June 24, 2018
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Less traffic, beautiful foliage make autumn a prime time to bike

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

Sure, and the full-color ads depict ‘‘buff’’ cyclists perched on a scenic overlook somewhere in Maine, en-joying the autumn foliage sans sweat, road dust, and empty water bottles.

Sure, and those irritating ads never depict broken pavement, irritated dogs, and close encounters of the vehicular kind, all the typical hazards that hard-core cyclists endure in the Pine Tree State. Sure, and would those danger-dodgin’ cyclists still venture into Maine’s pictorial autumn para-dise?

You bet!

Pedalin’ among the leaves

Autumn foliage remains an experi-ential phenomenon. Leaf-peepers cruise along red- or yellow-bordered roads and experience the visual pleas-ure evident in bright, natural colors. Hikers, while traipsing across wooded copses and hills, blend sight, smell (decaying leaves’ musty aroma), and sound, the last sensation created by human feet scuffing through fallen leaves.

Ditto cyclists, especially those who venture off asphalt. Pedaling along a hard-packed gravel road, a cyclist cruises beneath the multicolored foli-age, breathes autumn’s pungent scents, and listens as spinning tires stir the leaves.

Which cyclist cannot, after battling northbound along the Around The Mountain Carriage Road, suddenly brake and stare awe-struck at the fiery foliage rolling over Aunt Betty Pond, McFarland Mountain, and Youngs Mountain on MDI? What two-wheeler cannot, after powering up Charleston Hill while southbound on Route 15, pull over briefly by the state prison and gaze wide-eyed across the Penobscot Valley foliage flowing southeast into the Dedham Hills? Which cyclist would not, when cresting Indian Hill while northbound to Greenville, breathe deeply while visu-ally capturing the brilliant hues surrounding Moosehead Lake?

Even the cyclist who routinely rides a particular route will notice the ever-shifting foliage. I often ride on Route 202 in Hampden, where a mixed forest — pine, some spruce or fir, and countless maples and other hardwoods — covers the ridge. During the next four weeks, those hardwoods will blaze in reds, yellows, and oranges, with some reds deepening to blue or purple. Trees I seldom notice in their summer green will, in their autumnal finery, attract my attention.

Riding safely

Despite the sunlight-shortened days, cyclists will venture everywhere in Maine to view the foliage. Wher-ever transitory hues appeal to motorists, cyclists will go, too.

To adequately appreciate the foliage, bicyclists must ride safely. This means paying attention to reality, not to the idyllic, yet false imagery utilized by riding gear and bicycle suppliers.

Reality versus fiction

Ignore the glossy vision of helmeted cyclists, often a man and a woman, pedaling blissfully along a foliage-rimmed road. Their eyes obviously soaking in the gorgeous scenery, the cyclists stare everywhere as their fingers point and their mouths gape.

Such moments do occur, but Maine bicycling requires exquisite concentration, whether equipment- or safety-related. No experienced cyclist would dare pedal neutral-minded along a paved road, even beneath the wildest foliage. Out in the country, where 45’s the minimum speed per hour in Maine, that wandering front tire will get a cyclist creamed. Even in the city, where 25 mph usually rules, a collision will shatter a daydreamin’ cyclist.

Although the MDOT has exten-sively built bike lanes (technically break-down lanes) during the last 15 years, most Maine highways alternate between a paved bike lane and a white line and a torn-up shoulder.

When riding on paved roads, cy-clists must pay attention. If we want to relish a particularly pretty vista, let’s stop the bike and pull off the pave-ment, shall we?

Off-road, cyclists can let their attention wander a bit. Off-road encompasses designated bike or recreational trails and logging roads. Never equate a gravel road, especially one sporting a name and a stop sign, with safe riding; drivers roll as fast on un-paved roads as they do on asphalt.

And on a gravel road, cyclists van-ish inside swirling dust clouds stirred up by passing vehicles.

But on the Acadia National Park carriage roads, for example, cyclists can momentarily study their sur-roundings. There’s nothing like circling Witch Hole Pond on a perfect October morn and witnessing the changing foliage.

Ditto climbing to the Amphitheater from Jordan Pond or Brown Mountain Gate.

Yet even on the carriage roads, marked bike trails, and logging roads, cyclists must ride as proactively as they do on asphalt. Watch the curves anywhere. Listen for oncoming traffic (non-motorized, naturally, except on logging roads).

Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate.

And enjoy the scenery.

Of laws and dogs

Whether on pavement or gravel, cyclists must obey the traffic laws. Always ride to the right. Stop at stop signs and red lights. Cross with green lights, but pay attention to traffic; not every motorist stops on red.

Never argue with a moving car.

Watch parked cars. A rule of thumb? Ride, if possible, beyond a car door’s open width (estimated, naturally). If traffic conditions don’t allow this additional space, pay close attention when passing parked vehicles. Do a ‘‘head scan’’ on every cockpit to see if there’s someone there.

Concerning dogs: A short barreled .22 would work well, but Maine law does not let a cyclist shoot an annoy-ing dog just because it’s road-racin’ the cyclist. Some hard-core cyclists carry Mace or pepper spray, though.

A dog attack, like a car-bike collision, develops fast. Most dogs bark or growl while hurtling after a cyclist, providing sufficient warning that an attack’s underway; however, a black lab on Hermon’s Bog Road emitted no sound the day he caught me on a slight uphill. He, at least, only whiffed my calf.

