As the rain came down, the fingers went up.
Three to four inches of rain fell the night before the Bond Brook Tread Fest. Organizers of the annual mountain bike race in Augusta thought about postponing. But they couldn’t.
Sept. 26 was already a makeup date. The event had been scheduled for June, but was pushed to the fall because of a browntail moth infestation.
“This one was probably the hardest Tread Fest ever to pull off,” said race organizer Chris Riley. “You would think that it was because of COVID. But it had nothing to do with COVID.”
As the event kicked off at 9 a.m. and the rain continued, the first wave of racers all gave Riley the middle finger — their way of sarcastically saying “thanks buddy.” Some gave him two fingers.
“In the past 10 or 12 years. I have not seen this place so wet,” said Riley of Fayette.
The race was one of the most memorable ones in a banner year for mountain bike racing in Maine.
2021 built on momentum created in COVID-19-fueled 2020. People looking to get outdoors and away from others discovered Maine’s vast network of bike trails were a great place to do just that. Bike shops ran out of mountain bikes early in 2020.
Enter 2021: Cyclists filled trailhead parking lots. Events such as the Tread Fest, the 12 Hours of Bradbury Mountain in Pownal and the Central Maine Cycling Challenge in Farmington came back, and bikes went out the front door of shops as quickly as they were delivered through the back.
“It’s exploding. It’s huge,” Andrew Marshall said about how popular mountain biking has become in Maine.
Marshall, of Montville, and his two sons, Emmet and Barlow, call the Camden Snow Bowl their home base for riding.
“There are more people riding the trails than I have ever seen,” said Riley, an avid advocate for building those trails that have accommodated such growth.
Trail building never stopped in 2020 and it certainly did not let up in 2021.
New gravity-fed trail systems were built at Saddleback ski area in Rangeley and at Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley. Volunteers added to the network of trails in Gorham, Brunswick, Millinocket, Bethel, Farmington and more. A group of teenage trail builders built four miles of new trail in Waterville, Augusta, Manchester and Fayette. The one-mile trail on Surry Hill in Fayette is rumored to have been built in true teenage fashion, described as fast with “sick jumps.” The trail on Surry Hill will be revealed during the annual Odyssey, an end-of-the-season ride and gathering next weekend, Oct. 15-17.
“The last two summers, we have totally hit our stride,” Riley said about the youth trail builder program, which is funded through events such as the Tread Fest and the Odyssey. Riley is the president of the Central Maine chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA).
“We have people coming out of the woodwork to volunteer,” said Brenna Herridge of Wyman. Herridge and former Olympian Adam Craig started building the gravity-fed trails on Sugarloaf by themselves. Once word got out, they were not alone any longer. “We have had an army of volunteers,” said Herridge. “People are excited for this to be happening and just stoked to be on bikes.”
The new Sugarloaf trails made some noise when over 400 riders showed up on Sept. 12 for the MAXXIS Eastern States Cup Box Showdown. “Some of the best riders on the continent are here,” said Justin Lagassey before the start of the pro division race. “The competition is fierce, but friendly.”
Lagassey, of Plymouth, New Hampshire, himself built a few of trails on Teague Hill in Turner a few summers ago. A logging operation had other plans for the land Lagassey built on, so he moved over to Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire, where he continues to build.
“The momentum is huge,” said Dave Richard, of Vassalboro. “I think the momentum is not even close to peeking yet because people are excited about all the opportunities here in Maine,” he said while in Lewiston-Auburn for the Dempsey Challenge two weeks ago. He works for Specialized Bicycles and travels around the country to bike events and races.
“The pandemic has been very tough on people, but the pandemic has also got more people out to hike, to bike, to do different things outdoors,” Richard said.
Pandemic aside, COVID is not the only reason people have found a new passion riding bikes through the woods.
Another is technology, and a third is “flow.”
“It’s an exciting time to be in the bike business,” Ben King said from behind the counter at Mathieu’s Cycle in Oakland. “There is a lot of really cool innovation coming out.”
Larger wheel sizes, modern geometry, suspension, dropper posts and electronic shifting are not necessarily new to mountain bikes, but tweaks in the past few years have made modern bikes a dream to peddle versus the rigid bikes that seasoned riders grew up on. And, yes, even electric motors are becoming more popular. The second generation of “e-bikes” are much better than the first, said King.
