Even with cloudy skies overhead and face masks at the starting point, the sunny smiles of those cycling in the 13th annual Bikes, Blues & Bayous shined through.
With the added COVID-19 procedures, such as spreading out at the starting points and minimizing gatherings at the rest stops, 62-mile ride participant Bobby McGee said Saturday’s event was still just as fun as it always has been.
“It didn’t really hurt the event,” the 63-year-old Pontotoc resident said of the pandemic-driven adjustments made by organizers. “It was really responsible of them to take all these steps. It was good for everyone.”
Richard Beattie, co-founder and an organizer of Bikes, Blues & Bayous, estimated about 450 out of the 511 registered were able to attend. That is less than half of the normal turnout the event, known as “Mississippi’s largest bike ride,” usually draws. Sponsored annually by the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce, the event had many changes this year, including the participant cap, in order to follow state and national COVID-19 guidelines.
The 13th ride was the first time Beattie has been able to participate as a cyclist in the event. During his 62-mile journey, he said he was ecstatic to witness all the preparation and hard work to modify the event fall into place.
“I was really proud to see all the rest stops that I visited, with the volunteers following the guidelines and riders coming with masks and social distancing,” he said. “It was just amazing to see.”
McGee, while enjoying a well-deserved protein shake after completing the ride’s longest of three courses, said the weather — with overcast skies and temperatures in the 70s for much of the morning — was perfect for biking.
“Best weather we ever had,” McGee said. “Cloudy the whole way. Cooler than it normally is — just couldn’t have been better.”
McGee said that his favorite thing about this event is the comradery among all the people in it.
“I rode with two guys that I didn’t know before, and we worked together like we’ve known each other forever,” he said. “So we kept a really fast pace and had a good time.”
McGee said cyclists often ride together in a group and take turns easing the wind, or drafting, for others.
“It’s like a teamwork,” he said. “It makes a big difference.”
Riders from all over the South took to their bicycles, excited to ride in an event they look forward to all year.
Takeitha Chambers, 47, of Memphis celebrated her ninth year riding in Bikes, Blues & Bayous, and she said she is already looking forward to participating again in 2021.
“I’m going to bring my own cake and ice cream next time,” Chambers laughed. “I’m going to do it up really big for 10 years.”
Chambers, along with her husband, Christopher, and two friends, Ruth Phillips and Vivian Prewitt, came dressed in matching jerseys to cycle the 46-mile route. “Wonderful” was the word she used to describe the event.
“First of all it’s flat,” she said. “And also, I just love the community, the community engagement, the community involvement. I love it.”
Larry Hendricks of Hazlehurst has been coming to Bikes, Blues & Bayous for the past three years. He said he is impressed each time by the organization.
“It’s the best ride in the whole state, and I’ve done them all,” he said.
As many of the cyclists on the 62-mile trek rode through Itta Bena, they took a brief break at the first rest stop. Snacks, cold water and individually packaged pickles were available.
“Everything is going wonderful,” rest stop volunteer Ruthie Robinson said a little after 8 a.m. “Everybody’s got on their masks and their gloves. Bikers are coming through. They are smiling, and they’re happy to see us, and we are glad to see them.”
Many of the Itta Bena rest stop volunteers have gotten to know some of the cyclists who participate each year. They were excited to see the returning bikers, but kept at a 6-foot distance while greeting them.
“You want to hug them ... but you can’t,” said Robinson.
The rest stop was relocated from downtown to the parking lot of Larry’s Fish House.
“We are glad to see the turnout coming through Itta Bena,” said Robinson. “Itta Bena does itself proud every year with Bikes, Blues & Bayous.”
Philip Jones had traveled from Palm Springs, Florida, where he resides part time, to participate in the 62-mile ride. A fifth-year participant, Jones said this year was definitely unique.
From his stay at The Alluvian to visiting The Crystal Grill and Giardina’s restaurants, Jones said he noticed that “people are very respectful” of health and safety guidelines.
Although Jones said he missed some of the Bikes, Blues & Bayous festivities that had to be canceled because of the pandemic, he echoed what many said about an event they feared might not happen at all. “I’m just happy to ride,” he said.
The rest stop in Minter City was scaled back from its usual fanfare, but it did not hold back on the hospitality.
Volunteer Annette Mize happily laid out the spread of pimento cheese sandwiches, blueberry cookies and orange slices at one of the tables of snacks outside Minter City United Methodist Church.
Mize said that even though this year’s ride looks vastly different than the previous 12, she was still “eager to greet the riders” as they made their way around the course.
First-time Bikes, Blues & Bayous participant Jason Mullen, 45, of Atlanta said he was having a lot of fun. He stopped at Minter City to grab some quick refreshments and recharge for the second half of his 46-mile ride.
Mullen enjoyed the change of pace the Delta offered compared to the Big Peach.
“Just coming into these small towns, it was really cool,” he said. “It’s certainly not Atlanta traffic on these roads.”
As the ride came to a close, and the exhausted bikers finished up their pulled pork sandwiches on the banks of the Yazoo River, they waved goodbye and said farewell to their fellow cyclists — making sure to stay 6 feet apart.
• Contact Adam Bakst at 581-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AdamBakst_GW. Ruthie Robison and Tim Kalich contributed to this report.