AUBURN – The short drop down North Auburn Road and the slight right-hand twist onto Lake Shore Drive used to thrill Ray Turcotte.
“There was nothing like it,” he said. “Coming down into the inlet, you felt like you were flying.”
That was years ago when the asphalt that wound around Lake Auburn was smooth and the trip was mostly free of side traffic. It was heaven for bicyclists like Turcotte.
Like most local riders, Turcotte avoids the 11-mile loop these days. “It just isn’t fun anymore,” he said. There are too many potholes to make a smooth ride possible.
“You have cars on one side of you and beat-up road on the other,” Turcotte said. “There’s just no room to maneuver. It’s not worth it.”
The route has degenerated in the five years since it was listed by the Maine Department of Transportation as the marquee ride in Androscoggin County.
MDOT maintains a list of 26 scenic bicycle rides around Maine, from the Saco River in the south to Acadia National Park in the east and Aroostook County up north. The ride around Lake Auburn is the only one in Androscoggin County to make the list.
The Lake Auburn loop is a shorter option on the 35-mile Lake Auburn tour. The tour takes bicyclists along the southeast corner of Lake Auburn, out through Minot, Hebron, Buckfield and Turner and back to Auburn.
John Grenier, owner of Rainbow Bicycles, said cyclists don’t have a problem with the longer route. The shortcut loop, up West Auburn Road to Lake Shore Drive, is the problem.
“If we have 3 feet of good pavement to work with, we’re pretty happy,” Grenier said. “That’s really all we need to ride safely. But we don’t even have that.”
The Lake Auburn loop was the favorite ride of local cyclists when he bought Rainbow Bicycle 14 years ago, Grenier said. It’s a short ride that provides a huge variety of terrain with views of the lake and distant mountains.
“You had it to yourself, along these country roads, and it was very nice,” Grenier said. When the MDOT approached him in 1999, looking for local rides for the listing, the loop was first in his mind.
“But even at that point, it was starting to get bad,” he said. Most local riders had sworn off the loop by 2001.
Dan Stewart, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the MDOT, said the tours were created between 2000 and 2003 as a way to tap into the bicycle tourism market. According to a 1999 study, bicycle tourists accounted for $36 million in spending that year. The state created the ExploreMaine by Bike program with them in mind.
The state lists all 26 routes on the www.exploremaine.org Web site. People can register to receive packets with a map of each route, narrative descriptions, side trips and a calendar of local events.
“We’ve gotten a lot of response, according to the e-mails I’ve received, and people have wonderful things to say about the trips,” Stewart said.
But not always.
“They do, sometimes, provide good feedback about what can be improved,” he said. “A lot of them are tourists from out of state, so we take what they say pretty seriously.”
The state doesn’t plan to update the list for another two years, but Stewart can have the loop removed from the state’s Web site if enough people complain.
Grenier said he’d like to see the city fix the road, or possibly pave Spring Road, which runs along the western edge of the lake. Replacing the dirt road with a cement path would take bicyclists completely away from car traffic.
But local bicyclists don’t spend much time worrying about the loop. They’ve found other scenic routes with better pavement.
“I usually send people out around Poland or Minot, if they ask,” Grenier said.
Turcotte is partial to a trip from Lewiston through Monmouth and back. He can tailor the ride to his mood, expanding it with a side trip or cutting it short if he feels like it.