THOMASVILLE -- The 423-mile course has been set, and more than 2,000 riders and supporters are gearing up for the 24th Annual Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, an event that will bring the riders to Thomasville on Sunday, June 15.

The route that snakes across south Georgia will guide cyclists from their starting point in Bainbridge to their destination, St. Mary's. The group will camp out in various cities -- including Thomasville, Valdosta and Douglas -- during the week-long excursion. Some of the proceeds benefit the Special Olympics.

"Some ride to support (the Special Olympics). For others, it's a vacation," said Ride Director Jerry Colley. "This is how 2,000 people like to spend their vacations. It's a tour of gorgeous Georgia by bicycle.

"For some people, it's a challenge of a lifetime. For other people, it's just a good time on a bicycle."

BRAG -- an event started by Savannah resident Dot Moss -- is more than a chance to travel on two wheels, though. It also offers participants special events in each overnight city. In Thomasville, some of the riders will camp at MacIntyre Park and in the gymnasium at MacIntyre Park Middle School, said local coordinator Sheryl Sealy. Part of Washington Street will be closed off to make way for campers, portable showers and bike repair tents, and bikers will have a chance to gather for an ice cream social and to swim at the YMCA. Shuttle buses will take them around town and to restaurants. The school will provide meals.

"If they're treated well in a city, they'll come back later," said Sealy of the riders, some of whom may decide to come back to Thomasville for a vacation. "It's good in that we get some exposure."

All 2,000-plus participants will head up U.S. Highway 319 Monday morning as they make their way to Valdosta.

Dr. Bill Lardin, an anesthesiologist with South Georgia Anesthesia Associates, has been riding in BRAG since 1985, the year his sister, a bicycle enthusiast, told him about the event.

"She got me interested in it, and it just took," he said.

That first year, he "played the game too hard," he said, and ended up with carpal tunnel problems in his hands. "All I had to do was just stop riding and learn how to do it correctly. It never happened again," he said.

Lardin, 58, participates in the event for the exercise and the chance to propel himself to new places under his own power. The former runner has sustained injuries from "getting out there and trying to keep up with the kids" throughout the years, but loves the chance to socialize with fellow riders -- including preachers, doctors, police officers, children and families who ride bicycles of all shapes and sizes. Some even rollerblade.

"Over the years, I have made a large number of friends," he said. "...It's a wonderful tour. It has people from all walks of life in it."

Lardin will help staff the medical tent during the tour and will tend to everything from road rash to chigger bites. Dr. Jim Story, who has been riding in BRAG for 10 years now, also will provide medical help on the journey. Story, president of John D. Archbold Memorial Hospital, learned about the event through Lardin and finally decided to participate in 1994, the year the riders came through Thomasville for the first time. His wife bought him a bicycle for his birthday that year.

"I've been hooked ever since," said Story, 63. "It's quite a challenge to ride on your bicycle over 400 miles in a week. Georgia has some beautiful country."

Story said he's looking forward to the back roads and historical sights and a phone-free existence. To prepare, he starts biking in the spring and builds himself up to 40 miles in a day. Though he'll be roughing it during the daytime hours, he and his wife will bed down for the night in hotels instead of a tent.

"I've never slept in a tent," he said.

Last year's event raised $30,000 for the Special Olympics.

To contact reporter Julie A. Blakley, call (229) 226-2400, ext. 225.

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