Wheel Life: A Journey on the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail

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The Presidential Rail Trail is the gem of the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail, and a stop at the scenic overlook in the Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge offers stunning North Country scenery. Photos by Marty Basch

My taste buds have been disgusted, amazed and always tested over the course of thousands of miles of long-distance bicycle touring in North America and Europe. I unknowingly bought horse sausage during a spin around Iceland. In northern Norway, I was treated to pizza topped with Thousand Island dressing while a sled dog competitor invited me into his home for a traditional Saturday night dinner — porridge. I’ve tried dried, buttered and smelly fish jerky. And no, washing it down with beer didn’t help.

I’ve eaten many meals right out of the can on rainy nights. A couple of times I ordered a hamburger platter and when the waitress asked about dessert, I ordered another burger plate.

I wolfed down gamy Rocky Mountain oysters while cycling in Montana and lived to write the story.

Takeout? Had lots. PB&J? Even more.

But one convenience has eluded me while bike touring: pizza delivery.

That was until my famished wife Jan and I pulled into the hip Hub North lodge in Gorham last June after a long day on the new Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail. Frankly, it was planned.

No cooking or portable stove on this adventure. We were on a takeout and delivery tour as we traveled at the speed of wife during our three-day ride across northern New Hampshire.

Instead, I called Mr. Pizza, and not only ordered a pie, but listened to my forward- thinking, former-restaurant-owner wife. She said to order a sub, dry of course, and a calzone for the final leg of the ride as services were minimal.

I’ve pedaled from Maine to Alaska, near and above the Arctic Circle and more. Together we mountain biked from Canada to Mexico. Who would have thought the first pizza delivery would come during a ride that took us about an hour’s drive from our Mount Washington Valley home? You never know what you’re going to find in your own backyard.

That’s the theme of the 83-mile, multiuse trail that runs from the shores of the Connecticut River in Woodsville to the banks of the Androscoggin River in Bethel, Maine.

The slow pace of bicycle touring gives you fresh perspectives on the familiar. Popping in for classic fudge at the Brick Store in Bath, something we’ve done often while on car road trips, was a more relaxed experience eating the treats while seated on the front porch.

Outside Littleton, we saw a female snapping turtle use the dirt rail trail as a potential spot to lay her eggs. Stopping for coffee in Whitefield yielded a small-world, small-town surprise as my wife ran into a former employee of hers.

In Gorham, on the glorious Presidential Rail Trail near the tail end of the tour, a couple we didn’t know stopped us with congratulations for making it that far. How did they know? They told us they were exploring pieces of the trail and had seen us a few times.

As we entered the beautiful Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge, we swatted mosquitoes and chatted with a kayak-wheeling Loon Preservation Committee researcher who was on the way out.

Along the way is plenty of North Country splendor. Pedal over covered bridges and railroad trestles. Breathe in the charm and listen to the wooden floors creak in that historic general store, or take a rest by a welcoming two-story gazebo. Chug along the ATV-shared Ammonoosuc Rail Trail from Woodsville into Lisbon before riding into Littleton. Put it in granny gear for the hilly backroads into Whitefield before entering the route’s crown jewels — the Presidential Rail Trail and birder-friendly Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge — with majestic northern Presidential Range vistas. From Gorham with its services, cross over the Androscoggin on a trestle along with ATVs before embarking on a rocky ramble along dirt Hogan Road, which had us pushing bikes for a bit due to fall-out from a storm.

Cross the Appalachian Trail and pedal the final stretch of pavement along the meandering and bucolic North Road, a classic White Mountain spin.

A particularly memorable moment occurred as we turned from the rugged Hogan Road onto North Road. A state trooper stopped us, plus several cars, due to a downed power line. Eventually, he led us safely to the other side of the wire, and we enjoyed the road to ourselves for miles before cars were allowed to return.

The shaded North Road crosses into Maine and hands off to the final victory mile, rolling along the pleasant recreational trail Bethel Pathway and into Davis Park with its picnic tables, covered bridge and skate park, an experience we enjoyed despite the light drizzle.

