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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Easy Adventure: A Supported Bike Tour Exploring Lake Champlain With VBT

Eastern Slopes
March 8, 2012
By Tim Jones

My sweetheart Marilyn and I have done a lot of bike touring together since we bought our tandem bicycle. It’s great exercise, a wonderful way to appreciate beautiful scenery together, and definitely our favorite way to travel . . . We’ve done several “self-supported” tours, including Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket with our luggage in our BOB trailer. We’ve also done three “semi-supported” tours, including two in Quebec, one in the Eastern Townships , and one on theVéloroute des Bleuets in the Saguenay Region north of Quebec City. These semi-supported tours had us riding on our own, using a service to move our luggage each day. We thought that was the ultimate–until we biked near Lake Champlain in Vermont on a “fully supported” tour with VBT Bicycle and Walking Vacations.

Traveling with a group of 20 (8 married couples, 1 dating couple, and a father/son duo) was a completely new experience for us. Going in, we weren’t entirely sure we’d like sharing an adventure with that many strangers. But we did enjoy it, and met some wonderful Active Outdoors people who could possibly become life-long friends. Some of our group were seasoned cyclists. Most had ridden quite a bit. But there were also several newbies on their very first bike tour, ever. A couple of those hadn’t even ridden bikes that much. Brave of them, don’t you think, to sign up for something they’d never done before? Hooray for them!

Hard to imagine that 20 strangers of widely varying ages and abilities could all happily ride the same routes, isn’t it? Let’s just say it was all part of the service. When VBT described this experience as “fully supported,” they weren’t kidding. Our group had  two incredibly hard-working, fun, friendly, enthusiastic tour leaders, Cassie Willner and Chip Martin, whose job it was to keep all 20 riders happy. They did a great job. Amazingly, Chip seemed to be able to focus entirely on our needs even though his Waterbury, Vermont home had been flooded almost to the second floor by Hurricane Irene.

Each morning, these two bike enthusiasts would prep our bikes for us, checking shifting and brakes, pumping tires and filling water bottles. At breakfast, they’d describe our route options, give us background on the area we were riding, the sights we’d see and places we’d visit that day. As we rode the pre-planned routes, everyone traveling at their own pace, one or the other of our “fearless leaders” would pedal along, keeping track of everyone, sometimes forging ahead to make sure no one made a wrong turn at a tricky intersection. The second “fearless leader ” would drive the “sag wagon,” a mobile snack shop, bike repair station, and taxi service. I’m not kidding when I say that these two amazing people found every possible way to make this a wonderful experience for everyone—especially for the people who had never toured before.

A Typical Day On Tour

Each day, we’d meet at 8 am, dressed in our cycling clothes. Breakfast (always hearty and delicious) typically took about an hour—including the daily “route notes” and “preview of coming attractions.” Shortly after nine, we’d all launch for the day’s ride at roughly the same time. But we never tried to ride all together as a group. That, I think, would have been a disaster. Instead, most couples would ride together at the pace of the slower rider. Or the faster riders among several couples would go out as a group while the slower riders hung together at their own pace. Marilyn and I, pedaling our fat-tire touring tandem (we were the only tandem riders), usually rode somewhere between the fastest riders and the slowest.

Every morning included an optional “snack stop” along the route where most of us would gather for a slice of fruit, some nuts or a granola bar—just to keep our energy up. Not that we really needed it after the breakfasts they served, but, hey, it was there and tasty. Each day had an itinerary that would allow you to pedal as little or as much as you wanted. Ride options were generally from 8 to 35 miles, but more was always an option. Some people did the shortest ride each day, some did more riding, exploring side routes that weren’t on the itinerary.

Most evenings, we’d gather for a convivial dinner at two or three large tables wherever we were staying. Lots of laughter. If anyone stayed up late, we missed it. Trust me, riding a bike all day then enjoying a glass of wine and a good dinner makes you sleep well at night.

