Seems like everybody has one — a dusty bicycle sitting in the garage or a storage space.
Maybe you ride it a few times in the summer; maybe you haven't ridden it in years. But that bike could be your ticket to outdoor adventure, a new fitness plan or a way to cut down on gas bills.
Whether you’re an expert rider looking for a new challenge or a beginner who just bought (or rediscovered) a bicycle, we’ve got some suggestions for how to get more out of those two wheels. Adam Coughlin looks at criteriums — the races where riders compete as a team, often zooming through cities. Jeff Mucciarone looks at mountain biking, offering you another way to enjoy the outdoors. Briana Palma considers the bike commute, along with some suggestions for gear to get you there looking office-ready. Angel Roy looks at bicycle clubs where bikers of all skill levels can find friends for the journey and tips on how to improve.
Time to strap on a helmet and start pedaling.
Criteriums offer fast-paced fun in the city
By Adam Coughlin
The VW convertible honked, signaling to spectators that the cyclists were coming. Sure enough, the pack of riders, so close together, zipped through downtown Exeter, creating a gust of wind in the process. Seemingly moments later, the horn honked again and the riders returned. They were competing in a criterium, the most common form of American racing.
A criterium is usually raced on a short course, 1 to 2 kilometers, and most often that course runs through a city’s downtown, according to Susanne Delaney, race director for the Portsmouth Criterium. Most criteriums, or crits as they are often called, are timed. The racers typically ride for an hour, which, although this seems like a long time, is relatively short for a bicycle race. Delaney said the times of the first couple of laps are usually recorded, so that race organizers can see how fast the riders are going and they can estimate about how many laps will be raced.
“It is very spectator-friendly,” Delaney said. “It is not like a road race where you only see the riders once or twice. You get to see them often.”
Because the racers are so close together, a great deal of strategy is employed. Typically, cyclists ride in teams and they use the team to their advantage. They may propel the fastest rider to the front and use other members of the team to block opponents, according to www.usacycling.org. One team may attack (sending a fast rider ahead), which forces another team to chase, possibly exerting energy.
“A lot of tactics go into the race,” said Ryan Fleming, who rides for the Met-Life team. “A strong team will play off each other and have good sprinters who can control the end of the race.”
Fleming said most teams have six to eight riders in a race and elite teams might have eight to 12 riders on the roster. Since the fans are so close, they can watch this strategy unfold.
The riders are moving so fast, however, that sometimes such details are lost on the casual fan. But criteriums can be exciting during every lap because of “primes” (preems). These are cash or merchandise prizes offered to the rider who wins a particular lap. So as the riders come around to the starting/finish line, the race announcer will say that the prime for the next lap will be, say, $50. That means the rider who wins that lap will get $50. Naturally, riders love primes and the crowd does too because it keeps the race fast. Well-funded races like those in Boston may have a prime for every lap; others have them as often as they can afford.
Because the race is a combination of sprinting and distance, riders must be at peak physical condition. Riders must also be completely in tune with the mechanics of their bicycles.
New Hampshire’s criteriums attract talent from all over New England but are primarily raced by local riders. In the men’s division, a new rider begins at Category 5, according to Fleming, who is organizing the Portsmouth Crit this year. Fleming said a rider needs to do well in a certain number of races and then can upgrade to Category 4. There are also categories that are broken up by age, for example riders who are 40 and older. Fleming is a Category 1 racer and travels the country racing during the season, which runs from February through October. Fleming said he usually competes in 50 races a year.
In New Hampshire currently there are three crits: the Exeter Criterium was held on June 30; the Concord Criterium will be held Aug. 6 (call 228-1441), and then there is the crit in Portsmouth, more formally known as the 7th Annual Smuttynose Brewing Co. Portsmouth Crit, which will be held Sunday, Sept. 18 (visit www.portsmouthcrit.com
These races have a long history in New Hampshire, starting in at least the 1970s. Though there are three races now, that hasn’t always been the case.
