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Tennessee college students wheel through Georgia

POSTED: March 25, 2013 9:50 p.m.
Photo by Paul Floeckher/

Left to right, Mary Steger, Jack Piepenbring, Will Pearman and Mary Beth Spitler arrive at Pineora Baptist Church in Guyton as part of Maryville College’s nearly 400-mile bicycle ride through Georgia.

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When Emily Guillaume first took part in Maryville College’s annual spring break bicycle ride, she was too young to ride her own bike.


Emily’s father, Bruce Guillaume, is the director of Mountain Challenge, the outdoor activities program at Maryville College, a private school of about 1,100 students in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Emily was in kindergarten when her father organized Mountain Challenge’s first bike ride, across Tennessee and into Charleston, S.C.


“I rode a little trailer bike on the end of my dad’s,” Emily said. “I rode a few miles here and there, and waved a flag around.”


Now a freshman at Maryville, which is just south of Knoxville, Tenn., Emily just completed the bike ride for the first time as a college student. This year’s was a nine-day, nearly 400-mile trek through Georgia, including an overnight stay in Effingham County.


“It gets better every year,” Emily said. “As I get older and get more miles under me on a bike, the more I love it.”


Unlike Emily, sophomore Mary Beth Spitler took Maryville’s bicycle ride for the first time. Prior to the journey through Georgia from Clayton to Wilmington Island, the farthest bicycle ride Spitler had taken was 11 miles.


“I like a personal challenge,” Spitler said. “I heard they were going to bike to the beach and I thought, ‘beach and biking, I love that.’ So I signed up.”


The physical challenge is one appeal of the bike ride, which Mountain Challenge operations manager Mary Steger described as “an alternative spring break.” Another draw is the camaraderie that builds among the riders along the way.


“Some of these students, when they started the trip, didn’t know each other, and now they know everything about everybody,” Steger said. “It’s really cool how well you get to know people on the trip.”


This year’s ride included five Maryville students and three staff members along with Wendy Guillaume, Bruce’s wife and Emily’s mom. The group pulled into Pineora Baptist Church to conclude the longest leg of the ride, the “century” — 100 miles from Louisville to Guyton.


When the riders arrived, Pineora Baptist welcomed them with a pizza dinner and a place to sleep for the night. The ride organizers had arranged it with the church weeks earlier.


“We didn’t hesitate at all,” said associate pastor Brian McElveen. “We appreciate what they’re doing with these kids and wanted to give them a warm place to sleep and something to eat. That’s the least we can do.”


As Bruce Guillaume explained, “We just called them up and said, ‘Hey, would you just let us in your church, let us sleep and, oh, by the way, would you give us something to eat?’ And their answer was, ‘Absolutely.’”


Bruce Guillaume said the hospitality shown by Pineora Baptist, and others along the bike ride, demonstrated “there’s goodness in the world.”


“I can say that in class back in Tennessee, but it doesn’t say it like this does,” he explained. “These people along the way are the reason, the absolute reason (we do these trips).”


The night before their trip to Effingham, the riders arrived in Louisville just ahead of a severe rainstorm. Steger said some churches and other people interested in the group’s ride called her to make sure they knew about the storm or to check that they had arrived safely at their destination.


“With all the bad things going on in the world, there are people who are (still) reaching out,” Steger said.

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