Bicycle tour offers days of colorful foliage, nights of country inn comforts

COASTING THROUGH AUTUMN IN SCENIC NEW ENGLAND

April 28, 1991|By Sherry Stripling | Sherry Stripling,Seattle TimesSeattle Times

I might as well confess. The minute the brochure hit my desk this time last year, I had no hope of remaining objective.

There it was, in full, glorious color, bicycling in New England to see the fall foliage.

Even people who don't cycle pursed their lips and raised their eyebrows when I told them my plans. They inquired because, in my impatience to get cycling, I was saying such uncharacteristic things as "Isn't this summer ever going to end?"

Burnt orange. Sunshine yellow. Crowned-tooth gold. Racing downhill on my bike blurred the colors of the quilted countryside. Stopped, the colors appeared with the crystal clarity that comes with crisp weather.

When I look at my color slides now, I think, e-yup, New England in fall lived up to my expectations.

Perhaps because we're forever told how homogenous we've become, I enjoy going to a new section of the United States and picking out the differences.

The differences were enhanced on my fall trip because it was with a commercial cycling company that carefully protected us from anything that smacked of the modern world. No chain restaurants. No malls.

Thus it was, after a day's cycling past rolling farmlands, dairies and covered bridges, we would roll past a Civil War monument and white-steepled church to rest at an 18th century inn at the foot of a village green.

Our luggage would be waiting in our rooms, a hot shower beckoning, and from the big cozy kitchens wafted such smells as slow-cooked fall squash, lobster and fresh bread.

A married couple in our bicycling group from Florida were there for the seventh time, although not all of their trips had been in fall.

Like a number of others in the group, they were closer to age 60 than to 40 (which was about the youngest). Like many others, they did little cycling at home, which made this particular genre of commercial tour attractive.

VCC Four Seasons Cycling, the tour company I went with, leads a good portion of the 30 tours that take place each week in Vermont and New Hampshire during the prime fall foliage -- from mid-September to about the third week in October. (Foliage peaks at different times at different places in the state.)

The firm offered two levels of trips. The Breakaway Tours are for high-mileage types, with daily mileage options of 45 to 70 miles. The trip I took was the less intense Explorers Tour, which makes cycling almost incidental to the views.

Our longest day was the last, with riding options up to 45 miles. It was my favorite, partly because we'd shed the rain of midweek and sunshine made the farmland look splendid.

I love devoting a whole week to exercise, so that by Day 4 or 5 you remember that it's your desk, and not your years, that has been holding you back. But not everybody thrives on sweaty brows; this kind of trip seemed perfect for couples with %o disparate views of exercise.

We stayed at each inn or lodge for two nights. The area we covered was limited; we zigzagged along rural roads, sometimes crossing the same path but from a different direction. We didn't stray far from our inns, but the routes were so cleverly conceived it felt as if we were miles from home.

One woman whose husband was among the most eager used the optional layover days to stay behind and poke around in the woods or the village hardware stores. Another couple raced ahead to get good photos, for which the opportunities seemed endless.

The "sag" wagon (a company van) swept the route from behind to pick up those who decided to take the afternoon off. There was no shame in dropping out early, a benefit of going with a group old enough to shun competition.

Each day we were given an itinerary that would best introduce us to New England, which one leader described as the "Disneyland of Cycling."

We stopped one day at a Shaker village to see the handicrafts and furniture of the religious sect; another day near the Appalachian Trail, the hiking route that flanked one of our lodges.

We rode along the Connecticut River valley, crossing back and forth between New Hampshire and Vermont, basically around the area of Hanover, N.H., which is home to Dartmouth College.

By the time I booked my trip in midsummer, the predicted very best week for viewing fall colors -- the first week in October for this particular part of the state -- already was full. I took the second week in October. The first days were awash in vivid colors, but by late in the week -- aided by a little wind and rain -- the leaves were falling fast.

It's difficult to predict just when the viewing will be best. It has to do with when the temperatures drop to 40 degrees at night, which starts a six- to eight-week internal process that ends the production of chlorophyll, the chemical that keeps the leaves green.

But even if you don't hit it exactly, the colors and scenery are something to behold.

Sometimes we'd come around a corner and there'd be a farmhouse and barn so perfectly set I'd think, "Did they know what they were doing or did the buildings just age to be such beauties?"

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