ONE PAINFUL AND WEARY push after another, I slowly pedaled my bicycle around the steep uphill curve. It had been a long, hot day with two flat tires, and I was making a nearly three-mile ascent over a high gap in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Around each curve I expected to reach the crest.It couldn't be much further, I thought. I'd drunk almost all the water I carried; my shirt clung to me with perspiration; the sun beat down on my back and legs. A few more minutes of pedaling, another switchback conquered, and then, finally, the top was in sight. In sight, but looming far above.
"Too much," I told myself. "This is a vacation. My legs can't take any more." I got off, too tired to continue. I'd push my bicycle up the road to the top.
Suddenly, I heard yelling from the crest. My cycling companions, well ahead of me after my tire trouble, had spotted me and were shouting encouragement. Actually, I thought they were jeering because I had capitulated.
What else was there to do but climb back onto the seat and make another try. Propelled now by the power of pride, I forced myself upward and, in a final burst, pushed over the top.
"Thunder things," someone called. "Lightning legs," joked another as they rushed over with handshakes and hugs and a congratulatory paper cup of chablis. Then came the real reward, the fast four-mile downhill cruise past the Mad River Glen ski area to the mountainside inn with its shower and swimming pool and cold beer.
From the outset, crossing the 2,356-foot-high Appalachian Gap had been the big challenge facing my wife, Sandy LaFevre, and me and the 22 other vacationers we joined on a seven-day, nearly 300-mile bicycle tour of central Vermont in mid-August. We'd been warned about the hill on our first day --That turned out to be an exaggeration, but we'd believed it for most of the week. Still, it hadn't been easy, and some, including Sandy, didn't make it. They were carried over the pass in the van that accompanied our group.
Our tour, called a Nomad, was one of more than 100 such package trips (from weekenders to month-long tours) offered this year from May 12 to Oct. 29 by Vermont Bicycle Touring of Bristol, an outfit now in its seventh year that is benefiting from the bicycling craze that has swept the country. Some 2,200 people took the tours last year, according to VBT.
The basic route covered about 400 miles a day, and we stayed overnight in inns along the way, usually in the country but on two nights in the villages of Middlebury and Shelburne. Those with stronger legs could take optional longer routes to the inn. Breakfast and dinner featured hearty home cooking (plenty of maple syrup in the morning; vegetables picked fresh from the garden in the evening), and we picnicked at lunch beside lakes or streams.
For seven days we roamed uphill and down along Vermont's back roads past rich green pasture land filled with Holstein cattle and Morgan horses, past fields of wild flowers and rows of corn, past huge red dairy barns and white frame farm houses dating back to the early 1800s. Twice we struggled over the Green Mountains, skirting some of the state's major ski areas, including Killington and Sugarbush. We browsed in country crossroads stores, peered into the white-steepled churches and the antique shops never out of sight, and crossed a couple of the state's famous covered bridges.
We were 23 adults and one 15-year-old lad from London who with his father flew over to join a family friend from Birmingham, Ala. for the tour. Eleven females and 13 males was the breakdown, and the occupations included lawyer, truck driver, teacher, librarian, chemist and a professional jazz pianist from New York who played for us the night he found a piano at the inn. Most of us fell in the early-30s to mid-50s age range.
Neither Sandy nor I is a serious bicyclist. We ride on the C & O Canal tow path once in a while, but never beyond the 30-mile roundtrip from Georgetown to Great Falls. And I occasionally ride a mile to work. I've never changed a bicycle tire, let alone patched one, and the mysteries of getting a thrown chain back onto the 10-speed gear mechanism are beyond me.
Still, when Sandy read an article on Vermont Bicycle Touring in a travel magazine last fall, it sounded so attractive she sent for a brochure. In it, the seven-day Nomad was billed as a journey through the "land of milk and honey." That sold us.
But, we continued reading, the Nomad was designed for 35- to 45-mile-a-day intermediate cyclists, offering more of a challenge than the shorter tours. Well, we had gone 30 miles on the tow path; why not a few more miles in Vermont? Why not? The tow path is mostly level; Vermont, it turned out, mostly is not.
Our tour began on a late Sunday afternoon at the October Country Inn in Bridgewater Corners, near the Killington ski area, and that's where it ended the following Sunday afternoon. We flew from Washington to Boston, catching an Air New England flight aboard a 19-passenger, two-propeller plane to Lebanon, N.H. We were picked up there in a Vermont Bicycle Touring van by Nancy Galaska, a 21-year-old cycling enthusiast and sometime artist who was to be one of our two tour leaders. Our other leader was Larry Bayle, 27, a tennis instructor.
The van became very important to us during the week. It hauled our suitcases from one inn to the next; it carried the lunch food to our picnic spots and traveled along the route behind us to fix flats or make any other repairs. (I had four flats in two days on the rear tire.) Because it picked up weary cyclists unable to finish the day's route, it was dubbed the "sag wagon."
We had booked double rooms, for which we paid $8 a night extra. Others were assigned dorm rooms that slept from three to as many as eight one night, a matter of some grumbling especially during the warm, humid weather that began the week. In only three of the inns did we have a private bath and air-conditioning only twice.
