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Joy-Ride

Stephen Simpson was fed up. Tired of dreary, housebound winter days in Toronto, the 46-year-old dentist decided to book a “Desert Escape” cycling tour through Southern California. His blah-busting experiment turned out to be even more successful than he’d hoped.

“I was mesmerized by the California desert,” Simpson says. “Coming from Toronto on December 26, where the weather was cold and miserable, the bright sunshine and beautiful mountains of Southern California surpassed my expectations.”

So did the cycling — long, sunny cruises along the desert floor and beneath date palms toward orchard towns and vineyards. “When I was biking, I couldn’t stop staring at the mountains that were always visible on every mile of the trip,” he recalls. “I did very little but bike, eat and sleep.”

This might sound exhausting, but it turned out that the sights, sounds and sweat of a bike tour were far more rejuvenating for Simpson than lounging on a beach chair.

“People need a break from winter,” says Terry Morse of Undiscovered Country Bike Tours, who hosted Simpson’s trip. “For most cyclists, winter means braving the cold and wet on their bicycle, or abandoning the road altogether and heading indoors for a group cycling class.”

A warm-weather bike tour, on the other hand, gets you out of the cold and deep into some of the country’s most gorgeous environments — stunning deserts, mountain vistas and sandy beaches. Best of all, you’re building strength and endurance while you marvel.

Ride in Style

While Lance Armstrong and the peloton  stay in bionic shape to traverse the grueling Alps passes during the Tour de France, just about anyone who’s reasonably active can embark on a guided bike trip.

“Our people wear Spandex, but they don’t always sweat,” says Dan Lynch, co-owner of Bike Escapades in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “They’re not all hardcore riders; some first-timers have enjoyed coming on our bike tours. Many first-timers say that if they knew it was going to be so much fun, they would have started sooner.”

He notes that the support and gear vehicles (or SAG wagons) allow cyclists of different abilities to travel together. If you’re really tired or find that you overestimated your stamina, you can always hop on the shuttle for a break.

Tours vary in difficulty and terrain. Bike Escapades leads coast-and-desert trips in California where riders cover 15 to 45 miles per day, while a similar journey led by Undiscovered Country might cover 77 miles in a single outing. Some companies choose flat routes and lightweight road bikes, while others follow gnarled mountain paths with fat-tired bikes to handle rocks and roots. Most organized itineraries are available online with detailed descriptions of what to expect each day, so you can establish ahead of time which tours will suit you best.

“The riding was as difficult as you wanted it to be,” says George Malone, 61, who swapped the rainy Bay Area for a bike tour in sunny Southern California in February 2010. He also found that any challenges of riding were offset by beautiful natural surroundings. “The air was clear and cool in the mornings, and then it warmed up during the day. The desert was stark and beautiful, with rocky cliffs, cacti and marvelous vistas.”

A similar sense of wonder consumed George and Eileen Mrus of Columbus, Ohio, during a bike tour in the deserts of southern Utah last year. They pedaled about 35 miles each day past magnificent rock formations. “The sun at sunrise and sunset over the rocks was surreal,” says George. “And the sounds — pure silence from Mother Nature with the occasional birds chirping. We were wowed.”

Downtime Delights

On most bike tours, you can expect plenty of time off the bike for resting and exploring. During a six-day tour of Hawaii’s Big Island with Backroads Tours, for example, riders might leave their saddles to swim at some of the world’s best beaches, or peer into smoldering calderas at the base of volcanoes. Each day, you can choose one of four different distances (from 19 to 108 miles) to ride, so you can decide for yourself how much of your day you want to spend on the bike and off.

Inns and hotels on most tours range from basic B&Bs to four-star resorts with spas. Prices range from $1,800 to $3,600 for a weeklong tour. Many pricier tours include sumptuous meals and comfortable lodging — a far cry from the granola bars and tent camping you might associate with bike touring.

One company, DuVine Adventures, offers a California wine-country tour that includes visits to world-famous vineyards, and their SAG wagon will carry any bottles you purchase to your final stop. So even though you might be sweaty and tired by day’s end, you’re certainly not toiling without reward.

