Cycling the Chocolate Tour
Let me say up front, that I enjoyed The Chocolate Tour so much that I can’t wait for the months to pass, so I can do it again.
The 75 mile course takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery that can be found. Unlike the raw beauty we saw last year in Glacier National Park, the beauty of the region around Hershey, Pa. is a combination of the terrain, the architecture, and agriculture, and the amazing ability of the local people to keep it beautiful, by manicuring everything from the flower beds — which are everywhere — to their homes and even the barns.
A group of six of us, including my wife, Mary, Steve Ruhf, Karen Deer and Barbara and Gary Butcher chose to do the ride because of Steve’s connections to the region via Penn State. “They had a custom Penn State cycling kit, and I wanted it,” he admitted.
So naturally we all signed up.
But it wasn’t really the most natural of decisions, as we had just spent a week cycling from my family’s cabin, located on Lake Champlain in Vermont. Though we had avoided some of the big climbs for which Vermont is famous, we had found plenty of elevation and enough gorgeous scenery to last a while — so doing a 75-miler on the last day of vacation seemed like an unnecessary challenge — but Steve did want that jersey…
Even he admitted he didn’t know much about the ride, other than it was a fundraiser for cancer, that it was sponsored by Hershey and that there was chocolate at every rest stop. (As it turned out it was not sponsored by Hershey — but they did donate chocolate.)
With all of that in mind our expectations were minimal as we pulled into the parking lot and immediately realized that this event is a big deal. The first two lots at the Milton Hershey School were full. Fortunately there were lots of lots, and parking turned out to be plentiful.
The area around the check-in tents was full of happy people. Some were cyclists while others were participating in the various walks and runs that also took place that morning. Music played, banners waved, and chocolate beckoned from a half dozen tables.
Cyclists had choices of 10, 25, 35, 50, 75 and 100 miles. Each group was called forward according to the chosen distance. Then the announcer counted them down to an orderly start.
Event spokesperson Teah Batdorf, says the 50 miler is the most popular with 212 riders followed by the century with 145, the 75 with 104 riders, the 35 with 90, the 25 miler had 79 and the ten miler with 25 cyclists. All the numbers are approximate and may not include those who signed up the day of the event.
The Chocolate Tour Terrain
The terrain on the Chocolate Tour was advertised as rolling — and sure enough, these were actual rollers. Most of the time the momentum from a given downhill was enough to get you most of the way up the adjoining “uphill.” And so we enjoyed the best roller coasters that are not a part of nearby Hershey Park. I like to say rollers on a bike are more fun because you are in control even if the outcome of a 40 mph descent is less certain. So in that sense these were actually better than their amusement park brethren, but I digress.
Chocolate Tour Support
The rest stops were all well stocked with “local chocolate” Which included candy from both Hershey and M & M Mars. There were ample supplies of anything else you would expect at a quality bike ride, and lots of friendly, mostly church based volunteers.
The first stop was in an unusual little community called Mt. Gretna. The homes were charming, but more like summer camps than houses. They were set closer together than felt natural, but it all worked. It turns out Mt. Gretna is one of the few remaining Chautauqua Communities in the United states, this one having been operational since 1892. The Chautauqua movement was its most popular in the United States from the 1890’s through the 1920’s and Wikipedia says that Teddy Roosevelt referred to the movement as the “most American thing in America.” The movement focused on entertainment and culture for the entire community. Click the links to learn more. I wish I had the time to explore Mt. Gretna — but there was still 63 miles of rolling terrain to be conquered
On We Rode Through the Amish Countryside
It’s worth noting at this point that on this morning, the air was as still as can be, and the humidity seemed to want to squeeze the predicted rain out of the low, grey clouds. The rain never came, but the humidity stayed. This is bad for me as I tend to sweat more than most people and maintaining electrolytes can be a problem that leads to cramping. By mile twelve my cycling gloves were already so drenched that it was difficult to hang onto the handlebars. Yes. I was nervous about the remaining mileage, and a new treat at one of the later rest stops would prove to make the difference in my day.
So we took a group photo in our mountaincorals.org cycling kits and soldiered out of charming and quirky Mt. Gretna. (CLICK HERE for the back story on the fish jerseys.)
Once we broke out into the country, we began to realize the true beauty of the region. We rode past historic homes, some made of red stone I had never seen, while others were more typical stone houses made of the more common lighter limestone. Many of the barns and other outbuildings included stone construction as well. The effect brought it all together as if an interior designer had started in the living room and just kept going to the edges of the property.
Building something beautiful is one thing. Maintaining it is another. The farms, mostly Amish and Mennonite were spectacular in that the properties were truly manicured. This must be no easy feat. Homeowners with half acre lots in my subdivision have beautiful, tidy landscapes. But here we witnessed massive lawns with bright petunias and other annuals as well as trees and shrubs adjoining pastures framed with white board fences holding goats, or mules, cows, horses – even llamas, and all of it seemed impossibly proportional and perfect.
The corn and soybeans were as high and lush as any I have seen. In places we rode down what must have once been been dirt farm roads- now paved and narrow with a single yellow line down the middle. The tall corn in places, hemmed us in on both sides.
The Pennsylvania Dutch influence was everywhere. On four different occasions, we passed Amish families out for a ride in their horse and buggies. I tried to get photos but we were by them before I could ready the camera. The same happened when we passed a yard where a boy of about 12 was pulling a gas powered lawnmower with a mule. The boy was sitting on a seat behind the animal, with the mower mounted on a wheeled contraption of homemade design ( I guess) behind him. It must be that it’s okay to use a powered device as long as the propulsion comes from the animal and not the device itself. The lawn was beautiful, so it must be working.
The Miracle of Pickle Juice
Despite the quality of the scenery and the rest stops, the humidity was taking a toll on my legs which began to cramp near the 50 mile mark. Thankfully there was a rest stop, and I stocked up on gels and Gatorade. Fellow rider Karen Deer suggested a pickle, for the salt, but when there was none, she brought me a full cup of the pickle juice instead. I had never had a purposeful drink of the stuff before, but in that moment it tasted like nectar. It was just what my body seemed to be craving and it took all I could do not to chug it. (I have no experience with this, but if you do, please leave your comments/experience/knowledge below!)
At the next rest stop one of the volunteers said people had been actually requesting pickle juice, and he had a ready pitcher. Once again I imbibed, and for the duration of the ride, there were no more cramps.
The last 35 miles of the 75 route were advertised as “flat and fast” perhaps it was because of the heat, which my Garmin showed was 97 degrees by 2 pm, but these miles did not seem any easier than the first 40. The ride profile suggests that they were, in fact not as strenuous — but for us, they were not, “fast.” Thank God for that pickle juice.
Click below to see more data from my Garmin.
The Cancer Fundraiser is Working and Growing
A few days after the ride I called event spokesperson Teah Batdorf to learn more about the experience we had – for lack of a better term, stumbled onto. The Chocolate Tour, she predicts while still adding up all the numbers, will have raised $100,000 this year, meeting its goal and beating last year’s $70,000 total. Nice. Event wide, she said there were 500 more participants than last year. Most of them runners and walkers — but the number of cyclists increased as well.
Officially the 75 milers traversed three counties including Dauphin, Lancaster and Lebanon. The century riders f0und their way under five covered bridges, while we only saw one. Typically, according to Batdorf the 75 mile route encounters two covered bridges, but highway construction forced a change in the route that left us with only one.
Just another reason to go back next year.