“There have been a lot of races that have come and gone,” Fleming said. “Promoters might lose sponsorships or any number of things. Sometimes they go away and then come back.”
Another reason is that logistically speaking these races are difficult to organize. While it is great for both riders and fans to see the riders race through downtown and not an industrial park, it is complicated to close a downtown. Delaney said race organizers need to establish relationships with the city, police and fire departments, and they need to have portable toilets available. Since the downtown is shut down, some business owners don’t appreciate it, according to Delaney, although she said others do — especially in Portsmouth, where the race draws around 7,000 people. In Exeter the streets were only shut down for an evening, but Portsmouth has a full day of races, showcasing all the different categories.
Such headaches can often lead a race organizer to burn out, which is another reason a race may go away for some time until a new, energized person can take charge. But despite its logistical challenges, the sport seems to be going strong.
“The kids’ races are packed,” Delaney said, which may be a good sign for the future of the sport. “Most of the categories fill up. In the women’s field we may have 30 racers, but in the men’s it can be up to 100.”
Delaney said they have to limit how many racers there are because of the proximity in which they race. The racers in Category 1 are skilled enough to navigate the constant turns even in a tight pack. But in Category 4, there are often crashes.
Since crashes and head injuries are a part of the sport, the organizers in Portsmouth have started a Community Challenge that raises money for the Krempels Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people living with brain injury from trauma, tumor or stroke.
At the Exeter Crit, the riders raced past Phillips Exeter and through downtown. One spectator shouted, “Here they come again!” and her friend said, “Already?” The riders seemed to move faster as the race went on. Of course, when riding on public streets, even ones that are monitored by volunteers and police, there is the chance of something going wrong. One confused and unsuspecting driver with a Florida license plate was on the road when the VW came by announcing the riders. The car pulled to the side as best it could but as the riders whipped around the corner many almost hit it. Luckily, besides a few curse words, everything was fine.
But that is part of the excitement and unpredictability of criteriums.
“It is an exciting and fast-moving event,” Delaney said. “There are high speeds and the crowds are cheering.”
“It is action-packed and these are world-class athletes,” Fleming said.
See nature from the seat of a mountain bike
By Jeff Mucciarone
If a camera were perched on the top of a mountain biker’s helmet, the resulting video might look like a blur of branches, rocks, water spray, roots and most likely lots of mud.
There’s a rush experienced mountain bikers enjoy as they maneuver through gardens of rock and over logs, but beyond the straight adrenaline of the sport, mountain biking is another way to get outdoors and appreciate nature. That could be white-knuckling your way down a steep trail, but it could also be taking a long ride along a river, stopping regularly for photos, and maybe a dip — and there’s room for every level of skill in between.
In terms of sheer number of trails, riders and prospective riders are in the right spot in southern New Hampshire.
“Almost every town has riding,” said Matt Caron, president of the New England Mountain Biking Association (NEMBA) Southern New Hampshire Chapter. “If you go into [Massachusetts], you don’t have that. You don’t have anything even close to that.”
There are 22 other chapters of NEMBA, and Caron says his chapter (snemba.org) is probably the most spoiled in terms of the number of trails there are to ride in this area. The website has a list of trails, along with maps and directions. It also describes trails as easy, moderate and difficult.
Caron also appreciates the varying degrees of difficulty in New Hampshire. He said Mine Falls Park in Nashua is probably the easiest place to ride; that would be a good place for novices to get their feet wet. Within a reasonable drive, mountain bikers can head to Allenstown to Bear Brook State Park and embark on 65 miles of trails that are as difficult and technical as riders can handle, Caron said.
Caron’s group has focused on beginners this year in an effort to get new people into the sport. The group hosts a beginner ride every Tuesday. Caron picks a different location each week. It’s open to anybody, not just members. (He usually sends out an e-mail on Sunday or Monday telling people where the ride is going to be.)
In Manchester, a lot of riders turn to the trails around Lake Massabesic, particularly in Auburn, where there are advanced trails and beginner trails, and everything in between.
