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Common Tread

A day ride from the Kancamagus Highway to the sea

Aug 19, 2014

I've seen Harley-Davidsons with chromed "Live to ride, ride to live" farkles. I've seen Gold Wingers wearing "Ride to eat, eat to ride" patches. What if I combined a little of both, on a bike that was not much like either?

That's a little day ride I took this summer while sojourning through New England. These small, northeastern states may lack the altitudes of the Rockies and the endless, golden arc that is the Pacific Coast, but they make up for it with pleasant riding in an easy-open package. I have a deep breath of fresh mountain air with breakfast, and smell the salt air and just-caught seafood being unloaded off ships by lunch time.

New England offers some impressive mountain views, even if the statistics can't match the Rockies. Photo by Lance Oliver.

People have been coming to Laconia Bike Week for 90 years, now. Like Daytona and Sturgis, it started with races, but today has grown way beyond that. When you go to Sturgis, you just about have to sober up long enough to do an obligatory ride to Mount Rushmore, even if you're really there to party. At Laconia, where Harleys also dominate, everyone goes out for a ride on the Kancamagus Highway.

Any time close to Bike Week, the roads are rumbling with cruisers, but I'm too early for that. So I have "the Kanc," as it's often called, mostly to myself. Winding through the White Mountain National Forest, it's easy to see why it's a favorite with the V-twin crowd. The road is scenic, the pulloffs become impromptu gatherings of riders, even when Bike Week is not in session, and the pace of the curves invites a leisurely, low-revving lope.

Bear Notch Road offers tighter curves than the Kanc. Photo by Lance Oliver.

After a while, I mix it up by turning off the Kanc at its one intersection: Bear Notch Road. This narrower two-lane provides tighter curves, winding through unmolested forest.

The Kanc ends in the tourism-centered town of Conway, N.H., which I escape as quickly as possible via a series of back roads that carries me across the border into Maine. As the land flattens a bit, lakes replace mountains. It was not far from here one year past when I came upon an unexpected rural traffic jam caused when a bunch of drivers stopped to watch a moose calmly munching water plants, knee-deep in a pond.

It wouldn't be a story about New England without at least one photo of a white church steeple. Photo by Lance Oliver.

The end point of this ride, however, is water of a bigger kind. The first time I went to Portland, Maine, many, many years ago, it was a sad-looking place with lots of mostly empty brick warehouse and industrial buildings on the waterfront. Today, the city is thriving, and those buildings are full of restaurants and small businesses. Though you can still see (and smell) the daily catch being unloaded from boats a block or two away, some formerly idle wharves have been replaced by waterfront condos. The downside of this prosperity in an old city with narrow streets is parking. Unless you're on a motorcycle. Portland has free parking for motorcycles. My kind of place!

In the White Mountains, the signs warn of moose. Photo by Lance Oliver.
In the city of Portland, they warn you not to expect to find parking — unless you're on a motorcycle. Photo by Lance Oliver.

There's an oft-repeated claim that Portland has the second-most restaurants per capita of any city in the United States. When the local business newspaper tried to confirm that legend with hard facts, they found it was not so easy to pin it down. But there's no question this little city has a wealth of options, from cozy, old-style diners to wood-paneled fish and chips joints to places serving up fancy dishes on fine china. I've tried several, in my visits to the city over the years, and haven't gone wrong yet.

Today, the Portland waterfront is thriving. Not just with shipping, as in the past, but with all kinds of residences and businesses. Photo by Lance Oliver.

It's an easy and leisurely day ride from the Kanc, where the Harleys roam free, to the coast, where the "Ride to eat" crowd can fulfill its fantasies with a different eatery for every day of the year. Bon appetít. I think that's French for "enjoy the ride."