A ride on the Northern Rail Trail near Lebanon, N.H., is the perfect way to ease yourself into a new riding season.
A ride on the Northern Rail Trail near Lebanon, N.H., is the perfect way to ease yourself into a new riding season. (Tim Jones / Special to The Eagle)

Some people are much more hard-core pedal fanatics than we are, but my sweetheart, Marilyn, and I really enjoy riding together on our fat-tire tandem bicycle. Next to downhill skiing, it's probably our favorite (outdoor) thing to do together. For my work (which sometimes sounds an awful lot like vacations), we often throw the tandem on our car, drive somewhere, park the car and leave it for several days as we travel by bike from place to place.

We have a trip like that coming up next month, when we leave our car in Onset, Mass., throw a few essentials into our BOB Trailer, cross the Bourne Bridge, and spend the next five days traveling 150 miles or so on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. We'll do it again in August, when we travel to Tadoussac, Quebec, park our car, take the "Croisieres du Fjord" ferry to La Baie near the upper end of the spectacular Saguenay Fjord and bike approximately 100 miles back over three or four days. Other people might bike that much in one or two days (probably not loaded with luggage), but we like to take our time, enjoy the sights, stop for lunch and arrive at the next inn or B&B in time to relax before dinner.


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But you don't just jump on a bike and do a tour like those. You have to do some warm-up rides to strengthen your legs and lungs and toughen your seat. That's where rail trails come in. Most of the roads near our home are too nar row or hilly or busy for pleasant riding. Mar i lyn and I particularly don't enjoy riding with a lot of traffic. For us, rail trails are the answer, the perfect place for warm-up rides be fore a big bike trip -- or just a fun bike ride for a day.

There are rail trails all over New England and we've explored many of them: The 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail (the granddaddy of them all); the Island Line Rail Trail near Burlington, Vt.; the Airline Rail Trail in East Hampton, Conn., a few minutes southeast of the junction of Interstates 84 and 91 in Hartford; a whole network of gravel-surfaced rail trails in Aroostook County in Maine, and a bunch in between. But we still have many to go, a notion I find really pleasing.

The other day, we had to travel up Interstate 89 in New Hampshire and that put us less than 10 minutes from several access points to the Northern Rail Trail. Perfect excuse for an early-season warm-up! I'd already enjoyed a couple of dirt-road mountain bike excursions this season, but Marilyn hadn't ridden at all.

The Northern Rail Trail (best map overview is here) in Grafton and Merrimack Counties is one of our favorite rail trail rides in all of New England. The stone-dust or packed gravel surface is firm, easy to pedal on (especially with a fat-tire bike), and the scenery is beautiful. We decided to start at the northern terminus in downtown Lebanon and ride as long as we felt like (this was our first ride of the season, so we knew it wouldn't be that far.)

The completed section of the trail is now about 52 miles long and one of these days we are going to ride the whole thing in one day, but not this day. As it was, we rode past Mascoma Lake (beautiful views) and into Enfield center, just shy of 7 miles, then turned around and rode back, 13 miles total. For many bikers, that's not even a warm up, but for us, it was an absolutely perfect (if somewhat late) start to our biking season. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Big, fat-tire fun

Ever since I took a header over the handlebars of a new (to me) mountain bike and broke my collarbone (that was July 2009), I've been nervous about riding that particular bike (a Gary Fisher Sugar 1), or indeed, any mountain bike designed primarily for racing. The geometry and braking that makes a bike fast and responsive when ridden by a good rider can be a challenge to a casual rider like me.

So I wasn't riding mountain bikes very often, which was not acceptable. Fat-tire bikes are just too much fun on dirt roads, farm paths, logging roads, and easy singletracks. So last fall, I broke down, sold the Fisher and, in December, bought a Specialized Hardrock Sport 29 (Merry Christmas to me!). This is a hard-tail bike (front shock absorbers, but no rear suspension) with 29-inch wheels and disc brakes.

Talk about a different world! This bike is definitely heavier than my old bike, but much smoother, more stable, more comfortable. The big 29-inch wheels roll effortlessly over rocks and roots that would have challenged my minimal technique on a 26-inch bike. Best of all, I don't feel like I might go over the handlebars every time I touch the front brakes!

I'm impressed. I don't believe anyone would want to race this bike, but for fun riding, I have a feeling it's going to open new worlds for me. I've already ridden it about 50 miles, mostly on dirt roads. But I'm feeling brave enough again to try some easy woodland trails. Stay tuned.

Too much fun

On June 1, Mount Sunapee in Newbury, N.H., is the place to be if you like getting really muddy (or soaring above it all while other people get dirty.

They are offering the "Mountain Mucker," a 5K obstacle race on Mount Sunapee for competitors age 12 and older, with additional "challenge loops" if 5K isn't enough. This is an all-day family festival with music, food and mini-courses for kids 5 to 11. Fun for the whole family!

And, of course, their ziplines and aerial adventure courses are open for the season ...

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com