Road Cycling

One possible way to alleviate gridlock at Cadillac Mountain? Leave the car, take the bike – Press Herald

BAR HARBOR — Dean Read cycles up 1,529-foot Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park a few dozen times a year to stay fit – and the avid local cyclist is not the only one. The coastal climb is a favorite among local riders on Mount Desert Island because of the challenge in the 3.5-mile route, and those world-famous, far-reaching ocean views.

Local riders will tell you a cyclist doing this quintessential Acadia climb needs to time it just right. They advise: Don’t ride up Cadillac when any of the more than 100 cruise ships that come to Bar Harbor each year are in port; or at dawn when tourists flock here to see the sunrise; or any other time when some of the 3.5 million visitors who come to Acadia each year are driving up the mountain. The traffic congestion in the park has turned this famous bike ride into a dangerous venture.

And yet, as Acadia officials start planning a new reservation system for motorists driving up Cadillac – one of the most visited spots at one of the nation’s most-visited national parks – local riders hope more cyclists get to see the mountain in this intimate, albeit exhausting, way.

“From a cycling standpoint, it’s a great ride. It’s not an easy ride. I hope more people try it,” said Read, 71.

In March, when the National Park Service released its new Transportation Plan for Acadia, it announced it will roll out a reservation system for motorists on Cadillac as the first of several measures to help curb congestion. It likely will be implemented in 2020, Acadia spokeswoman Christie Anastasia said. The road to the Cadillac Mountain summit was closed by the park 54 times in 2018 and 70 times in 2017 because of congestion and safety concerns, she said. There are 150 parking spots on top of Cadillac, and another two spots for buses. The cost to reserve one of these spots has yet to be determined, Anastasia said.

“What we’re really managing is the visitor experience and the protection of the resource,” she said. “A lot of places in Acadia at some point become so crowded, the visual impact of seeing all those people means people don’t bother going there.”

Cycling to the top of Cadillac is also the culmination of the 27-year-old Cadillac Challenge Century Bike Ride that circles the island in the fall, a bike tour that Read organizes. Many locals even do repeat trips up Cadillac; some do as many as 15 circuits to log 100 miles on the mountain, creating a grueling, though memorable, century ride.

The 5-to-6-percent incline in most places is not challenging. However, the fact the ride never completely levels out over the course of more than three miles makes it an aerobic workout. The ride down is mostly gradual. Some professional riders can do the route in fewer than 20 minutes. Many of the fit local riders take about 25 minutes, Read said. And those not quite in cycling shape (like this reporter) may take 45 minutes or longer to triumph over the continual inclines.

At the start of May, Read and local rider Bob Carroll rode the route together on a windy day when few tourists were in the park. It was Carroll’s fifth time up the mountain this year, and Read’s first. The trip took 23 minutes, and Carroll went back for more.

“It’s not until No. 50 does it start getting fun,” Carroll said.

Bob Carroll makes his way down Cadillac Mountain in early May. That’s a good time to ride because the crowds haven’t yet arrived. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The start of the ride is buried in pine trees and is steep. But after a quarter of the journey is complete, the views start encouraging a cyclist. To peek over rugged spruce and pitch pine trees and see the small islands that dot the Downeast coast is inspiring, even with oxygen debt setting in. When the full view of the Atlantic opens up in the last half mile, the view seems to cheer a rider to the top. And, somehow, it feels the best way to honor this rare natural scene is to keep peddling.

By all accounts, it is never a fun ride right before dawn, when traffic clogs the Cadillac road as tourists throng to the first spot in the United States where the rising sun can be seen. To tourists, this sunrise destination is a pilgrimage. To local riders, it’s a pain. “I avoid sunrise,” Carroll said. “I go after all the people have left. Right after the sun comes up, they all get in their cars and drive away.”

Dean Read, left, and Bob Carroll bike up Cadillac Mountain. In high season, the heavy traffic makes the ride dangerous. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And yet, some local riders hope tourists try the bike ride up Cadillac.

“For some time, there’s been too many vehicles in the park. Anything that limits motorists on the mountain is great. And if it encourages people to ride, I think that would be great,” said local riding enthusiast Richard Baldarelli. He added, “I’m not sure it will, though.”

Baldarelli is a road cyclist of 35 years and a former racer. He climbs the mountain on his bike at least 100 times a year. In the winter, he teaches an indoor spin class and even uses a simulated ride up Cadillac for his class. Once, while doing hill repeats, Baldarelli saw an Amish couple riding hybrid bikes up Cadillac. They stopped several times and enjoyed a lunch at a turnout before they reached the top. It took them more than an hour to reach the summit. It is one of Baldarelli’s favorite memories on the mountain.

“Every time I do it, at least two to three people roll down their windows and cheer,” Baldarelli said.

To Joe Minutolo, the co-owner of Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop that has served island cyclists since 1978, riding up Cadillac is a favorite pastime of the island’s “crazies” because of the significant challenge. Minutolo hopes more people will embrace this “greener” approach to getting up the famous tourist destination and expects some may consider renting an electric bike from his shop to do so. But he wonders how many tourists in today’s fast-pasted, time-pressed world will take the time to try – e-bike or not. Then there is the issue of safety.

“To be honest, cycling on (Mount Desert Island) with the traffic is a concern,” Minutolo said. “The size of the vehicles and some of the buses, they are way too big.”

The National Park Service has not reported a bicycle fatality on Cadillac in the past 10 years and reported just one bike accident, in 2008, that required advanced life support. But there have been countless complaints, Anastasia said.

“We do receive a very large number of communications from bicyclists that have had near misses with motor vehicles,” Anastasia said. “I have also personally observed several people videotaping from their cell phone while driving down the mountain – one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the phone, and no eyes on the road.”