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.
Every inch of the National Cycle Network is supervised and maintained by one remarkable organization, Sustrans, a Bristol-based national charity dedicated to promoting sustainable modes of transportation. The group’s commitment to cycling is based on simple maxims: that, next to walking, the bicycle is the least polluting form of travel; that 10 bikes can be stored in the space of a single car; and that every short journey made by bike rather than automobile prevents the emission of several pounds of carbon dioxide.
The crown jewel of Sustrans, by far, is the formidable network, sprawling throughout England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Shetland Islands. Spokesperson Gill Harrison proudly boasts that 55 percent of the U.K.’s population now lives within a mile of some stretch of the network. The group publishes copiously detailed, weatherproof maps and guidebooks for every route segment. Also plotted are tours of lochs and glens, a historic Viking coastal trail in the southeast, routes that pass great antiquities such as Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, a cross-country ride that follows the back roads used during the Middle Ages by marauding “Reivers” on the Scottish border, and dozens of others. The National Cycle Network remains one of the U.K.’s most distinctive ways to experience the island nation’s natural, and man-made, beauty.
Fitness, Fun and Self-Discovery
I’m back on U.S. soil, on a rural road east of San Diego. It’s a Sunday morning late in February. I’m onboard my road bike, temporarily separated from the rest of my group. Suddenly, a few miles from the Lower Otay Reservoir, I see a parachute open in the sky above me. Then a second and a third. The chutes are all brightly colored, festive enough to assure me that the arid bluffs alongside the deep gullies north of the Mexican border are not under some kind of paratrooper attack. As I dip down around the next bend, a little wind-sock airfield and skydiving school shows on my right, with the next plane of jumpers already revving up its engines. A little beyond this point our group takes on a climb into the intriguing Jamul Mountains; we will see far fewer signs of civilization until we reach our first night’s campsite.
This trek is part of a tour organized under the auspices of the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), roughly the U.S. equivalent of the U.K.’s Sustrans and proportionately larger in scope. With 44,500 members and an active role in maintaining a 38,000-mile network, ACA is America’s preeminent bicycle travel organization, advocating for route improvements and rider safety. It also specializes in providing trip-planning assistance for bicycle travelers and publishes a comprehensive system of weather-resistant touring maps that span the North American continent. The maps are annotated in detail and carefully updated online, making them an invaluable resource for any cyclist traveling beyond the limits of his or her regular Sunday afternoon ride.
Despite ACA’s size and broad scope of activities, its mission statement is engagingly direct: “Inspire people of all ages to travel by bicycle ... for fitness, fun and self-discovery.” Crucial to this goal are the association’s well-organized group cycle tours—to some, ACA’s most important function. The one I’ve undertaken is an event nicknamed the “Winter Warmer,” which offers decent biking weather when much of the country is locked in snow. Over the next seven days, the 20-plus cyclists in our group will explore the dramatic mountainous reaches of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest, with experienced guides, a couple of support vehicles, bike-repair help and fully catered meals. Most ACA tours involve camping overnight, but nearby hotel accommodations are often available. The physical difficulty of each expedition is spelled out for riders in advance, both online and in brochures. My desert ride rates an “intermediate +,” but others—such as a relatively flat summertime excursion over Idaho’s Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes or a historic ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh chosen to parallel the C&O Canal—are rated as manageable for beginning cyclists.
Retired marketing executive Bart Coddington is a veteran of half a dozen such tours, a long-standing member of the ACA and an ardent exponent of environmental and bike-related causes. Relaxing from a long day of riding, he tells me how repeatedly impressed he is by the variety of touring cyclists he has accompanied in these groups over the years, from eager teenagers to amazingly well-conditioned seniors. “It’s inspirational,” he says with a smile. “A guy in his 60s like me, getting passed on a hill by an 82-year-old man who’d just ridden across the entire U.S.”
That same transcontinental tour is next on Coddington’s itinerary. He is biking from San Francisco to Rye, N.Y., to attend his 45th high school reunion in October of this year. He’ll head southwest to Pueblo, Colo., then vector east and north per ACA’s maps and recommended route strategies. The entire trip will require about 4,000 miles in the saddle. What gets him going? Probably what figures in our tour leader’s admonition to the riders of my Winter Warmer group: “The main thing you need is, be ready to ride.”
Around the World
Galilee Tours, Israel
Springtime in a forested stretch of northwestern Israel. My guide, Ran Gefen, and I board full-suspension mountain bikes beside the Keziv River, just south of the Lebanese border, and set out over an ancient road once tramped by Roman soldiers. Unlike riding on pavement, mountain biking is often less a matter of wind-in-your face cruising than of solving the technical problems of negotiating rough terrain. This pebbly Galilean trail is relatively uncomplicated, allowing me to look up from the turf and scan the slopes around us, dense with wild laurel and buckthorn. Snapdragons are starting to show, and a tiny stream, Ein Tamir, trickles from a crevice in the rocks.
Ran’s bike shop, Ranofun, in the nearby village of Shavei Zion, provides mountain and road bike rentals, as well as guide services for excursions at any level of difficulty. I’ve chosen this ride partially for its proximity to an extraordinary 12th-century relic of the Crusades—Montfort Castle, built on a precipice above the forest and high enough to offer an unobstructed 360-degree view that includes the shimmering Mediterranean far to the west. We dismount at the base of a steep switchback and climb to the ruins. There, amid Montfort’s broken casemates, the silence is profound, interrupted by the occasional far-off keening of a jackal. For biking experiences in this ancient land, consider:
- Ranofun in Shavei Zion, Western Galilee: Guided and unguided biking tours and rentals; send English e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ofanaor, Tel Aviv: Full-service guided mountain bike excursions all over Israel, from Galilee to the Negev Desert to Eilat. Select the English link at www.ofanaor.co.il/ofanaor_israel_bike_tours.php or e-mail email@example.com
Israel’s national air carrier, El Al, partners with the Israeli Bike Experience to provide a selection of tours (and the airline will ship participants’ bikes free of charge). Select the Israeli Bike Experience at www.elal.co.il/ELAL/English/AllAboutYourFlight/SpecialOffers
La Route Verte, Quebec
Some 2,400 miles of prizewinning bike routes crisscross the charming countryside of this Canadian province. Choose your season carefully but know that many enthusiasts call this “the best bicycle route in the world.”
The International Bicycle Fund, a nongovernmental, nonprofit advocacy organization, lists extremely eco-conscious tours intended to “heighten awareness and understanding of cultural, environment and humanitarian conditions.”
Plan Your Own
Many touring companies and event directors input their information into a World Wide Bicycle Tour Directory, useful for beginners and veterans alike.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Cycling the World."