Today's bikes are a big improvement over what you rode as a kid. Lightweight and speedy, they roll like racing bikes while offering the comfort and easy shifting of mountain bikes. With a little preparation, just about anyone can appreciate the rewards of two-wheel travel.
If California's wine country sounds appealing but you're not ready to fly solo, you can choose from among many guided tours. They range from budget-minded weekend trips to luxurious week-long, inn-to-inn rambles. Backroads, the world's largest bicycle-travel company, offers a low-mileage "easy exploration" of Sonoma. Its family trips are scheduled during school vacations and include "kid-size" routes along with outdoor activities and diversions. Destinations are around the world: Cape Cod, Yosemite, the Costa Rican rain forest, New Zealand's North Island, and France's Loire Valley.
Deluxe packager Butterfield & Robinson arranges 24 family trips worldwide, tailored to the abilities of children 5 and older, 8 and older, or teens. Trek Travel caters to more athletic cyclists, and REI Adventures organizes less-expensive trips that often include camping. Tour packages range widely in price, depending on accommodations and meals -- from three days at a U.S. destination for $500 to one week abroad for $2,000. A typical touring day starts early and, with three to six hours of pedaling, allows plenty of time for picnics, rest stops, and sightseeing. Mileage can average as little as 20 a day, or 50 or more for advanced riders. Training is easy; the most important thing is to feel comfortable cycling the distances you'll cover on your tour.
It's easy to plan a short jaunt. Back roads and bike paths can be found across the country. Most large cities have a bicycle-transportation coordinator; other sources for information on local routes include bike shops and clubs that organize beginner rides (which can cost as little as $25).
Plan Your Own Adventure
After a tour or two, you'll know what it takes to organize a trip yourself. You can start your research with the Adventure Cycling Association's Cyclists' Yellow Pages, an annual directory. Many communities and local tourist boards provide information on routes, lodging, and the best times to visit. To find out what's available in a particular area, buy a regional cycling guide; popular publishers include Lonely Planet, Falcon Publishing, and Foghorn Outdoors, among others.
In a guidebook, itineraries are laid out for you; choose a route by its length and level of difficulty. If you're developing your own trip, stick to the smallest roads on the map. You don't have to plan every detail, but figure out the basics -- scenic back roads with rest stops and restaurants or grocery stores every 10 miles or so, sightseeing spots, and lodgings. For convenience, consider renting a minivan (with space to hold a bike) and sharing driving duties with a group of four or more. Every rider, even on a day trip, should have a "go pack," with maps, energy bars, sunscreen, and a rain jacket. Essential gear includes a helmet, biking gloves, sunglasses, and water bottles or a backpack hydration system. Someone in your group should carry a bike repair kit and first-aid supplies.
It's easier and usually less expensive to rent bikes than to ship them. If you prefer your own mount, have your local bike shop ship it to a bike dealer near your trip's starting point.
The Lake Champlain area straddles Vermont, New York, and Quebec. Its 363-mile "bikeway" includes routes designed for history buffs, bed-and-breakfast devotees, and fitness fanatics. The Blue Ridge Parkway, near Asheville, North Carolina, is one of America's classic cycling routes, covering 469 hilly miles. A 120-mile shoreline path begins in the Outer Banks town of Corolla and heads south to Hatteras. Highlights include beaches, scenic wetlands, and excellent inns and seafood shacks.
Among the most picturesque converted railways is South Dakota's George S. Mickelson Trail, which winds 109 miles from the Wild West town of Deadwood through the Black Hills. The route crosses several spectacularly high railroad trestles. The country's longest rails-to-trails route is Missouri's Katy Trail, which stretches 225 miles from Saint Charles to Clinton and traverses dense alder forests and open pastureland, following bluffs along the Missouri River.
Even if you're taking a short ride, it makes sense to bring along equipment to fix a flat tire --which could otherwise strand you. A small under-seat bag will hold all the basics you need for roadside repairs. With a patch kit and inner tube, you can fix a leak or replace the tube; levers are required to ease the tire over the wheel rim. Tire inflators are very compact and -- unlike hard-to-operate mini pumps -- work with the push of a button. A multitool allows quick adjustments of your seat, handlebars, and brakes.
The No. 1 must-have is a helmet. Those sold in the United States are required to meet minimum safety standards. More expensive models (starting at about $40) furnish the same protection with less weight and better ventilation. A helmet that doesn't fit won't protect you; headgear should be fairly snug. Clothing essentials include padded shorts, padded gloves, and a breathable waterproof rain jacket. Stiff-soled cycling shoes are nice because they make pedaling less tiring for your feet. Bike jerseys are not necessary.
Adventure Cycling Association
Along with its annual Cyclists' Yellow Pages, this organization sells books and provides maps, a helpful checklist, and advice for tourists on its website. Its training program, "Introduction to Bike Touring," is conducted nationwide and includes three days of classroom instruction and three days on the road.
This monthly magazine publishes information on destinations and techniques, much of which is oriented to the casual rider. The website features a massive compendium of travel tips and state-by-state tour companies and packages.
This chain of outdoor-sports stores has an extensive library of bike-touring references online, including checklists for a first-aid kit, for an on the- road tool pack, and for packing for a day trip or an overnight tour.