SKOWHEGAN — Four hundred bicyclists gathered Saturday afternoon at Fairgrounds Market Place for the first night in BikeMaine Village before beginning an estimated 355-mile trek through the central and western parts of the state for the fifth annual BikeMaine event.

Skowhegan was selected as the host community for this year’s BikeMaine, which drew riders from five countries and 35 U.S. states. Businesses throughout downtown posted signs in their shop windows reading “Welcome BikeMaine” in anticipation of the event, which has been known to boost local economies.

Peter Jameson, of Bathurst, New Brunswick, arrived at the fairgrounds for his fifth BikeMaine. He’s one of 23 people who have come back to the event each year.

“It’s a well organized trip. It’s a good value. You meet lots of good people,” Jameson said. “… And you get to see parts of Maine other than what’s on I-95.”

Jameson is looking forward to the trip this year, which includes “small towns that you normally don’t see, and there are some real gems,” he said.

The first night riders will stay in Skowhegan and enjoy a lobster dinner after check-in, served by the local Rotary Club and followed by live entertainment. Main Street Skowhegan, a nonprofit organization focused on revitalizing the former mill town, is serving a maple breakfast Sunday morning before the riders take off for the journey. On Saturday, the Maine Grain Alliance will welcome them back with wood-fired pizza at the fairgrounds.

“There are a number of businesses that have been extremely important to set up the event,” said Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan. The Bankery is making much of the food for riders and helping find other local food; Redington-Fairview Hospital has loaned grills and propane tanks; and the Hight family, which owns a number of area car dealerships, has donated to the event. Parents of students on the Skowhegan Area High School softball team also pitched in as volunteers.

Cannon has high expectations for the event, which has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for other regions in previous years.

“We hope the fairgrounds, and Skowhegan in general, will become a destination,” she said. BikeMaine is one of a number of events the town of about 8,600 people is hosting.

More than 1,000 people turned out for the second annual Skowhegan Craft Brew Festival on Sept. 2, and the town will host the Maine moose lottery in June 2018.

Zach Schmesser, event director for the coalition, said the energy between Skowhegan businesses and revitalization organizations drew the coalition to the Somerset County town.

“There’s a lot happening,” Schmesser said. “It’s a perfect combination.”

The partnership with Main Street Skowhegan was also “right on,” he said, as it was very helpful in organizing the event.

Check-in for BikeMaine, which is sponsored by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine, began Saturday, and bicyclists will ride from Sunday to next Saturday. The trip takes riders from Skowhegan through Pittsfield and Kingfield, then into Rangeley, where they enjoy a one-day layover. From there, they go to Camp Wekeela in Hartford, through Farmington and back to Skowhegan.

The annual ride was created by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, a bicycling advocacy group founded in 1992 that works to improve bicyclist safety.

Last year, 400 bicyclists — the maximum number of slots — went to Downeast Maine. The total economic impact was estimated at $1.7 million, with $626,000 directly impacting host towns, according to Main Street Skowhegan’s website.

The coalition plans to continue growing the event while making sure the communities can be successful, Schmesser said. BikeMaine started with 250 riders and has grown to 400, and he plans to add another 50 slots next year.

The group does a lot of work to make sure people are aware of the event and that they know hundreds of bikers will be coming through the small towns, he said.

“We really want everybody to have a positive experience,” he said.

The coalition also is hosting safety events for children and adults throughout the week of BikeMaine at elementary schools along the route.

On Saturday, Shannon Belt, an education and outreach coordinator for the organization out of Portland, held the first such event at Bloomfield Elementary School in Skowhegan. His goal is to reach about 500 children in total.

Belt brought 30 balance bikes, which have no pedals, so that children with less experience could ease into the practice. Because Maine isn’t a rich state, he said, some children haven’t yet ridden bikes, so the idea is to let them “learn some balance and some agility” using the balance bikes on a set course in the parking lot.

“This is for kids to have a positive experience on a bike in a safe atmosphere,” Belt said.

This is a new program for the coalition, which started with young children in Portland. Belt hopes to connect with schools in the regions of the BikeMaine event so he can present the program to students.

“Kids are the future,” he said, “and I really feel like education is the way to make streets safe for drivers and pedestrians.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour