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The Top Ten Pedal Pushers

Only a few years ago, bicycle touring was the domain of the athletic and adventurous, people who were willing to load up their bikes with 40 pounds of camping gear and set forth on their own. It has since entered the mainstream; there are now hundreds of companies offering package outings that generally include baggage transport (the van doubles as a "sag wagon," assisting cyclists if either they or their bicycles sag), meals, accommodations, and, best of all, routes that have been well scouted by trained guides. Here they are, the leaders of the pack.

Adventure Cycling Association
Formerly called Bikecentennial— because it was organized for the 1976 U.S. bicentennial— this 40,000-member nonprofit organization is the Sierra Club of bicycle touring: part outing organizer, part guardian of bicycle tourists' interests. Its 40-plus tours tend to be carry-your-own-baggage camping trips, ranging from weeklong to summer-long, but there are also a limited number of van-supported tours and large-group rides. Daily mileage: 30-70. Group size: 7-250. Lodging: A mix of commercial campgrounds; state, national, and municipal parks; motels; hostels; and churches. Meals: Hearty (laden with carbos), not fancy; generally cooked over camp stoves. Prices: From $450 for six days in western Montana to $2,975 for a 93-day coast-to-coast tour. Phone: 406/721-1776.

Backcountry
This Montana-based company offers 135 departures to 17 destinations, mostly in the North American West but also in New Zealand. One of its more adventurous tours is at least 70 percent on four-wheel-drive routes, trails, and sandstone slickrock near Moab, Utah. Some trips throw in hiking, river rafting, or horseback riding— perfect if you don't want to commit your tailbone to a full week on a bike. Daily mileage: 25-60. Group size: No more than 14. Lodging: Top inns, lodges, and ranches. Meals: At local restaurants. Prices: From $1,220 for six days in Utah to $2,725 for 15 days in New Zealand. Phone: 800/575-1540.

Backroads
The nation's largest cycle-touring company (in business since 1979) has 1,000 outings scheduled for 1997. These include both inn-to-inn and camping options, with destinations in most of the United States, plus Canada, Europe, Asia, and South America. Daily mileage: 20-70 miles. Group size: 14-26. Lodging: Inns, hotels, national park lodges, B&B's, even spas. Meals: At restaurants on inn-to-inn trips, with an emphasis on regional fare; on camping trips, guides do the cooking. Prices: From $698 for six-day camping trips in Maine and Nova Scotia to $3,593 for 15 days in China. Phone: 800/462-2848.

Bicycle Adventures
Most of the 100 tours offered by this 14-year-old company are in the Pacific Northwest, a region loosely defined by Bicycle Adventures to include northern California and Hawaii. Trips last four to eight days and feature activities other than cycling: hiking, sea kayaking, snorkeling, river rafting, whale-watching. Daily mileage: 30-50. Group size: 13-18. Lodging: B&B's and country inns— generally small, out-of-the-way places, not always with private baths (there are also camping routes on Washington's San Juan Islands and the Oregon coast). Meals: First-rate restaurant dinners and picnic lunches. Breakfast isn't necessarily eaten at the inn, so there may be a few miles of pre-coffee pedaling. Prices: From $598 for five days of camping on the San Juans to $1,694 for an eight-day circuit of Hawaii's Big Island. Phone: 800/443-6060.

Butterfield & Robinson
Specializing in luxury since 1966, B&R has 200 tours to 34 destinations, mostly in Europe, but also in such exotic locales as China, India, and Morocco. Among its 11 North American trips: Nova Scotia in lobster season, kayaking and whale-watching in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, and a mixture of bicycling and theater in southern Ontario (with stops at the Stratford and Shaw festivals). There's more emphasis on culture and comfort than on cycling. Unlike most companies, B&R includes bike rentals in the price. Daily mileage: About 25. Group size: 17-20. Lodging: Top country inns, châteaux, and villas. Meals: At the hotel or a good restaurant in the vicinity. Prices: North American trips range from $1,750 for seven days in Nova Scotia to $1,975 for six days in Ontario, including theater tickets. European trips average $450 per day. Phone: 800/678-1147.

