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Q&A: Maine's top bike advocate

A special treat today. I reached out to Jean Sideris, the new executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, to see if she’d participate in a Q&A and she readily accepted. Jean enjoys biking, hiking, skiing, and the many other ways to take advantage of Maine’s outdoor wonders. A lifetime environmental and civil engagement advocate, she has spent her career in nonprofits advocating for effective solutions to our most pressing issues and is eager to help shape a path to make biking and walking safer for all Mainers. Jean has an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder and a master’s in journalism from Northeastern University. She grew up in Colorado, moved to Massachusetts after college, and made her way to Maine in 2016. Thanks Jean for your time and thanks for helping make cycling safe in our great state.

Jean Sideris, executive director of Bicycle Coalition of Maine.

Q. Please talk about the impact on cycling in relationship to the coronavirus pandemic. It certainly forced the cancellation of most sponsored events, but it seems like more people are out riding.

A. As things began to shut down in March, I think we all felt the need to find ways to get outside — for both our mental and physical health. I heard from our members, my neighbors, and friends that they turned to biking. Many taught their kids to ride for the first time or dug that old bike out of the basement and got back on the road. Bike shops saw the same enthusiasm, with many selling out of bikes, especially bikes for kids and entry-level bikes.

The Bicycle Coalition of Maine, like so many others, had to cancel all our spring and summer events. Yet, it felt like enthusiasm for biking grew. Instead of group rides, folks were pedaling with their families, close friends, or on their own. As the weather got warmer, I think that enthusiasm continued to grow and still so many people are finding biking and walking to be a core part of their day or week.

On the flip side, the other thing we saw was that with fewer cars on the road people were driving faster, thus putting that larger number of pedestrians and people on bikes in more danger. We’ve been hearing people’s concerns about speeding for a while, but it also has increased during this pandemic. In response, we launched the Slow ME (Maine) Down campaign aimed at changing driver behavior and rethinking how we design our roads.

I am hopeful that the enthusiasm for biking and walking, as well as enthusiasm for ensuring our roads are safe for all users, continues well past the pandemic.

Q. Your comments please on the future of cycling in Maine.

A. Maine is truly a unique and incredible place to bike! The Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s world-class seven-day ride, BikeMaine, has brought people from all over the country and the world to Maine. The success of that event and other groups’ rides, like the Lighthouse Ride and Trek Across Maine, demonstrate the power of bicycle tourism in Maine.

Off-road riding is also increasing across the state, with an explosion of trails being built. We estimate easily more than 100 miles of single-track mountain bike trails have been built in the last several years in places like Carrabassett Valley, Bethel, Camden, and Gorham. Or places like Mt. Abram, which added lift-service mountain biking. The other big area of growth is in e-bikes, which allow more people to get on a bike for fun or for commuting — and continue biking longer in life.

I think it’s safe to say: Biking is not only here to stay, but it is going to continue to grow in popularity as more options for types of bikes and types of trails expand, as well as an interest in biking as a means of transportation.

Q. Please describe what it's like for you to go for a bike ride. In other words, why do you ride a bike?

A. When you step on the pedal at the start of a ride, there is a real sense of freedom and joy. I grew up doing some mountain biking and started road riding when I moved to the East Coast. But my deep interest in biking and bike advocacy came when I started bike commuting.

I love a long ride on a summer day, but being able to use a bike as a means of transportation provides an opportunity to take control of your trip and see a community from a unique vantage point. Biking to and from a friend’s home or to run an errand always makes the journey more enjoyable for me — and I think more and more people are discovering this same enjoyment for themselves.

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