Bringing Back Those Carefree Days
by Donna Faria
Remember those carefree kid days of pedaling a bike, with the wind in your hair? The banana seats and high-rise handlebars? How about those one-speed beasts with bells, kickstands, and streamers hanging off the handlebars? And how can we forget . . . the cards clothes-pinned to the spokes, making that pthatttttt sound? Remember when three-speed bikes first came out? It was like rocket science! Then five-speeds were in. (Back in the day, I bought a blue Columbia five-speed with babysitting money earned at the rate of 50˘ per hour.) Ten-speeders were not far behind. Then came 12, 15, 18, 24—and now we have 27 speeds.
Nostalgia aside, according to those “in the know,” those days are coming back. (Visit Outdoor magazine, bicycleretailer.com, and the National Bicycle Dealers Association Industry Overview for 2006.) Fast forward to 2007: Those “kids” on bikes are now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and they are rediscovering bike riding—minus the cards on the spokes. When I see kids with the card thing going on, it always yanks me right back to those sweet kid-riding days. And depending on where you live or are willing to travel, bicycling can be a year-round passion!
My husband Fred and I have been bicycling for years, although recently we have developed an odd infatuation with distance riding. (At least I have—I’m not so sure my husband is as fond of it as I am.) It all began a few years ago, when friends egged us on to sign up for the MS-150 bike tour. This two-day, 150-mile tour sponsored by the Multiple Sclerosis Society was our first foray into long-distance riding. Prior to this, we would do 20- or 25-mile rides and be pretty proud of ourselves. For the record, though, we have dragged our bikes, along with the kids, on just about every “excursion” we have ever taken together. (You can ask both of our daughters, although I’m not sure they have only “fond” memories of these trips!) When we didn’t take our own bikes, we would rent them whenever we could.
And we have ridden all over the world (Galapagos Islands, other locations in Equador, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere)! We found that bike riding was (and still is) the perfect way to cover a lot of territory efficiently, and it beats walking. Now that the girls are out on their own, Fred and I continue to enjoy biking as a way to spend time together, see new places, and vacation. It is also our primary form of cardio exercise in the spring, summer, and fall months. And, when he’s had enough, I go off biking with my lady friends.
Who knew that bike riding would become officially “in”? Bicycleretailer.com claims that participation by the over-50 crowd is increasing, as it is for those with income levels over $50K. In case you haven’t noticed, the number of bike paths in this country has exploded (although not fast enough, in my opinion). (Check out www.railstotrails.org.) Cities are seeking the official designation of a “bicycle-friendly community” (this hasn’t happened fast enough, either, however). Poke around for yourself on www.bikeleague.org. Bike races and tours abound for all levels. And today it is not unusual to combine vacationing and bike riding. In the past few years, I have read more and more articles about it. Whether domestic or international, bicycle vacations are proving to be attractive and fun ways to take a break.
Try Googling “bicycle vacation” and see how many sites pop up. My husband and I don’t usually do organized bike vacations. Instead, we make it up as we go along—most times with our own bikes, but sometimes with rentals. We have enough biking experience to do it this way. However, after conversations with other “bike geeks” who have taken organized trips, we have added them to our “to do” list. For starters, we plan to try a trip in upstate New York that meanders through wine country.
With that in mind, here are a few specifics to check out when considering a guided tour:
• Guides. You want one and maybe even two. Check the number of guides. Some trips provide two who ride at two different paces. This is a good thing. Note that some trips are not guided. You are given cue sheets (written directions with distances between turns and landmarks) for a self-paced tour, and your luggage is transported from hotel to hotel.
• Group size. A good group number is 15 to 20. Most I have researched show 15 to 18 riders.
• Cue sheets and maps. They should be clear and accurate. Of course, you won’t know if they are accurate until you get lost!
• Roads and road conditions. There’s nothing worse than riding in pot-hole heaven or through road construction. Trust me on this.
• Weather. Most rides go on even in the rain. Been there, done that. Not pretty.
• Protocol. Are you required to ride with the group, or can you meander on your own as long as you arrive at the next destination by the end of the day?
