What a Ride!
At 7 a.m., in a steady drizzle, they stand poised in their improbable gear: shower caps, padded-buttock shorts, plastic bags wrapped hopefully around their Velcroed feet. The teams are the Mighty Lemmings, Wheezers and Geezers, and Trekkers Without Training — who look like they suddenly wish they had some.
They are just a few of the intrepid, two-wheeled teams who have joined almost 1,500 riders outside Sunday River's South Ridge Lodge for the start of the Trek Across Maine, a three-day, 180-mile bicycling adventure held each June to raise funds for the American Lung Association of Maine.The grueling Bethel-to-Rockland trek draws its share of hard-core jocks, so with rock music blaring behind him, Ed Miller, CEO of the Lung Association, repeatedly gives his cautionary pep talk: single file, be careful in towns, enjoy the scenery. To each fifty-rider group heading out, he ends with the careful mantra: "This is not a race — it's a ride."
It's also — despite days of cold rain, sore butts, and sand in the face — what one gleeful rider calls "a hoot." Which might explain why almost three quarters of the riders are self-described "repeat offenders" who have returned each June for the past ten, fifteen, or in the case of the renowned "Magnificent Seven," all twenty-one treks.
Many trekkers have a personal connection to the cause: a son with asthma, a father who died of lung cancer. The ride raises more than $1 million in pledges — 70 percent of the American Lung Association of Maine's annual funding.
Others support the cause but like to cite more ornery reasons for riding, like Team First Tech members who proclaim themselves "gluttons for punishment." "We love the pain," says Fred Gagne, 43, of Bangor, who defiantly completed his first of fourteen treks back when he weighed 280 pounds and "people were betting against me."
Above all, trekkers cite a spirit of fellowship and solidarity that buoys them on hills and through rainstorms. Libbet Cone, a fifty-five-year-old psychotherapist from Portland, was an apprehensive first-timer to whom sixty miles a day seemed an outrageous distance when she started doing early morning April rides in her "winter woolies." But the trekkers' collective zeal sustained her. She likens the feeling to being in a flock of birds.
"There's an energy to it," she says. "You feel carried along by the group. There's always people ahead of you, behind you, they're passing, you're passing. We're so used to feeling separate in the world. To feel part of a large organism that's doing this thing together — it's fabulous."
In neon clumps that soon thin out to one, two, three riders, they pedal through a steady drizzle, jackets flapping, as mist rises off the mountains. Trucks pass, spraying them. Cars pass, people staring. They stand on their pedals while ascending the hills, chat on the straightaways, roll past lumberyards and small towns where people gawk at the lime green parade. The drizzle turns to rain. Water streams from the white wings of the huge insects adhered to the helmets of the Blackfly Breeders team.
The riders range from spandex-encased guys on $8,000, titanium-frame bicycles to Peter Moulton (nine treks), of South China, whose T-shirt reads "Two Wheels, One Gear, No Excuses" as he pedals a threadbare 1950s bike. They range from sweet-faced kids in enormous helmets teetering on tandems with their moms to Erlon Blood, 87, of Lancaster, Massachusetts, who will find himself at a rest stop on the third day waiting less than patiently for his grandson.
Since 1985, the treks have raised more than $11 million to help prevent lung disease and improve lung health in Maine. Today the trek has more volunteers (three hundred) than there were riders (fifty) the first year. The trek is always held on Father's Day weekend, and while organizers have occasionally tinkered with its route in years past, it is now essentially fixed: the University of Maine at Farmington the first night, Colby College in Waterville the second, and ending in Rockland. Ken Bell, of Augusta, wistfully recalls the intimacy of early treks where a couple of hundred riders would bring their own food and water and play bike polo in the evenings. Today, Bell still rides the same bike, a Specialized Sequoia, but says the trek has grown into a tightly choreographed mass event. "This is a tour," he says.
The organization behind that tour is staggering. Supporting the ninety-plus teams of riders are communications, medical, and road-safety teams. There are bike mechanics at every rest stop and handlers for the 10,000 pieces of luggage that magically appear each night in piles labeled "Dorm," "Camp," and "Other." Food servers provide 11,300 meals, 5,000 gallons of water, 15,000 energy bars, 30,000 bananas and apples. (Some enthusiastic trekkers have renamed the event, "Eat Across Maine.")
