Pedaling laboriously up the empty two-lane blacktop in the Adirondack mountains, I wondered what masochistic streak had prompted me to take yet another bicycle vacation. Oh, the scenery was as lovely as advertised. Lake Champlain gleamed in the background. The hilltops of Vermont were outlined on the horizon to the east. But my thighs were as leaden as petrified wood and my lungs begged for mercy. Then I saw The Sign.
It was a yellow caution road marker showing a black truck pointed downhill. "Steep grade -- use low gear next 3 miles," it said. A grin creased my sweat-spattered face. Shifting my bicycle into the highest gear, I lowered my hands to the dropped handlebars and cranked my legs like pistons. The asphalt tilted below me. Fast ... faster ... fastest.
My other senses sprang to alert: the sound of self-created wind whistling past my helmet, the loamy smell of the countryside, the sight of the "ribbon of highway" so sharply etched I could see every crack and pebble. Suspended between terror and ecstasy, I zoomed down the long descent, a blond bullet on my yellow Terry Despatch 12-speed, without a thought in my head save one: Had I exceeded the 35-mile-an-hour posted speed limit?
At the bottom, several members of our group caught up. My sister Laura, who is afraid of heights, was grinning too. "Ooooo, even I liked this one," she cooed.
We had just completed a 30-mile loop of hills in one day on a two-day Adirondacks tour. It was part of an odyssey of three different bicycle trips in the Northeast, each of which began at a quaint country inn.
Some days later, driving back to New York City, we passed a "steep grade" truck sign. Laura unconsciously hunched over the steering wheel in a cyclist's position. "Wouldn't this be a yummy bike trail," she murmured.
Join a well-planned bicycle tour into the countryside, and I guarantee that you will never look at an ordinary road, a caution sign, a mountain vista or a soft shoulder the same way again. You will never feel the same way about passenger cars again. And your fanny may never feel the same way again.
A veteran of bicycle touring, I have cruised the flat terrain of New Jersey, pounded the hills of Vermont and reveled in the roller-coaster roads beside the sea on Cape Cod. Although the longer trips have left my thighs so sore that a lap-top computer would hurt, I inevitably look forward to getting back on the saddle. This year, my sister decided to see if she could get addicted, too.
She is not the only one. Bicycle touring groups have multiplied lately, riding the yuppie wave of active travel. With autumn foliage season approaching, there are more weekend road warriors than ever preparing to pedal off for a day or two or five. They have a choice of three tour modes: They can sign up with a commercial outfit, join trips sponsored by nonprofit organizations such as the American Youth Hostels or the Appalachian Mountain Club, or simply ride with friends along routes laid out in maps like the Greater Washington Area Bicycle Atlas and the Bikecentennial series.
Nervous novices and country-inn connoisseurs might well begin, as Laura and I did, with a commercial tour. The best companies rent good bicycles if you leave your own behind, provide leaders who double as repair people and arrange for pleasant bed-and-breakfast facilities to house you on a multiday trip. Most important of all, they lay out a variety of route loops each day, so that everyone in the group has options for riding fast or slow, for as long or short a period as their mood strikes them. Regardless of which route you take, you all wind up at the inn well before dinner time.
We started with a two-day trip designed for beginners, based in Orford, N.H., an adorable dot on the New England landscape near the Connecticut River. When we arrived late one afternoon at the White Goose Inn, the tour company van was there with a load of Schwinn 12-speed bikes and helmets sized to each renter. After dinner, 14 of us gathered in the cozy parlor with Jay, the leader, for a preview of the two days ahead and a round of introductions.
Among us: The Honeymooners, as Greg and Diane of Ohio were immediately tagged, who were hitched just three days before. "People couldn't believe we decided to do this on our honeymoon," Diane said, "but cycling is our sport, so why not?" Others included several couples on vacation, a fellow from New York who enjoyed a bit of exercise on the weekend and Laura, a "born-again exerciser" escaping the New Orleans summer. "Remember, you might have to walk up some hills," Jay advised. "You can always find a reason to stop -- to take a picture, enjoy the scenery, whatever."
