In Vermont, a Vicious Cycle?

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2003

My Vermont bike trip had barely started when doubts began to kick in. I had mounted my sporty Cannondale and breezed past the brick church and pleasant town square of Shoreham, then hit a dramatic rise. Grappling with the gears, I pedaled harder as my hands began to go numb and sweat trickled down my forehead. One rider from my group swooshed past, then two others, all beaming pleasantly. Mustering a tepid smile, I pushed on until the road flattened and a cluster of maples offered shade. That's when I wondered: Was I ready to tackle Vermont on two wheels?

The allure was obvious. The usually cool climate and maple-covered meadows of the Green Mountain State make it a sublime summer escape. I had signed on for a six-day, 200-mile cycling trip last August through the northwestern and central parts of the state, with stops each night at country guesthouses offering gourmet dinners and hearty breakfasts. The brochures for this route, highlighting a scene of the comely college town of Middlebury, had set my heart fluttering.

Even better, the tour let participants ride at their own experience level. One guide would cycle along with the group, offering pep talks and help, while another would drive a van back and forth along the route. Riders could hop in for all or part of the day; even sitting out a day would be fine.

The night before the trip, after a tasty dinner of shrimp marinated in lime, we sat on the porch of the Shoreham Inn, the rustic bed-and-breakfast that would be our base for the first two nights. Against a background of croaking cicadas, we did a round of introductions. The group of 16 was diverse, including a South African woman and her two college-age daughters, a twentysomething business entrepreneur from Connecticut and a pair of semi-retired schoolteachers from New York.

The range of biking experience was also wide. At one end was the slender radiologist from Toronto who said she cycled an average of 100 miles a week and had already conquered Provence by bike. At the other was a portly chemical industry executive in his fifties from New Orleans who acknowledged that biking was a now-and-then pastime. I fell in between. Regular gym workouts keep me in decent shape, and I had taken four or five long practice rides through Rock Creek Park.

While our outfitter, Bike Vermont, had given the terrain an easy to intermediate rating, our schedule called for an average of 40 miles a day. In a state where the average elevation is 1,000 feet, we were sure to face a few challenging inclines.

Now, as I caught my breath, I wondered if I'd signed on for too much. But after that first hill, the cycling did not seem so punishing. At one stop, Cindy Burke, the perky athlete who was one of our guides, advised me to sit back on the seat rather than lean into the handlebars. That helped alleviate the numbness in my hands. Another group member gave me a quick lesson on switching gears. After a while, the sharp rises and steep downhills became more manageable.

By the time we stopped for a sandwich lunch my anxiety had dissipated, allowing me to embrace the sights. The route was pleasant. It began in the small town of Shoreham, looped through the village of Orwell, touched briefly at Larrabees Point, a landing on the shore of Lake Champlain, and then returned to the Shoreham. In the background was a lovely sweep of cornfields, maples and apple trees.

We passed a wooden covered bridge just outside Shoreham, built in 1895 -- a classic relic of old New England. But the high point of the day was a stop at Norton's Gallery, on Route 73, two or three meadows away from Lake Champlain, at the 24-mile mark. Norton Latourelle, a hearty, woolly-haired dairy farmer-turned-sculptor, specializes in whimsical oversized dogs and other animal woodcarvings. While his wife, Marlene, poured lemonade, Latourelle read poetry that he said inspired his works, then showed me around the gallery. I could easily have lingered, but I hoisted myself back onto my steed, making a mental note to return someday sans bike.

Just past 4 p.m., I wheeled into the Shoreham Inn, climbed the stairs and collapsed on my bed. Miraculously, I was the first one back. I ached all over, but it didn't matter. I had finished my first day in one piece.

The next morning, after blueberry pancakes, I chatted with guide Mike Canonica about my first-day biker's woes. Padded bike shorts, he advised, would minimize the pain; gloves would help my numb hands; and bike shoes would make pedaling easier. I snatched my new gear from the makeshift bike shop in his van and ran upstairs to change. At least I was beginning to look the part.

That day's ride, mostly down long gravel back roads, had fewer hills. It offered eloquent views, mostly of the small dairy farms that are the center of life in rural Vermont. The soft blue peaks of the Adirondack Mountains towered in the distance.

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