As long as the dog hasn’t caught up, keep pedaling. Experience tells me that dogs usually run to their territorial limits and then stop. Of course, that limit could extend into the next town.

What if the dog keeps on coming? A few hard-core cyclists recommend stopping and then authoritatively yelling, ‘‘No!’’ or ‘‘Go away!’’ or ‘‘Get lost!’’ One ‘‘Bicycling’’ magazine writer recommended gesticulating while shouting; I wonder if an agitated Rottweiller might mistake a pointed forefinger for a doggie’s finger food.

Don’t be the hard core who bails off a bike and attacks an attacking dog. If the mutt actually reaches the bike and starts to attack, I suggest hollering (attracts other people’s attention) and, if possible, hopping off the bike and keeping it between hu-man legs and dog teeth. This only works when there’s one dog, though.

Biking togs

Bicyclists sport their own fashions, as anyone cruising the MDI carriage roads in high summer can attest. The ‘‘with it’’ cyclists wear brightly colored shirts that, in hue, resemble autumn foliage and, in logos, resemble stock cars. Lycra shorts, sport-striped helmets, sport-specific footwear, and leather bookkeeper’s gloves round out the fashion ensemble.

Such biking togs suffice in summer and early September. Autumn’s plummeting temps should remind cyclists to dress for the weather, though.

Do retain the bright outerwear, however. There’s a reason why experienced cyclists wear the day-glow reds and yellows: visibility. We want mo-torists, who already ignore motorcycle headlights, to see us. On some crisp fall mornings, I even don a fluorescent orange sweatshirt.

Yet even a bright blue or yellow Pearl Izumi vest won’t guarantee visibility. Imagine not noticing a 200-pound blueberry or lemon pedaling at roadside: Such oversight does happen.

Cool temps suck heat from the body, so cyclists, like other outdoor recreationists, should layer their clothing in autumn. Experts recommend wearing an inner layer that wicks moisture (i.e., sweat) from the skin. A fleece shirt will suffice; consider clothing that incorporates Gore-tex or similar wicking materials.

Eschew a cotton shirt, which, when sweat-laden, plasters against the skin.

Outer layers might include a light jersey or jacket, preferably lined with Gore-tex or a similar material. Autumn winds blow cool and often blustery, so consider wearing a bright vest or windbreaker. Pearl Izumi manufactures both clothing styles.

For a longer ride, pack extra clothing. Autumn chill will ultimately reach a cyclist’s skin, and even the best wicking material will hold that chill against human flesh. When clothing turns damp and cold, a cyclist should change into dry clothing.

Protect the joints, particularly the shoulders, elbows, and knees. Wear tights, biking pants, or sweat pants, perhaps a combination. Long pants keep body heat against the knees and calves and, conversely, deflect the chill.

Wear gloves. A 45-degree day might not require gloves for routine exterior chores, but at 12-20 miles per hour, a significant wind chill whips over a cyclist’s uncovered hands. Gloves also cushion sudden impact during a spill or crash.

Consider wearing a sweat band or, on deeply cold days, a ski band. The latter can accidentally double as a sweat band, so watch the chill factor.

Always wear a helmet. Paramedics, if dealing with a downed but conscious cyclist, will invariably ask, ‘‘Did you hit your head?’’ — and hard-core cyclists will agree it’s better to crack a helmet than a skull.

My helmet and head have struck asphalt only once in 25 years spent pedaling across Maine. The impact cracked completely through my helmet behind my left ear; “if you hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t be treating you right now,” the doctor told me at Walk-In Care on Union Street in Bangor.

So a helmet protects the skull during an accident and also reduces heat loss through the head.

And wear comfortable shoes, whether sneakers or dedicated cycling shoes. Replace today’s equator-wrapping laces with shorter, yet functional lengths; an elongated lace, flap-ping in the wind, can wind around a pedal or into a chain. Been there, done that.

Install and use a rear-view mirror. Available designs come handlebar- or helmet-mounted. A few designs attach to eyeglasses.

Where to ride to see the leaves

For a cyclist, there are few places in Maine where the leaves aren’t worth seeing. Remember, the cyclist enjoys the sensations of sight, smell, and sound; the motorist only experiences the sensation of sight. That flaming roadside bush, backdropped by extensive softwoods, might bore the leaf-peeping motorist. A passing cyclist, due to proximity, might notice the colorful undergrowth and then pull over to relish the blended reds, browns, and faded greens.

Cyclists can take their time; mo-torists must hurry. Especially on a long ride, a cyclist might pull over to stretch weary muscles, change a shirt, or swig water. Imagine rolling into the rest area atop Caterpillar Hill in Sedgwick on a clear October day, with the reddened blueberry fields flowing downhill toward Eggemoggin Reach. Sure, and a motorist can relish that same spectacular view, but that mo-torist cannot share the satisfaction of a ride well done…

…because the bicyclist, unlike the motorist, shares nature and all its nuances, from hunkering down into a biting head wind to listening to leaves rustling in that same wind to hearing a buck blow when startled at roadside.

Sure, and add all that stupendous scenery, and a leaf-peeping bike ride through Maine makes for a perfect day.

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