The first day, the Terry I had borrowed (it is designed for small women) did not want to pause, let alone stop, on a 46-mile, two-state loop. Following the company's printed route directions ("Just before passing the Texaco station, turn right onto the unnamed road") a few of us sped across a bridge into Vermont, meandered around Lake Morey and continued through gorgeous farm country, pausing at the commons in Newbury, a remarkably preserved 1763 village.
"This looks like the green in the movie 'The Witches of Eastwick,' " someone remarked. In fact, it was precisely that spot, a local fellow told us. Making an unexpected detour around a bridge being repaired (changes crop up even on the most carefully planned routes), we continued back across the river at a leisurely pace toward the twin commons of Haverhill, N.H., our designated picnic spot. Surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century houses, looking out over a Grandma Moses-like rural valley, the scene was so peaceful we almost felt we had time-traveled to an earlier era.
The final 13 miles back to Orford were bucolic. Only a handful of autos interrupted my reverie as I saw New England through new eyes, at the cadence of a cyclist -- slow motion compared to the frenzied pace of cars. My favorite visions: two homesteads with contrasting outlooks. One, apparently owned by an optimist, bore the sign, "Dream and Do Farm." The sign on the second, perhaps named by a more fatalistic neighbor, read, "Never Done Farm."
That afternoon, we whiled away the hours before dinner comparing saddle soreness and other aches and pains. According to Jay, a woman on a previous tour solved her stamina problem with a classic street-smart maneuver. When she got tired on her second day, she simply pedaled up to a gas station pay phone and called a cab!
Day 2, fanny fatigue notwithstanding, most of us headed south on River Road, through a covered bridge, toward Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, where we slurped Vermont's most famous food product since maple syrup -- Ben and Jerry's ice cream -- as our luncheon dessert. When we came to a pasture a bit later, my sister recognized the black-and-white animals from the ice cream logo and exclaimed, "Look! Ben-and-Jerry cows!"
The Orford tour ended with fond farewells that afternoon. Everyone had found someone his or her speed to ride with. The hills had been manageable. Off we drove west, across the width of Vermont, to hook up with our next trip, the two-day "ramble" in the Adirondacks based in the town of Westport, on the New York side of Lake Champlain. As we crossed the lake, the early evening light silhouetted the mountains. We began to suspect there was tougher cycling ahead.
Indeed, the first few miles leading into the hills surrounding Westport challenged even experienced riders, myself included. But the panoramic views of peaks shimmering in the heat and the charm of a country auction by the side of the road outside Essex were worth those thigh-burning uphills, I thought.
Essex itself was an unexpected treat. At the turn of the 19th century it was a hub of shipping and trading between the U.S. and Canada. Later the railroad displaced Lake Champlain as the principal commercial thoroughfare, but the houses of Essex remained, a near-intact ensemble of pre-Civil War architectural gems. A street fair was in progress when we pedaled into town. Locking our bikes under a tree, we ambled among the antiques displays and home-grown produce stands, past stone cottages, colonial-revival-style warehouses and a federal-style schoolhouse. It was just the kind of off-the-beaten-path town one is likely to miss on an auto tour.
This was the day that ended with the memorable "steep grade" spin. While my sister and I congratulated ourselves at the bottom, a 62-year-old gent cruised to a stop beside us. "Wow! My cyclometer read 34 miles per hour max!" he announced. He and his wife, who was a few years older, had been joined on this tour by their grown son. "Mom and Dad do these trips all the time," he said, huffing and puffing. "I think they're in better shape than I am."
On Day 2, I was ready for the challenge of a 52-mile loop further into the Adirondack foothills. The lakeside scenery quickly gave way to narrow roads hemmed in by dense forests. Instead of quaint harbor hamlets, there were obscure towns like Lewis, which featured lumberjack-type locals sipping beer in front of the general store, and a cemetery bearing the warning: "No snowmobiles allowed."