Despite a subterranean, singularly male sense of competition, there are, in fact, plenty of women. Lisa Letourneau, a Scarborough physician, is doing her fifth trek on a tandem with daughter Abby, and Jean Saunders of Saco is riding with daughters Allison and Katie. Having lost both grandparents to lung disease, says Saunders, "the girls wanted to do it for them." Still, they are outnumbered by baby-boomer guys who clearly relish the adventure of their boys' three-days-and-nights out. Notes one, "We may be married, but we ain't dead yet."
The jocks of the Endless Energy team recall former trek highlights, like the nachos and beer at The Granary, a Farmington microbrewery. Captain Harley Lee of Yarmouth calls the trek "a roving cocktail party, except you've got a Gatorade in one hand and a banana in the other." But Lee, who has pushed his team pledges to $6,000, is also here for other reasons. His father and brother, "both Marlboro men," died of lung cancer.
Rob Crawford, a fifty-year-old lawyer from Cumberland, is the team's engine, the guy others look to to set a tough pace and to joust with on the hills. A longtime athlete and biker whose son has asthma, Crawford sees the trek as a celebration of cycling. He concedes the competitive rush: "Our guys need the speed . . . they like to hammer a bit more." But he also cites the shared experience. "Everyone has to flow together," he says, "or bad things, like crashes, happen."
On this particular, clammy trek, it's so far, so good. Just past Rumford's billowing smokestacks, the riders surge into the first rest stop, the Local 900 Sons of Italy Union Hall in Mexico, sodden and mud-spattered but intact. Hair, faces, eyelashes stream water. People line up for the Porta-potties, the mechanics, the snack tent. Two riders, one with Hannaford bags around his feet, one with Shaw's, cheerfully compare the results. The verdict: both are soaked.
The ride so far? Opinions vary from a succinct "wet" to "kinda miserable" to "lovely." Thanks to the passing trucks, Rob Crawford happily calls the trip "a little gritty, like eating steamers with some extra salt and dirt."
Grit being the name of the game, they press on. Up tough hills at Weld, through Wilton, on to Farmington where, according to tradition, there are baked potatoes for all. By evening, riders have showered and stuck their gear on heaters. Jeff Jones of Hampden (nineteen treks) notes: "I don't see any unhappy people around me."
By Saturday morning, there are a few. The rain is steady and the chill is deep. The first miles of the second day are always the sorest, riders say, and those who camped out have to put on still-wet gear. The padded-seat shorts now feel like a wet diaper.
Still, notes Jeff Miller of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, the sense of community helps keep people moving toward the coast. "Doing sixty miles alone in this weather would be a stretch," he says, "but we're all in the same boat." Soggily, then, the boat makes its way through New Vineyard, North Anson, Norridgewock, and finally to Colby's famously hot showers.
Saturday night in Waterville offers welcome delights: good food, a blues band, and a trek first — the wedding of Charlene Meyers of Solon (eleven treks) to Jack Parkhurst of St. Albans (fifteen). Says Parkhurst, "It seemed like an appropriate time and place. Plus, the reception costs were greatly diminished."
For the ceremony, he wears a baseball cap adorned with a tuxedo, and she wears a white baseball cap with veil. "So it's formal," he notes. They exchange plastic bicycle pins. Having "ridden through storm and fair weather," they vow to "continue the journey together" before retiring to a Colby suite with an actual shower of their own.
As a wedding present, Parkhurst rides the last day with his bride, who sports a garter on her bike shorts and flowers duct-taped to her seat. Everyone else gets a present, too: the sun comes out. Don Allen of Auburn (six treks) declares the blue-sky day with a hint of sea breeze "perfect, as good as it gets."
En route to the finish in Rockland's Snow Marine Park, the riders roll on back roads past backyards lush with lupines and the smell of the sea. Pedaling steadily past spectators who wave signs — "Congratulations Dad!" and "Waytago Blackflies!" — they slow carefully at one last railroad track and, after riding a collective total of 270,000 miles, are home.
Amidst vast tents of food and flapping tablecloths, some admit to being sore — from laughing so much. Says David Lamb, 51, of Rochester, New York, seven-trek captain of the Wheezers and Geezers, "What a ride, what a ride."
Heading back to their day jobs and their lives, there is one common, joyful, steadfast refrain that, despite the rain and grit and diapers and the rest, the riders all echo: "See you next year."