Cyclists ride across Wiseman Bridge during the Trek Across Maine in downtown Lewiston on Friday. DARYN SLOVER/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — A steady stream of cyclists in the 35th Trek Across Maine rounded the corner at Lisbon Street onto Pine Street midmorning Friday with the help of some signs and a few police cars.

The route, beginning in Brunswick and passing over the train trestle between Auburn and Lewiston, was a first for the 1,400 riders in the annual three-day benefit ride for the American Lung Association. Previous treks have begun in Newry and the first leg has followed a route through Oxford and Franklin counties to the University of Maine at Farmington.

As cyclists rolled into Bates College after the 58-mile ride — hoping to quickly snag a baked potato (a trek tradition) — the new route was already the talk of the campus.

Cory Lathrop, a 14-year veteran of the trek, arrived at Bates in the early wave of riders. Lathrop helped develop the new course with event organizers with the goal of bringing the trek to a more central location and directly into communities.

“The old route sort of bypassed communities, on purpose,” he said, adding that organizers wanted to “take (the trek) to the population.”

Until this year, the trek began at Sunday River Ski Resort and ended in Belfast. On Friday, the first wave of cyclists was released from the starting line at 7 a.m. at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, and began rolling into the Bates College campus in Lewiston around 11 a.m.

One of the first rest stops was at L.L. Bean in downtown Freeport. Lathrop said riders were taking photos with the famous Bean boot outside the store. When he got to Bates, he said the “No. 1” topic among riders was the new route.

“Everything I’ve heard has been positive,” he said.

After the overnight stay at Bates, riders will make their way to Colby College in Waterville on Saturday and end up back in Brunswick on Sunday. In all, it’s 180 miles.

Over its 35 years, the trek has raised nearly $25 million for the American Lung Association Maine, becoming the organization’s largest fundraising event.

As of Friday, the event had brought in $1.2 million in donations. For the full three-day event, the fundraising minimum is $550 per rider.

This year, Lathrop managed to raise the second-most in the field, raking in more than $21,500 in donations. He said his annual goal has been to add a number of new sponsors each year, while maintaining old ones. The top fundraiser in the trek has taken in roughly $25,000, he said.

Kim Chamard, manager of development for the American Lung Association Maine, told the Press Herald this week that the new course was chosen for the trek’s 35th anniversary “to breathe some new life into the event and refresh it a bit. (We’re) hoping to bring in some new cyclists and a new generation of people to ride with us, and making it more centrally located we’re hoping will do that for people.”

On Friday, Chamard was at the Bates College Commons where music was blaring and a small crowd cheered for cyclists rolling in on Central Avenue, which was closed to traffic.

Many riders form teams to raise money for a particular cause, and the event encourages teams to create hashtags for social media posts. Chamard pointed to a large screen set up where participants could view the team posts and activity in real time.

Mike Williams of Presque Isle was wearing cycling gear marked with the hashtag #Melstrong, a member of a 21-person team called “Mel’s Trekkers.” It was Williams’ second year of riding the trek, meaning he’s seen both courses. He said while the new route has some beautiful scenery, he was concerned in some of the high-traffic areas, and in areas that he said were not well-marked.

While some riders are just beginning to form traditions, some are firmly in place. Chamard said at least two people have ridden in the trek each year since it began.

Bill Ross of Freeport has been doing the trek for 22 years. He said during a stretch of three years when he was deployed in the military, his daughters rode in his place.

Ross is a peer facilitator for the Wounded Warrior Project, a veterans services organization, which has taken him on rides all over the world.

“I loved it,” he said of the first day of the course Friday. He said he got involved in the event two decades ago because of a family member with lung cancer, but he continues riding for “personal health” and to fight diabetes.

“It’s good therapy for (post-traumatic stress disorder), too,” he said.

Most dropping their bikes Friday afternoon went first to the food and beer tents. On the marked path there, Leigh Weisenburger, dean of admission at Bates, was among the volunteers holding up large signs with a question mark, aimed at directing people to where they needed to go.

The biggest destinations? Where to get a baked potato and find a bathroom.

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