How We Roll

Pedal. Camp. See. Meet. It’s not a race. This is about endurance, two-wheeled travel, and having a good time. Grabbing the last couple of spaces to ride along with BikeMaine’s annual, roving, bicycle-powered tour.

It’s been a sun-soaked day, and as night falls, the grassy field at Gould Academy is glowing. Dome-shaped tents lit from within form neat lines, echoing the rows of apple trees and corn stalks in hilltop orchards and valley farms nearby. This, though, is a pop-up village, full of life and bicycles. A few blocks away at the Bethel Inn Resort—where local school kids have been serving up salad and stew to the hungry bicycling crowd—the night’s band is still playing outside. It’s midweek of a week-long bicycling caravan that starts and ends in Kittery and loops up the coast and into western Maine and back, spanning more than 350 miles. Some of the hundreds of fellow cyclists sharing this field are already sleeping (and snoring) in the night’s base camp.

This is BikeMaine, organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, an advocacy group founded in 1992 to encourage bicycling and walking in Maine. The annual ride follows a different route each year, and it offers full support for the cyclists, from shuttles to meals. We’re feeling lucky to join the rolling adventure for a couple of days. Participation is limited to fewer than 400 riders (the event is sold out), and minutes after arriving I can already feel a sense of camaraderie. It must be something fueled by camping together and being outside. Maine towns and the scenery between is the backdrop, while everyone shares the experience of cycling 50 to 80 miles (or more) each.

White Mountain Morning

Less than a dozen hours after my head hits the pillow for the night in the tent in Bethel, I’m completely wide awake, in motion on my bike, and at the top of the hill—actually a mountain. We’ve long ago left camp and we’ve made it to the highest point of the day’s ride, a peak in the White Mountain National Forest on Maine’s western border. To get here, we’ve pedaled near the ski slopes of Sunday River and crossed a bridge over the Androscoggin River in Gilead, where I could see a couple of guys wading in the water below, fishing. Route 113 is remote and steep, a north-south narrow forest road that threads back and forth between Maine and New Hampshire. It’s closed in wintertime, and is a favorite drive for tourists, hikers, and motorcycle groups because of the scenery. But it feels all ours now.

The hundreds of bicyclists are on the same route—Maine cyclists joined by bicycle travelers from 35 states and five foreign countries. A man on a stand-up bike that looks like a Stairmaster on wheels is in the pack. The Powell family from Georgia is also riding, including the 10-year-old twin boys Jonah and Noah, who tell me they’ve gone as fast as 46 miles per hour on one of the downhill stretches. And there’s a lively group of cycling professors from Pennsylvania who pass me early on. We meet when everyone stops at an elevation over 1,400 feet to take in the view of mountains and valleys that sweeps out from Grafton Notch. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards is riding along with me, and we hear other riders yelp as they start the descent. After the slow uphill grind of getting to the top, this section is exhilarating. We’re essentially in a controlled free fall. All I need to do is relax into the speedy gliding, and I do some braking to keep from going too fast on the curves. It almost feels like the very best of days skiing. Except that I’m whooshing on pavement, coasting downhill for miles toward the farmland of the Saco River valley and fairgrounds at Fryeburg.

When the landscape flattens out a bit, we step up the pedaling again. There’s very little car traffic passing. The sun is out for another warm day, with temperatures reaching the low 80s. I grab for my water bottle often and eventually we follow signs to turn into the official rest stop at Cold River Camp. That’s another facet of BikeMaine: even the rest stop locations are interesting—not just roadside sips of water. This stop is at a seasonal camp owned by the venerable outdoors organization the Appalachian Mountain Club, and it’s not far from the potato-farm birthplace of Cold River Vodka. (When we pass Cold River signs, I think of delicious past sips I’ve had of the Maine-made potato spirit. I remember a slight vanilla sweetness.) We’ve pedaled 25 miles by now, and lean our bikes against one of the historic camp cabins to explore for a few minutes before we hit the road again.

Pedal Philosophy

As we ride, I recall the prior night’s evening in Bethel. In addition to dinner and music, we sat down to hear pre-dinner remarks by one of the ride participants, Maine native David Brancaccio, the host and senior editor of the Marketplace Morning Report on public radio. He’s got a terrific voice, authoritative yet warm. Brancaccio grew up in Waterville, and he was part of a forum about cycling and how it can enrich community life and a town’s economy.

He talked about bicyclists as an economic force—he noted there are more cyclists in the United States than there are skiers or golfers combined. The broadcast journalist also talked about his experience being part of BikeMaine and said he finds truth in what another cyclist told him about the value of doing long cycling routes like this one. “Sometimes I need some time to talk to myself,” he said. That’s what the hours and days of bicycling can give you.