• Distance. Most trips include a variety: 25 miles in a day is reasonable for an average rider. Longer distances—say, 40 to 60 miles—are common, though. You should train to feel comfortable riding 35 to 40 miles. Trips are usually planned with some long ride days (50 to 60 miles), some short ride days (25 to 30 miles), and some days with medium distances (30 to 40 miles). Short rides are often planned to end at attractive locations, which gives riders something fun to look forward to. Some rides are “multisport”—they include a variety of activities (kayaking, climbing, hiking, for example) in addition to the biking.
• Rise in elevation. Is the course strolling or hammerhead (like riding up a wall)? Elevation is especially important if you are at an altitude that is several thousand feet above where you reside. I live at sea level. Bicycling at 3,000 to 5,000 feet is not a problem. But at 6,000 to 8,000 feet, I am breathing pretty hard. Riding at 10,000 feet is a struggle, and 12,000 feet is only fun going downhill! Exertion at high altitudes can also cause a headache, and it’s critical to stay hydrated. Conditioning plays a role, as well. There is nothing like sucking wind at 12,000 feet as you wend your way up a mountain pass.
• Meals. Are they included in the fee?
• Sleeping accommodations. Check out the quality of the place and the number of roommates assigned to a room.
• SAG wagon. SAG stands for “support and gear.” Every ride should include one or more SAG vehicles. These vans prowl the route, checking on riders. They stop to repair bikes and pick up riders, and they beep to cheer you on.
• Luggage. It should arrive at your destination hotel before you get there.
• Bicycles. Do you need to bring your own, or do the tour organizers supply them? Be wary of any group that asks for your height only and then says a bike will be provided for you. This has happened to me a number of times, and inevitably the bike is too big. You must be fitted properly. If the trip is one day long, riding the wrong-sized bike can be livable, but if you have to sit on the thing for hours every day, you will not be happy. Also, it’s unsafe to mountain bike on steep trails with a bike that is too large (been there, done that, too). Rental bikes should be outfitted with two water bottle cages if you are traveling long distances. And you might want to bring your own gel seat cover to protect your behind from an uncomfortable experience.
General Biking Tips
No matter what distance you ride, here are some additional tips for safe, comfortable biking:
• Helmets. They are a must—do not leave home without one! Make sure it fits, and learn how to adjust it. Purchase one with vents to keep you cool. As a plus, these vents will become gutters if it rains. A visor is nice for keeping the sun out of your eyes and the rain off your face.
• Gear. Get the right stuff:
— Bike shorts (yes, those spandex things—none of us looks good in them!).
— Gloves (good shorts and gloves are the minimum).
— Breathable tops—no cotton tee shirts. Biking shirts are longer in the back and don’t ride up. They also have rear pockets to stash snacks. Some have zippers, so you don’t lose anything.
— Rain/wind jacket.
— Water bottles or Camelback (a water bottle for your back).
— Bike shoes. If you are into it, buy ones that clip onto the pedals. If not, cages on your pedals will help a lot.
• Prep. Ride 12 to 20 miles initially and build from there. Work up to riding two or three days a week. On the off days, include some weight training. I try to ride every other day, with weight training in between. Spin classes are a great way to train when the weather is uncooperative. You want to enjoy the ride—not die—and proper preparation is the only way to do it. Make sure to ride hills, too. Work them in. The better prepared you are, the more you will enjoy your ride. You do not want to get up in the morning dreading the miles in front of you. You also want never, ever to have to get into the SAG wagon. So, prepare!
Finally, here are a few Web sites to check out. If you are ready to get into serious biking, look at www.bicycling.com. The site is pretty hard core. Rodale Press, its sponsor, also publishes an excellent magazine. Try www.pedaling.com to find biking routes and lots of other neat stuff. If you have a real heart’s desire to embark on one of the oldest rides in the United States, check out www.ragbrai.org. It’s a 450+-mile ride across Iowa in July. That one is nagging at the back of my mind…
Donna Faria teaches in the Hospitality College at Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, Rhode Island. Her children, Laura and Beth, have both graduated from college. Laura resides in Quito, Ecuador (hence the Ecuador riding last summer). Beth recently graduated from college and is back at home, job hunting. Over the years, when visiting their children, wherever they were, Donna and her husband Fred always took their bikes or managed to find somewhere to ride. In fact, the girls understand it to be their job to “check out the bike riding—Mom’s coming with her bike!” With empty nesting upon them, Donna and Fred now enjoy more time for their bicycling adventures.