Cycle America
The centerpiece of this company's schedule is a series of 12 weeklong journeys that collectively span the continent from Puget Sound to Maine or Washington, D.C. Either tour can be done as a single, three-month adventure or in segments, the way some hikers tackle the Appalachian Trail. Other tours visit such destinations as the Oregon coast or Texas Hill Country. All are camping trips. Daily mileage: About 70. Group size: Up to 200. Meals: Provided by local churches or social clubs. Lodging: Group camping on school grounds and in parks. Prices: About $480 per week. Phone: 800/245-3263.

French Louisiana Bike Tours
Not surprisingly, FLBT specializes in Cajun country— cycling the back roads, sampling the food, cavorting in the dance halls. Run by the owners of a Lafayette outdoors store, FLBT has been offering about 10 bike trips a year since 1984. The most popular is the Cajun Music & Food Tour, which begins with a cooking lesson and includes Cajun or zydeco music every evening. Daily mileage: About 50. Group size: 12-18. Lodging: B&B's (and sometimes plantation houses). Meals: At the best available restaurant; a few are catered. Price: $950 for six-day tours. Phone: 800/458-4560.

Michigan Bicycle Touring
In business since 1978, MBT limits its tours to Michigan, a state that commands more freshwater shoreline than any other. Most of the 100-odd outings consist of weekends near Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, although five-day tours are also available. Some trips mix cycling with hiking or canoeing. Daily mileage: 15-65. Group size: 13-24. Lodging: B&B's, inns, historic hotels, ski lodges. Meals: Generally at the inn. Prices: From $255 for a two-day mountain-bike tour of the central Lower Peninsula to $949 for the five-day Mackinac Island tour. Phone: 616/263-5885.

Timberline Bicycle Tours
Timberline tours— primarily in the western United States, Canada, and Alaska— tend to be more challenging than the industry average. The company's Canadian Rockies trip, for example, also takes in a substantial portion of southern British Columbia, covering 640 miles in 10 days, with 18,000 to 20,000 feet of climbing. Even the standard Icefields Parkway tour has a twist: it crosses the Continental Divide twice to loop through Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho national parks. Daily mileage: 55-75. Group size: 12-22. Lodging: Historic hotels, national park lodges, and inns; but good cycling comes first— meaning that in small towns, cyclists sometimes stay in ordinary motels. Meals: At the lodge or a nearby restaurant. Prices: From $795 for most five-day tours to $1,595 for most nine-day tours. Phone: 303/759-3804.

Vermont Bicycle Touring
The first inn-to-inn touring company— operating since 1972— VBT is still among the largest, with 500 tours to 52 destinations all over the world. The company started in Vermont and still focuses heavily on New England and the East Coast, but it has an increasing selection of offerings in the West as well. One recent addition is a tour of Santa Fe, Taos, and New Mexico's Enchanted Circle, with rafting on the Rio Grande. Daily mileage: 20-50. Group size: 15-20. Lodging: Country inns and small hotels. Meals: Either at the inn or at one of the nicer restaurants in town; usually ordered from a special menu. Prices: From $269 for a weekend in Vermont to $1,795 for six nights in Provence. Phone: 802/453-4811.


BRINGING YOUR BICYCLE
While you can rent a decent machine at such equipment-conscious destinations as Aspen and Monterey, good luck finding one elsewhere. Generally, you'll have to take your own wheels— which, when you're traveling on an airplane, can be expensive. On domestic flights, expect a round-trip fee of $90. Ironically, overseas flights often accept bikes at no extra cost, if they aren't too heavy.

One way to beat the charge is to join the League of American Bicyclists (800/288-2453; $35 per year) or the Adventure Cycling Association (406/721-1776; $28 yearly). Both have free-shipping deals with many airlines, provided you book your flight through their travel services. Or use UPS to ship straight to your departure point. If you travel a lot, you might consider buying the New World Tourist by Bike Friday ($1,183-$2,500); it folds into a case small enough for you to dodge the airlines' fee.

How you pack your bicycle depends on how much you trust the baggage handlers. The easiest— but riskiest— way is to use the boxes provided by some airlines ($10-$15). For greater protection, ask a bike store for one of the cartons used to ship new bicycles. These require more disassembly than airline boxes; consider paying the shop to do the job for you (but make sure you understand how to put your bike back together).

Richard A. Lovett has written two books about bicycle touring: The Essential Touring Cyclist and Freewheelin': A Solo Journey Across America (both from Ragged Mountain Press).

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