The Bike Man of Chebeague
Please don't call it a business," begs Magruder "Mac" Passano about the nearly one hundred bicycles that he loans out free of charge to whomever shows up on the front lawn of his Chebeague Island home. It doesn't matter if you're an island native, summer resident, short-term vacationer, or mere day-tripper. Nor does it matter if you want to borrow it for a day, a week, a month, or the entire summer. From tricycles to ten-speeds, no matter your age, size, or skill level, Mac Passano has a bike for you."We heard about him on the ferry," says Marne Sherman of Alexandria, Virginia, who spent a week on the island with her husband, Bill. "Somebody said 'Go see Mac, he'll take care of you.' "
That somebody might well have been Megan Murphy, a year-round Chebeague resident and owner of Out to Sea, a bakery that delivers homemade goodies around the island. "If someone caught me on the boat, and I knew they were coming over to the island for the first time, I would definitely say, 'Take a right, and half-a-mile down the road you'll find Mac Passano and his bikes.' "
Located on South Road, a ten-minute walk from the Stone Pier, Passano's yard is crammed with bike racks and bicycles of every size, shape, and description. Two hand-lettered signs rest near the front door, one identifying "Mac Passano the BICYCLEMAN" and the other sternly requesting "If he is not here, PLEASE do not borrow bicycles." This is a man who clearly takes his charity very personally.
"His bikes are always very neatly lined up on two different sides of the yard," explains Murphy. "You could never get away with that kind of operation on the mainland."
Passano, 80, is a retired University of Wisconsin zoology professor whose interest in bicycle repair began on Chebeague in 1987 when he tried to repair a couple of old bikes kept at a summer rental home. When he retired in 1996 he and his wife, Beth, returned to live year-round on the island where he had vacationed as a youth. His bikes are a hobby, he says, into which he sinks about $1,000 a year. (He and Beth do have their own bicycles, but Passano says they hardly ever ride them these days.)
The desire to collect old bikes and repair them, Passano says, "was sort of a natural. I just try and make them run and have them available. If I don't think they can be repaired, I strip them, take what parts are available, and take them up to the transfer station."
But not all the bicycles in Passano's fleet arrived at his doorstep in rough shape. "We were finished using our bike trailer and brought it down one day and donated it," says Megan Murphy. "It was pretty much in brand-new condition and [later,] Mac stopped us, just to mention how much he appreciated it, how many families have been able to cart their kids around the island free of charge, and what a nice benefit it is because he doesn't usually get that kind of thing. That made us feel good."
Not everyone who visits Chebeague Island, however, shares Passano's respect for the two-wheeler. One recurring problem he faces is the need to fetch bikes abandoned at various spots around the island. "In spite of what it may look like," he says, "I don't really keep tabs on where the bikes are. People occasionally leave them, and commonly they leave them down at the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal."
With no financial stake in the bicycles' prompt return, Passano knows that a few of the 800 to 900 people who borrow his bikes every summer can't be bothered to bring them back. Luckily for him, a friend near the ferry or over at the other end of the island will call and say, " 'You know, there are some bikes down there, they may be yours,' " Passano remarks.
Each bicycle bears a yellow sticker and a specific number, and borrowers must show a driver's license and sign a liability waiver, which includes an address and telephone number. Passano realizes he could track down his errant borrowers if he wanted, but that's not his style.
Megan Murphy says Passano and his wife are "not the kind of people you'd want to take advantage of." But she realizes, too, that "everybody's in a rush to get the last boat" off the island, and sometimes they are forced to choose between catching the ferry and returning the bikes. These riders aren't motivated by thievery; there's no need to be. "I tell people if they fall in love with a bike, let me know," Passano explains. "They can take it with them when they leave — consider it their own."
Fran Calder, 68, who drives the island taxi, says her passengers are usually surprised the bikes are free, but she still tells them about Passano even if it means a potential drop in her own business. "People want to ride around the island, and I can't always ride people around the island," she says, adding that Passano's reluctance to charge for his bicycles, "kind of shows people that we're not all mercenaries."
Megan Murphy rides her own bike but if she notices her tires are a little low, she stops by Passano's South Road home, and he gives her a little air pump-up. She says one time he noticed that her brakes were a little squeaky, and with a twist here and a squirt there, the squeak was gone.
"He'll fix anyone's bike," she laughs. "He wouldn't even know you, and you could go up to him, he'd look at your bike, help you out with your chain or grease up your anything."
As far as his borrowers are concerned — he emphasizes he doesn't think of them as "customers" — if it turns out the bike you first fancied doesn't strike your taste after all, he'll exchange it for one that will. Ask Bill Sherman, an urban planner from northern Virginia, who vacationed on the island with his wife last summer and took full advantage of Passano's fleet.
"The bike I ended up with was probably the fifth one I got on and rode around," Sherman declares. "I was never very good at riding bikes; it's something I never enjoyed that much. But riding that bike around Chebeague was a great experience."
His wife, Marne, looks back upon their week on Chebeague with fondness and no shortage of pleasant memories, many of which include Mac Passano's bicycles: "Everywhere we went we were on those bikes. It was so much fun riding all over the island. And there were no real problems; nothing that didn't add to the adventure."
And since their trip, the Shermans have even made Mac Passano somewhat of a celebrity back home in Virginia. "Everyone we talked to about Maine and Chebeague, we told about the bikes," Marne says. "Nobody could believe what we said about Mac. Nobody could believe that he does it for free." Perhaps most noteworthy of all, biking on Chebeague turned out to be a life-altering event for Marne's husband. For the first time ever, she says, "It made Bill want to own a bike."
If You Go
Two ferry services offer daily roundtrips to Chebeague Island: Casco Bay Lines (207-774-7871) from Portland, and Chebeague Transportation Company (207-846-3700) from Cousins Island in Yarmouth.