A band of spring showers is chasing me along a stretch of beachside road near Los Angeles. I’m pedaling hard to stay ahead of it, but the prospects are diminishing. The narrow tires of my road bike hiss on the dampening asphalt. Although I’m enjoying my little race with nature, I keep glancing back over my shoulder at this fast-moving mantle of weather like it’s a posse in hot pursuit.
I’ve traveled this same highway before, but always sealed inside an automobile, insulated from the exhilarating sensation I’m having right now: the feeling of skimming between sea foam to one side of me and striated cliff faces to the other. Suffusing the entire moment is the faintly electrical smell of approaching rain.
This breezy, open-air intimacy with the world is probably cycling’s most basic gratification. You don’t have to travel farther than the street outside your front door to experience the sensation, although you can do that, too. The recent renaissance in urban cycling has helped fuel the popularity of ecofriendly bike tourism, which combines physical fitness with adventure travel. The bike offers responsible and intimate access, by road and trail, to countless intriguing venues for exploration: fragile woodlands, sweeps of coastline, prairies, desert badlands, cultural and historic landmarks, even places for indulging in fine food and wine. (A glass of pinot noir is a lot more gratifying if you have to ride for miles to reach it.)
Cyclists roam almost every landmass on the planet. Today scores of ecotravel operators, along with nonprofits and outreach programs, have coalesced into a movement that provides responsible cycling experiences. Here, just to scratch the surface, are some samples.
A 12,000-Mile Bike Path
Lively black-and-white magpies—cousins to the crow but suggestive of little airborne penguins—flit across southwestern England’s Bristol and Bath Railway Path. On a cool autumn morning, under the noisy scrutiny of these birds, I board a rented hybrid (a cross between a road bike and mountain bike) and set out from cyclist-friendly Bristol, generally acknowledged to be the U.K.’s “greenest” city. Off I go on a short, picturesque, southward jaunt to historic Bath. Built over a now defunct railroad right-of-way, this manicured 13-mile route is a tiny fragment of the country’s grand 12,000-mile National Cycle Network.
Like many segments of the vast network, Bristol to Bath is a popular conduit for bike and pedestrian traffic. It’s used by tourists but also quite avidly by locals as a clean, carbon-stingy commuter route. The path meanders through a necklace of tidy villages and a couple of lovingly reclaimed Victorian railway depots, saved from demolition and decorated with contemporary sculptures. At the suburb of Fishponds, a giant brick fish plunges headfirst back into its shallow pedestal. On the platform of the former Warmley train station, laser-cut steel silhouettes of passengers wait for an express train that will never come.
Between towns, the railway path weaves past thick forest and classic pastoral vistas of the English landscape, with blackberry bushes growing alongside the trail, rows of sweet chestnut and walnut trees first introduced to the British Isles by the Romans, and livestock herds and Georgian farmhouses in the distance. The segment ends in the quaint, fairy-tale streets of Bath, well named for its most famous renewable resource: warm subterranean waters, filtered down through the local native limestone, that began as rain more than 20,000 to 80,000 years ago. Near the town’s outskirts, occasional stone bridges cross the river Avon, and riders may encounter a tweedy local on a morning walk with a pair of setters on long leashes.
In the chatty way of most cyclists, who regularly encounter passersby face to face, I engage one strolling pensioner with a question about the uniquely smooth texture of the path’s surface. In his distinctive, west-country dialect, he answers with some approximation of “tar, chip and spray,” an accurate description of the material used to produce a natural earthen look over many sections of the network, in preference to the tarmac coating conventional roadways.