Maine has had mountain bike races for decades, like the legendary Widowmaker that ran for 20 years at Sugarloaf and the rocky, technical race held in the bowels of Biddeford at Clifford Park.

But four years ago when Pat Hackleman asked officials at Bradbury State Park in Pownal to let him hold a 12-hour mountain bike race there, few knew what was to come.

Just 70 racers showed that first year. This month, roughly 300 riders will come from as far as Quebec, Vermont and Tennessee, and others will be turned away.

Hackleman, a mountain biker who guided out West, saw what riders wanted.

Now in Maine officials from state government to town recreation programs are seeing it too, a renaissance in this gritty sport from Portland to Presque Isle.

In the past three years, four chapters of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) have formed in Maine and begun building and opening up mountain bike trails.

It’s a woodland movement fueled by like-minded volunteers — but what’s unusual is they have harnessed an energy that spans the length of Maine.

Working separately, these clubs have won grants, hired Subaru-sponsored trail engineers and passionately taken hold of their single-track destiny.

Phillip Keyes, executive director of NEMBA in Acton, Mass., said Maine’s current cycling synergy stands out for its pure spontaneity and simple spirit. And he doesn’t see it slowing down.

“What is unique about the Greater Portland and Carrabassett Region chapters, they didn’t form out of crisis. They didn’t form because riding areas were being shut down. All four Maine chapters started out of a positive desire to do great things for mountain biking,” Keyes said.

EPICENTER OF IT ALL

The Bradbury-12 mountain bike race didn’t put Bradbury State Park on the map as a mountain bike destination, but Hackleman highlighted the crazy devotion for the sweet, rooty single track there. And he gave back, a gesture that has become a defining trait of Maine mountain bike clubs.

The 34-year-old owner of Casco Bay Sports donated race proceeds the first few years to the state park because he knows the biases that have existed against mountain bike riders.

This year a portion of the proceeds will go to one of NEMBA’s newest chapters in Portland.

Bradbury has benefited not only from mountain bike traffic and the riders’ adopt-a-trail program — the riders who gather there have put the park on the map.

“It really has turned what was a low-use park into a park that now people come to from all over,” said Will Harris, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

“People are coming and word is getting around that we have a quality set of bike trails. We’re happy we have this kind of special thing.”

From this epicenter the corps of riders demanding trails seemed to grow. Riders were looking for new options, more technical terrain, and unending, connecting dirt trail.

It was on this hope that the Greater Portland NEMBA chapter was born in October 2009.

NEMBA is an umbrella organization that helps its chapters apply for grants and negotiate land access, trail maintenance and development.

So when Portland mountain bike rider Mitch Wacksman wanted a club to help him in his quest to open more trails, he formed one with the help of NEMBA.

In less than a year, the Greater Portland NEMBA chapter has received $6,000 in grants and partnered with the town of Falmouth to build and share trails there.

It’s been a lot of work, especially for someone who never ran a nonprofit, but Wacksman said there is so much interest in the chapter there is no stopping its momentum.

It’s a story being played out across Maine.

BIG COUNTRY RIDING

In the western mountains, David Hughes and Joshua Tauses only wanted to work with the town of Carrabassett Valley to build mountain bike trails there.

But when they inquired about interest within their community in June, they heard back from riders throughout the region.

“When you have people from Kingfield and Farmington showing up to a scoping meeting, well, my idea for what the club would be transformed into a regional thing. If people are stepping up and putting their shoulder into it, you pull them in and hold them tight,” said Hughes, now the president of the club, which already has 72 members.

The club was voted into NEMBA by its board of trustees immediately. It was given $5,000 in funds from the town of Carrabassett Valley to help build trails. And on its first official trail day two weeks ago it finished a day-long project for the Maine Huts and Trails system by 11 a.m.

The fast start illustrates the club’s momentum.

“What is unique about the Carrabassett chapter is it all came together very quickly,” Keyes said. “They have very motivated mountain bikers who really want to put the sweat into building trails. Carrabassett is really the first one with the mission to help the region. That’s pretty unusual.”

However, it is the kind of riding the region can offer that makes it truly distinctive, riders say.

Tauses, the trail director, said the “big country riding” done in the region across 30 and 40 miles of mountainous single track and logging roads is unlike anything in New England.

“It’s a different type of riding. We have loops where you may not see another rider all day, and may not see paved road, if we can obtain landowner permission to open them,” Tauses said.

That could be easy, if the work done by mountain bike riders elsewhere in Maine is any indication.

CENTRAL MAINE SYNERGY

After the Central Maine club formed three years ago, it went to work building trails through the urban areas in Augusta, Hallowell and Waterville. The build-it-and-they’ll-come phenomenon there was instant.

“When we came into existence, we quickly had a lot of interest from volunteers. And we have on our Wednesday night rides. Our biggest was two weeks ago — we had 23 riders. It’s kind of funny, when we started, many times I rode by myself,” said club founder Brian Alexander.

Meanwhile in Bangor, Presque Isle and Camden, trails are being built and opened in short order.

The town-owned Camden Snow Bowl is eyeing mountain biking as the next cool sport, thanks to the Midcoast NEMBA chapter formed there in 2007.

Camden Snow Bowl general manager Jeff Kuller, the town’s recreation director, said it hasn’t stopped building trails and working to open more.

“The first thing they did is get a grant from (the International Mountain Bike Association) to build a pump track. There were a ton of volunteers,” Kuller said.

AROUND THE NEXT TURN

Where mountain biking in Maine will go from here is unknown. Chapter presidents have hope, but they have no blueprint.

However, all one has to do (and Maine riders do) is look to Vermont and the wildly popular Kingdom Trails network there, where 110 miles of mountain bike trails draws riders from several states and provinces.

“If you’re there at the trail head on a weekend, there are cars from all over the Northeast. That’s kind of what I think we can do here,” said Tauses in Carrabassett Valley.

One thing is certain: The image mountain biking once had as a rogue sport has changed, and even state officials are looking to the activity as green, low-impact and popular.

“I think mountain biking will increase around several of our parks, including at Camden Hills State Park and Aroostook State Park. Places like that are just waiting for those kinds of things to happen,” said Harris with the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

And if the Bradbury-12 is any indication, mountain biking events in Maine will draw devoted riders, and even turn others away.

“I think people come for the challenge, and also because it is the one day they can see all the people they know who ride in one spot,” Hackleman said. 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com