There are many things, people say, that are “just like riding a bicycle.” Among them, happily, is riding a bicycle.
Who among us does not remember that first bike of our youth? Or that feeling of independence that came when our worlds expanded to include everything within pedaling distance from home?
I’ve been riding bikes off and on for close to four decades now and I have to say, with the coming of spring, the anticipation of exploring northern Maine’s highways and byways on two wheels is as high as it ever was.
These days I alternate between a nice carbon-fiber road bike on tires that always look as thin as dimes and a rugged mountain bike, depending on my cycling mood on any given day.
Do I want to head into town for a cup of coffee in the morning? Or maybe a ride around Long Lake? If so, out comes the road bike, a model far more suited to pavement and tar than the dirt and gravel of the St. John Valley’s back settlements.
When it’s dirt I desire, the mountain bike rolls out and I’ll spend hours cruising past the ponds, potato fields and old farms of the settlements.
It wasn’t always like this. Back when I learned how to ride, the notion of having one bike for every type of riding conditions was unheard of.
Instead, I and my friends cruised around on Schwinn or Huffy bikes tricked out with banana seats and “sissy-bars” — those high rising, metal loops attached to the seat or rear fender.
Really cool kids had three-speed bikes, though most of us had what my mother referred to as a multispeed — as many speeds as you could pedal.
Brakes were certainly never on the handlebar — they were part of the pedals and stopping was achieved by backpedaling, which locked the back tire. Really good backpedalers could brake and lay down an impressive skid mark at the same time.
My first bike was a beast of a machine. A green Schwinn at least three sizes too big for me with a metal basket on the front, massive balloon tires and a bell.
It cost $10, weighed a ton, had the turning radius of an aircraft carrier and I loved it from the moment the older brother of one of my friends taught me how to ride one summer day.
I’ll never forget hearing Tony running along beside me, assuring me he was holding on to the bike and all I had to do was pedal.
After a moment, I could no longer hear his footfalls, so — still pedaling for all I was worth — I turned my head and saw him standing back in the road, arms crossed and grinning ear to ear as I accomplished my first ever unassisted bike ride — directly into a tree.
Eventually over that summer the elements of balance, momentum, turning and braking all came together and a cyclist was born.
About 10 years ago I got back into cycling with serious commitment and — as happens with so many activities — discovered there are a number of like-minded people.
These are folks who agree a bad day on a bicycle is better than the best day at work.
(It should be noted that, while I agree with that premise, in the winter months I swap out “dog sled” for “bicycle.”)
There are no official records on how many bicyclists there are in Maine, but according to Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, 6,000 of them are registered with her group.
“We feel that number is way lower than the actual number of people who enjoy bicycling in Maine,” Grant said.
As a card-carrying BCM member, I look forward to the annual sign of the start of the cycling season — the arrival of the coalition’s rides and events calendar in the mail.
From Portland to Fort Kent and all points in between, organizations and clubs sponsor fun rides, charity rides and races throughout the summer and fall.
Since I tend to be a somewhat goal-oriented individual, I’ve found signing up for one or more of those rides is the kick in the bike shorts needed to keep focused on training rides.
This year the goals include the 62-mile Tour de la Vallee Ride in Fort Kent, benefiting the local Edgar J. Paradis Cancer Fund; and the 70-mile Dempsey Challenge, benefiting the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer, Hope & Healing.
Cycling can be a solitary endeavor, but sharing the road with fellow two-wheelers has afforded me the opportunity to meet some of the most inspirational people I know.
There’s Penny McHatten, a longtime cyclist from Presque Isle who puts more than 1,000 miles on her bike every summer.
Though Penny suffers from asthma and other health concerns that would keep a lesser woman home and sedentary, the only thing that keeps her beloved bright pink Trek road bike in the garage is heavy rain.
“Rain,” she will tell you, “is what you get caught in, not what you ride in.”
Every August, Penny marks her birthday with a special ride covering one mile for each year. Last year she turned 65 — it’s pretty easy and pretty impressive math to do.
I’ve had some great rides with Penny who not only knows some of the best routes in central Aroostook County, but also the best places to grab lunch.
“Ride to eat” is her oft-spoke motto.
Of course, that does not always play out so well.
Several years ago Penny, I and another friend planned a 50-mile ride in the St. John Valley.
Halfway through we stopped for what we considered a well-earned breakfast.
OK, so no one forced us to pile on the omelets made-to-order, home fries or French toast, but man oh man was it ever tasty!
Ever ridden 25 miles on a full-to-bursting stomach? It’s not pretty.
Now we gorge at the end of the rides.
Through Penny I’ve met the members of Spokes for Hope, a collection of cyclists from around northern Maine who, each Labor Day Weekend, pedal from Fort Kent to Kittery to bring attention to cancer and support for finding a cure.
Grant feels cycling is growing in popularity around Maine and said the activity is exploding in southern Maine.
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine annually works to provide education and resources for riders and drivers reminding people that the roads are there for motorized and nonmotorized travel.
This week I was reminded how simple and deep the joy of cycling is when a friend bought a new bike — her first in many, many years.
Coming in from taking one on a test drive outside the shop, she beamed and announced, “Wow, that was really fun.”
Who knows, maybe the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s membership just jumped to 6,001.
This year I have a bit of a learning curve ahead of me as I finally bowed to peer pressure and put new pedals on my bike — the kind you “clip” into and thus become one with the bike.
Of course, if you don’t clip out in time, there is the danger of tipping over and being one with the bike in a heap on the ground.
Everyone who already has them tells me how simple they are to use.
Apparently, it’s just like riding a bike.
Information on the Bicycle Coalition of Maine is available on its website at www.bikemaine.org.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.