Bike tours can bring out a host of surprising anxieties. They only peek out at arrival and then, at dinnertime, pour out freely as the chardonnay: I’ll be pathetic tomorrow! I won’t get up the first hill! Everyone will hate me! Or the reverse: I trained! I want to go 80 miles tomorrow! Look at these slackers! They won’t be able to keep up! Will I have to stay with them? Eat dinner with them?
Bike Vermont, Vermont’s largest and oldest bike touring organization (with 165 tours per year in the state, plus 35 others in Ireland, Scotland, Maine and Italy) is no stranger to every possible configuration of infantile regression and adult aggression. By the time the fifteen of us finished dinner at the lovely historic Lilac Inn in Brandon, Vermont, on our first night of a weekend tour (the newest and shortest on the Bike Vermont roster), we were sated and calm thanks not just to the chardonnay and homemade strawberry shortcake but to tour leaders so adroit at banishing neurosis they should be awarded post-docs in psychology and, to our great good luck, stand-up comedy as well. Thus assured that we wouldn’t have to fit anyone’s agenda or pace; that whoever wanted to dawdle, could; whoever wanted to race, could; whoever wanted to get a “boost” in the van for a few miles (or even back to the inn), could—we all slept relatively neurosis-free.
This was my second bike trip along the dreamy countryside of New England this year. While both tours were moderately priced and covered a minimum of about twenty miles a day, they were very different–not just because one was in Vermont in the spring and the other in New Hampshire in the fall, not just because one was two nights and the other three, but because one was guided and one was not.
On Bike Vermont’s two-night guided Lilac Inn tour last spring, we cycled along smooth, hilly and mostly rural roads, with a sweet dose of the farmlands, lakes, covered bridges and lush verdant hills for which this countryside is famous (they’re not called the Green Mountains for nothing). The route we chose began after breakfast (I took off with seven others at 9:30) and culminated in the college town of Middlebury, 22 miles from the inn, in time for lunch and a bit of poking around in town. The serious bikers, us not included, then biked back, some taking additional detours and different routes. We took it slowly, taking breathers and photographs, and arrived in town tired and ravenous at 2:30 PM.
Five hours on the road is long enough to understand the popularity of guided tours. I once would have put myself in the “I’ll do it myself” category, but I may have changed my mind on that one. It’s deeply comforting to have sophisticated local cyclists along who not only excel in bike mechanics and road awareness (meaning, are the roads bike-friendly? Any unexpected construction?) but know the idioscyncrases of the routes (any 18-wheelers coming? Are the biggest hills at the beginning or the end?) and how to reroute guests accordingly.
Tour leaders, by the way, don’t “lead” a tour—that is, they don’t ride in front. The leader who drives the van patrols the entire area chosen by the guests—cyclists in our group chose routes covering from 22 to over 85 miles—while the other leader bikes last, riding behind the final cyclist. Even when so much time and space exist between bikers, the leaders know via cell phone and positioning how we’re all doing and where we all are. Elaine Parker’s and Barbara Naple’s uncanny ability to be largely invisible until needed was brilliant: for just when I thought, “A Snickers bar soon or death,” there it was, the maroon van, glowing ahead in the distance like a mirage, its open arms bearing chocolate.
The Lilac Inn, to which some of us returned at tea time and others not till dinner, was built in 1909 in the grand Newport Mansion style as a summer house for a Chicago banker who wanted a good place to entertain (unlike many of Vermont’s 880 B& Bs, which were built as stage-coach stops, taverns or farms). The sprawling inn’s “bones”, its architectural spaciousness and graciousness, and the elegant, wide street it sits on, have a literary feel to it, and I could imagine Edith Wharton writing in the garden’s gazebo or Zelda Fitzgerald flirting under the chandelier in the ballroom that seats 130. Dinners (at 8:00) were home cooked by owners Doug and Shelly–and guests were given a choice of vegetarian or meat dishes, and offered a simple choice of wines and drinks at the pub.
The three-night self-guided tour I took in New Hampshire’s White Mountains last fall also covered a minimum of roughly 25 to 35 miles a day, but put less emphasis on the biking itself. Unlike Bike Vermont, “Bike the Whites” is not a bike company, per se; rather, it’s one specific three-night, midweek-only tour designed expressly to introduce visitors to its three participating B&Bs in New Hampshire’s White Mountains: the Tamworth Inn in Tamworth Village on the Swift river; the 1785 Inn, at the intervale to Mount Washington and the Presidential Mountain Range just north of North Conway Village; and the Snowvillage Inn, sitting high on a hill atop ten acres of woodlands, gardens and lawns in the little town of Snowville.
The route leading to each inn was mostly peaceful—I photographed an alpaca farm and several lakes and streams–but less rural than we’d hoped (it could be made more so by getting off the main drag on side trips to, say, Diana’s Baths, a series of waterfalls; or to the swimming hole called Pot Holes). “Bike the Whites’” focus is on the inns themselves–really, on their award-winning cuisine, and indeed the food and fine assortment of wines made evenings a pleasure. Guests dined at whatever time they pleased, with or without the others on the tour, and chose from the entire menu—which meant, in the case of the 1785 Inn, from a three-course prix fixe menu that boasted 14 appetizers (like blackened scallops; escargots in red wine; smoked salmon raviolis); 17 entrees (raspberry duckling; medallions of deer venison) and well-earned rich desserts (tiramisu; chocolate buttercrunch pie). All-out comfort reached its peak at the Snowvillage Inn, which we had been advised was the tour’s piece de resistance, with its gardens, hiking trails at the base of the Foss Mountain, private beach entrance onto Crystal Lake, and dining room overlooking Mount Washington. So our last night’s dinner, at which I had a beautifully prepared whole-wheat pasta and sautéed shrimp, tomatoes, spinach and green beans and then a vanilla bean crème brulee, was splendid.
All the guests I spoke with on the “Bike the Whites” tour felt that, despite the fine evenings, the biking part was a bit jagged. One man said he found himself at some points pedaling for hours with a map flapping in his hand, his granola bar gone, his water jug empty, and no sense of how to get off a main road without adding mileage to his route. Indeed it customizes the tours very informally, letting the three innkeepers handle map and route questions—again, not a problem for experienced cyclists who understand self-guidance and know what questions to ask.
Guests on both trips cited the importance not only of the routes’ beauty and hospitality to bikers, but of the small amenities that make a big difference. Details like roomy bike bags (Bike Vermont offered ones I’d never seen that snap on and off and hold your map under a plastic shield for easy visibility and rain protection); convenient bike repair; roads with good shoulders for bikers; bikes with complete safety equipment; can make or make or break the day. I had a flat tire shortly after leaving the 1775 Inn in New Hampshire, and, without a bike pump or bike tools on me—which I would definitely advise everyone on a self-guided tour to bring–was fortunate to be within a few miles of the inn when it happened. The innkeeper delivered me to a nearby bike shop, but I wondered how long I would have waited for help had I been ten miles farther along and, as is often the case in the mountains of the northeast, in a dead-cell phone zone.
So yes, I adore gourmet food and glamorous wine but I also love cycling in the hands of pros. The real joy of any bike trip, guided or self-guided, inn-to-inn or single-inn based, for two nights or two weeks, is that it be stress-free, and that you feel coddled. Which means being knowing the particular trip you’ve signed up for and being prepared for it. So that when you arrive at your B&B that first night and those hidden anxieties start their inexorable little march toward the surface, you can dispel them unhesitatingly with one simple phrase: “I can’t wait till tomorrow!”