BELFAST, Maine — Two thousand Canadian cyclists who planned to spend a week pedaling around the Pine Tree State this August with the Velo Quebec bike touring group won’t be coming after all, apparently because of complications with U.S. Customs.
The news is deeply disappointing to Maine bike aficionados and local community officials who this week began efforts to work with the state’s congressional delegation to see if anything can be done to help smooth the customs problems for the nonprofit cycling association.
“There’s no question that Maine would be a very popular site for Canadians to bicycle in,” Mark Ishkanian, vice president of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine board of directors, said Tuesday. “We just have a great reputation for being welcoming to cyclists and a long history of being welcoming to our Canadian neighbors. That’s why it’s so frustrating that we can’t get this to happen.”
Velo Quebec’s long-planned Grand Tour Desjardins would have brought 2,000 cyclists, plus support crew, to Maine for a weeklong 600-mile ride. The cyclists were to begin in Waterville then ride to Bangor, Bar Harbor, Belfast and Damariscotta before returning to Waterville. According to Ishkanian, there has never been a seven-day ride in Maine this large and it would have been the first time Velo Quebec has done a Maine ride.
“This will be their 20th anniversary grand tour this summer. It was a lot of years of research to put together this ride,” Ishkanian said. “The Velo Quebec people have created a good model to leave as much money in the path of the route as possible in these communities. It’s a win-win for cyclists, visiting some of these spectacular areas, and for the host communities.”
But on Feb. 28, the Canadian cycle group sent a letter to tour collaborators in Maine to say that the 2013 grand tour was being canceled.
“Unfortunately, we will not be able to bring the Grand Tour Desjardins 2013 in Maine,” the letter read. “No significant progress has been made with the U.S. Customs Department. We do not have neither any clues letting us believe that we are near an agreement in this particular case … we still target the State of Maine to bring the 2015 Grand Tour’s edition if we reach an agreement with the authorities.”
Francois-Xavier Tremblay, a spokesperson for Velo Quebec, said Tuesday that he wasn’t sure exactly what created the complications with U.S. Customs.
“There were a few things to take care of, and we figured it would be a little longer to get some obstacles out of the way,” he said in a telephone interview from Montreal, adding that the group still plans to cycle in Maine, though not this summer or next summer. “It’s not stopping us from going down there. We want to go. People are really excited about the destination.”
Shelbe Benson-Fuller, a public affairs officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Tuesday afternoon that she wasn’t yet prepared to comment on the Velo Quebec situation.
According to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, tour participants were expected to purchase approximately 1,700 “bed nights” in local hotels and 36,000 meals. Velo Quebec organizers use local caterers and equipment rental companies to help facilitate the large group of cyclists.
“We’re sorry to hear the news, but we really appreciate all the efforts Velo Quebec has made in meeting with so many in trying to pull this event together,” Drew Morris of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development said Tuesday, adding that he wasn’t sure he could estimate the amount of money the cyclists were expected to spend on their Maine tour. “We know their interest in Maine is very strong and we look forward to continuing the discussions with them so that this event can become a reality.”
In Belfast, city leaders had been thrilled to host the group, which was expected to rent 150 hotel rooms and use local food providers for meals. Local officials were just as disappointed to learn of the change in itinerary.
“When people want to come and drop tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars in our Maine communities, we ought to be able to figure out how to get them across the border and make them feel welcome,” Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley said Tuesday.
Mayor Walter Ash said he was saddened to learn the group would not be coming.
“It would have been good for business,” he said.
Efforts Tuesday afternoon to speak with Chamber of Commerce and other officials from the communities of Waterville, Bangor, Damariscotta and Bar Harbor were unsuccessful.
Ishkanian said that Maine cyclists have been communicating with the congressional delegation to ask for assistance. A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office said Tuesday that his staff was looking into the situation.
“Isn’t there anything to do to overcome this obstacle?” Ishkanian asked.