Ernest Hemingway often espoused a bicycle analogy that reminds me of Maine’s landscape – famous for mountains, rolling hills and steep ridges. This world-traveling writer and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and Nobel Prize in 1954 claimed that learning land contours best begins by bicycling, a thought that resonated with me.

Here’s just one of many reasons why:

During childhood, I lived on Route 105 in Windsor, and the 3-mile walk west to Hussey’s General Store started on a highland, dropped to the West Branch of the Sheepscot River and then rose slowly to a ridgetop, where Hussey’s overlooked a dropping field with Dearborn Brook at the bottom, a tributary of the West Branch.

In my school days, I walked Route 105 from the West Branch to Hussey’s many times without noticing the slow ascent. I just hoofed it without thinking, so the hike struck a dumb kid like me as flat.

One June morning about 10 years ago, I drove from Belgrade Lakes to Windsor to bicycle. While pedaling from the West Branch bridge to the store, a physical feature of this stretch surprised me, even though I had grown up on that road. That rise from the river took more energy than a casual hike – not much, but enough for me to notice the climb was more than I remembered in my youth.

Hemingway spent his life hunting and fishing across North America, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, and he knew plenty about hiking and bicycling, partly because of his hunting, hiking and skiing experiences – skiing before lifts were everywhere on ski slopes.

Although Hemingway never wrote about the topic, he loved bicycle racing on indoor tracks and 100-mile-plus road courses. He tried writing about the sport but admitted failure with his bicycle-racing prose and gave up. He professed that he could never capture the excitement of bicycle racing as it was in real life.

However, Hemingway had gained enough of a bicycling grasp to write a jewel of a quote, probably from pedaling himself so much:

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them,” Hemingway wrote, “Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”

When pedaling across our hilly, rolling state, I often think of that quote, because bicycling gives me a definitive feel for the land’s topography. Bicyclists may know more about Maine’s contours than the state’s serious hunters do. When mountain-biking through the woods where I hunt or fish, I notice the geographical profile more than I did before pedaling it.

Hemingway was right. These days, I live near a section of Route 27 that passes a concrete business. Before I started my adult bicycling phase, I had driven the road hundreds of times, and when approaching that place from the north I never noticed that the road dropped for about 0.6 miles. As soon as I passed the business, the road rose a little for a full mile toward the south.

A bicyclist’s legs tell the pedaler when he or she is climbing, even up a slight rise. Such a stretch may look absolutely horizontal to motorists, but a pedaler understands an old bicycling term that describes these places as “false flats.”

At the end of the Tour de France each July, bicyclists race a few circuits on the Champs-Elysees, Paris’s most famous street. Bob Roll, a commentator who competed in the race several times, notes each year that the Champs-Elysees offers much tougher pedaling than it looks.

In my 20s, I walked the Champs-Elysees many times without noticing the rise. These days, I watch the Tour and can see the rise as racers rocket up it toward the Arc de Triomphe.

Pedaling accentuates the reality of hills, drops, flats and false flats – now readily apparent to me, because I have spent the last half of my adult life bicycling the same roads and woods that I walked or drove in youth. In short, bicycling forced me to ponder contours.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

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