Beginner trails are usually four or five feet wide. That space gives newer riders a chance to get used to riding in the woods on an uneven surface. More technical and advanced trails might be just 18 inches wide, “just winding through the trees with more rocks and roots,” Caron said.
As a high school student, Caron got involved with the sport by going to a local shop, seeing the new bikes and wanting to ride with the guys at the shop.
“I like the individual nature of it, it not having to be a group sport,” Caron said. “You can [join a group] if you like, but you can ride all by yourself as well.”
Things to consider
The first step for newcomers, after getting a bike of course, is to get a good helmet.
“Mountain bike helmets have evolved significantly, like the bikes have,” Caron said. “[The helmets] used to weigh 10 pounds and they were uncomfortable and hot. Now they don’t weigh anything, they’re ventilated and they’re easy to ride with.”
Caron said it’s important to know where you’re riding — know the terrain, know whether it’s a 30-minute loop, a two-hour loop, or four hours or more.
“You really don’t want to get in over your head,” Caron said.
A beginner finding himself on an advanced, technical trail isn’t going to enjoy the experience and will be at risk of injury. Riders obviously can’t know where every sharp downgrade or log is from a trail map, but they should be able to do some basic research to get a general sense of a given location.
Safety is obviously a serious concern considering that things like branches, trees, rocks, roots and even just the ground aren’t all that soft. Caron laughed when he said, “As long as you don’t make a bad choice, it’s pretty safe.” What he’s getting at is that riders need to know their limits. Just because your buddy is comfortable going down a steep decline doesn’t mean you are. In the two years Caron has been doing novice rides on Tuesdays, nobody has gotten injured.
As bike technology has evolved through the years, bikes have gotten considerably lighter but they’ve also gotten safer.
“The riding position is a lot safer now,” Caron said. “Mountain bikes used to be so close to a road bike [the way riders were positioned leaning forward]… Now you’re almost sitting straight up to help keep your eyes on the trail.”
New riders might want to consider a Camelback to keep a water supply, as well as room for food and additional gear. A multi-tool comes in handy as well, if all the jostling on the trail results in the need for a quick tune-up. Riders often bring something to eat, as mountain biking burns lots of calories. People often bring power bars, something light and quick, Caron said.
So what bike to get?
“The advice I always give: don’t ask your friend what you should get, because what’s right for your friend might not be right for you,” Caron said. “Go into a professional shop and have them fit you and recommend a bike for what you want to do with it.”
Maybe you don’t care about advancing to technical trails with lots of roots and rocks. Or maybe you want a bike with both front and rear suspension because you want to tackle big downhill trails. Or maybe you don’t really know.
“I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars on the bike their friend told them was right for them, but it turns out it’s not the right bike for them,” Caron said. Caron recommended Blue Steel Cyclery in Manchester. He said the staff is professional and won’t try to “sell” customers a bike that’s not the right fit for them.
For inexperienced mountain bikers, online sites probably aren’t the right places to get a quality bike. Some people do that, of course, and then they try to ride a bike that simply isn’t a fit, either physically or for the type of riding that person wants to do, Caron said.
Particularly on novice rides, Caron frequently stops alongside the lake to take in the sights. “Just stopping and checking it all out,” he says. “And then we get back to riding.”
is a good resource website. There’s a forum where people can ask questions and typically get answers in less than 24 hours.
Your ride to work
Local businesses and organizations support bicycling as a way to commute
By Briana Palma
In May, people living and working in New Hampshire came together to put an environmentally friendly spin on their commutes, with bicycling being one of the most popular ways to do so. During Commute Green New Hampshire’s statewide challenge, 157 participants logged more than 5,000 miles on bike, making the two-wheeled transportation method second only to carpooling, according to Commute Green’s website.
The competition is one of several initiatives in New Hampshire that encourage people to trade in their cars for bikes to get to work or school.