Brancaccio mentioned, too, the feeling of being “high on life” during the ride. I get that. By the forty-first mile of the day we look up to see a crowd of cyclists and their parked bikes at a bucolic farmhouse. This is the lunch location, a 2,000-acre enterprise near Brownfield named Weston’s Farm that traces its beginning to 1799. Cyclists explore the farm stand and pose for pictures in the pumpkin patch. That’s where we meet Dr. Peter Millard, a participant from Belfast, stretched out in the shade of a tree where we’d left our bikes. He asks about Peter Frank’s bike. The bicycle is his new favorite, an American-made Rivendell with upright handlebars (not curved like a typical road bicycle). That’s another thing that happens on this ride: people notice and talk with each other about the bikes they ride. We saw riders on tandem bikes, recumbents, and all sorts of beautiful and interesting bicycles made by Soma, Trek, Gunnar, and Cannondale. All along, it’s a rolling bicycle show.

A Swim in Sweden

We pedal through hilly Lovell near Kezar Lake, and somewhere around mile 58 a series of even steeper inclines begins. This is tough going with end-of-the-day legs. Mine feel like noodles by the time we’re at the day’s final mile (close to 62), down the long unpaved road to our destination that night. Camp Tapawingo is a nearly 100-year-old private girls’ camp in Sweden. I’m happy to get to the next “village,” and this one is in a striking setting. The large wood-shingled lodge is situated on a hillside with a wide green meadow below for the tents.

The whole scene is a happy sight. I walk toward the line of tents and look for ours, which is marked with a large tag and the number 75. We paid extra for the tent- and-porter service to help make the riding lighter and more carefree. That way, we don’t have to carry our own gear on our backs or bikes. The system works well. The new, blue L.L.Bean tent is already set up for us when we arrive at the end of the day. Rows of nearby portable toilets and sinks and a large, ultra-modern shower truck are part of the shared experience. Also available in the village is laundry service, yoga classes, and bicycle maintenance and repair. We only have to unroll our sleeping bags.

But first, before dinner, I want to swim. The classic, 200-acre Camp Tapawingo includes a sandy shoreline on Keyes Pond, just beyond a line of trees. Floating docks surround a camp swimming area, and some other cyclists, including the twins Jonah and Noah Powell, are already in the water. I jump in too, and stretch my arms and legs to do some cool-water laps. I float awhile and look up at the sky and trees. It’s a perfect post-pedaling release.

After a dinner cooked and served that night by the Sweden Fire Department and Sweden Historical Society, we buy a couple of bottles of Peeper Ale made by the Freeport-based Maine Beer Company— different Maine beers are proffered nightly—and listen to the night’s live music. The Lonely Heartstring Band is a bluegrass quintet from Boston, and the fiddle, banjo, and stand-up bass sound great in the all- wood lodge. (Since that show, I’ve noticed that the group has signed with Rounder Records to record a full-length album.)

The Cycle Crowd

In that night of music and food, everyone’s cleaned up from the day’s ride. Some are talking in groups on the porch or playing ping pong in an adjoining room. The vibe is that of a good party. Everyone here is sun- kissed, fit, and vital—even when muscles are sore and tired—and it’s inspiring to be around all of the positive energy.

I notice a man in fuschia-colored track pants who has a magnetic smile. Furusaka Hirokazu of Japan says he retired from full- time work two years earlier. Since then, he’s made it a point to “do the things I’ve always wanted to do.” That includes learning to play the guitar and mandolin—he says the next—as well as going on bicycling trips in Maine, Italy, and Russia. “A friend in Japan told me I should try this ride,”he explains, so he signed up and traveled to the United States for the event. He’s not the only participant who came a long distance to pedal a bicycle here. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, about 75 percent of the BikeMaine participants are from out of state or out of the country. Wherever they’re from, the riders explore the communities, culture, and food of Maine.

At some point in my days on the handbar-gripping tour I think of a marketing line from the ski slopes up at Big Squaw Mountain in Greenville-“Ski the view.” I tweak the working as I watch my bicycle wheel spin through roadways in the western Maine woods. “Cycling the view” is ow I’d describe this out-of-the-car, self-powered tour, and what a view it is. Beyond Bethel and Sweden, throughout the week, everyone pedals to Kittery, Old Orchard Beach, Bridgeton, and Kennebunk, and then celebrates and relaxes at the camping villages every night. It’s BikeMaine, and that’s how we roll