My husband and I are veterans of many bike trips, all of them taken after we turned 50, some of them long after. Sure, we're qualified senior citizens. In fact, we are seriously overqualified, but over the hill? Not yet! And I can tell you there's no greater feeling of accomplishment than wheeling up to a charming little inn for the night after pedaling 25 or 35 miles through fields and forests, past palaces, farms and villages, along rivers and rocky seacoasts.
We've biked down the Danube River, in Pennsylvania's Amish country, along the Erie Canal, in the Dordogne Valley of France, and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. You can travel like a snail, stopping to smell the flowers, or you can move right along if your goal is to get where you're going, maybe to the next castle or a tasty lunch. For me, someone who's partial to active vacations, addicted to serendipity, and likes to see the sights up close, it definitely beats sitting on a bus and looking out the window.
You don't have to be an expert biker for a cycling vacation. If you remember how to ride a bike and are in good shape, you're a candidate. Tootling around your own neighborhood is probably enough preparation for a short adventure. We did fine on our weekend trip to Maryland's Eastern Shore - rated as easy, flat terrain - but for longer trips, it's wise to practice beforehand. Experts recommend riding at least five miles a day, three times a week, for a month or more. Add to that a few 15- or 20-mile rides, varying the routes and including some hills. Practice stopping, turning, signaling, shifting, and riding in light traffic. And always wear a helmet.
You can organize your own bike tour - it's the cheapest way to go. But it's more practical to choose a guided group tour, such as Backroads' weekends through the wine country of northern California and Elderhostel's two weeks of pedaling along the Czech Republic's rural Elbe River Valley. Routes are carefully chosen and mapped, taking you mostly on scenic back roads.
A support van accompanies the group, carrying your luggage and repair equipment. It will even carry you if you can't make it up another hill. I am not above hitching rides in the van when the going gets too tough. Nor am I ever too proud to get off and walk my bike up the more formidable hills. First, that's the only way I can get up them, and second, this is a vacation!
You'll usually cover at least 25 miles a day. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider you have all day to do it, it's not all that difficult. Stops are frequent, giving you plenty of time to rest and do some exploring. Lodging, breakfast and dinner are usually in small hotels or country inns.
Even more important, tours are rated for their level of difficulty and usually give you a choice of mileage each day. Choose a trip that's advertised for over-50s or one for all ages that's rated "easy" with "flat" or "gentle" terrain, and you'll do fine, especially in such nonthreatening territory as Cape Cod, California's Napa Valley, or along the Netherlands' canals.
On most tours, you don't have to worry about keeping with the group. You go at your own speed, following a detailed map that takes you to your evening's destination. The only requirement is that you show up on time for dinner.
On tours such as those offered by Elderhostel, however, the group rides together, led by a guide and followed by a "sweep" who checks the cyclists periodically to make sure nobody's in trouble.
The usual routine is to bike from inn to inn each day, with an occasional layover of two nights in one location. But on some shorter trips, you stay in one place, set forth in the morning, and return by evening. You can take your own bicycle, but it's simpler to rent one from the operator. Sometimes, bikes are part of the package.
Hard work? Sure, but it's relaxing because it gives you time to think, enjoy close up a field of flowers, a castle, or a tiny rural village, talk to a farmer, and stop at a little cafe for a cappuccino.
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Most bike tours are for all ages but typically include many over-50s. Some are specifically designed for the older population. Among them:
Elderhostel. This educational travel organization offers both foreign and domestic bike tours, all accompanied by learning sessions about your surroundings. Overseas trips, usually 14 days, include airfare, accommodations, bicycles, and meals. This year, for example, you can spend two weeks pedaling in the Czech Republic's rural Elbe River Valley. Or past castles and storybook villages following the Gota Canal in Sweden. Domestic tours range from five to 10 days and are offered in almost every state and some parts of Canada such as Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Utah and the southern shore of Nova Scotia. Information: 877-326-8056; www.elderhostel.org.
International Bicycle Tours. The Fifty PlusTours by IBT for older bikers, most of them in Europe, cover about 30 miles a day, include lodging, a guide, the bike, an accompanying van, and most meals. Among the destinations are Normandy and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Information: 860-767-7005; www.internationalbicycletours.com.
Senior Cycling. Senior Cycling plans bike trips that range from one- or two-day ventures out of Washington, D.C., to seven-day spins along the Erie Canal, the Florida Keys, or the towpaths of the C&O Canal in Maryland. The small groups are provided with a guide and support van, accommodations, and most meals. Information: 540-668-6307; www.seniorcycling.com.
50plus Expeditions. Most of these eight-day trips are self-guided with accommodations, two meals a day, support van included. Current destinations include Ireland's Dingle Peninsula and the Danube River in Austria. Information: 866-318-5050; www.50plusexpeditions.com.
Over the Hill Gang International. OTHG's primary activity is skiing, but it schedules a few group bike tours every year for members 50 or over. This year, for example, they bike in Thailand, Spain, and the Seychelles. Information: 719-389-0022; www.othgi.com.