion.

For our first day of riding on the tour, we chose the 40-ish mile route. Scenic, mostly flat, and windier than any biker ever wants, we pace ourselves. We take advantage of all the rest stops. The one with the comfy lawn chairs included a long break with shoes-off (and maybe a cat-nap but I promised not to tell). Rolling back into Oriental by mid-day, we cool off with a fruit smoothie at the local cafe and use their wifi.

Two men sitting in lawn chairs at Cycle NC rest stop
Taking advantage of the rest stop

The tour organizers offer off-bike activities – kayaking, boating, tours of New Bern. But we spot folks swimming at John Bond Town Beach and decide that is a good idea. The upside to bike shorts and a sports bra? They double as a swimsuit. Yank the shoes and bike jersey off and I’m in for a refreshing swim in the Neuse River. 

After a lazy swim, we wait for our turn at the outdoor shower. If nothing else, bike tours teach you to be quick and not shy about clean-up. The “stall” isn’t solid, it hovers somewhere above my knees, and inevitably at least one person tries to open the door to use the shower (Hello…see my feet and legs sticking out?!). Still, it’s better than waiting in line at the shower truck. For those who haven’t had the experience, a shower truck is essentially a semi with shower stalls hooked up to a water hydrant. Half the truck might be designated to women and the other half to men. The best trucks have individual gender-neutral stalls – those tend to rotate through quicker.

Back at camp, Dad wisely polls our hosts on places to eat. He doesn’t want another repeat of last night’s wait time. The hosts recommend taking a 15-minute drive to Gary’s Down East Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Arapahoe. Note – always ask the locals – they know the best places to eat. Driving down Highway 306, you might notice the restaurant in the warehouse looking building. But the pile of cars in the middle of nowhere snags your attention. The food and the service exceed our expectations (and not just because we were hungry again!). Stuffed to the gills, we return to tent city.

Saturday before dawn, I crawl out of the tent and go in search of coffee. Being a generous soul, I buy three cups from a non-profit group selling brown water. Rotary club, boy scouts? It doesn’t matter. It’s enough caffeine to get us moving. I precariously carry the unlidded cups back to our tents, spilling more than a little along the way. Dad joins me for coffee at the river’s edge as the sun rises. Tom doesn’t stir so I drink his cup of coffee, too. Hey it was getting cold, wasn’t it? Eventually, we rouse Tom and head to Brantley’s for another breakfast.

Sunrise over Neuse River in Oriental
Sunrise over the Neuse River

The weather for our second day of riding is 85 and sunny. Everyone’s a little fatigued from the day before – sore butts and tired necks. The heat further increases the droopiness and we make it a shorter ride day. 30ish miles is plenty. Some cyclists opt for the 100-mile challenge today but that is not in our cards.

Man peering into Neuse River
Neuse River – bigger than you think

Another post-ride smoothie, a dip in the river followed by some downtime in the shade, and then it’s time for the Saturday night social. Every Cycle NC weekend event includes a “free” dinner for all the cyclists followed by a musical event. Tonight’s dinner is a shrimp boil -shrimp, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, and some sweet tea (sadly, the beer trucks are outside the range of the eating area). The shrimp – local and fresh – requires peeling, deveining, and detailing. That slows down the eating process significantly and is enough to make me go vegetarian. Tom steps up to the plate and prepares the shrimp for me. 

After getting our fill of shrimp, we hit the beer trucks for North Carolina beer and then head to town square to listen to bluegrass music. Cyclists and locals intermix on the grassy area. We stumble upon our house hosts and they fetch chairs so we can join them for the music. The mayor, good friends with our hosts, joins the group and tells us about the musicians playing and the upcoming bluegrass event. Oriental might be small but it is mighty.

Cyclists tend to retire when the sun goes down. But that last night is a late-night full of music and laughter. Even back at our tents, groups gather to enjoy beer they brought with them and reminisce about the weekend.

Sunday morning on a bike tour is always an odd scene. Still an official biking day, some folks break down their tents and leave to head home. Some break down their tents and head out for one last ride. We opt to leave our tents up and head to Brantley’s one more time for breakfast. 

Today’s routes are shorter – no 100 milers on the schedule. We review the options over breakfast and settle on the 30-mile loop. Anything shorter, and we’d miss the ferry option from Minnesott Beach to the PineCliff Recreation Area. With a desire to escape some of the heat and the need to get on the road to return home, Dad reviews the route map and declares a new plan. We will bike the route backward and make it an out and back to the ferry rather than a loop. That’ll cut 10 miles or so off the route. 

We set off on our bikes. Cyclists function like lemmings and tend to follow the leader. Repeatedly, we tell folks we are off-route and not to follow us as they shout out in confusion “Am I on the wrong route? I thought we were supposed to head the other direction”. Dad might enjoy leading the confusion a little too much. 

Reaching the ferry terminal, we pay up and wait in line. Cars are loaded first, then we are permitted to walk our bikes onto the ferry. Its’ a 20-minute ride across the river. Flocks of seagulls chase the boat waiting for the inevitable hand-outs from passengers. Locals bring crackers and bread so their children can toss food into the air for the flying rats.

Seagulls chasing ferry
Ferry ride

Disembarking, we cycle a couple of miles to the recreation area and explore the beach on that side of the river. Pleasant, but not an earth-shattering experience, we check it off the ‘been there done that’ list and return to the ferry. Ten hot, sunny miles back to town, up and over the bridge (that feels like a mountain by now), and it’s time to pack up camp. Following the lead of others, we purchase a gift certificate from the M&M restaurant in town and hand it to our hosts as a thank you for letting us invade their yard and use their water.

two cyclists in front of Neuse River
Bike tour happy place

After a goodbye hug and a vague promise to plan another bike tour soon, Dad jumps into his truck to head north. I might not be winning the favorite daughter competition but at least I’m still in the running.