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Bridges and trestles line the route and provide cyclists a chance to experience familiar places from a different perspective. Photo by Marty Basch

The Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail is the brainchild of avid cyclist Marianne Borowski of Glen. The energetic Borowski grew up in Connecticut and spent her career in the biotech field as a protein chemist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After retiring, she rode her bicycle cross-country where she met her partner, Tom Matchak, a bicycle-building retired engineer.

In 2003, the two moved to the Mount Washington Valley with its myriad outdoor opportunities. Borowski became involved with the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation in winter and cycling in the warmer months. She’s shared her love of cycling with riders over the years, leading her popular Thursday group rides around the Mount Washington Valley, now in its 17th year. Active with the Mount Washington Valley Bicycling Club, her local knowledge of both the valley and northern New England formed the blueprint for the trail.

Her labor of love was inspired by the Cross Vermont Trail, which winds some 91 miles from the shores of Lake Champlain in Burlington to the small town of Wells River along the Connecticut River. Borowski envisioned the New Hampshire route as a continuation of that trail starting from the steel bridge in Woodsville.

Borowski contacted the Cross Vermont Trail Association, the nonprofit organization that oversees the route, and was encouraged to carry on eastward. Working largely on her own — though Matchak and a few intrepid friends accompanied her on some exploratory trips — Borowski just needed a few local links to piece together the ride.

Fueled by grants from the New Hampshire Charitable Fund’s Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund and a National Park Service, Rivers and Trails Division assistance grant, Borowski was able to map the route, create cue sheets, and post a website (xnhat.org) with valuable insight as well as suggested lodging, camping, food, services and bike shops along the way.

Borowski also posted pages on Facebook and Instagram and distributed brochures, maps and stickers. She even reached out to local snowmobile and ATV clubs for their input. The map was created by the respected Appalachian Mountain Club cartographer Larry Garland of Jackson.

Plainly, Borowski, who has biked in 48 of the 50 states, designed the route from her own perspective and bike travel experiences. It appeals to her and reflects what she and her friends would enjoy. What’s she’s discovered is that the trail has managed to offer something for everybody.

“What has been surprising and a learning experience is that cyclists on the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail who are way more experienced, fit and skillful than I am, or less experienced than I am, all enjoy the trail,” she says.

The trail, the first of its kind across New Hampshire, allows riders to have a completely different point of view. For example, the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail encourages cyclists to explore the other side of the river. Whereas they may have only experienced  Woodsville, Bath, Lisbon and Littleton from Route 302, biking on the other side offers a different perspective of the river, towns, bridges, dams and forest of the river valley.

Borowski is impressed by the way cyclists have “created their own unique ways to enjoy the trail,” she says. Some carry their own gear or have a friend in a car carry their equipment. Some ride end-to-end then ride all the way back or arrange for a shuttle. Others spot cars. Some have even used different bikes for different sections. She’s heard from groups, retirees, couples, college students and even a father who pedaled it with his 11-year-old. Some have even incorporated it into longer trips around northern New England.

The route isn’t always a smooth ride though. Bikers will need to navigate gravel, cinder, sand, ballast, single-track, grassy two-track, dirt roads and pavement. Wider tires, patience and average cycling skills are musts.

Borowski has found most cyclists ride west to east, her recommended direction. She’s also added an incentive for cyclists to ride the whole route — a patch. In 2019, Borowski doled out 59 patches to end-to-enders (including Jan and myself) for riding the entire trail. There were even some riders who rode it twice and got two.

Each season has its perks.

Color returns to the North Country in spring during mid-May when the leaves pop out. The purple lupines are lovely during their seasonal blooms during mid- to late-June. That also signals bug season, but there are also wildflowers and wildlife such as birds, frogs, beavers and turtles. Chances abound to see bigger mammals, including bear, deer and moose. Pedaling amid the foliage in the cool of September and October rewards you with alpine scenery
of brilliant foliage and white-capped Presidential peaks.

