Rangeley has so much going on all year long and each year I happen upon yet another event I cannot help but consider adding to my ever-growing bucket list. This year I heard about the Northwoods Gravel Grind, the biking event that takes place annually the weekend after Labor Day. Chris Riley has run the event since 2014 and after speaking with him and taking photos at the event that was held this past Saturday, September 11th, I have even more reason to consider it.
Although Riley lives in Fayette, he is no stranger to the area. Besides coming up to Rangeley since he was a little kid, and doing a lot of business in Rangeley, he has also been a member of the Saddleback ski patrol for about 20 years and purchased a place here about a year ago. “Rangeley has been very near and dear to me for a long time.”

Chris Riley going over the rules in front of AJ’s Cycles at the start of the annual Northwoods Gravel Grind. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

His fondness for the area is the reason he donates all the profits from the event to both the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust and the Rangeley Lakes Trails Center. “They’re both great organizations and they’re non-profits and so it was a great way to support both of them and keep it as local as possible.”

The event itself fills up at 150 registrants and has 11 options from shorter races called “The Picnic” that are 35 miles long, to “The Masochist” that are for more experienced racers and twice as long at 68 miles. There is also a medium option called “The Realist” which is 50 miles long, but non- competitive.

The race that began at AJ’s Cycles on Main Street quickly tested the bikers as the first challenge is heading up the steep hill on Route 4. Then up and down along the scenic byway past Dodge Pond and towards Oquossoc.

From left to right: Kerry Gardner, Scott Ash, Charles House and Tom Duncanson go over the trail map. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

The beginning of the race tests your mettle up Route 4. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

The route then works its way along the Rangeley River where you get a beautiful canopy of trees and then towards Kennebago on land that I have never ridden on, and now I know why. “We get a one-day permit for the event from Seven Islands to host the race so we can have bicycles on those back roads, which you otherwise are not allowed on. I think that’s part of the allure is that people get to ride a course that’s otherwise closed to bikes the rest of the year.” The fortune to be able to ride on these beautifully remote roads was not lost on Riley. “Seven Islands is a wonderful partner and very gracious to let us access these roads for this one day.”

A canopy of trees makes for a cool ride. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Safety is always a chief concern and so a radio communications team, a group out of Farmington, are strategically placed around the course and help if someone gets hurt or has a breakdown and needs to get transported back to town. Luckily, everything went smoothly with only one minor injury that amounted to a couple of stitches.

Later that afternoon riders were invited to an after party at Saddleback where awards were given out. However, although there were very generous prizes for the fastest in all the competitive events, there were also some awards that I did not expect. For example, youngest rider, oldest, rider who participated in the most Northwoods Gravel Grinds, local rider and first timer, and even one for one of the guys who rode single speed. “I try to keep it so that it’s not just the fastest riders that are recognized but that we get to recognize some of the people that really make up the bulk of the ridership.”

Seth Laliberte giving the thumbs up as he whisks up Route 4. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Now that’s the fun spirit I like to hear. I had originally expected to find a hardcore group of competitive athletes, but what I found instead was a group of hard working but very down to earth and easy going people who were very athletic. Many of them said good morning to me while they whisked by and/or commented on the beautiful trails and scenery for which they could not get enough of.

Kerry Gardner and Scott Ash enjoying the scenic route along the Rangeley River. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

So last question, is Riley a rider himself? Well, not in this event. “Unfortunately, I don’t get to participate in this one, but I did ride it the first two years and it’s such a fun event.”

Yea, maybe I should try it. I am at least going to go for a short ride now that the leaves are turning and the air is cool. It must be the perfect time.

Thanks to the following sponsors: AJ’s Cycles, All Ski Cyclery and Snow, Dirigo Cycling, Saddleback Mountain, Tumbledown Brewing, and the marquee sponsor Skowhegan Savings Bank.

For more information you should check out the Northwoods Gravel Grind on Facebook and for more photos of this event you can check The Rangeley Highlander Facebook page.

After party at Saddleback where riders enjoyed a hot slice and cold brew. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

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