FORT KENT, Maine — It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column that I am somewhat of a cycling fanatic.
Over the past 15 or so years I’ve logged thousands of miles on Maine’s highways and byways and maintain it is among the best ways to view our state.
But this has been a rough year for cycling in Maine.
In June a cyclist from Massachusetts was killed in a tragic accident with a semi-truck while riding in the annual Trek Across Maine.
Less than a month later, a woman visiting our state from Florida headed out alone for a ride along a back road in Canaan on July 7, where she was allegedly pulled from her bicycle by two men, sexually assaulted and left when they drove off.
Her attackers have yet to be identified or apprehended.
To think, up until this summer, my biggest fears cycling were errant distracted drivers and loose dogs.
The events of July 7 have changed all that, and it angers me.
Turns out, I’m not alone.
This weekend, cyclists from Winslow to Fort Kent will take to the roads during several rides aimed at letting the world know that, yes, what happened in Canaan was appalling, but we are not letting the bad guys win this one.
The Keep Riding Our Roads movement was started by Chris Nichols of Winslow in reaction to the fear she was seeing among cyclists.
“I’m an avid cyclist and grew up in rural Maine,” Nichols said earlier this week. “I seek out rural roads, back roads and trails to ride. It’s what I do and I can’t ever see giving that up.”
As it did for many of us, the July 7 attack caused Nichols to step back a bit.
“It was like, ‘What? This really happened?’” she said. “It really, really makes you afraid, [but] I can’t stop riding [and] I can’t be afraid.”
So Nichols decided to do something.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do to feel better?’” she said. “Then I began talking to other friends and we decided what we could do is keep riding.”
Her ride will begin at 10 a.m. at Fedco Trees, 213 Hinckley Road in Clinton, and cover up to 30 miles, with riders free to pedal any distance they choose.
I was so inspired by Nichol’s plan that, with her full support and blessings, I’ve organized a companion ride up in Aroostook County.
Keep Riding Our Roads — The Northern Version will start at 3 p.m. Saturday, at the Stockholm Town Office on School Street, just past Eureka Hall.
This will be a 14-mile, easy-paced ride toward U.S. Route 1 and back to the town office. Everyone is invited to take part.
Nichols said of her effort, “The idea is to put something positive out there. Let’s support this woman and show her we care.”
Organizing the rides is a great way to shine some attention on a very serious issue both in Maine and across the country, according to Cara Courchesne, communications and outreach coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“It’s important to raise awareness of these issues,” Courchesne said. “Sexual violence does happen and it happens more than folks like to admit.”
In fact, according to Courchesne, one in five Mainers will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. One in five — that’s 13,000 Mainers, in one year.
Even in today’s supposedly enlightened society, the stigma remains.
“It’s a very personal crime with a lot of shame attached,” Courchesne said. “The reality is, when people come forward there is still a tendency to blame the victim.”
While it is crucial that individuals do not put themselves in harms way, the real solutions must come from society, she said.
“It comes down to what we should do as communities so we can change the culture,” she said. “The reason someone gets raped is not because she was out cycling.”
Cultural acceptance of music, movies, games and advertizing that glamorize sexual violence need to be addressed, Courchesne said.
The Keep Riding Our Roads rides will provide a way for that conversation to start.
“It’s a chance to talk about issues we don’t normally talk about,” Courchesne said. “The more attention given to the issue, the better.”
Perhaps the only thing more heinous than the nature of the crime that took place on July 7 is the fact that, assuming they are even caught, the attackers may not face any jail time.
According to Courchesne, the statistics for rapists actually going to jail in Maine are pretty low, especially when you consider only 15 out of every 100 rapes in this state are reported to begin with.
“It’s not a matter of how strong the laws are,” she said. “It’s a matter of how many are prosecuted, and even if they do get caught, there is a good chance nothing will happen.”
I, for one, feel that needs to change and hope conversations begun on Saturday’s rides can make that happen.
Crimes of sexual violence are overwhelmingly against women and perpetrated by men. Come on, guys, really? These are your mothers, your sisters, your daughters, your wives and your girlfriends. Is it not time to step up and put a stop to this?
“We just can’t be quiet about this,” Nichols said. “I’m sure the [Canaan] community feels poorly about this.”
Nichols added that the trauma of the assault has changed the lives not only of the victim but of many other women in Maine.
The rides are informal and nonsupported, meaning there is no registration or fee. Simply show up with your bike and helmet and ride. It’s a good idea to bring water and snacks, as well.
“There will be no speeches, just people getting together to go for a bike ride,” Nichols said. “It’s a social moment to put some good vibes out there.”
Like Nichols and a bunch of my other female cycling friends, I am unnerved by what happened on July 7. No one — and I mean no one — should have to fear for their safety like this while riding.
I love to ride, it’s what I do to relax, to unwind or work off some stress of the day. Some of my best ideas come while spinning along on two wheels.
And now, thanks to an act of violence, I’m left with a need to constantly look over my shoulder and wonder about the motives of the individual who just passed me in a car or truck.
Biking alone? Not sure when and if I will be doing that ever again, and don’t think that does not anger me no end.
“It makes you really mad,” Nichols said. “This was a woman visiting our state and we have kind of an inherent responsibility to take care of our visitors because they love our state and feel safe here.”
Nichols hopes the victim in the attack will hear of this ride and know there are people who care.
“We are going to ride the hell out of every road,” she said. “We want people to see us and know that we care.”
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.