The Real Advantages of Supported

Over the six days, several people in the group, including Marilyn and I, got to experience the real advantages of a supported tour. On the very first morning, for example, one of the riders who had brought her own bike (as opposed to using one of the excellent bikes provided by VBT) had a flat tire only a half mile from the Inn. Sag wagon to the rescue!, and she was on her way again in minutes with her hands still clean (try changing a tire on your own and keeping your hands clean!). On other days, some of the newer riders needed a break after the morning ride. Sag wagon to the rescue, again.

On the third day of riding (Day Four of the tour), I had some work that simply had to get done, so Marilyn and I lingered at our lovely Inn in Burlington while others rode ahead to the Shelburne Museum and various other attractions for the day. Just before lunch, finally on the road and eager to catch up with the group, Marilyn and I were flying along on our tandem, pedaling quickly and easily  up a long, very gentle hill on the wide shoulder of a busy road when a car coming in from the right stopped at a stop sign, then pulled out only a few feet in front of us. Luckily, we weren’t going that fast (if we’d been going downhill it would have been a catastrophe) and I was able to panic brake most of our speed before we plowed into the startled driver’s front fender (she hadn’t even seen us . . .though I think it should have been hard to miss two people dressed in bright colors on a red tandem bike  . . .) We weren’t hurt, but our bike was not rideable.

VBT and the Sag Wagon to the rescue! We called Cassie, she arrived shortly, and we transported our tandem to The Ski Rack in Burlington where we were given VIP treatment. While we enjoyed lunch nearby, the expert bike techs at this great shop (Thanks guys!) pitched in and repaired our ride. We caught up with the rest of the group later that afternoon with our bike repaired and ready to ride. Kudos to everyone (except the careless driver, of course. Boo-hiss to her . . .).

If we’d been riding on our own, that crash would have been a nightmare. We’d have had to find a way to get back to our car, find a bike shop, hope they could fix our bike right away . . . you get the picture. If we’d been injured, it would have been even worse. If we had to have an accident like this, I’m glad it happened on a supported tour.

Lovely Lake Champlain

The heart of any bike tour is where you ride, what you see, where you stay, and what you eat to fuel your engine. That’s what makes the experience memorable . . . This was our second tour of the area around Lake Champlain and I can promise you it won’t be our last. You can read all about our first Inn-to-Inn In The Rain Tour.

Day 1: Most of us met at the VBT headquarters in Bristol, Vermont, then traveled by van to the North Hero House, on North Hero Island, one of the Champlain Islands. We were supposed to begin with an easy, eight-mile warm-up ride that afternoon, but Hurricane Irene had other ideas. The wind and pouring rain made riding too dangerous, so we settled into a cozy lakeside room to wait out the storm, venturing out only to cross the road (yes, we’re chickens) to the main building for a very pleasant dinner.

Day 2: We awoke to sunshine and the calm after the storm. Other parts of Vermont were completely devastated, but here, the only hint that a hurricane had passed was a lot of blown down leaves and small branches and a few toppled trees. Cleanup was already underway at dawn and, by the time we had finished with the enormous breakfast buffet, the roads were dry and perfectly rideable.

Our destination that morning was Isle La Motte. We turned north out the inn, rode awhile on the island of North Hero, crossed the bridge to Alburg, and a few miles later rode onto Isle La Motte, which has to be among the prettiest places in Vermont. Our morning snack stop was at St. Anne’s Shrine and, later, we rode past the Fisk Quarry, and the remnants of the Chazy Reef, an ancient coral formation dating back to the time when this was part of a seabed located approximately where Zimbabwe is now! We’d visited these attractions on an earlier ride but still enjoyed pedaling along the beautiful lake shore.

Marilyn and I opted for the longest ride of the day (31 miles total—you could ride as little as 12 if you wanted). This is mostly-flat country, the riding was easy, and the views across the lake were spectacular under the bright blue sky. At one point we somehow became entangled with a huge group of touring cyclists with another cycle tour company, all riding very slowly together on a dirt road. Picking our way through these moving obstacles made us appreciate our small VBT group and the fact that we could spread out and ride at our own pace. By noon we were back at the North Hero House for a hearty lunch buffet. Others in the group opted for an afternoon kayak tour (the paddling here is fantastic), but we swam, read, napped and looked forward to another fine dinner.

