Ride of a Lifetime

On a cloudless New England day in early September, the sun beat down uncharacteristically hot, pushing the temperature above 90 degrees. A stiff wind whipped across Lake Champlain. To the east, Vermont’s Green Mountains rose in long, sloping layers of green and blue. In the opposite skyline, the bumpy peaks of the Adirondacks punctuated the brilliant blue day. Despite the heat, Stephen and Donna Gilewski were jubilant as they pedaled across the Lake Champlain causeway on day two of a three-day bike tour. “The only thing I had in my mind was the hills, lake, and scenery—nothing else, no stress, no worries,” Stephen recalls.

And that, in a nutshell, is the deep satisfaction of bike touring. On an extended ride you slowly shed your workaday persona. You become attuned to the rhythm of the road and the beauty of your surroundings. Thanks to the slower pace, you see and feel things with a greater intensity than would ever be possible through the lens of a car window. “It’s an absolutely wonderful feeling,” says Stephen.

The Gilewskis, both 59, had never been on a bike tour nor had they ridden a substantial distance when they signed up for the trip with Bike Vermont the previous spring. “We’re not athletes by any stretch of imagination,” admits Stephen, a retired manager. “We just started riding about a year ago. To go on a bike tour, you only need to have a little experience riding a bike and be in relatively decent shape. If you’re able to go on long walks, you’re okay.”

Organized bike tours have surged in popularity in recent years, in part due to demand from the 41-to-60-year-old age group. Experience-hungry baby boomers comprise more than 40 percent of adventure travel customers—the largest single segment. Cycling tours range from spare and inexpensive self-guided tours (you get a bike, a map, and a pat on the back) to luxe guided tours with five-star accommodations. Itineraries range from grueling, month-long extravaganzas along the Tour de France route through the Alps to week-long fall-foliage tours in New England to two-hour, easy-as-pie, all-downhill coasting rides in Hawaii.

As Stephen points out, it doesn’t require a high degree of fitness to be able to join a bicyle tour. Still, most riders prefer to practice riding and build their endurance before a multi-day trip. The summer before their tour, the Gilewskis rode on the trails near their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. Their practice rides started small and built up to a peak of 30 miles. (The bike touring rule of thumb is to be comfortable riding at least 75 percent of the tour’s longest single-day ride beforehand.)

Although they were both prepared, Donna admits she was a bit concerned about finishing the 45-mile route of the tour’s longest day, particularly in the difficult terrain of the New Hampshire hills. In the end, she made it without a problem, the day seeming to breeze by like the wind across Lake Champlain. But if she’d struggled, there was an easy backup plan: Bike Vermont, like many such companies, trails its riders with a van, ready to give a lift to anyone who feels like packing it in for the day.

As a trail-rider, Donna’s other niggling fear was about road-riding with automobiles zooming past. That concern, too, dissipated as she rolled along with the highly visible pack of nine other riders. The diverse group ranged in age from people in their 30s to their 70s and included a former amateur bicycle racer as well as a couple who hadn’t ridden bikes in decades. Everyone kept up with no pressure to ride too fast, and the afternoon picnic breaks were filled with lively conversation. Stopping along the way for lunch also gave her legs a break from those hills.

The best tour companies offer a high degree of flexibility, not just in the choice of destination, but with daily options depending on energy levels or just mood. On a six-day, five-night Trek Travels tour through Italy’s Tuscany region, Madonna and Jay Williams from Hartland, Wisconsin, were offered the choice each morning to go 15, 40, or 70 miles. “If you’re an avid cyclist, you would take the long route, an okay rider could go the middle distance, and some simply rode 15 miles and still had fun,” Madonna says.

Only needing to meet up with the group for lunch, Jay and Madonna one day found themselves in a small hill town where they stopped to putter around in a family-owned ceramic store. She bought a handmade pot that she couldn’t resist and stuffed it in her saddlebag. Madonna recalls with a laugh that Jay was annoyed with her at the time, wondering why she’d insisted on buying something in the middle of nowhere. Turned out, she’d made a real find. A few months later, they happened across a travel show on television that touted that same ceramics shop as one of the best pottery producers in the world.

“We wouldn’t have found that without stopping and exploring,” Madonna says. “That’s what I love about bike tours. You ride through neighborhoods and get closer to the local culture. It’s a beautiful pace to learn about a country.”

The Tuscany excursion took place five years ago, but the Williamses were hooked. Three years later they went on another cycling vacation, this time to Spain. And this fall they are planning a picturesque bike tour from Prague to Vienna. “What better way to see the world than on two wheels?” Madonna says.

While the Williamses did most of their riding as a couple, others tour to reconnect with old friends. As a 50th birthday celebration this past autumn, Londa Dewey of Madison, Wisconsin, gathered her husband and 16 friends for a four-day bike tour of the Napa Valley. The route took them along Highway 1 and the California coast and Russian River then through towering redwood forests. And let’s not forget the wine-tasting, which, for the most part—displaying impressive discipline—they reserved for evenings.

The trip provided Londa and her circle of friends a remarkable shared experience—the occasional morning-after headaches quickly forgotten. “What’s different about a biking trip is that it’s an active vacation with flexibility built into it,” Londa recalls. “You can see the countryside, ride right next to the vineyards or sunflower fields. You’re not separated from your environment the way you are in a car or a bus.”

Londa and her friends traveled more than 100 miles by bicycle during their four-day California adventure. But like the Williamses, the Gilewskis, and so many other bike travelers, they went so much further.