The Maple Bicycle Adventure

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Today, maple sap flows like a stream of water with only a trace of sweetness to remind the people both of possibility and of responsibility
adapted from oral tradition, cited in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Are the winter blues getting at you too after months of freezing, gray weather? This March, I’m getting outdoors for a celebration of fire, forests, and sugar by riding my bicycle to visit local maple producers and learn more about the land where I live. It’s a great way to meet neighbors, learn about the land, and indulge in a special treat.

I’m also inviting you to plan your own adventure and share it with the people in your life (optional hashtag #MapleAdventure).

J. Nathan Matias smiling with Roy of Olli Road Sugarbush in Newfield NY Picking up a pint of maple syrup from Roy at Olli Road Sugarbush in Newfield in preparation for the Maple Adventure

Here’s how it works:

  • Look up your region’s Maple Weekend (see below)
  • Do one thing to learn about maple, its history, and its meanings (reading & watching suggestions below)
  • Ride your bicycle or e-bike at least 3 miles in total. On your ride, visit a local maple operation with an open house, or a shop/stand that sells local maple
    • It could be your local co-op such as Green Star here in Ithaca, though I think you’ll have more fun if you meet maple producers
  • Taste something made with maple!
  • Share your story with the people in your life
    • Optional: post on social media, using the hashtag #MapleAdventure

About my ride

Walking lines is a constant ritual in sugaring… it is the intersection of the natural and the cultural that is really being brought under the eye.
Michael A. Lange, Meanings of Maple: An Ethnography of Sugaring

I’m an ultra-endurance cyclist and writer who explores landscape and history on two wheels. Last year, my friend Ivan and I bicycled 550 miles in the footsteps of the Farmworker movement to trace the origin of an orange in my Ithaca New York grocery store. This year, I’m riding closer to home to visit maple producers and learn about my relationship to land, community, and forests where I live.

My plan is to ride at least 250 miles over two days, visiting and meeting maple producers across New York, fueled by maple syrup that I pick up along the way. I’m currently finalizing where to visit and who to interview, while also testing different recipes for maple-based energy drink I can make on the road. I plan to ride on New York’s Maple Weekend, March 16-17, with a backup date of March 22-23 if the weather is unsafe.

If you want to follow my journey and read my story when it comes out, you can:

J. Nathan Matias, on a bicycle, with live oak and blue skies in the background and the sun on his face

Design your own ride

People have been so excited about the Maple Adventure, that I decided to invite to make your own route and posting a photo on your adventure.

I’m especially grateful to Chasing Mailboxes for inspiration. For several years now, they have organized a “Coffeeneuring” adventure every November for people to visit local coffeeshops on their bicycles. Their Coffeeneurs group offers a wonderfully-inclusive space for people of all abilities and interests to get outdoors, enjoy the fresh air, and celebrate together online.

Maple syrup in the Ithaca area

If you’re based near Lake Cayuga, here are some great places where you can get local maple syrup:

Maple producers you can visit on Maple Weekend

  • Schoolyard Sugarbush, Newfield NY (no climing required)
  • Sweetrees Maple Products, Berkshire NY (I loved my visit in 2021)

Shops and famer’s market where you will find small-batch producers:

  • Ithaca Farmer’s Market, Saturdays at the Triphammer Mall
  • Brookton’s Market, Brooktondale NY
  • Main Street Market, Trumansburg (a great ride up the Black Diamond Trail)`
  • Trumansburg Farmer’s Market, Wednesdays at the American Legion
  • Sunset View Creamery, Odessa NY
  • The Burdett Exchange, Burdett NY

Maple Weekends Around the United States

Learning about Maple

Here are some stories and books that I’ve found especially meaningful while preparing for the ride:

I really love Robin Wall Kimmerer’s chapters about maple in the book Braiding Sweetgrass; they’re beautiful and inspiring:

  • Maple Sugar Moon, which describes indigenous sugar-making traditions and the science of maple sugar
  • Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide, which asks what it means to have “maple in your bloodstream, maple in your bones.”

Maple sugaring started with Indigenous American groups long before Europeans arrived in the US. Here in New York state, some indigenous communities have been regaining access to stolen ancestral lands and harvesting maple on those lands. I deeply appreciate Gabriel Pietrorazio’s article about this trend, and for his willingness to speak with me as I planned the Maple Adventure.

If you’re more of a podcast person, I think you’ll enjoy Sweet Talk (Apple, Spotify), the Cornell Maple program’s regular podcast. I especially enjoyed the episode in March 2022 about urban sugaring, and a series of episodes about Maple in sport science.

Preparing for winter bicycling

You will know your own local conditions better than anyone, but if you’re less used to riding in cold or icy conditions, here are a few helpful links:

I’m planning to wear lots of wool!

Fueling your ride with maple syrup

When I told a friend it could take me up to a half gallon of Maple syrup to ride from Ithaca to Lake Placid, she got a bit wide-eyed. To anyone who’s not an endurance athlete, this won’t be a surprise. At my pace, a 250-300 mile ride will easily involve 20-24 hours of elapsed ride time and use ten to twelve thousand calories. Much of this will need to come from carbohydrates at the pace I ride.

If you’re planning a longer ride, I expect you’ll know how to manage nutrition. But maple might be new to you. I have found Cody Beals’s guide to homebrew maple + maltodextrin energy drink to be very helpful. This recipe takes advantage of multiple pathways for carbohydrate absorption and includes electrolytes.

I also encourage you to train your gut to digest whatever you make — I’m planning to do several extended rides to see how long I can sustain a strong pace. With Maple’s lower glycemic index, I’ll admit to being a bit unsure I will be able to sustain a consistently-strong effort over 12 hours or more. Unfortunately the only randomized trials for maple energy drinks are based on hour-long time trials rather than ultra-endurants events.

If you’re planning a shorter ride or e-bike adventure, I suggest tasting a tablespoon or so of maple sugar at each place you visit— that’s roughly 50-55 calories. Though there’s no reason not to indulge!

Acknowledgments

I’m grateful to the many scholars, journalists, and maple producers who have advised and shaped this ride, including Dr. H., Ivan Sigal, Adam Wild at the Cornell Maple Program, Gabriel Pietrorazio, and Helen Thomas at NYS Maple Producers Association. I’m also grateful to the maple producers whose syrup I purchased to fuel my training and preparation. These include the Cornell Arnot Research Forest, Schoolyard Sugarbush, Spncer’s Sugar Shack, Steinhaus Farm (Mecklenburg), Steinhaus Farm, Old Man Janus (a very boutique batch made by my nephew), Twin Maples Farm, and Olli Road Sugarbush.