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The power of the pedal

From downtown onto back roads, a weekend getaway includes the adventurous

By Stephen Heuser
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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The classic weekend getaway doesn’t have many requirements: a car, a change of clothes, a reservation somewhere fun.

So what happens when you take one of those elements away? Say, the car?

A getaway suddenly sounds a lot less relaxing when you’re getting away under your own power, but that was the challenge my girlfriend, Carolyn, and I set: We wanted to see how far we could fling ourselves — how blissfully out-of-town an escape we could manage — with nothing but our bicycles to take us there. And we’d do it with no special equipment, no elaborate dorky saddlebags. Just backpacks and the bikes in our basement.

There was something footloose and appealing about the prospect of stepping on our pedals one Sunday morning and tracing an unbroken line to a seaswept stretch of coastline. It would be great. We were conducting a virtuous experiment. We were also, as it turned out, going about it slightly wrong.

Here’s the kind of thing you learn on a bike vacation: Parking is not going to be one of your problems. We started with a fuel stop at Flour, the bakery in Fort Point Channel, where parking is iffy on the best of days. With bikes: frictionless. We tied up to a fence and bought iced coffee and a pastry for the road.

Another lesson: Downtown Boston is an unlikely bike paradise on weekends. We glided through the office canyons of the financial district, surreal and empty. We headed to North Station, with the idea that we would use the commuter rail to vault us over the clotted inner suburbs and put us right on open country roads.

We bought tickets to Manchester, and the conductor ushered us to the last car on the platform. Never seen the MBTA’s bike car? Neither had I: bench seats down one side, and on the other a long row of low racks with belts to cinch our bikes in place. Out the windows, freeway underpasses blurred into the salt marshes of Revere, the back streets of Swampscott, the harbors outside Beverly. In our car, a half-dozen bikes wobbled gently. At Manchester the train cleared out and everyone else walked down the road toward Singing Beach. We pointed our bikes into Manchester’s town center and began looking for Route 127. Their trips were over. Ours was just beginning.

When you travel by car, what you care about is time: The “best way’’ usually means the fastest. On a bike, what you care about is pavement. You want a road with a shoulder, a calm road, a road with minimal risk that you’ll be flattened from behind by a utility truck. The road north out of Manchester was pure pleasure, rolling through forested suburban towns, and then burping us coastward into the little enclave of Magnolia.

We pressed north, bright sun flickering through overhanging branches. In Gloucester, a long line of cars was backed up by a stoplight at a narrow bridge: our first traffic jam. On a normal vacation, this would have been my cue to complain that we’d left the city just to be annoyed by traffic somewhere else. Not this time: We filtered through it easily, like sand shaking through rocks.

When you’re moving through the world under your own power, tiny obstacles take on a new scale — a hill you’d never notice in a car suddenly becomes work. A jeep cuts you off and it’s not just an annoyance, it’s a close call. But you’re also there in a way that you aren’t in a car, feeling the subtle shifts from enclave to enclave, from the ambitious seawall castles of Manchester to the clustered pastel bungalows of Rocky Neck. Had I ever imagined there could be so many coves, anywhere? I had not. Unfortunately, thanks to my clever idea of carrying our stuff in backpacks, I also seemed to be acquiring another traveling companion: a slightly painful ball forming behind my right shoulder blade.

We had booked a room in Rockport, a seaside town so picturesque its main industry seems to be selling paintings of itself. The Linden Tree Inn is a rambling Victorian bed-and-breakfast, just a couple of blocks from the town beach, that I had found on a bike-travel website. I asked the owner, Tobey, about the promise of “bike parking’’ and she walked us around to a big overhanging porch where we could lock our bikes to a support pillar. Soon we were tucking into lunch at Nate’s down the street: iced tea, coleslaw, a tower of fried haddock on a bun. We wandered the festive, lurching shacks of Bearskin Neck and prepared to embark on an afternoon ride up the coast.

