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Breaking Away: Wheel Life Adventures

The hottest sport for boomers is also one of the oldest: road biking. Discover the joy and excitement of seeing the world from behind a pair of dropped handlebars.

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by Kent Black

Well-Being
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For Charles Tatum, 49, a tech executive living in Manhattan, the gym had become an exercise in drudgery. His knees could no longer handle running trails or pickup basketball games. And Spin classes? “My God,” he mused. “How many stationary bikes can a person ride before he loses his mind?” So, prompted by friends, he took it to the streets. In May he dragged his road bike out of storage, gave it a tune up, and started riding... again. Within weeks, he had progressed from 7-mile loops around Central Park to twice-weekly 50-mile group rides outside the city. Now he’s gearing up for a 10-day touring trip along the California coast. “It’s like rediscovering a former love,” he says. “It’s exciting. It’s familiar. I can’t get enough of it. To me, it seems better than ever.” Plenty of others have been similarly smitten. Road biking, long overshadowed by its burly younger brother mountain biking, has staged a remarkable comeback, particularly among boomers. Spurred on by faster, more comfortable bikes, a national movement toward new bike lanes and bike share programs, and tour groups tailoring more long-distance trips for older legs, middle-agers are gravitating to the centuries-old sport in unprecedented numbers. Cycling rates in most U.S. cities are rising by double digits each year, and long-distance bike tours are booming. “Our clients’ kids have grown up,” says Kathy Stewart, an executive with upscale travel company Butterfield & Robinson, who says the firm’s cycling clients now average 55 years old. “They have the time and money to take more big-time vacations and to stay fit and be active. They want to be travel, but engage in local culture and stay healthy at the same time.” Bill Thompson, whose 275-member New Mexico Touring Society is composed mostly of riders over fifty, agrees “road cycling is just the perfect sport and aerobic exercise as you get older. It’s not hard on the muscles and joints and you can go as fast or slow as you want.”

Oh, and did we mention it’s fun? Sometimes even thrilling? Best of all, it’s easy to start slow and keep going longer and faster and further from home, until you work up to multi-stage touring. Here are some ways to see the world from behind a pair of dropped handlebars. Go It Alone There are plenty of advantages to planning your own bike trips: it’s cheaper then paying someone do it for you, you won’t be bound to a group schedule, and you’re unlikely to find yourself stuck with a riding companion who insists on discussing metaphysical symbolism in season four of Two and a Half Men. Start by planning 10 to 20 mile loops that begin and end at your front door, then get more ambitious from there. Thanks to the Internet, nearly every rideable route has been written about extensively; Google “best cycling routes through the Napa Valley” for example, and you’ll get page after page of cool excursions with detailed directions. Plus there’s a slew of great smartphone cycling apps for planning and tracking trips, such as Mapmyride and BikeNav. If you’re doing multi-day journeys, you can pre-plan the restaurants, scenic stops and hotels you’ll hit on route. Print out your directions or access them on the fly–Google Maps (and a carefully mounted phone) can be used for turn-by-turn directions on most trips. Bay Area entrepreneur Stephen Nicholls, 62, has done a professionally organized bike tour in Spain, but gets the most enjoyment out of his self-planned trips in Moab, Utah and Provence, France. Nicholls points out that “these days, all the research is at your fingertips, so if you’re willing to work out the logistics you can save a lot of money and have a lot of freedom.” Go In Groups For beginners, one of the best ways to ease into cycle touring is to get connected with a local touring club. Be realistic about your current abilities and find group rides that seem like a good match – even in the smallest towns, there are usually plenty of options. Bill Thompson says that many of his group’s members start out on once-a-week rides before taking on more challenging multi-day tours in the Southwest. According to Allison Stone, a volunteer guide with Bike Adventure Club, a California-based non-profit whose members take turns organizing group rides, the greatest sin is to vastly overestimate your experience or fitness level before going on a long tour. “I had one guy who sat around talking non-stop about all the great rides he’d been on…. and every day he was the guy who we had to go pick up.” Note: This is not the way to become popular. Go with the Pros Why shell out big bucks for one of the established touring companies like Backroads, Trek or Butterfield & Robinson? Simple: From the moment your wheels touch the pavement, everything other than the pedaling is taken care of for you. You travel to meticulously scoped-out locales, with top-end hotels and restaurants along the way. Your luggage is always waiting for you at the next hotel. There are guides for every three or four riders and vans that will pick up those who choose not to finish the day’s route. Trips are tailored to fit various levels of experience and fitness, and there are different mileage options each day. Some companies even offer electric assist bikes that can power a client up the steep bits. Hardcore cyclists may sneer at the white glove treatment, but business is thriving for domestic as well as international trips. San Franciscan Laura Ward, 50, has done “13 or 14 trips” with Backroads and loves the “turnkey type of thing. You just block out the time, show up and they do the rest.” There’s another lure as well: Ward says the demographics of luxe cycling tours— the 40+ age group, the cost, the adventure, the interest in the travel, the required fitness level–means that there will be a like-mindedness with your fellow riders. “I’ve met the most interesting people on these trips,” she says, “And on a Backroads trip to Utah, I got engaged.” Preview photo: Norbert Eisele-Hein/Outdoor Archive/Aurora Article photo #1: frontal shot of biker, speed Joel Addams/Aurora/Getty Images Article photo #2: B&R group in Italy Philipp Haemmerle/Butterfield & Robinson