As for flow, think of trails built by machine rather than by hand.
Flow trails tend to be smoother and less technical than the traditional New England single-track that Maine has been known for.
“There is more demand for smoother, machine built flow trails, said Riley. “But we are trying to really balance where we came from as far as that traditional New England single-track that has roots, rocks and technical challenges.”
Flow trails are enticing to newer riders, but are liked by those with more experience as well.
“If your thoughtful about your builds, a beginner will enjoy them as much as more experienced riders,” said trail steward Wil Libby of Livermore.
“Who doesn’t love flow trails?” Riley acknowledged.
Some do. Some don’t, but holding onto that New England identity is important, said Richard. “Riding is so different throughout the country. Riding in the West is way different than it is in the East, the South, Southeast, Southwest,” he said. “Everybody offers a different type of riding.”
When Richard is on the road at mountain bike events throughout the country, it’s the old-school single-track that sets Maine apart. “We always talk about New England single-track, rocky, rooty, very natural single-track,” he said, adding, “That and the hospitality of New England people is what I would tell people as to why they should come to Maine and ride.”
King would like to ride in Maine. But he can’t find a bike.
And he works at Mathieu’s Cycle.
“This year has been weird because there are just no bikes,” King said.
Bike shops quickly sold out of mountain bikes at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Overseas factories responsible for the bike parts shut down operations to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Add shipping backlogs and the high cost of shipping containers to the mess and there are simply not many bikes on showroom floors.
“You want to help people when they come in,” said King. “You want to help them out, but you can’t. There is nothing you can do. It’s frustrating for both the customers and on the retailer’s end.”
Frank Jalbert of Busytown Bikes in Lewiston said the shop has been “super busy” with bike repairs.
“More people are having their old bikes fixed because there are no new bikes available,” said Jalbert. “That is the only option at the moment.”
“We are mostly a repair business right now,” King agreed. “We are noticing a lot of people resuscitating old barn bikes. People are dragging their old rust buckets out of the garage. We try to re-grease the wheels and get them going again.”
“Nobody seems to know,” King said, when bikes or parts will be available. “I’m hoping things are starting to turn the corner. We are starting to see some things in stock more, but there are no assurances now that next summer is going to be any different.”
But 2022 WILL be different.
For one, more trails are coming.
Riley’s youth trail builders will be in Auburn adding to the network of trails at Mt. Apatite. A one-mile trail that will connect the Signature flow trail with the tight, rocky, rooty Carrie On trail will be built.
The project is phase three of a combined effort between Central Maine NEMBA and the City of Auburn.
“It will be nice to be back in Auburn,” said Libby, who’s tasked with keeping the young builders in line. “Sick jumps” are fun, but the teenage crew needs to keep all abilities in mind, he noted.
And a second reason why 2022 will be different: The world’s best will be in Maine. The draw: The Enduro World Series will be at Sugarloaf from Aug. 20-21 and riders from all over the world will be there. So will Lagassey.
“To see the EWS come to my home state is an opportunity I am not going to miss,” he said. “I think the world is really going to enjoy this.”
Richard added, “It’s huge. It’s huge for the economy. Its huge for cycling. EWS is world class. To have that come to Sugarloaf is huge.”
As with all outdoor activities, weather is an important factor. Yes, it rained a lot this past summer and wet trails played a role in most every major event. It rained during the Central Maine Cycling Challenge in Farmington. It rained during the late stages of the 12-hour race at Bradbury State Park. And, as the show of fingers attested, it was a rainy mess for the Tread Fest.
But, “We pulled it off,” Riley said about the festival. “One hundred and seventy riders signed up. A little over half showed up, which is pretty good considering we had three to four inches of rain overnight.”
Riding on wet trails is frowned upon because of the damage done while riding muddy trails, but canceling large fundraising events rarely happens because of rain.
“I think every penny we raised for the trails is going back into these trails to fix them, Riley said after the last mud-covered racer crossed the finish line. “But that is all right. That’s what we do. We had a good event. We had fun.”
So, thanks in part to COVID-19, and despite rain, a shortage of parts and no new bikes, in 2021 “we definitely have seen a lot of new (trail) growth,” said Marshall. Riley added, “We have seen a huge growth in the number of people on the trails.”
“So, maybe the pandemic has done nothing great for us,” Richard said, “but it has gotten people outside. That’s not a bad thing.”