On some tours all you need to carry with you are your helmet and the clothes on your back. “We have spare tubes, spare wheels, Gatorade and snacks,” says Oliver Kiel of Hawaii’s Orchid Isle Bicycling. “You don’t even have to fill your own water bottle.”

This combination of leisure, support and outdoor rigor is what makes these tours biking vacations, rather than just bike trips. Still, the most indulgent and extraordinary element of most trips is the simplicity of having little to do but pedal and watch the miles roll by.

Bicycles Built for Views

Cabin fever can leave you craving social interaction — which is exactly what you get on a bike tour. When you bike through neighborhoods, you can see people’s faces, and locals wave. You notice colors, flowers and animals that you might never see when driving 55 (or more) miles per hour. “You can take in a full experience at the right pace on a bike,” explains Brad Silverberg, a Seattle resident who toured the Big Island of Hawaii by bicycle.

With nothing but a pair of sunglasses between you and the rest of the world, bike tours provide a true 3D experience. “I kept thinking what a waste of scenery it would be if I were stuck behind a windshield,” says Simpson of his escape to California. “We had snowcapped peaks and clear blue skies for miles.”

In Florida, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has helped design an especially scenic two-day, 101-mile roundtrip bike tour, complete with campsites. It goes from the Everglades to the Florida Keys and back, wheeling past alligators, avocado groves and fruit markets en route to snorkeling and diving opportunities at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The Way to Go

Dominic Giossan, who has led tours of West Texas and Big Bend National Park, points out one more two-wheeled advantage over hiking or driving: Cycling is one of the most joint-friendly forms of exercise, and it’s even more so in the heat.

“When you arrive in West Texas and begin biking, your joints seem to say ‘thank you’ with every motion,” he says. “There’s zero humidity; your muscles feel a lot looser, so you relax more. Everything is just radiant — bright and galvanized by the solar energy.”

Finally, bike-tour aficionados swear that being in the saddle during the day magnifies your whole experience of a place: Your food tastes better; your sleep is deeper; you connect with people in a way you’re unlikely to do from a car or even a beach chair. And unlike the end of most vacations, you return home feeling as if you’ve actually accomplished something.

The Places You’ll Go

California Coast and Desert Combo: This six-day trip takes cyclists along the Pacific Ocean near San Diego and through the Anza-Borrego Desert before winding down in Temecula wine country. www.bikeescapades.com

Big Bend Bespoke Biking: Custom design a guided biking adventure through Big Bend National Park and West Texas. www.butterfield.com

Tour De Paradise: Bikers see the best of Hawaii’s Big Island — including black sand beaches, lush tropical rainforests and active volcanoes — on this eight-day trip. www.orchidislebicycling.com

California Desert Escape: Ride up to 77 miles per day while exploring the Coachella Valley and desert oases on this six-day trip. www.udctours.com

Zion & Bryce Bicycle Tour: Cyclists on this six-day trip pedal along the Zion Canyon floor, explore the Virgin River Narrows and enjoy spa treatments in St. George. www.duvine.com|

DIY Touring

In terms of flexibility and thrift, a self-guided bike tour offers its own appeal. And for those who prefer solitude, there’s perhaps no better vacation.

Touring independently requires advance planning, says Richard First, a veteran solo rider who owns POMG Tours in Vermont (www.pomgbike.com). He suggests you start by networking among bikers who have taken similar trips, consulting maps and guidebooks for campgrounds and inns, and researching bike-rental companies. You also want some repair basics under your belt: changing a flat tire, fixing brakes and repairing a chain.

If you prefer to ride your own bike rather than rent one, shipping your equipment via UPS instead of lugging it through airports can save you money and effort, says Scott Kaier of Montpelier, Vt., who has ridden with friends through the Southwest. “Go to your local bike shop and ask for a bike box with the packing materials,” he says, and then ship your bike to a local shop where you’re headed — but be sure to let them know it’s coming. Once you arrive, you can also look to local bike shops for saddlewise advice on everything from routes to restaurants.

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