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Maine Bicycling Season

Depending on the weather, most serious, central Maine bicyclists pedal the roads from late March or early April through much of October and into early November, With those dates in mind, the second half of the unofficial biking season in central Maine has begun -- my favorite part of the year to pursue this growing sport.

Summer heat makes fishing less pressing now because of rising water temperatures, thus bicycling -- always a priority in my life -- becomes even more so in the next 10 weeks before upland-bird, waterfowl and deer hunting kick off in earnest.

In addition to being an exhilarating hobby, bicycling keeps anglers, hunters, birdwatchers or anyone in walking shape. Such intense exercise gives us stamina to wade all day while fishing or to stay in the woods from dawn to dark while chasing deer or songbirds. Being in good condition makes the outdoors far more enjoyable - reason enough to buy a bike.

However, as I was recently telling Bill Sheldon, a bicyclist from Rhode Island, I would bicycle just as much -- even if it were bad for me. What better endorsement for an aerobic workout than that one?

When other bicyclists talk with me about the joys of this pastime, the word "freedom" pops up often, and anyone who has ever pedaled a bike much understands why. That abstract noun perfectly describes the feeling folks get when they head out on a sun-splashed morning for a long ride. My days sometimes have no destination in mind, and during those romps, freedom reaches its highest intensity.

In fact, one morning two years ago, Jolie, my intrepid companion, and I were biking west of the Belgrade Lakes. The sun hung in a cloudless sky, so naturally, we knew north from south and east from west. However, neither of us could figure out whether we were in Readfield, Mount Vernon or maybe Fayette, the latter doubtful but possible. What a feeling of freedom that gave us -- away from it all in the middle of civilization.

Neither of us cared about being partially lost until our four, 16-ounce bottles of water ran dry. Then, we needed to find a familiar main road to get us to a store. Fortunately, an elderly man out for a walk told us we were in Mount Vernon and gave us complicated directions to a major highway. His convoluted right and left turns emphasized the obvious, too. Maine has lots of side roads, good news for bikers with plenty of water.

Each time I write about bicycling in this column, recent conversations with people make me feel compelled to mention hills briefly. Why? Many folks tell me they'd like to get into biking, but steep hills around their homes stop them from taking the plunge.

This misgiving ignores two salient points: 1) Bicyclists can transport bikes to flatter country via a vehicle, and 2) once folks have hardened their leg muscles on somewhat level ground, hills become little to no problem. Trust me on this last one. Serious bikers enjoy climbing, but it takes a while to get legs in that condition.

Make no mistake. Central Maine may not be mountainous, but it does have steep hills, ridges and eskers, the latter geographical formations left by the glacier. When a biker crosses an esker from side to side, the climb can feel straight up.

For instance, the Knowles Road in Belgrade hits an esker at a perpendicular angle, and the road rises so steeply on the west side that from a distance, it looks like a tarred wall -- no exaggeration. The first time I ever went down the road was on my bike, and the the illusionary wall made me want to turn around and head in the opposite direction. Eskers have one blessing though, a short climb.

A major highland can rise for miles, and Route 27 in New Sharon provides us with a perfect example. When a biker approaches from the south, a climb begins just north of the Watson Pond Road and just keeps going up and up for 3 1/2 miles. Such terrain tests legs and builds character, a joyride for veterans.

If bicyclists use a cross (hybrid) or mountain bike, stay in the lowest gear, maintain the same pace and control their breathing, then they can ascend some vicious hills without raising the heart rate much.

This makes a bike efficient for easy transportation, but that approach lessens the workout considerably. If a biker wants exercise, hill climbing should be done in a high enough gear to increase the heart rate but not enough to hurt the knees.

When biking causes sore knees, bikers have done one of two things -- or both. They climb in too high of a gear or have the seat too high, the latter causing the tendon to stretch too much.

On the opposite extreme, a seat too low aggravates the big tendons in the inside top of the legs. A quality bike shop can tell you the proper seat height so it does not strain injure the rider.

A handful of bicyclists in central Maine literally practice their sport 12 months per year, and on a sunny day in January, it is common enough to see bikers on Route 27 between Augusta and Belgrade Lakes. Winter biking requires spelling clothing that bike shops sell.

Lower temperatures anytime of year can make bikers feel uncomfortable because of the wind-chill factor caused by the speeding bike. A biker averages between 12 and 18 miles per hour and may hit top speeds of 24 to 40 mph on hills, depending on the drive-train gear ratio. Even on a still day, an 18 mph "wind" can make a 52-degree day in July feel like late fall.

This temperature topic emphasizes why some folks call Maine the "too something" state. It is either too cold or too hot, too windy or too humid, or too something. We endure and thrive despite it all.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, is a writer, editor and photographer. To reach him, send e-mail to KAllyn800@aol.com

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