FORT KENT, Maine — Right off the bat, it’s impossible to not notice the difference between bicycling in northern Maine and northern Italy.
Many of those differences are what make Tuscany a cycling Mecca while the upper tier of our state can at times resemble a velodrome designed by Dante had he opted to include cycling as a circle of hell in his Divine Comedy.
That’s not to say those of us who regularly take to the roads and hills of northern Maine are not passionate about riding here.
But let’s face it, when season after season you dodge potholes, cracked pavement, frost heaves, loose dogs and at times road rage from vehicular drivers who have not subscribed to “Share the Road” philosophy, Tuscany is a breath of fresh air.
“The first difference that comes to mind is the terrain,” Matt Michaud, a Fort Kent physical therapist who has ridden in Tuscany, said. “In northern Maine we are used to short and steep climbs — a real anaerobic climb followed by a steep downhill — but in Tuscany the climbs are long, gradual and when you look back you are kind of amazed.”
Then there are those roads which appear as if some sort of high-powered Zamboni passes each night to smooth the pavement down into a road cyclist’s dream surface.
“The road conditions are amazing,” said Michaud, who has also cycled in the French Alps and Pyrenees. “There is a total lack of any blemishes or potholes.”
The one thing many of the Tuscan roads lack, Michaud pointed out, are shoulders or designated bike lanes along some areas of heaviest traffic.
“Even though there are no shoulders that great surface makes it less scary,” Michaud said.
Making it even less stressful is the respect Italians have for cycling. “It’s such a common thing in Europe to see people on bicycles,” Michaud said. “All the towns are in close proximity to each other and the price of gas is high so people have gravitated to biking for transportation.”
As a result, Tuscan drivers habitually yield to cyclists in busy intersections or rotaries and rarely tailgate or crowd cyclists on curvy hill climbs or honk their horns in impatient frustration.
“Now the people around here are seeing a lot more of us out there cycling,” he said. “It’s changed a lot over the past 10 years.”
In fact, last spring The League of American Bicyclists ranked Maine as the second most bike-friendly state in the nation.
Mark Rossignol, owner of County Physical Therapy, has logged hundreds of miles bicycling in Italy and France and, fresh from a two-week tour of Tuscany, said the northern region of Italy is the place for cyclists.
“Down in the southern part of Italy they are not so bike-friendly,” he said. “But up in Tuscany it’s a real culture of cyclists [and] the car drivers are not in such a hurry to get anywhere.”
Even cities such as Florence and Siena are best explored by two wheels, he said, adding it’s a good idea to take a train with the bikes into Florence and then proceed by bike along roads that allow only bikes and pedestrians.
Rossignol echoed Michaud’s sentiments of the road surfaces.
“Did you see a crack or bump anywhere there?” he asked. “It’s a cycling dream.”
The only thing that could add to that dream would be having one’s own bicycle, but both men agree travel logistics and costs make bringing a bike on a trans-Atlantic flight nearly prohibitive.
“There is nothing better than riding your own bike,” Michaud said. “Mark and I have often talked about it — you put a lot of miles in training and once you are dialed into a position on your bike, it’s more comfortable than sitting on your sofa.”
Both men traveled to France several years ago, in part to see the Tour de France in person and to ride some of the race’s famed routes.
To bring their high-end road bikes meant first disassembling them in Maine, packing them in specialized air cargo cases, shelling out up to $300 on top of the original airfare, hoping the bike made it to their destination and then re-assembling them upon arrival.
For Michaud, things went wrong almost immediately when his bike did not arrive with the party’s luggage.
“My bike did not show up in Paris so we missed a lot of time waiting for it to arrive,” he said. “We were going to [Grenoble, France] and by the time my bike arrived and we got everything loaded on the train, it was midnight by the time we got there.”
Once in Grenoble, the challenge then became one of finding a cab that could accommodate several passengers, their luggage and bikes.
“The cabs are really small, economy cars and the driver said he could not fit it all in,” Michaud said. “Mark said, ‘sure we can’ and started cramming it all in — he did it and if it was not for him, I’d probably still be there on that curb waiting for a taxi.”
Trains are great way to get around in Europe, but they do not linger long at stations so there is little time to load people, bags and bikes on board.
“Plus, we were not staying at the same place every night, so each time we moved we had to disassemble and re-pack the bikes,” Michaud said. “It probably would have worked better if we were at the same hotel the whole time.”
During Rossignol’s most recent organized trip to Tuscany, his riders were at the same hotel for seven nights, but he said the cost and logistics of bringing all the bikes from home really would not have been worth it.
Instead, through countless Internet and email exchanges with a bike shop in Siena, he was able to secure 11 quality road bikes at a cost of 30 euro ($40.50) per bike per day.
“I called or contacted four or five different shops but a lot did not have what I was looking for,” Rossignol said. “September is a busy time for cyclists in Tuscany and I was lucky I found a guy.”
The deal was sealed with minimal paperwork once Rossignol was in Siena — all he had to do was produce his passport and driver’s license — and the financial portion was strictly cash.
“The guys showed up with a truck full of the bikes, all wrapped in bubble wrap, I paid him and we were set,” he said.
To make the cycles a bit more familiar, some of the riders did bring their regular seats and peddles form home.
For individuals or small groups, Rossignol said, it’s fairly easy to rent decent bicycles upon arrival in places such as Siena from places such as Rossi Bike in the old city or several modern shops outside the town walls.
“The first time my wife, Trish, and I went we were able to get two fairly good mountain bikes to rent,” he said. “If you take a bit more time and look around, you can also find some really good road bikes to rent.”