Warm-weather funhogs know western Maine for its hiking and mountain biking. Northwest of Bethel, the Appalachian Trail crosses the Mahoosuc Mountains, a stretch hikers describe as the most grueling segment of the entire 2,000-mile route. Just south of the trail, the Sunday River Mountain Bike Park hosts thousands of fat-tire enthusiasts each season.
But not many of those muddy backcountry fans know that the Bethel area is also prime road-riding country, complete with little-traveled back roads, stunning New England scenery and an informal but dedicated coterie of local roadies that holds group rides throughout the summer.
One of their favorite rides is a day-long, 75-mile loop that begins and ends in Bethel and features an ascent-and thrilling descent-of 1,500-foot Evans Notch. Start your ride at Bethel's historic Common, laid out in 1807 and ringed by handsome Federal-style houses. Take Main Street to Parkway, then head north on Route 2 for about half a mile until you cross the Androscoggin River. Across the bridge, go left on North Road, a scenic secondary road running east along the river toward New Hampshire. About 10 miles out, at the hamlet of Gilead, cross the river again, go right on Route 2, and ride about a quarter mile to Route 113.
This highway, which soon enters the White Mountain National Forest, is a roadie's dream: The pavement is fresh and glass-smooth, covered by a deciduous canopy as it winds above the pools and sculpted flumes of the Wild River. The road gradually climbs toward Evans Notch; the last couple of miles are punctuated by steep sections, but a triple crank will let you spin comfortably in the saddle. At the top, about mile 25, the sheer granite walls of the narrow notch tower hundreds of feet above you. Birches cling to the lower flanks, while peregrine falcons wheel high overhead on rising thermals.
Then comes the plunge down the other side-it's quite steep, so pay attention. About mile 30 you'll cross into New Hampshire at the Cold Brook campground, which has restrooms, water and a gorgeous swimming hole. South of the national forest, Route 113 becomes a mellow, rolling succession of farms, woods and bogs as it heads through the tiny towns of Stow and North Fryeburg. Route 5 is roughly your halfway point; take a left, heading northeast through Lovell and past Kezar Lake. At the intersection of Routes 5 and 35 in Lynchville, about 60 miles into the ride, pose for the obligatory photo in front of one of the state's most-photographed attractions, the so-called "international sign." It's a simple post with white arrows indicating direction and mileage to such Maine towns as Poland, Mexico and Norway.
Here you have a few options. If it's food you're craving, go right on Route 35 and pedal a mile down to North Waterford and Tute's General Store, which serves breakfast all day (the stack of blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup is a sure winner) as well as hefty buffalo burgers. If you're after more mileage to reach the 100-mile mark, add a loop by continuing south on 35 to Waterford, where you'll pick up Route 37 to Route 118. Go left on 118 for a couple miles to Hunts Corner Road, a beautiful country road that heads north a half-dozen miles before rejoining 35 just south of Bethel. Or you can stick to your original plan and head back to Bethel on the winding, tree-lined Route 35, keeping an eye open for foraging moose.
Back on the Common, relive your conquest of Evans Notch over a hearty dinner of venison medallions and a bottle of cabernet at the Bethel Inn (800-654-0125), a classic resort built in 1913. Go ahead, order a second bottle. You've earned it.
Co-ed road rides are held Tuesday and Thursday evenings, May to October, starting at 6 p.m. Rides begin at either the Sunday River Brewing Co., at the intersection of Sunday River Road and Route 2, three miles west of Bethel, or at the American Skiing Company real estate office, located on the Parkway about one mile west of the Common. Rides usually break into a fast group (17-19 mph) and a not-as-fast group (15 mph). The rides last a couple of hours and cover 30-40 miles. Contact Tim Bruce, director of outdoor operations at the Sunday River Mountain Bike Park (207-824-4391; email@example.com) for information. For spare tubes, tune-ups and other tech-related matters, contact the Sunday River Bike Shop (207-824-5100) or Mahoosuc Mountain Sports (207-875-3786) in nearby Locke Mills.