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Connect with nature via pedal power

Dozens of bicycle trips aimed at steering active visitors to local areas and capturing a market of retirees who have the time and interest to participate have been springing up.
Travel Trip Bicycle Tours
Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong as he heads out in Colfax, Iowa, with a group of riders during RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Charlie Neibergall / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Don Wilson describes himself as an "old guy," but every spring he hops on his bike to pedal 200 miles in four days through the heart of French Louisiana on a trip called Cycle Zydeco.

Wilson, 65, chats with other riders while rolling through Cajun and Creole country. Organizers offer local music, dancing and food to the 350 people in the group at campsites every night.

Like thousands of other bicyclists who take part in nonprofit trips that can cover hundreds of miles in a few days or a week, Wilson enjoys visiting new places under his own power.

"You get to see the country in a way that you'd never get to see it by car or by bus or by any other form of transportation," said Wilson, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Maryland but has ridden Cycle Zydeco six times. "You just feel more connected to nature maybe."

The 9-year-old Cycle Zydeco, which is put on by the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission and other sponsors, is just one of dozens of nonprofit bicycle trips that have sprung up in recent years.

The trips are aimed at steering active visitors to local areas and capturing a market of retirees who have the time and interest to participate in what is often a rolling party.

The largest and oldest of the rides is the seven-day RAGBRAI, the (Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, which takes 10,000 cyclists about 500 miles around Iowa's rolling hills every July.

Smaller trips, modeled on RAGBRAI's formula of camping and nightly entertainment, have sprung up all around the country. They offer an affordable, if sometimes demanding, vacation.

"The Zydeco ride is flat unless the wind blows," said Wilson. "They have a condition they call the Cajun Alps. It feels like you're climbing mountains with a 25-mile per hour wind in your face."

A low-cost vacation
The rides are relatively low-cost because most offer camping, although participants can choose to stay in nearby motels if they're available. The seven-day Bike Ride Across Nebraska, or BRAN, covers 480 miles and costs just $140, including camping, baggage transport, a support wagon and a tour guide. Riders pay for their meals. Cycle Zydeco costs $350 including meals, and RAGBRAI is $140, with riders buying their own meals.

Many of the rides are fundraisers. BRAN, a community service project of the Omaha Northwest Rotary Club, awards scholarships to Nebraska high school graduates. RAGBRAI supports local Iowa nonprofits and returns some money to the communities the ride passes through. The 7-year-old Ride Idaho, also organized by a nonprofit organization, supports cycling in Idaho and also returns money to the communities the riders visit.

Tour organizers rarely close roads for their riders, but usually choose less-traveled routes and employ local police to warn drivers that riders are ahead. People travel around the country to sample the new routes of their favorite rides year after year, said Vickie Backman, who organizes BRAN.

"We usually have 35 or 37 states represented, and I know someone is coming from Sweden this year," said Backman. Some riders have participated in BRAN tours every year for 30 years, she added.

In northern North Dakota, a local Job Development Association started the three-day Bike the Border ride in 2004 to attract visitors to the rural region near Canada, said director Barb Otto. The 200-mile ride, in June, is open to 100 riders and costs just $75, excluding food.

"It's definitely not a speed thing for the majority," said Otto. "You'll get a few of the young guys who want to see how fast they can do it, but it's basically a fun weekend."

Cruising along
David Harrenstein, executive director of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association in Minnesota, said he has no data on whether the number of nonprofit bike tours is growing, "but I can tell you that it's not shrinking," he said. "Especially with the whole green movement, and people trying to be healthy and live longer, organized bicycle tours seem to be holding their own in terms of popularity."

Various studies, including surveys by bike retailers, bike advocacy groups and government transportation agencies, suggest that commuting by bike, participation in competitive biking events and recreational bike riding are on the rise.

While a 2006 study by the Outdoor Industry Foundation found that just 27 percent of bike riders in the U.S. are age 45 or older, Harrenstein said the average age of participants in the long-distance nonprofit bike rides is about 50.

Winona Bateman, spokeswoman for the Adventure Cycling Association, which promotes bike travel and leads bike tours, said the average participant in her group's trips is also about 50. She speculated that younger riders are more likely to commute to work by bike, but "maybe they haven't gotten into the more organized stuff yet."

Or maybe those younger people are just too busy raising their families, said Wilson, who does a lot of traveling with his wife.

"Our kids are grown, so we have a little bit of time," he said. "You're still challenged by, 'Can I do this?'"

Wilson said he enjoys meeting other people his age on the trips, and chatting with them as he cycles down the road. He rides at about 15 miles per hour.

"You're not going full-out; you're just cruising along," he said.