by Jeff Henderson
published by Inside Triathlon
The bicycle is a wondrous invention. I have seen it transport a three-person family to church on Sunday morning in Indonesia, a cord of firewood home from the woods in Slovakia, and tourists fluidly through a congested city in Thailand. Standing on a street corner in Beijing, I watched countless commuters outnumber automobiles as they pedaled silently to work, women sitting side-saddle in smart business suits and greasy men waiting curbside with a pump and some old tubes, ready to fix the occasional flat. In Belgium I have found myself in a bike traffic jam when school let out for the day, and in the Netherlands I rode into Antwerp through an eerie, stark white, two-mile stretch of ramrod-straight bike tunnel constructed beneath a canal.
In a sport where fitness is measured in miles, a bike allows you to prepare for triathlon and see a bit of the world at the same time. Thus it was on the morning of September 22nd that Matt and I pointed our front wheels due north and departed the Travelodge parking lot, intent on four and a half days of cycling through the wilds of northern Maine.
We were traveling by bike, a pursuit typically reserved - in America, at least - for retired pensioners and those with suspended driver's licenses. Loaded down with sleeping bags, canned goods, warm clothes, a camping stove, a tent, and a general sense of purpose but not necessarily direction, we struck forth from Portland with winds at our back and a welcoming sun low in the autumn sky.
Our original plan, conceived over email and with the halcyon memories of a shared cross-country journey in the summer of 1999, was to take a ferry out of Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and spend the long weekend exploring our Canadian neighbor. But alas, toxic mold (I am not making this up) was discovered oozing over the docks of our embarkation port, and the ferry company cancelled its entire 2005 schedule following Portland's refusal to clean it up. I can't say I blamed them.
So instead of a perimeter swing around Nova Scotia, we were left to poke through Maine, our unspoken goal being the exotic province of Quebec hundreds of miles from where we stood. We wheeled out of Portland and civilization began to fall away into the deep greens and blues of central Maine.
Though there are many ways to tour by bike, many of them pleasant and happy times, Matt and I typically prefer punishing ourselves in a maniacal, hell-bent quest for miles. TrekTravel, a professional outfit that runs high-end bike tours throughout the world, offers "Leisure" and "Performance" tours which provide a helpful illustration of the dichotomy: in the "leisure" category tour members will spend the morning gently gliding from their evening accommodations to the next Tuscan town, perhaps 25 miles distant, where the afternoon will be wiled away shopping, dining, and enjoying cultural accoutrements such as theatre or dance. The "performance" tour, on the other hand, takes mostly testosterone-charged men over as many mountain passes as can be reasonably accommodated by normal insurance policies.
Matt and I find these tours pedestrian, mainly because they schlep your stuff for you. On the Jeff & Matt Traveling Roadshow, anything you want has to fit into your pannier bags or be strapped atop your rack. Want a pie for dinner? Then you have to carry it from the last grocery store you passed. Decision-making can be anguishing.
So with 100 pounds of bike and gear apiece we chugged through the towns of Peru, Mexico, and Norway on Thursday afternoon. The stench of a paper mill greeted us miles before the smokestacks, by and by we ditched noisy, bustling thoroughfares for quieter side roads, and we came to realize that Maine contains thousands more lakes than those printed on the AAA map. Late afternoon arrived and we commenced a search for a suitable camping spot.
This can be the most trying part of the day, and depending on the weather, the number of hills climbed, and the imminence of sunset "suitable" can take on many meanings. Level, grassy land out of sight of the road and near a body of water is the ideal, but in a pinch baseball dugouts, orange groves, and corporate office parks (with fake, ornate "ponds," wooded walking paths from parking lot to office building, and a willingness to leave early) will do.
We came upon a small house nestled beside a lazy stream. The front yard was more ambitious, containing a grass runway and two small airplane hangars. Matt knocked on the front door and no one answered, so he walked next door to ask permission to camp.
"Do you know the owner of the house next door?" he asked to the couple who came to the door.
"Do you think they'd mind if we pitch a tent in the yard, near the river?" Matt continued.