Day 3: With our luggage packed before breakfast, we were ready to pedal. The original itinerary had us riding from the Islands to Burlington via the Island Line Rail Trail, but flooding in the spring of 2011 had forced a change in route. Instead, we pedaled 18 miles to Snow Farm Vineyard where we enjoyed an outstanding lunch (prepared by our trip leaders – who knew they could cook, too?) and a vineyard tour and wine tasting. From there, we jumped into the vans with bikes on top for a lift to Colchester. We still had a chance to ride about 4 miles (2 out, 2 back) of the spectacular causeway on the Island Line Rail Trail, and then 5 more miles of the rail trail into Burlington. A 28-mile day total. Again, this was mostly flat and easy riding.

Lodging that night was in the quiet, elegant, and very comfortable Lang House in Burlington, right near the University of Vermont and a conveniently short stroll from all the fabulous shops and eateries clustered near theChurch Street pedestrian mall. Dinner was on our own that night and we ate with a couple of our new tour friends at “A Single Pebble” which is orders of magnitude beyond a typical Chinese restaurant. Highly recommended.

Day 4: As already noted, I had to do some work in the morning, so Marilyn and I launched later than everyone else. Our plan was to pedal 10 miles to meet the group at the Shelburne Museum. We were well on our way when that errant driver ended our pedaling day. We missed most of the riding and all of the Shelburne Museum and Shelburne Farms. . . an excuse to go back!

Later that afternoon everyone vanned to the Shoreham Inn in Shoreham. Marilyn and I had stayed here on our first-ever tandem tour, and we’ve been hoping to get back ever since to this wonderfully homey old inn. This may be the most “bicycle-friendly” inn in Vermont, and they serve hearty, excellent food in their “British Gastropub”. Good thing, too, because I don’t think there’s another restaurant for miles.

Day 5: We rode out from Shoreham to the Ticonderoga Ferry which crosses into New York, one of the oldest continuously operating ferries in the nation. Then it was just a short ride up the hill to historic Fort Ticonderoga. On the beautiful grounds and in the restored buildings you could still hear the echoes of long-ago battles that help define America. From there, we rode into the village of Ticonderoga(don’t blink, you’ll miss it, even on a bike). While Marilyn toured the Fort, Fearless Leader Cassie and I jumped on the tandem and pedaled a lovely 10-mile loop through New York farmland. Cassie is a very experienced cyclist, but had never ridden stoker on a tandem before and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

When we returned, Marilyn and I wandered the grounds, and while the puffs of gun smoke from the battles are long gone, puffball mushrooms aren’t. We found a HUGE one. We put it in the Sag Wagon to be transported back to the Shoreham Inn, where Dominic and Molly Francis, the delightful owners, offered to cook it for the group. Puffballs can be bland if not cooked creatively, but thanks to Dominic’s culinary skills, this was outstanding!

Day 6: We vanned out of Shoreham to explore around Middlebury, on routes chosen at the last minute to avoid storm damage. Some of the group visited a Morgan horse farm, but Marilyn and I explored the town. Middlebury is a beautiful spot with shops and restaurants galore. Otter Creek was running full flood and provided the background as we lingered over  lunch at the Storm Café. Then it was back to Bristol, back to our car, and eventually, back home to savor the memories.

If You Go

A quick summary like this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the fun you can have on a bike tour. For every detail I included, there were hundreds of shared experiences, stunning vistas, laughs and tastes that had to be left out. You simply see more, feel more, enjoy more when you are out on a bike, working your muscles, breathing fresh air, making your body work the way it was designed to–and sharing it all with like-minded people. Give it a try sometime.! Maybe we’ll even see you there. This was our first fully supported group bike tour, but it certainly won’t be our last.

About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor of Eastern Slopes, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns. 


FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Paul Williams, Director of Marketing
802-453-4811 ext. 3414
pwilliams@vbt.com
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