Credit: Courtesy of Alice Slater

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Once a month a group of bicyclists gathers outside City Hall and, after reaching consensus on where they should go, they pedal off to explore the city for an hour or so and, with a little luck, get noticed by other people. But it’s more than just a ride.

On its Facebook page, Ellsworth Bike Party says it’s “just for fun,” but for its primary organizer and many who participate in the monthly rides, there is a larger goal. 

The city of 8,400 residents is the main service center in Hancock County. As a gateway community for Acadia National Park, millions of vehicles drive through it each year. But it is easier to navigate by bicycle than many might think, bike party participants say, and they want more people to know it.

They also are hoping with some planning effort — which could be part of the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan update — Ellsworth could be made even more bicycle-friendly.

Alice Slater, a Surry resident, is the mastermind behind the monthly gathering, which usually draws a handful of people who may or may not know each other. A native of England, Slater did bike tours in various parts of the globe before moving to the area about six years ago.

She was used to riding a bicycle for her everyday transportation needs in her native England, she said. 

“My shock when I came to America was how car-dependent the culture is,” Slater said. “I actually didn’t bike for quite a few years when I got here.”

She brought her 1990s-era mountain bicycle with her when she moved and rode it occasionally, but it wasn’t until she outfitted it with an e-bike converter kit a couple of years ago that she started using it more regularly. It has a battery mounted on the back that, when she turns a throttle attached to her handlebar, helps propel her up hills. 

Now she rides the bike the two or three miles from her house off Route 172 into central Ellsworth on a regular basis, and even rides it to her part-time job at the Blue Hill Co-op, 12 miles away. 

She said the expense of using a bicycle — whether it’s to buy a bike, an e-bike converter kit, or maintenance costs — is far cheaper than having a car, even without gas costing $5 per gallon. And she enjoys the exercise and fun of bike riding.

“I still have a car, but I plan to get rid of it,” she said. “I’ve really committed to using my bike, as a default.”

Last summer, she created the Ellsworth Bike Party as a way to encourage others to bike around the city more often. Typically, four or five other riders show up, and the route they take around town depends on the group’s skill level.

Slater said that she likes to bike down High Street — Ellsworth’s four-lane thoroughfare — as part of the monthly rides in order to be noticed by motorists on the road. The bicycles, which are allowed on state routes and city streets, take up one lane and motorists heading the same direction can pass them in the other lane, she said.

“There’s a lot of fear about biking, and I wanted to change that,” Slater said. “Ellsworth is a pretty compact city. It should be more accessible by bike, but that’s not going to happen if there’s no one out there riding.”

Three people are seen riding their bikes.
A trio of bicyclists ride west on the Route 1 bridge over the Unin River in downtown Ellsworth on May 29, 2022. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

On May 29, Ellsworth resident Mark Deeny was one of a handful of cyclists to take part in Ellsworth Bike Party’s monthly ride. He lives in Surry Road in Ellsworth and rides his bike through downtown to work nearly five miles away at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, just across the city line in Hancock on the Washington Junction Road.

Deeny lived in other places where he rode a bike to work, he said. He’s been riding his bike to work in Ellsworth for the past six years when weather allows.

He said by and large he has had few problems coexisting with cars, though he sometimes gets rude comments from passing motorists. A few years ago, one driver threw a fast-food drink at him, he said, and he’s been bumped by RV mirrors and by a lawnmower handle protruding from the back of a truck.

But he said such incidents are not typical.

“Once a month or so someone will holler at me, usually during the summer months near the Union River bridge bottleneck,” where Route 1 approaches downtown Ellsworth from the west, he said.

The best way to make Ellsworth more bike-friendly is to get more people out on their bikes, though he said it would be a “huge help” to have paved shoulders on more roads that draw traffic in and out of the city.

“The biggest deterrent right now is the fact that drivers are not used to dealing with bikes on the road,” Deeny said. “We need more people to get out on their bikes for recreation, to run errands, to commute to work, so area drivers are not surprised and flummoxed by cyclists.”

Paul Markosian, a member of Ellsworth’s school committee, also went on the May 29 ride with Ellsworth Bike Party. He said he routinely biked around New York City when he lived there in the 1990s, and so is comfortable riding in and around moving cars on local roads.

Markosian rides his bike between his house and his job as owner of Flexit Cafe, though his commute is only a few blocks. 

“The more I do it, the less I let adverse weather conditions such as rain, cold weather, and icy pavement dissuade me from doing so,” he said “Likewise for doing light errands, such as going to the bank or shopping at local stores.”

Markosian said Ellsworth is “fairly bikeable” but it could be better. 

He’d like to see Water Street and Bayside Road have wider paved shoulders, like Route 1A toward Bangor does, he said. And bike lanes that local students could use to ride bikes to and from Ellsworth Elementary Middle School would encourage children to ride bikes more in general.

At a more basic level, he said it would be amazing if Ellsworth had more downtown bike racks. Currently there are racks at the city’s schools, both of which are within easy biking distance from downtown, one at the city’s library and another at City Hall.

“Not only would cyclists welcome having a place to park their bikes, it would also send a message to the world that we are a bike-friendly community,” Markosian said.

Correction: a previous version of this story misstated the number of bike racks in downtown Ellsworth.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....