"Yes," was their unhesitating reply.
They proceeded to tell Matt that a rather unhappy man lived next door, a man who owned a shotgun and held the 3rd Amendment dear to his heart. Matt returned to tell me his news, vigorously encouraging me to get the hell on my bike and start pedaling.
It is then that we discovered Matt had a flat tire. While he fixed it, I left him to imminent death and scouted for camping while the sun sunk lower in the sky. Ten minutes later Matt had the tire repaired and I offered my findings: a lovely spot down near the river, complete with water access and complete seclusion. The only downside was that it was, technically, part of nasty man's property and nearby appeared to be his repository for broken wooden furniture. We silently crept to the river and set up camp.
In the morning we hastily slugged oatmeal and loaded the bikes, one eye primed for the flash of revolver muzzle and one ear tuned to the footsteps which might signify a morning stroll of the property boundaries. We lurched onto the main roadway with relief and no casualties.
For the next two hours we climbed into Maine's beloved skiing region - Saddleback, Sugarloaf, Sunday River. I had rigged up a new cyclecomputer featuring an altimeter, and the numbers whispered what my legs screamed - hundreds of feet gained for every mile of asphalt ventured. Matt grew annoyed by my frequent updates.
"There's 1,000 feet!" I chirped merrily.
"Shut up, your machine's broken. We're at least 1,500 feet up," he shot back.
We crested the summit at 2,210 feet, then again at 2,350 and finally, for real this time, at 2,460 feet. I hate false summits. At the top we were treated to a mostly fog-obscured view of trees. Lots of trees. The sign indicated a lake in the distance, but neither of us could find it. Then the soaking humidity and chilling fog released a torrent of rain on us as we stood, shivering. By the time we had found rain jackets and pannier covers, the deluge ended. The romantic notions of touring through wild & scenic Maine were suddenly lost on us.
What goes up must come down, though, and a morning filled with climbing meant at least half an hour of glorious descending. Touring bikes are not your average road bikes - they have heavier frames, bulkier wheels, and sturdier brakes meant to arrest greater momentum (p = mv, remember). Riding a fully-loaded touring bike is like a Sunday drive in grandma's Cadillac - coming up to speed is slow, stopping is even slower, and turns swing wide. But the ride is plush and comfortable, and downhill speeds approaching 50 miles per hour needn't interrupt sipping tea or taking photographs. It's a fine way to travel.
And an exhausting one at the same time. A bike loaded with four panniers, a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pack cuts through the wind like blunt knives through titanium. In Matt's geeked-out words, "the boundary laminar flow is severely disrupted." Right. The smallest of uphill grades cut forward velocity to just above falling over, and forget standing to power through the climb - you'd quickly wrench your achilles out of its hold on your calf muscle. Low gears and high cadence were the order of the day, and in this way touring encourages excellent pedaling form, unmatched cardiovascular benefits, and a torrent of words you don't often employ around children.
Friday afternoon we made a final stop in the USA, at a small gas station in the "town" of Coburn Gore. After being brusquely informed that the "convenience" store had neither potable water (this is America, right?) nor a bathroom, we dejectedly pressed on for Woburn, the first French-speaking town in the lovely province of Quebec a mere four miles distant - according to the station attendant.
Or was it? The attendant, being American and at least equal in fallibility to NASA, neglected to consider the metric system, Canada's units of choice for big and small, far and wide. The 4 "miles" posted on the roadside sign passed in a mere 2.4, and before you could say kilojoule we were merrily munching on mini cherry pies (480 calories for 99 cents!) and sunflower seeds while trying to decipher what the pleasant young French-speaking lass was telling us about their ability to accept credit cards.
The mountaintop rains had dissipated into a perfect autumn late afternoon, and as the golden sun cast sideways shadows across the well-kept fields of deep green, Matt and I entered a stretch of road between two stunning lakes. We decided to find a spot for the night. We pitched our tent on the shores of Lac Arreigne, an amoeba-shaped body of water lying cool and clear beneath the low mountains of southern Quebec. The summer cottages presiding over the shore were empty, the lake quiet save a flock of Canadian geese squawking contentedly in the distance. I started the ever-reliable Optimus stove while Matt waded into the waters for a quick yet powerfully frigid bath.