Once again I was struck by how bicycle travel gave me a real sense of a locale, however brief the visit. Those few hours along the edge of the Adirondacks reminded me that my native state contained areas as rugged and invigorating as anything in the Rockies.
Not everyone shared my pleasure. One pooped Pennsylvania physician whimpered about misleading tour brochures as he staggered to the breakfast table. A Buffalo woman disobeyed stern instructions about veering onto soft road shoulders and took a hard spill. The moral was: Read tour descriptions very carefully. They tend to be flowery but accurate.
No description could have been more accurate nor more wickedly worded than the "welcome letter" sent a few weeks earlier to those of us who had signed up for an Appalachian Mountain Club "Cape Cod Pond Hop," sponsored by the club's Boston chapter.
The notice warned that one person from "New Yawk" and one from "New Joisey" had elbowed their way into the group. "Boston chapter members are invited to slash their tires and imitate their accents if they become obnoxious ... " Hey, guys, the World Series ended nine months ago, I protested. Armed with a Don Baylor Red Sox trading card as a peace offering, I drove to Mashpee, on the western end of the cape, with some trepidation.
My concern proved unfounded; the natives turned out to be friendly, funny and fervently dedicated to cycling, traits found often on nonprofit rides, which generally are more informal than commercial tours.
The notice said we would cycle "about 25 miles on Saturday, stopping at four swimming holes along the way ... Sunday will be either a short bike ride or a tanning contest at one of the local beaches," and that is just what we did. The trip was made to order for the weather: 85 degrees, 85 percent humidity.
The knowledgeable AMC volunteers who led the way, Jon and Warren, divided the 27 of us into three groups (route directions were oral rather than printed) and gave us a pep talk in the parking lot before we set out. "We won't have to ride more than five miles in between swims, and Warren specializes in fixing filthy chains jammed into bike frames," Jon assured us.
It was a well-lathered bunch that pedaled up to the sand at Cotuit Bay, where one cyclist outraged a stuffy homeowner by disrobing in the woods to put on her swimsuit. Would we have to chip in for bail money? "It's okay, she's a lawyer," said the irrepressible Jon, pointing to one of the women wriggling out of her cycling shorts.
Another pond stop was timed so we could cool off in shoulder-deep water while watching the cape's daily Amtrak passenger train trundle past the water's edge. The day's only sour note was struck by a young South Yarmouth punk, whose truck sideswiped me at a busy intersection. "We're not all like that," several Massachusetts cyclists said angrily, calming my frayed nerves. I was unhurt but puzzled. How could the punk possibly have known I was a hated New Yawka, and Mets fan to boot?
By dusk, we had managed a multiple dunk-and-ride from Nantucket Sound to Buzzards Bay. It was time to repair to the Sjoholm Inn, a modest bed-and-breakfast where we had a massive chicken dinner.
Day 2 began with -- how thoughtful can a leader get? -- the Sunday papers. (Jon had rushed out for them before breakfast.) Then, while a few people opted for the beach, most followed Warren down a lovely winding lane past weathered cottages and mansions to Woods Hole. We visited the famous aquarium, then zipped through the back streets to a lighthouse atop a hill, overlooking Nantucket Sound Beach.
AMC cyclists, to judge by a few trips I've taken, are a hardy lot; there was nary a word about aching joints, and many folks went off dancing after Saturday's dinner. On the other hand, less experienced bike tourists interested in luxurious accommodations, step-by-step route maps, instructions on riding technique or rental gear might find an AMC or AYH trip spartan in comparison to the pricier commercial ones.
One thing is certain. My sister, originally a nervous novice, caught the bicycle bug. While I drove her to the airport, she sifted through a stack of tour booklets, calculating the vacation days owed her. "Mmmmm, this California wine country tour sounds great," she mused, "but how do you get back on the bike after the third tasting stop?" Grace Lichtenstein, a New York City-based writer, is coauthor of "Sonny Bloch's Inside Real Estate: The Complete Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home, Co-op or Condominium," recently published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.