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biking vacations

Roll right over the winter blahs by heading south for a warm-weather bike tour.

Stephen Simpson was fed up. Tired of dreary, housebound winter days in Toronto, the then 46-year-old dentist decided to book a “Desert Escape” cycling tour through Southern California. His blah-busting experiment turned out to be a huge success.

“I was mesmerized by the California desert,” Simpson says. “Coming from Toronto on December 26, where the weather was cold and miserable, I found that the bright sunshine and beautiful mountains of Southern California surpassed my expectations.”

So did the cycling — long, sunny cruises along the desert floor and beneath date palms toward orchard towns and vineyards. “When I was biking, I couldn’t stop staring at the mountains that were visible on every mile of the trip,” he recalls. “I did very little but bike, eat, and sleep.”

Exhausting as that might sound, for Simpson the bike tour proved hugely rejuvenating.

“People need a break from winter,” says Terry Morse of Undiscovered Country Bike Tours, who hosted Simpson’s trip. “For most cyclists, winter means braving the cold and wet on their bicycles, or abandoning the road altogether and heading indoors for a group cycling class.”

A warm-weather bike tour, on the other hand, gets you out of the cold and deep into some of the country’s most gorgeous environments — stunning deserts, mountain vistas, and sandy beaches. Best of all, you’re building strength and endurance you couldn’t hope to get by lounging in a beach chair.

Ride in Style

Tours aren’t just for elite athletes, though. Anyone who’s reasonably active can embark on a guided bike trip without fear.

“Our people wear Spandex, but they don’t always sweat,” says Dan Lynch, co-owner of Escapades Bike Tours in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Some are hardcore riders, but others are first-timers. A lot of them say that if they’d known it was going to be so much fun, they would have started sooner.”

Many first-timers say that if they’d known it was going to be so much fun, they would have started sooner.

He notes that the support and gear vehicles (or SAG wagons) allow cyclists of different abilities to travel together. If you’re overly fatigued, or just tired of riding, you can always hop on the shuttle for a break.

Tours vary in difficulty and terrain. Escapades leads coast-and-desert trips in California where riders cover 15 to 45 miles per day, while a similar journey led by Undiscovered Country might cover 77 miles in a single outing.

Some companies choose flat routes and lightweight road bikes, while others follow gnarled mountain paths with fat-tire bikes to handle rocks and roots.

Most organized itineraries are available online with detailed descriptions of what to expect each day, so you can establish ahead of time which tours will suit you best.

“The riding can be as difficult as you want it to be,” says George Malone, 65, who swapped the rainy Bay Area for a bike tour in sunny Southern California. And the best part is, the challenges of riding are generally offset by beautiful natural surroundings.

“On our tour, the air was clear and cool in the mornings, and then it warmed up during the day,” recalls Malone. “The desert was stark and beautiful, with rocky cliffs, cacti, and marvelous vistas.”

A similar sense of wonder consumed George and Eileen Mrus of Columbus, Ohio, during a bike tour in the deserts of southern Utah. They pedaled about 35 miles each day past magnificent rock formations. “The sun at sunrise and sunset over the rocks was surreal,” says George. “And the sounds — pure silence from Mother Nature with the occasional birds chirping. We were wowed.”

Downtime Delights

On most bike tours, you can expect plenty of time off the bike for resting and exploring. During a six-day tour of Hawaii’s Big Island with Backroads tours, for example, riders might leave their saddles to swim at some of the world’s best beaches, or peer into smoldering calderas at the base of volcanoes.

Each day, you can choose to ride one of four distances (from 19 to 108 miles), so you can decide for yourself how much of your day you want to spend on and off your bike.

Inns and hotels on most tours vary from basic B&Bs to four-star resorts with spas. Prices range from $1,800 to $3,600 for a weeklong tour. Many pricier tours include sumptuous meals and comfortable lodging — a far cry from the granola bars and tent camping you might associate with bike touring.

One company, DuVine Adventures, offers a California wine-country tour that includes visits to world-famous vineyards, and their SAG wagon will carry any bottles you purchase to your final stop. So even though you might be sweaty and tired by day’s end, you’re certainly not toiling without reward.

On some tours, all you need to carry with you are your helmet and the clothes on your back. “We have spare tubes, spare wheels, drinks, and snacks,” says Oliver Kiel of Hawaii’s Orchid Isle Bicycling. “You don’t even have to fill your own water bottle.”

This combination of leisure, support, and outdoor rigor is what makes these tours biking vacations rather than just bike trips. Still, the most indulgent and extraordinary element of most trips is the simplicity of having little to do but pedal and watch the miles roll by.

Bicycles Built for Views

Cabin fever can leave you craving social interaction — which is exactly what you get on a bike tour. When you bike through neighborhoods, you can see people’s faces. Locals wave. You notice colors, flora, and fauna that you’d never see driving at highway speeds.

“On a bike, you can take in a full experience at a human pace,” explains Brad Silverberg, a Seattle resident who toured the Big Island of Hawaii by bicycle. There’s nothing but a pair of sunglasses between you and the rest of the world. “I kept thinking what a waste of scenery it would be if I were stuck behind a windshield,” Simpson says of his escape to California. “We had snowcapped peaks and clear blue skies for miles.”

In Florida, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has helped design an especially scenic two-day, 101-mile roundtrip bike tour, complete with campsites. It goes from the Everglades to the Florida Keys and back, wheeling past alligators, avocado groves, and fruit markets en route to snorkeling and diving opportunities at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Where Effort Meets Ease

Dominic Giossan, who has led tours of West Texas and Big Bend National Park, points out one more two-wheeled advantage over hiking or driving: Cycling is one of the most joint-friendly forms of exercise, and it’s even more so in the heat.

“When you arrive in West Texas and begin biking, your joints seem to say ‘thank you’ with every motion,” he says. “There’s zero humidity. Your muscles feel a lot looser, so you relax more. Everything is just radiant — bright and galvanized by the solar energy.”

Finally, bike-tour aficionados swear that being in the saddle during the day magnifies your whole experience of a place: Your food tastes better, your sleep is deeper, and you connect with people in a way you’re unlikely to do from a car or even a beach chair. Unlike the end of most vacations, you return home feeling as if you’ve actually accomplished something.

Sarah Tuff is a writer living in Vermont.

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