The challenge took place from May 16 through May 20 and aimed to motivate people to “choose inexpensive, healthier and more environmentally-friendly transportation options,” according to the website. And by doing that, the hundreds of individuals and organizations involved saved an estimated $50,000 worth of car-related expenses and reduced their mileage by 64,731 — the equivalent of taking six cars off the road for a year — all in five days, according to Nicholas Coates, lead organizer for statewide planning at Commute Green.
Coates and the other organizers also received a boost from local companies that promoted participation among employees. Stonyfield and Scott Lawson Companies, an organization of environmental, health and safety consultants, enthusiastically joined in, as their missions coincide with that of Commute Green. Stonyfield saved more than 5,000 car-miles, while more than 70 percent of Scott Lawson’s employees, including executives, took part.
“Our vice president regularly cycles to work and did it almost every day that week, and I don’t know if you remember, but it was terrible weather,” said Miranda Yeaton, marketing and communications coordinator for Scott Lawson Companies.
The company also set up a Wiki page showing bicycle routes and spots where cyclists could meet up to commute together. “We provided as much support as we could for our employees,” Yeaton said, adding that the company had different themes each day and created some healthy competition by awarding gift certificates to those saving the most miles.
Though the Challenge lasted only five days, Yeaton said the effort at Scott Lawson to promote eco-friendly transportation continues, as it does around the state.
Coates, who works for the not-for-profit Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission, is working to make the bicycle an acceptable and safe means of commuting with programs like Concord’s Fossil Fuel Free Fridays. Once a month, from June to October, anyone not commuting in a single-passenger motor vehicle can pick up a free breakfast of bagels and coffee at the Statehouse.
“People get so excited about free food,” Coates said.
In addition to programs like Fossil Fuel Free Fridays, people around the state are working to develop rail trails, abandoned railways converted into pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly paths, said Charles Martin, president of the Rail Trails Coalition of New Hampshire and author of New Hampshire Rail Trails.
Various organizations are slowly but surely connecting major stretches of land, making bicycles a more viable and safe way to get from point A to point B. For example, the Hands Across the Merrimack Bridge allows cyclists and pedestrians to cross the Merrimack River in Manchester and connects them to the Piscataquog Trail, which leads to Lake Massabesic. In the future, it will also link to the Goffstown Rail Trail, thus permitting people to travel between downtown Goffstown and Manchester without ever getting in a car, Martin said.
Another project involves transforming the abandoned Manchester/Lawrence Railroad to connect the Queen City and Salem along a rail trail, a path that, when completed, will be particularly significant for commuters, Martin said.
“There’s tremendous desire for the rail trails,” he added. “I have to admit, it’s more for recreation than for alternative transportation, but the minute we get a trail finished, it gets a lot of use.”
Other organizations are also doing their part to motivate people and make it easier for them to get pedaling.
In Concord, anyone wishing to bike to work but concerned with maintaining a clean, professional appearance needn’t worry; the YMCA allows them to use its showers at no charge. And in Manchester, the Currier Museum of Art is considering installing bike racks and offering discounted admission to patrons arriving on two wheels, Coates said.
According to Coates, these community incentives add to a list of personal benefits that include saving on gas money, not wasting time in traffic, getting some exercise and feeling good.
“I bike to work every once in a while and it can definitely be a stress-reliever,” Coates said. “I enjoy being out in the open and not sitting in traffic.”
He added that people can find ways to make commuting on bike fit with their personal schedules and commitments. “I have to drop my son off at daycare, so I’ll leave my car across the street and then bike the rest of the way,” he said. “Saving a couple miles every day helps.”
“For a lot of people, it’s the fear of trying something new and doing something different that they have to get over. Maybe it’s a little extra work, maybe you have to get up 10 minutes earlier...but once you get over that initial concern, it’s not that hard.”
And as Coates continues to share his passion for alternative commuting methods like bicycling with the public, he hopes that someday Concord will become the “San Francisco of the East Coast.”
