Have you ever heard of the Penobscot Expedition, one of the biggest naval disasters in American history? It happened right here, between Bangor and Castine, during the Revolutionary War. The entire American fleet — 44 ships — was destroyed.
This event and other bits of Bangor history were explored during the eighth annual Bangor Alleycat bicycle race on Nov. 4, in which cyclists pedaled to 11 checkpoints throughout the city to complete history-related tasks.
“It was the worst naval defeat in the US history before Pearl Harbor,” Liam Riordan said about the Penobscot Expedition. Lead organizer of this year’s race, Riordan is a history professor at the University of Maine, so it’s no surprise he infused the event with bits and pieces of the past.
Not your typical bike race, alleycat races have no set route. Instead, they have checkpoints, locations listed on a manifest that is handed to participants just prior to the race. The racers then use their knowledge of the area to map out what they believe is the best route to hit all checkpoints.
Often the manifest only contains clues for each checkpoint, and it’s up to the racer to figure out the exact location. For example, for the recent Bangor race, the clue for the checkpoint at the city’s famous Paul Bunyan statue was: “He has the biggest peavey in town.”
“You need a little brawn and a little brain,” said Karen Francoeur of Orono, one of the participants in the recent Bangor Alleycat Race. “It’s all about strategy.”
Alleycat races are popular in big cities. Sometimes the races are themed, and at each checkpoint, competitors must perform a feat in order to continue pedaling. The race is more about participation and comradery than it is about speed. In fact, the rider who comes in last place traditionally receives a prize, as does the rider who finishes first.
The first Bangor Alleycat was organized in early December of 2010, by Kierie Picci, a local cyclist who used to live in New York City, where alleycat races are common. During these races, she watched bicyclists climb statues, don wigs and dance at checkpoints throughout The Big Apple.
For the Bangor Alleycat, the responsibility as head organizer switches hands each race. The rules state that the winner of each race plans the next one. That’s how Riordan ended up planning the most recent event, but he didn’t do it alone. Working his connections, he rounded up more than 20 volunteers to man the race checkpoints, including fellow professors and a number of students from the Bangor High School Key Club.
“It just brings people out in a very fun way,” said Elisabeth Dean of Hampden, who has participated in several Bangor Alleycats with her husband, Jon Chapman. “It’s competitive, but not competitive. I mean, an entire family could come out and bike this. And the goofy things you have to do, like write a haiku — I mean, when’s the last time you had to write a haiku?”
“I’ve seen new sides to Bangor [because of the race],” she added. “In one alleycat, we had to do a rubbing of a tombstone. I didn’t even know there was a cemetery that is way over there behind what was Manna [Ministries headquarters] … There’s a small pocket cemetery.”
For the most recent race, checkpoints included the famous Paul Bunyan statue, where racers had to move a small log using an old logging tool called peavey; a memorial to the Underground Railroad in Brewer, where racers answered questions about the abolitionist movement; and the Bangor postcard mural on Union Street, where racers were tasked with identifying four historic buildings in the artwork. Also, in a departure from the history theme, racers were asked to wear silly hats (over their bike helmets) and perform an interpretive dance of a bird in flight at the Essex Woods wetland, an important stopover for birds migrating south each fall.
Race participants were asked for a donation of $5, which went directly toward constructing bike racks at various locations in Bangor and Brewer, a project of Walk-n-Roll, a community safety advisory committee devoted to safer walking and cycling in Bangor.
Greg Edwards of Bangor won the race and is therefore tasked with organizing the next.