It is when we began meeting our week's companions that first night that Sandy and I first felt we might be in trouble. Ivan Ford, a high school journalism teacher from Traverse City, Mich., had bicycled from Oregon to Virginia in 80 days during the Bicentennial; Phyllis Fishberg, a Manhattan cab driver, was making her seventh VBT tour; others were active members of their hometown bicycling clubs. Everybody else had brought his or her own bicycle, some of them superdeluxe models. Sandy and I took the option to rent 10-speed Motobecanes, with the idea that if anything went wrong, somebody else would have to fix it.
The wake-up knock for the first day's ride came early for a vacation -- at 7 a.m. Breakfast was at 8 -- orange juice, hot cakes, bacon, cantaloupe. It set a pattern for the rest of the week.
Then, after a wait in the bathroom line, we were off. Sandy and I headed out near the front of the pack. Within minutes, we were trailing. That set the pattern for much of the week, too.
The fast cyclists shot on ahead to ride the longer route. The rest of us -- and there were a few other non-serious cyclists -- pedaled at our own pace over the shorter route. One of the leaders always rode behind the slowest cyclist.
The first eight miles into Woodstock were downhill and easy in the cool of the morning. Not so bad, after all, Sandy and I told each other. Then it got rough. The day grew stifling, and before lunch the day's 40-mile route took us up one of the several memorable hills of the week. It seemed to climb for miles ahead of us, getting steeper by the foot.
Midway up, Sandy got off her bicycle and walked. There was no doubt about it now. Our vacation was going to be hard work. I began to have second thoughts about a longtime dream of bicycling across the country.
Lunch and a swim in Silver Lake refreshed us, though, and we pushed on in the afternoon. Eight hours after beginning, and tired and sweaty, we finally turned into Tupper Farm Lodge, five miles south of Rochester. We thirstily ladeled glasses of lemonade from a punch bowl that welcomed us. Across the road hidden by trees we sough out the perfect swimming hole, deep and cool, in a bend of the river.
Dinner was at 7. We sat at three long tables in a bright and cozy country dinning room lit by kerosene lamps. In the corner, an old Detroit Marvel gas stove kept the tea and coffee warm. The meal began with zucchini soup, and several of us asked for and got the recipe. It continued with chicken with mushroom sauce, braised carrots we had seen being picked from the garden, a cucumber, bean and sprout salad, rice and freshly baked bread. On top of all that, dessert was chocolate cake.
As a group, we got along well together, even became fond of one another before the week was over. The friendliness became one of the real pleasures of the trip.
On the last night, I helped lug a large tub of iced sangria down a darkened path through the field to the riverbank where we had decided to have a moonlight marshmallow toast to cap the week.
For Seth Hopewell, the lad from London, it was a new experience. He had never tasted a toasted marshmallow. Sandy helped him find a green twig of proper length. Someone else explained the slow-browning method and the quick-flame charcoal technique. More by chance, he opted for the flame method. We watched closely as he took his first bite.
A grimace and a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for American customs.
The former Girl Scouts among us brought ingredients for S'Mores (for "I want some more"), a concoction I had never heard of. One places a piece of chocolate bar and a toasted marshmallow between two graham crackers; the marshmallow melts the chocolate to form a gooey sandwich. I took my first bite. A grimace and a shrug. So much for Girl Scout customs.
Our total bill from Vermont Bicycle Touring for lodging, breakfast, dinner and services came to $664.76. That included the basic cost of $257 per person; the $8 extra a night per couple for a double room; and $94.76 for the rental of two bicycles. Additionally we chipped in $18 each to the lunch pool. The roundtrip flight was $120 each. The only other money we spent was for daytime snacks and evening refreshments.
The brochure outlining the tours available can be obtained from Vermont Bicycle Touring, R.D. 2R, Bristol, Vt. 05443. The phone is 802-388-4263.
Impressions that linger:
The cyclist who, finding himself alone on the road, gave in to the fantasy, he said, of stripping off his shorts and running and rolling naked in a field of flowers and grass. (The whole state has a population less than that of the District of Columbia, so there were not many people around to offend.)
The dogs, fortunately only two or three, who gave chase but were either called back or shouted away before they could grab a leg. Most barely gave us a lazy glance, perhaps cowed by the heat.
A half-hour stop at Plymouth Notch, the hilltop village where Calvin Coolidge was born, to visit the room in the family homestead where Coolidge's father swore him in as the 30th president in 1923. The village, consisting of several white-frame buildings and a museum barn, is preserved by the state.
The detailed instructions that guided us over our daily route: "At island with flagpole in center, turn RIGHT onto unnamed road." Still some of us got lost, if only for a few minutes or miles.
Helping (barely) Bayle change three of my four flats. I think I could do it myself now if I had the tools. Even a rear tire.
The unquenchable good spirits of tour leaders Galaska and Bayle, who worked morning to night shepherding us safely from inn to inn.
The barkeep at Shelburne Inn who, cleaning up after many of us had gathered for a pre-dinner beer, remarked not entirely to himself: "What kind of people are these? Nobody smoked?"
That glorious last day, sunny but cooler and dry, that provided the perfect ride we'd been looking for all week -- a 33-mile mostly downhill coast to starting base, where more lemonade and homemade cookies waited.
Would Sandy and I do it again? Yes, but maybe we would get into better biking shape before we left home.