We plucked a narrow-eyed racing cyclist out of retirement and dropped him into the “vacation on two wheels” that is BikeMaine. Can he learn to relax and enjoy the ride?
By Jim Butler
Photographed by Andrew Hetherington
Yessir, you’ve got to make those legs smooth for the long road ahead. When you’re a washed-up old racer like me, such habits die hard. So the evening before I take to the saddle for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s seven-day BikeMaine ride, I give myself the full razor treatment. Why? Well, if you crash, you lose less skin (and if you don’t crash once in a while, I’ve always said, you’re not riding hard enough). Plus, at least some studies indicate there’s an aerodynamic benefit. I guess it makes post-ride rubdowns easier too. Okay, I might be grasping at straws here — maybe it’s just an affectation, a sign of full-on competitive cycling geekdom. If so, I plead guilty as charged.
I’m not the only geek at the starting line on Day 1, waiting at Kittery’s Fort Foster for ride director Kim True to give us the go-ahead. In fact, I’m happy to find that I’m surrounded by bike geeks, more than 350 of them — though few seem to manifest the cutthroat drive I’ve nursed since my racing days (certainly few seem to have mimicked my shaving routine). My thing was always speed, and I can’t remember the last time I rode a bike for seven consecutive days.
BikeMaine, however, as its organizers are quick to point out, is not a race — it is a “vacation on two wheels.” The event got its start in 2013, a way for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine to promote the state as a destination for cyclists and impress upon Mainers how cycling might boost local economies. The inaugural ride attracted a couple hundred takers — people biking for the love of it, the event’s materials explain, “at their own pace along uncrowded, safe, and quiet roadways through small towns rich in local culture.” Each year, organizers plot a new route to show off a different region of the state.
For the first time in my cycling life, I have a license plate with my name on it hanging off the back of my ride, courtesy of the BikeMaine organizers.
In Kittery, a lot of my fellow riders are CEO-looking guys astride beautiful $12,000 European full-carbon numbers, hung with components made of every kind of expensive unobtanium you might imagine. At the other end of the spectrum, riding 20- or 30-year-old steeds, are guys who look like they raise bees (several bear a striking resemblance to Burt). Also: no-nonsense grandmotherly types who seem like they’ll gladly flick me into a ditch if I don’t behave; lovey-dovey couples on tandems; conspicuously mellow sorts on recumbent bikes (the Barcaloungers of the bike world). There’s even a guy on something called an ElliptoGO (an elliptical machine like you’d see at a health club, but with gearing and a front and back wheel). That guy, I think, is in for a hell of a workout.
Day 1 Geek Stats» 3:40:00 ride time
» 60.6 miles
» 16.5 mph
» 2,116 calories burned
» 2,477 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: Gritty’s Original Pub-Style Ale
For the first time in my cycling life, I have a license plate with my name on it hanging off the back of my ride, courtesy of the BikeMaine organizers — a mildly tacky touch that most serious racers would roll their eyes at. For a guy who once measured his bike weight in ounces, it’s indicative of a nails-on-a-chalkboard culture shift that will take some getting used to.
Our first day on the road is a damp 60-mile slog from Kittery to Old Orchard Beach. But despite my wet kit, the roads are terrific, with little traffic and plenty of fun company to enjoy. Along for the ride are photographer Andrew Hetherington, an Irishman by way of New York, and Robert Wright, a cycling buddy of Andrew’s and another pro photog, though he’s in it this week just for kicks.
Rolling through South Berwick, looking for our first rest stop, the three of us find ourselves suddenly surrounded by tandem riders, and a week’s worth of clever wisecracking commences. As we’re flanked by two tandem bikes, Robert quips that we are the meat inside a “tandwich.” Then a third appears — triple decker. “Must be a club tandwich!” Put some spandex on Henny Youngman and he’d fit right in.
Old Orchard Beach looks a little sad under gray skies, but my tent’s already set up when I arrive (glad I paid a little extra for the porter service), and I dash off to the shower trailer (16 stalls of piping-hot water in the back of a tractor-trailer). Then it’s time for what I’ve been looking forward to all day: a trip to the BikeMaine Beer Garden, established at a different local watering hole after most riding days along the tour. Tonight’s is in a bar on the OOB pier, and we sit inside, sipping pints and watching the cold rain. Still, we’re off to a good start, and the forecast looks promising.
Our route today takes us inland from the beach, following the Saco River (crossing it here and there), and along the shore of Sebago Lake. The surroundings skew increasingly rural as we head farther inland, and soon we’re pedaling through rolling hills scattered with small farms, familiar to me from my childhood vacations around Bridgton — trips I now take with my own kids. BikeMaine puts a real emphasis on community engagement in the host towns: Our first rest stop yesterday was on the grounds of the Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, where the staff gave a quick presentation on the author of the Maine classic The Country of the Pointed Firs. Lunch today is in a church basement in Sebago, where the sweet church ladies seem tickled to have us, having festooned the walls with pictures of cyclists torn from magazines. I could hug them, but I’m too stinky.