Nighttime fell and we realized summer passes into winter without troubling with fall in Canada. We awoke to frozen water bottles, a tent dripping with cold dew, and an extreme unwillingness to leave the sleeping bags. By and by the call to nature proved persuasive.
It's hard to pick a preference between the brand of hills featured in southern Quebec (long and steep, with immediate, fleeting downhills) and a driving headwind. Not that we had a choice - the Good Lord served up both on Saturday morning, in hearty portions. We put our heads down and paid for our sins many times over.
I often wonder why more professionals don't use bike touring as a method of training in the early season. There are miles of roads to be explored, expenses are few, and suffering can be immense. The mental toughness required to conquer 120 miles of loaded touring is invaluable for long races, and when the time comes to trade the monster for a 15-pound Cervelo tri-bike, joyous rapture ensues. Maybe it's too tough?
In the afternoon we left our French-speaking neighbors and fell back into northern Maine, crossing the border at 1,700 feet on our way to the town of Jackman. Again we encountered a lack of suitable drinking water and disgruntled duty-free employees. (Side note: it is curious to me that duty-free shops sell IDENTICAL items whether you are in Maine, Bombay, or Monaco. Is there no demand for colossal Tobblerone when a tax is levied?)
Back in Maine we were joined in our serene afternoon ride by about 4,000 Harley owners intent on hemorrhaging all remaining peace and quiet from the otherwise-deserted roadway. We could no longer talk as their muffler-free engines shot by, and to our great joy we found that their destination for the evening was also our destination. The welcome silence that fell as bikers young and old retired to dinner and beer was replaced almost immediately by... rapid-fire rifle shots.
Yes, late September is moose-hunting season in northern Maine, and apparently the locals had gotten rusty with their semi-automatic skills over the summer. From the sounds rattling forth from the forest, Rocky and Bullwinkle did not stand a chance come morning and the opening of the two-week, no-holds-barred shootfest. The only question remaining in my mortar-shocked brain was whether there would be any meat left without bullets in it.
On the fourth and last night of our pilgrimage, Matt decided he needed a shower. We found a "cozy" campground by a stagnant river and Matt inquired whether there were hot showers to a boy most obviously emerging from taking a shower in the campground facilities. With dripping hair and clutching a wadded-up towel he gave Matt the look of angst that youth today have perfected, and then he looked us over in our tights, cycling shorts, and brightly colored jerseys. "Are you gay?" he asked.
Then, as if we needed clarification, he said: "And not the 'I'm happy' kind, either."
Just for fun I informed him that yes, Matt is gay and that is why we spend the day riding bicycles. Lo and behold we were not bothered by this young man for the remainder of our campground visit.
Monday morning dawned gloomy and damp. The air was damp, our clothes were damp, the tent and our panniers and our bikes were damp. We ate the last of our oatmeal and a can of corned beef hash Matt had procured on impulse (900 mg of salt per serving; 2 servings per can) and packed the bikes one final time. As we headed back to Highway 26, a light rain began to fall.
Light became heavy and heavy invited itself in for dinner, so our final 46 miles were spent soaked to the bone and eating the gritty spray thrown up by the bike in front and the cars to the side. We passed more snowmobile repair shops than grocery stores and stretches of highway reduced to dirt under the onslaught of road construction. Somewhere near Auburn I saw a sign that read, "Blow-Out Sale!" and beneath it, in smaller letters, "Used Tires." I chuckled to myself as Matt tried to lure me into riding through porcupine roadkill.
We had been 430 miles through some of the most gorgeous country on earth, savoring clear fall afternoons and bracing mornings among the lakes, rivers, and mountains on the edges of civilization. As we wearily pulled into the Travelodge on the outskirts of Portland, we reflected that our journey had taken us past the furthest outposts of civilization in the United States, into the rugged beyond of Quebec. And Quebec, my friends, is on the south end of Canada - it's a big world out there.