Jan and I traveled light, stayed indoors versus camping, and rode manageable days of 22, 37 and 24 miles.

I was on a new gravel bike, thankful for its wide tires. Jan was using her trusty mountain bike, the same one she used when we rode from Canada to Mexico along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 1998. She takes care of things — like a husband.

We each carried two panniers, and Jan had a handlebar bag as well. We were led by the cue sheets we downloaded from the website, though it’s possible to download the route to your phone. We planned the trip to fit into a hole of bookended rainy days, narrowly making it.

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The end is near when North Road in Shelburne crosses into Bethel, Maine, the eastern terminus of the route. The sinuous and shaded roadway parallels the Androscoggin River. Photo by Marty Basch

On the banks of the Ammonoosuc River, handsome Littleton is a cyclist’s oasis with its Main Street shops, restaurants and motels. The rejuvenated and picturesque Riverwalk is another magnet, especially for beer lovers wanting to crack open a frosty local at Schilling Beer Co. There are also mainstays like Chutters candy store and the famous statue of Pollyanna.

Our room for the night was at the comfortable Littleton Motel, steps from Perfido’s Market, which had some hearty takeout deli.

The small town is also home to Littleton Bike and Fitness and the Parker Mountain trail system.

“I’ve seen groups of retirees to your total Instagram bikepacker person show up,” says Littleton Bike and Fitness owner and cycling advocate Dave Harkless. “It’s been a bit of everything.” (read more of what Harkless has to say on page 43).

When some riders were having second thoughts about their ability to ride the route, Harkless and a buddy drove out to find them later, and offered them a couple of beers for encouragement, becoming local trail angels in the process.

Gorham’s Hub North, a groovy outdoor encampment with lodge and glamping next to mountain bike-friendly Moose Brook State Park, sees its share of XNHAT (Cross-New Hampshire Trail) bikers. Owner Kara Hunter and husband Jason are key cogs in the Coös Cycling Club that has created miles of trails in recent years.

Hunter believes more people will be taking advantage of the mountain biking hubs as the route increases in popularity.

“I bet it won’t be long before people realize that if they ride the right bike, there are mountain biking options at both ends as well as middle stops of the three-day tour,” she says. “I think it would be exceptional to see people using the trail in that way.”

She’s also seen some groups ride its entire length. “I love checking out the bikes and gear that everyone has, so many different approaches to touring, and it thrills me to see people arriving here by bike,” she says.

That thrill is shared by many during a spin through northern New Hampshire’s backyard.

Send your mailing address to crossnewhampshire@gmail.com to get a paper map of the trail.

Talking With Dave Harkless at Littleton Bike & Fitness

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Photo by Jared Charney

When Dave Harkless wandered into Littleton Bicycle Shoppe in 1992, he was burnt out from his career in the culinary field and in need of a job.

He never left.

Harkless, now the owner of the renamed Littleton Bike & Fitness, was full time by the end of his first summer, and has had a front row seat to the changes in the cycling world since.

“I’ve seen many things change in bikes over the years — full-suspension mountain bikes, electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes,”
Harkless says. “But I would have to say today’s electric-assist bikes are the biggest game-changer. They allow an aging population to enjoy riding more and open up many routes that they normally wouldn’t be able to attempt or enjoy.”

Spend a few minutes chatting with this longtime cyclist/business owner and he’ll likely recommend useful apps (Trailforks or MTB Project), suggest appropriate trails (Field Trip or Endless Recess), and even provide a few factoids (the national road and highway system was developed by cyclists in the 1880s).

He’s also got a few words ready for beginners — take it easy.

“Don’t overdo it,” he says. “Gradually build up stamina and skills. I have seen many folks over the years come in on a nice, sunny day, buy bikes, and go out for way too long of a ride. By the time they get back they are very tired and sore the next day, then they don’t want to ride again. For beginner mountain bikers, attending a skills clinic or hiring an instructor will greatly increase your skills quickly.”

