ORONO, Maine — Bike for health. Check. Bike for charity. Check.
Bike to buttress local economies?
That’s the impetus behind BikeMaine, the eight-day cycling tour of typically unheralded vistas of Maine.
On Saturday, Sept. 7, more than 250 cyclists from across the nation and Canada will gather in Orono to begin this rolling vacation. Along the way, they will feed on venison stew in Dover-Foxcroft, a boiled New England dinner in Castine and experience the rustic charm of Camp Jordan, a wilderness center on the outskirts of Ellsworth.
Unlike many group rides that speed through hotspots for a weekend, BikeMaine is “taking folks to the back roads to get people to explore Maine. It’s not just lobsters and lighthouses,” said Phil Savignano, senior tourism specialists for the Maine Office of Tourism. “This is going into small towns.”
With overnights in Orono, Dover-Foxcroft, Belfast, Castine, Bar Harbor, Ellsworth and pit stops in between, BikeMaine is designed to spur economic development in communities from Mount Desert Island to Piscataquis County.
“We didn’t want to be in large cities,” said ride director Kim True. “They don’t really need the economic impact that we can bring.”
That impact — a caravan of visitors who will have 18 meals during the week and ample time to visit shops, art galleries and restaurants — makes this inaugural ride run by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine more than a test of stamina. It’s a way to provide financial support and shed light on areas of Maine that may never make the guidebooks.
With a $50,000 grant from the Maine Office of Tourism, the 400-mile ride makes a loop from central Maine to the coast, giving riders a taste of farm lands, blueberry barrens and blooming meadows and pastures. For the first year, the highly recognizable community of Bar Harbor, “which is on so many people’s bucket list,” is included said True, because “we knew it would be a national draw.”
But for the most part, organizers want to showcase Maine’s hidden gems.
“We are trying to show, through each community, a different slice of Maine,” said True.
In Dover-Foxcroft, for example, riders will camp at Kiwanis Park, where food vendors and a beer pavilion will be set up along with live music. Cyclists can partake in a wine tasting and theater performance downtown. This milltown of 4,200 residents has been preparing for BikeMaine’s arrival for a year.
“It’s an incredible opportunity. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been familiar with to host such a large number of visitors,” said Jack Clukey, town manager of Dover-Foxcroft, the second stop on the ride. “We’ve looked at this as an opportunity to introduce the riders to Dover-Foxcroft. Give them a chance to visit an area of the state they have not been to before.”
Riders will have dinner at Foxcroft Academy, where international students prepare appetizers from their home countries.
“[This shows] the innovation happening in Maine in order to be a creative economy,” True said. “Riders will be surprised to learn that there is an international community at Dover-Foxcroft.”
Each stopover is designed to highlight a community’s past and present.
In Belfast, riders will sleep in a giant tent on Steamboat Landing and feast on barbecued chicken from Rollie’s Bar and Grill.
“Belfast has transitioned from being a poultry processing center, where the waters ran red at one time, to a beautiful community with a working waterfront,” said True.
The town also is holding an Art Walk on Monday night to showcase its thriving gallery scene.
Each host community will receive $2,000 to $3,000 for expenses, such as electricity and water.
“We are trying not to be a burden to the community, but cover our expenses and bring a focus and attention to the community,” said True. “It’s a rolling celebration of Maine.”
In tiny Eastbrook, population 370, a large part of the town will get involved with the event. Students at Cave Hill School will have lunch with riders and share a local specialty — blueberry cake.
Teaching principal Brenda Jordan is using the moment to her advantage.
“For kids to eat with these cyclists from all over the country is a big deal. We’ve asked [riders] to bring postcards from their home, and we are mapping it,” she said. “Meeting someone from the West Coast is an experience for a child from our corner of the world.”
Modeled after Cycle Oregon and Ride The Rockies, BikeMaine expects to expand in the coming years. The first ride will not make a profit, said True, but down the road she hopes to share the wealth.
“When we start turning a revenue, we will keep 40 percent to make Maine better for biking and 60 percent will go back to the host communities in grants,” said True, who will select a new route every year.
In Orono, where BikeMaine begins and ends, merchants are doing their part to make guests feel welcome. Bob Cutler, owner of The Family Dog has teamed up with Black Bear Brewery for a music and beer festival the day the ride kicks off.
“This is a huge increase of people for one weekend,” said Cutler.
To keep riders fueled, he is making pulled pork paired with a special BikeMaine ale from Black Bear.
The kick off party is an extension of Orono Festival Day, a town event that had languished.
“We are bringing in some energy,” said True.
Along the way, BikeMaine also is paying for entertainment. In Orono they have hired The Gawler Family to perform bluegrass Saturday night.
And that’s music to the ears of merchants.
“The people that are coming in are not the normal people that come to Orono,” said Cutler, who experiences a bump in business when there’s a hockey game or concert at the University of Maine. “This is an opportunity to showcase what Orono has to offer. We are not only known as the home of the University of Maine.”
Roxanne Eflin, senior program developer for the Maine Development Foundation, who helped design the route, said BikeMaine’s lasting impact will be significant, but hard to measure.
“We know that we are exposing the heart of these downtowns to people that have never been here. They are going to return and tell their friends,” said Eflin.
And with Maine’s high visitor return rate — 90 percent of first-timers make a repeat visit according to the Maine Office of Tourism — “it’s very positive,” she said.
Beyond improving the vibrancy and building a buzz for these communities, the ride is a great way to pump local coffers, Eflin said.
”Cars don’t spend money, people do. So you have to get people out of cars and get people to experience places on foot and on bike,” she said.
True, whose mantra is “Bicycling means business,” agrees.
“They really are hand in hand. There is a big push in the state for ecotourism,” she said.
And if ecotourism means going green, BikeMaine is gearing up to do just that.
“We have a no trace left behind philosophy,” said True. “We come in, we leave our money and people don’t know that we’ve been there except for the fact that the money is left behind.”