Day 2 Geek Stats» 3:28:15 ride time
» 54.7 miles
» 15.8 mph
» 1,966 calories burned
» 3,095 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: Sebago Brewing Company Frye’s Leap IPA
At day’s end, we roll into a park that includes Bridgton’s community garden; my tent abuts the squash and heirloom tomatoes. Bridgtonites are whooping it up as we cross the line, shouting and ringing bells. It’s the first time all week — but not the last — that I’m struck by how enthusiastically the host towns embrace these smelly, Lycra-clad lunatics rolling in with mountains of impedimenta — tents, trucks, shower trailer, support staff. We’re an invading army that immediately starts wandering the streets, half clothed and looking for beer, and they couldn’t be happier to have us.
Today’s beer garden is at Bridgton’s Depot Street Tap House, where tour organizers have set up a flatbed trailer stage out front. The bar is on a side street that I remember being pretty marginal when I was a kid, and the locals are clearly proud of the changes in their now-thriving town. We’re serenaded by a bluegrass band, then a Cubano band, then a reggae band. Bikers mob the Tap House, likely giving the bar its best night of summer. By the time I’ve finished my first pint, I realize I’m in the middle of a full-blown block party, watching and grinning as some crazy dancing cyclists from Dubuque tear up the asphalt in front of the bandstand.
It seems like every crossroads we come to has its own iconic white-clapboarded farmhouse.
I’m also realizing what a fabulous way this is to see Maine. BikeMaine riders cover a lot of ground, but not so fast that we can’t stop and smell the roses from time to time. I constantly overhear remarks from people who live in gorgeous, enviable places (Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Oregon, Idaho) about how grateful they are to be in Maine, to see our state’s version of beauty. Of course, I think we have the best of it here, but I tend to spend most of my bike time riding the same roads near my home, over and over. Covering new territory is at once exhausting and refreshing. It seems like every crossroads we come to has its own iconic white-clapboard farmhouse, standing sturdy against the years, with a barn next door undoubtedly full of dusty treasures.
Other riders volunteer their stories. Ten-year-old twins Noah and George Powell are here from Georgia with their older sister, Annie, and their parents, Lori and Robert. The boys did 1,000 miles of training for this and are grinding their way along with the rest of us. They do, however, have different perspectives on the ride. When I ask about their favorite part, Noah says, “The riding.” George? “The ice cream and pie.” It’s hard to argue with George, but in either case, these kids are creating memories that will make Maine an important touchstone in their lives.
Farther up the road, I share a few moments with Mike Dunn, of Auburn. Some time ago, his doctor told him he was going to die if he didn’t do something about his weight. So last April, he got a bike and started riding. BikeMaine is the first time he’s ridden with anyone else. He’s down 80 pounds, with 50 to go to hit his goal, and he’s just about levitating with energy.
Day 3 Geek Stats» 3:05:15 ride time
» 45.4 miles
» 14.7 mph
» 1,880 calories burned
» 3,412 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: Sunday River Brewing Company Double Dry IPA
At one of our rest stops, I discover a way to gauge how comfortable all these former strangers are getting with one another: measuring the liveliness of conversations in the Porta-Potty line. For the first day or two, everyone was pretty grim — standoffish, discreet, maybe a bit distracted by their bladders. By Day 3, the chatty conversations struck up in line carry on, shouted between stalls, right up to the moment of truth. Let’s face it, we all know what’s going on in there.
We do a bunch of climbing early, right out of Bridgton, on smooth and steep roads (my Garmin says the worst grades are 14 percent — ouch), followed by a gradual, 2-mile uphill grind, then a long and flat run into Bethel. All over town, homemade signs welcome us, and our tent city is set up on the baseball field at Gould Academy, with a fabulous view of the White Mountains to the west. It’s a buzzy little village of activity, with hundreds of riders setting up tents, snacking, showering, working on bikes (local shops pitch in where needed), getting massages, and arranging laundry services (score!). At one point, the Gould Academy mountain bike team thunders through campus, barreling down a set of outdoor stairs on their way to a training session. Showoffs.
Day 4 Geek Stats» 2:01:07 ride time
» 25.5 miles
» 12.6 mph
» 724 calories burned
» 946 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: Another Sunday River Brewing Company Double Dry IPA
I discover a way to gauge how comfortable all these former strangers are getting with one another: measuring the liveliness of conversations in the Porta-Potty line.