Though in the end, it’s all about getting people in the saddle.

“It makes us smile to see a kid get their first new bike,” Harkless says. “And I admire our many customers who are in their 70s and 80s that are still riding.”

— Bill Burke

Talking With Josh Pierce at Papa Wheelies

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Photo by Jared Charney

There’s been a curious side effect of the pandemic-related quarantine — the popularity of cycling is experiencing a surge.

“The shutting down of the country due to COVID-19, combined with a desire for safe, enjoyable ways to spend time together has led to a bit of a renaissance of family and recreational biking,” says Papa Wheelies manager Josh Pierce.

And when that wave of interest began to crest, Pierce and his team at Papa Wheelies, which opened its Portsmouth location back in 2001, were ready.

“Bike shops at their core have always been rooted in their neighborhood,” he says. “They have been an integral part of the local landscape. They have traditionally been the only place to go to get a good-quality, well-constructed, well-built bicycle. And they have also been the place you go to get your bike tuned up and serviced, and they are generally full of people who live and breathe bikes and want to share that passion with anyone who walks in the door.”

Among the tips Pierce is ready to pass along are great places to take your bike once you’ve found one. His go-to for new riders is Stratham Hill Park, a great introduction to mountain biking and gravel riding, with wide-open, meandering paths, fun, twisty single-tracks, and a taste of technical climbs and white-knuckle downhills. For road riding, it’s hard to beat Route 1A along the seacoast.

“Coming out to the seacoast at the end of Route 111 atop Little Boar’s Head can be a breathtaking introduction to the big, blue ocean, with the Isles of Shoals sparkling 7 miles off the coast,” he says. The ride back north along the winding, rocky 1A is arguably the best section of roadway along the Atlantic seaboard.

Pierce’s best tip, however, is to get the right gear at the right price.

“We want them to make sure [customers] don’t spend their entire budget on the best bike they can afford,” he says. “We want them to be fully prepared for the adventure. Heading off on your new bike without a water bottle, a good pair of shorts and a way to fix a flat tire is a recipe for an awful experience — especially if you head off to somewhere with limited cell reception when something goes wrong,” he adds.

— Bill Burke

Talking With Raymond Lessard at The Bike Barn

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Photo by Jared Charney

According to the Lessard family of The Bike Barn in Manchester, there have been two significant shifts in the cycling world: when the world first embraced mountain biking in the early 1990s and the development of pedal-assist bikes.

The Lessard family would know. Family patriarch Raymond Lessard opened The Bike Barn in 1975. His daughter, Karen, created the shop’s logo when she was 17, and it has
remained unchanged since. Raymond’s sons, Thomas and Patrick, run the shop — the oldest continuously run family bike shop in the city.

“Prior to the mass production of mountain biking, it was a little-known sport that moved to widespread activity,” says Patrick Lessard. “There was a mass rush to mountain biking throughout the entire country, and bike shop sales of mountain bikes and gear began to soar like never seen before.”

The next cycling sea change came with the arrival of pedal-assist bikes. A specialty of The Bike Barn, these bikes use an electric-assist to amplify speed as the rider pedals.

“These bikes are ideal for a rider that might want a boost to their ride, as it greatly helps with headwinds and steep hills,” says Lessard. “However, you can still get an excellent workout because once you stop pedaling,
the bike will slow down.”

Mountain, pedal assist, road, gravel or hybrid — pick your poison and head for Manchester’s Piscataquog Trail, the Musquash Conservation Area in Londonderry or the Horse Hill Nature Preserve in Merrimack, the Lessards say. And if there’s any motivation needed, organize a viewing of the 1979 Oscar-winning film “Breaking Away.”

“It’s an excellent biking movie and we encourage any biker who has never seen it to make a point to watch it,” says Lessard.

And if you’re a beginner? According to these pros, keep your tires properly inflated and make sure your drivetrain is properly lubricated with a quality chain lube.

— Bill Burke

Categories: Destination NH, Guide to Summer, Things to Do
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