Or not. We had barely rolled our bikes onto the pavement when Carolyn announced a flat. It was something beyond a flat, in fact — her aging tire had gashed its tube from the inside, and I had a brief but dire vision of our getaway ending here, trapped in Rockport, wishing we’d brought more serious bike supplies. With some effort, and a dollar bill as an improvised patch, we managed to change her tube and get the bike rideable again.

By now the sky had started to glower, and we took this as a message: Relax. We propped ourselves up on the bed and started reading. We climbed into the inn’s cupola and watched the clouds; at some point we put on our flip-flops, walked down to the town beach, and plunged into the cold North Shore water.

That evening, the sky cleared magnificently and we were back on the bikes for dinner: I’d been wanting to visit the Lobster Pool, a seafood shack at the tip of Cape Ann, so we biked the 5 miles up there — Carolyn’s tire, thankfully, held — and pulled apart soft-shell lobsters at picnic tables against the deep bronze sunset.

Monday morning was dictated by the need to replace Carolyn’s tire for real, so we plotted the most direct route to the bike shop in Ipswich, 17 miles away. We fought trucks on Route 127 and the wind on Route 133. With my pack tugging at my shoulders again, the knot in my back soon reappeared. But the ride was also distracting in a good way, surrounded by the area’s particular mix of farms and fishing boats. When we finally pulled up at the bike shop, a mechanic took four efficient minutes to replace a tire we’d fumblingly taken a half-hour to patch.

We ate sandwiches at a cafe in the center of town, watching trucks make the awkward turn onto Ipswich’s main street. Repaired and fed, we embarked on what turned out to be the most pleasant biking of our trip. The roads out of Ipswich were smooth and, soon enough, quiet. We wanted to finish up at the commuter rail stop in Hamilton, and we did it by tracing a huge arc through back lanes and forested parks. Ipswich’s slideshow of early American houses gave way to farmland, then to the wooded back roads of Topsfield. These weren’t just good roads, they were idyllic, long ribbons under dappled shade with no cars. Half-obscured signs informed us that we were crossing from town to town. It was like a separate world, a bubble quietly rushing across the landscape, occupied only by us.

Before the trip ended, we did have one goal. Pleasant Pond — yes, it is really called that — was marked with a little swimming person on our map. It was supposed to be in Wenham, but we got there and found not a single sign for the pond, so we followed our map as best we could, guessing where the access might be. Finally, at the end of a dirt lane, the pond spread into view — along with a series of signs informing us, with increasing sternness, that this road was restricted to town residents only. We were a little confused — the map said swimming was allowed. Were all these restrictions just a ban on parking? Or a ban on us?

Finally we came to the beach, a perfect crescent of sand. I was desperate for a swim, to shed my ridiculous backpack and stretch my shoulder out. (My first bike purchase after the trip was a proudly dorky cargo rack.) We came to an attendant’s shack that contained the only human being we could see. We asked: Is this really off-limits? Have we come this far only to be rebuffed by zoning?

He looked at us, looked down at our bikes, and spoke the magic words. “You’re on bikes?’’ he smiled. “Sure, you can do whatever you want.’’

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@globe.com.

If You Go

Local bike shops carry bike-specific maps for different regions of Massachusetts. We used the Cape Cod & North Shore foldout map produced by Rubel BikeMaps, which outlines good roads and locates bike shops, swimming ponds, and ice cream stores (although it hadn’t been updated to include the shop we used, Ipswich Cycle). To find scenic back roads, we also used the North Shore edition of the laminated “Pocket Rides’’ series. The maps are available at www.bikemaps.com. The same website includes a list of bike-friendly B&Bs in Massachusetts.
Bring extra tubes, a compact pump, plenty of water, and a bike lock. If you’ve never changed your own tube, it’s worth practicing beforehand. And no matter how lightly you pack, you’ll find there is a reason people use saddlebags for long hauls.
The commuter rail is a great way to get your bike out of the city quickly — you can even train out and bike back in. Commuter rail accepts bikes on all trains except on rush-hour routes; on weekends, some trains will include the special bike car. Bikes are also allowed on the subway, with more restrictions. Check www.mbta.com/riding_the_t/bikes/.