Then we’re back in the Saco River Valley, skirting the river until our lunch stop in Fryeburg, site of the eponymous fair that’s my favorite of the Maine rural festivals. Fryeburg’s main drag alternates brick and clapboard buildings — the kind of shops where you’ll find a jug of pickled eggs on the counter — then reaches the leafy grounds of Fryeburg Academy before spilling into open country. We roll past the empty fairgrounds. In just a few weeks, the place will be packed with livestock, carnival barkers, and people scarfing fried dough, packing on weight for the winter.
Day 5 Geek Stats» 4:10:34 ride time
» 65.7 miles
» 15.7 mph
» 2,509 calories burned
» 3,133 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: De Proef Brouwerij Flemish Primitive Wild Ale #3; Lively Brewing Co. Mary Jane American IPA; Maine Beer Company Peeper Ale
A rider named Bryce Bachyrycz and I make an unsanctioned detour to hydrate at Ebenezer’s Pub in Lovell, routinely hailed as the country’s best beer bar by the magazines and websites that gauge these sorts of things. When we rejoin the group, we turn east a few miles shy of Kezar Lake, headed for Sweden and Camp Tapawingo, our stop for the night. The lodge at Camp Tap overlooks a dozen or so bunkhouses and the glittery Keyes Pond. I hit the beer garden to grab a cold one (it was an especially thirsty day), then head to the pond, set my beer on the dock, and dive in to cool off. It’s hard to believe, but it seems I’m the only one who thinks to do this, and I endure the glances of envious cyclists coming in off the road. Sorry, folks, this Peeper Ale is all mine. After dinner, I fall asleep to the sound of loons calling to each other on the pond.
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After lunch, the course does trend downhill (well, flat, anyway), and for a while I get into a paceline with Mark Roman, of New York, and Seth Winner, of Pennsylvania. They’re strong, well-matched riders, and we all but fly along. There are times when Seth jumps on the front and I have a little trouble hanging in. When the pace slackens, I learn that, while I was going for my sissy 25-mile rest-day spin, these guys climbed Mount Washington (really — I saw video). The day after BikeMaine ends, they have a century ride planned (that’s 100 miles, for those who don’t know). Too rich for my blood.
Day 6 Geek Stats» 4:38:46 ride time
» 76.3 miles
» 16.4 mph
» 2,686 calories burned
» 3,779 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: Peak Organic IPA
In fact, once we hit the next rest stop, I have to hide from the two of them, so I can spin to Kennebunk at my own pace. A few miles out, Lucy Anich, a smiling and grandmotherly type, pulls up behind me and asks to draft (she does not flick me into the ditch), and we have a fine time finishing the day. Here and there, Lucy tells me she feels guilty not coming around and taking a pull (she’s plenty strong to do it), but I insist on doing the work to Kennebunk. Hell, she’s making me feel guilty for making her feel guilty. At the end of the day, I feel doubly guilty, in fact, as I don’t really manage to chat with her after we reach our overnight stop; it’s about an hour — and a couple of cold Cokes — before I can even think straight.
From Kennebunk, we swing through Kennebunkport for a quick view of the Bushes’ place (pretty nice), then veer inland a bit until Ogunquit and hug the shore all the way to York, where we ride right next to the sandy beach. As a guy from the rocky midcoast who rarely sees genuine sand, it’s always a bit of a surprise for me to see honest-to-god beaches interspersed between rocky outcrops on this part of the coast. It’s a gorgeous day and the beaches are bustling, but for me this section is a bit of a slog, as I’m riding directly into a headwind with nowhere to hide.
Day 7 Geek Stats» 3:13:28 ride time
» 51.9 miles
» 16.1 mph
» 1,445 calories burned
» 2,276 feet climbed
» Rehydration Protocol: Monster Dr. Pepper from the Kennebunk Burger King on the Maine Turnpike
By now I’m counting down the miles. I spin into the rest stops just long enough to grab fluids, then I’m on my way. In York, our stop is on Cape Neddick, a stone’s throw from the Nubble Light, but it’s invisible thanks to a fog bank that rolls steadily over the land even as I fill my water bottles. The more we hang around, the less there is to see.
The York to Kittery stretch is over in a flash, and before I know it, I’m rolling back into Fort Foster, getting a warm greeting from the exuberant Bicycle Coalition of Maine staff. A quick shower (yep, the trailer’s here), a bit of packing, and I’m back behind the wheel. The driver’s seat feels amazing.
So now this old speed racer has biked Maine (anyway, a fair portion of it). I’ve set a personal record for mileage in a week. I saw some sights (I have to get back to that antique shop in Cornish), made some new friends, and rode a lot of outstanding roads I’d never been down.
I’ve even (kind of) embraced the culture shift: the next time I do this, I might add a little bell on my handlebars to complement my plastic license plate. Roll with the changes, is what I say. But you better believe my legs will still be smooth.
This year’s sold-out BikeMaine explores the Bold Coast, from Winter Harbor to Eastport, Sept. 10–17. Learn more about the Bicycle Coalition of Maine at bikemaine.org