In its first year, Le Tour de Ventnor was born with about 80 people who rode their bicycles a few miles around the town, then got together for a cookout.
That was in May of 2008, and there was no Tour de Ventnor the next year. Because by 2009, the ride had expanded into Le Tour de Downbeach, which drew about 250 people to ride a route that started in Ventnor and went through Margate to the tip of Longport, then back to a barbecue in Margate.
The crowd grew again in 2010, but the ride had to be called off at the last minute - because that was when the rain started pouring, and didn't let up for hours. Mike Wiesen, of Ventnor's AAAA Bike Shop, one of the main organizers along with his wife, Annmarie, said the concern was that the Boardwalk was too slippery to be safe.
And even though Wiesen heard afterward from many disappointed (or worse) riders, that rainout apparently didn't hurt the event's appeal. Because in 2011, the committee ordered 600 Tour de Downbeach T-shirts for the crowd they expected - and they were left scrambling when more people showed up at the last minute. They had to give out old shirts from earlier years, even a few Tour de Ventnor leftovers.
The organizers also learned a lesson from the cancelled race: Now, they always have a rain date.
This year's fifth ride in the Tour de wherever series is scheduled to start 10 a.m. Sunday on the Boardwalk at Newport Avenue in Ventnor. But if the sky doesn't cooperate, it could move back to the following Sunday, Sept. 16 - although as of Friday, Sunday's forecast looked fine.
Wiesen got enough boxes of shirts into his shop the other day to dress at least 700 riders in yellow - but he says that partly because of that rainout experience, a lot of people don't sign up until the last minute.
So the Tour de Downbeach continues to grow - and in more ways than just the number of riders. Last year was the first time the ride extended into Atlantic City, and that neighbor stays on the route again this year. So the ride could now accurately be called Le Tour de Absecon Island, since it touches on every town on the island.
Whatever they call it, the people behind the ride believe they know one reason for its popularity: After it was held in the spring that first year, this annual bike ride moved to the same weekend as the late, lamented Maloney's Bikeathon, which drew throngs of riders on the Saturday after Labor Day for almost 30 years.
But the charity-fundraising bikeathon tradition suddenly died in 2005, the same year Maloney's Tavern, a Margate landmark for generations, also closed. That left a hole in many local social calendars for several years.
"Maloney's (bikeathon) was just the thing to do at the shore," says Diane Birkbeck, of Ventnor, a retired Atlantic City High School teacher who came up with the original Tour de Ventnor idea. "Some people would say, 'Summer is not over until we do this ride.' It was a rite of passage. ... And a lot of people just missed that type of activity."
Birkbeck, a dedicated bike-rider herself, figures she rode the 50-mile Maloney's ride through Atlantic and Cape May counties herself probably five times. But she never got into an aspect of the day that was popular with lots of riders.
"I did it as a workout," she says, "not a bar crawl."
The Maloney's ride reportedly drew as many as 3,000 riders at its peak, and its organizers say they raised more than $1.5 million over the decades for local good causes funded by the Naame Family Foundation - the late George Naame Sr. owned Maloney's for 35 years.
But maybe because of its roots in a tavern, or because of tradition, a lot of the riders over the years made it a point to stop at almost every bar they passed on their route. Some enjoyed so many watering-hole breaks that a 50-mile bike trip became a lengthy, even risky, proposition. The ride started early in the morning, but often late in the afternoon, some riders could be seen wobbling unsteadily back to Margate - with 15 or 20 miles still to go.
Wiesen's bike shop used to provide support trucks, or sag wagons, to help riders having trouble along the route. He would ride his own bike over the whole course, and he remembers some of the drinking displays as "terrible. ... Now that I'm older, I don't even know how they did it.""
He emphasizes that even if Le Tour de Downbeach has adopted the Maloney's weekend - and hopes to hang onto the date in its future - it will never grow into a tour of local pubs.
"Any event that Ventnor has anything to do with has to emphasize no alcohol," says Wiesen - and the town of Ventnor actually has no bars, although it does have its share of liquor stores. "Even our posters say 'family bike ride.'"
And just in case there is any doubt in anyone's mind, this bicyclist and bike-shop owner makes it clear there is absolutely no connection between Le Tour de Downbeach and Le Tour de France - the most famous bike race in the world, and an event that is a personal obsession for him.
"I watch it three times a day when it's on," he says - even if Le Tour de France's schedule, in July, is also prime time for a beach-town bike shop.
Le Tour de Downbeach just happens to have a similar name to that other event, and strikingly similar lettering on all its T-shirts and other printed material. But to prove there's no connection, everyone who enters Le Tour de Downbeach is handed a yellow shirt, while a shirt that color is infinitely more difficult to earn in Le Tour de France: There, only the leader of the race gets the ceremonial yellow jersey.
But on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, those yellow shirts have been a popular feature of the event.
"I have people who tell me they sign up to do the ride just because of the sea of yellow you see," Wiesen says. "It looks massive when it starts."
Still, Le Tour de France, at more than 2,100 miles over three grueling weeks, many of them in the mountains, is just a bit more challenging than Le Tour de Downbeach. Sunday's ride is 14 miles - for the longest course, there's also an 8-mile version for the less-fit. Most of those miles are on the Boardwalk, and all are on flat ground.
"This is a ride for somebody who always wanted to do a race," Wiesen says, with a wide smile, "but really wasn't capable of doing one."
And even if it isn't a grueling test, Le Tour de Downbeach does make some money for local good causes. Wiesen, who is also president of the Ventnor Merchants Association, says in his town, the proceeds go to the town's recreation department to support kids' sports.
In Margate, Anna Maria Blescia of the Margate Business Association, another organizer, says any profits generated there by the ride go mainly to the MBA's scholarship fund for kids from the town, and to local nonprofit groups.
"It's a great family social event - a win-win for everybody," said Blescia, who adds without the support of Tomatoe's, the Margate restaurant that hosts the cookout/after-party, "This wouldn't happen."
But the Tours have happened for five years, and Blescia and Wiesen both expect the tradition to keep growing - possibly in the future by crossing a couple of bridges into Ocean City.
If it does, they may need another new name for a popular old time for locals to take a long bike ride - and to end another summer with a bit of fun.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
Le Tour de Downbeach
Starts 10 a.m. Sunday on the Ventnor Boardwalk at Newport Avenue. Pre-registration is open today at AAAA Bike Shop, 5300 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor, or Margate Bike Shop, 12 S. Essex Ave., Margate. Call 609-487-0808 for AAAA or 609-822-9415 for Margate. Price today is $20 per person, or $15 per person for families of four or more. Sunday registration opens 9:30 a.m. at the starting line; price is $25 per person or $18 apiece for families. The price includes T-shirt, breakfast and a barbecue starting noon at Tomatoe's, 9300 Amherst Ave., Margate. For registration forms or details, see AAAABikeShop.com or MarvelousMargate.com