“Fewer cars on the road — that’s a good thing,” Coates said. “Fewer accidents, less emissions, fewer people being hurt, people walking downtown and supporting the local economy. That’s the vision: to see communities be more vibrant. I think bicycling plays a big part in that.”
A buddy for the ride
Bike clubs help riders build skills and friendships
By Angel Roy
Share the hills. Share the wind.
Dave Topham, of Salem, said the miles go by faster and are more enjoyable when you have someone to talk to during a bike ride.
“When you go up a hill by yourself it feels like forever,” he said. “If you have someone else to share the hill and share the effort with you it is a lot easier.”
Topham co-founded the Granite State Wheelmen, a statewide recreational biking club, in 1971. The group will celebrate its 40th anniversary on July 19.
“Even then, in the 1970s, bicycling was getting more popular in a recreational sense,” Topham said. “People wanted places to meet to ride, find out where the good routes are … and of course there is the social aspect.” In four decades the club has grown from 12 members to around 700.
Topham, Wheelmen president, noted that the increase in membership may be a result of people’s increased awareness of the health benefits of cycling. Improvements in equipment, he added, have made the activity more enjoyable.
“People are outside in the fresh air … and it’s a physical sport so you actually have to get into it and do something. You are not just sitting in a car going for a ride. People tend to like that,” he said.
The Granite State Wheelmen club caters to all levels of cyclists, from those who are just getting their first bike to those who pedal 200 miles a day.
Members with a higher level of cycling expertise often practice racing techniques, such as drafting and shifting, with the group. When drafting, cyclists ride in a line only six inches behind the rear tire of the rider in front of them. “[Drafting] is a thrill; you have to keep your wits about you,” Topham said. “It’s a thrill you can’t get if you’re riding by yourself.”
Topham said he is asked every week about how people can get involved in joining a cycling club. He tells them to attend club meetings and to seek out orientation rides to get used to cycling in a group on the road, “which is different than just riding by yourself,” Topham said. Organized rides are categorized by overall terrain pace and distance. Entry-level rides usually last an hour and range from eight to 10 miles, Topham said.
Beginner riders learn not only how to ride with a group but also how to handle riding on the road with cars, how to position themselves on the road and tips to making cycling easier. “A lot of people work too hard at it,” Topham, a certified cycling instructor, said. New cyclists are given an opportunity to be critiqued on the road to ensure they are following best practices. The Bike Walk Alliance of New Hampshire, the sister organization of the Granite State Wheelmen, holds educational courses for all levels of cycling.
Regular evening rides, held across the state, run in the 15- to 40-mile range, with weekend rides boasting a distance of as much as 80 miles, Topham said. Group leaders post their rides in a newsletter distributed to club members.
For off-road cyclists, there is the Southern New Hampshire chapter of the New England Mountain Biking Association (NEMBA), which has a membership of 250 members from the Massachusetts border to the Concord area and out to the Seacoast. Mountain Biking Association President Matt Caron said group rides can be as short as four miles or as long as 30.
“The expert riders are kind of spoiled with the amount of trails we have in southern New Hampshire,” he said. The organization mainly rides through state parks and town forests. NEMBA rides are held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights and on Sunday mornings.
Over the last couple of years the NEMBA has made beginner riders its focus, Caron said. The group hosts regular forums with interested members. Riders are required to wear a helmet and are encouraged to wear other protective gear such as knee and elbow pads when riding on tough trails. Headlights are often required for night rides.
Advocacy has become a major topic at the club’s quarterly meetings as the group works with the state parks, local trail organizations and conservation commissions. The club is often sought out by towns to help build sustainable trails, Caron said.
“Typically [towns] go through what sections they want to get out of water and let us know whether we need to build a bridge if the trail goes through a stream to make for a more fun ride and so you don’t have to go through knee-deep water — it’s better for wildlife as well,” Caron said.
The NEMBA also promotes mountain biking in the area by supporting local bicycle shops and by spreading awareness of local trails.
“Towns don’t say, ‘Hey, come to Manchester for mountain biking,’” Caron said. “We kind of do that for a town.”