LEWISTON – Local two-wheeler advocates were celebrating news Monday that the League of American Bicyclists named Maine as the third most bike-friendly state in the country.

Ahead of Maine are Washington and Wisconsin. But Maine moved up three spots from sixth place in 2008, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s Executive Director Allison Vogt.

“We are getting better,” said John Grenier, the owner of Rainbow Cycle and Ski on Center Street in Auburn. Grenier and Jason Roy, the co-owner of Roy’s Bicycle Shop on Farwell Street in Lewiston, both said attitudes toward bicyclists in general had improved over the years and that more and more Mainers, including residents of Lewiston and Auburn had turned to bikes for everything from improved fitness to a cheaper way to get to work.

“We’ve seen a big rise in people who are commuting to work, fixing up old bikes and purchasing new ones,” Roy said.

Grenier said, “More people are looking for bikes because they want a cheap and environmentally friendly way to get to work.” People also discover riding, especially for short commutes, can take just bit more, or in some cases even less time, than driving. “They discover that it’s not as hard as they thought,” Grenier said.

Biking routes in Maine also offer a variety of terrain and scenery that is more rewarding than a long-stretches of flat highway found in other states, Grenier said.

Maine’s rank is based on a 75-item survey that covers everything from legislation to education to infrastructure to policy to planning, according to Vogt.

A recent Maine law that requires motorists to give bicycle riders at least a 3-foot berth when passing them also helped the ranking along, Vogt said Monday.

Barbara Fogarty, the public relations person for the Lewiston-Auburn-based Maine Cycling Club, said the state had several big biking events each year that also helps lend to the image of a big-friendly places. Whether it’s the American Lung Associations Trek Across Maine or the variety of road races and rides sponsored by her club and others, bicyclists have become a more visible element to the state’s traveling public.

Fogarty, like Roy and Grenier, also said the ranking was in large part due to the efforts of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which has pushed for public policy and legislation to make Maine’s roads more accessible to bicyclists.

“This is a kudos to everyone in the state of Maine that helps to promote and encourage safe bike riding here,” Fogarty said. She said whether it’s shops such as Grenier’s and Roy’s offering weekly rides or safety training and classes, a host of people were promoting biking in Maine both at the organizational level and by simple one-on-one contact. The 120-member Maine Cycling Club offers four local rides each week and opens those up to even non-club members, Fogarty said.

A surge of interest in biking as a low-impact aerobic workout, especially for women in their 40s and older, has helped the state’s bike-friendly image, said Fogarty, a fitness trainer at Women’s Fitness and Training in Auburn.

“Our ranking is a tribute to 17 years of advocacy by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine working with local bicycle advocates, bike shops and clubs, supportive legislators and Maine DOT to improve cycling conditions in our state,” Vogt said.

The coalition partners with the Maine Department of Transportation to teach bicycle safety to 10,000 schoolchildren each year, and manages the state’s Safe Routes to School program. They also work with police officers on bike safety and enforcing laws meant to ensure bicyclists rights.”

The coalition’s Share the Road Campaign has also helped improve attitudes, Roy and Grenier said.

Vogt said Maine has more to accomplish to improve bicycle safety and access. “There’s always room for improvement,” she said.

The coalition’s legislative priority in 2009 is implementing Complete Streets policies ensuring that roads are built to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists, Vogt said. While many believe it costs more to build bike-friendly streets and roads that’s not usually the case as bike lanes, if designed and planned, often add little or no additional cost, Vogt said.

A Complete Streets bill now is before the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, and similar legislation is being considered at the federal level, she said.

“Creating bike-friendly communities will reap economic benefits by helping Maine attract residents, businesses and more bicycle tourism,” Vogt said.

Fogarty and the local bike shop owners agreed the state still has plenty of room for improvement, especially in the category of bicycle-friendly infrastructure including bike lanes, signs and other on-the-ground amenities for bicyclists.

Riding on outer College Street on Monday, Lewiston resident Jim Witherell said he was surprised by the high ranking but also could see why Maine would rank better than other places.

“The road conditions and winter make it hard to believe,” Witherell said.

Staff Photographer Amber Waterman contributed to this report.

Details on the 2009 League of American Bicyclists rankings can be found at www.bicyclefriendlystates.org.

More information on the Maine Bicycle Coalition can be found at: www.bikemaine.org.

For information on the Maine Cycling Club online go to: www.mainecyclingclub.com.

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