Asked to name the nation's top cycling destinations, most bicycling enthusiasts would probably include the snow-capped Rocky Mountains towering over Boulder, Colo.; the wine country of Northern California; the back roads of Vermont; just about anywhere in Maryland . . .
You bet. Featuring nationally known attractions such as the C&O; Canal Towpath, a 184-mile trail stretching from Georgetown to Cumberland, the Old Line state is high on most experienced cyclists' list of places for a great bicycle ramble.
And no wonder. With its natural beauty and diversity of terrain packed into a small area, Maryland has long been a popular destination for savvy cyclists.
Yet Maryland also offers a wealth of great bicycling for casual riders in search of quiet roads and great scenery. From the sandy beaches of Assateague Island on the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Plateau in Garrett County, Maryland offers an astounding range of easy cycling. And it's all within a day's drive of Baltimore.
Need more proof? Maryland has so much cycling diversity that bicycle touring is now a big business in the state.
"Both local and out-of-state bicycle touring companies operate in Maryland, and there are inn-to-inn tours that draw visitors," says Blair Barton, president of Barton Dame Inc., publisher of Best Bike Routes in Maryland, a map guide. "And within the state, cycling is a booming sport for all ages."
The recently published 10-map guide features the state's safest and most scenic cycling routes. Plus, the maps pull together a wide range of cycling information for cyclists looking for a great -- Maryland escape: off-road trails for mountain bikers, a compilation of Maryland bike laws, safety information, prohibited routes, bed and breakfast inns, and the location of bike shops.
The guide also includes a chart that lists attractions, including the best cycling routes for enjoying Maryland's variety of ocean, bay, river and lake views.
For the casual cyclist equipped with a map, a bike (tires pumped, chain lubed) and a beautiful spring day, what are some of Maryland's creme de la creme cycling destinations?
Start pedaling nearby
Let's start close to home: Northern Baltimore County and the beautiful horse country in Worthington Valley. Using convenient
Oregon Ridge Park (just off Interstate 83 near Hunt Valley) as a starting point, cyclists can explore many country lanes that meander through the rolling countryside.
A favorite destination is located on Belmont Road, about four miles west of Oregon Ridge: white-fenced Sagamore Farms, once the home of Native Dancer, the race horse that won the Preakness in 1953. In summer, grazing thoroughbreds dot the fields.
Other sights on a Worthington Valley ride include the villages of Butler and Boring -- great stops to grab a cold drink and browse for antiques. Western Run, a small stream that winds through the valley, provides several cool, shady places to stop and relax on a sunny afternoon. And keep an eye peeled for equestrians in jodhpurs.
For a more sedate ride -- no traffic, no hills -- try the North Central Rail Trail, a 20-mile rails-to-trails conversion that starts near Paper Mill Road in Cockeysville and continues north to the Mason-Dixon Line.
The former railroad right-of-way passes through scenic countryside, with frequent views of Gunpowder Falls, farmland and forests. The old railroad right-of-way is also historic -- Abraham Lincoln rode the North Central to deliver his Gettysburg Address in 1863.
Eastern Shore trips
For more easy spins, turn your attention east to everyone's favorite part of the state -- the Eastern Shore. When it comes to scenic, easy bicycling, it can't be beat. The wide, lightly traveled roads transport the cyclist to a world of Colonial charm, watermen tonging for oysters from skipjacks and migrating waterfowl.
The No. 1 cycling destination on the Eastern Shore is a circuit ride through the town of Easton and the villages of St. Michaels and Oxford. The loop can easily be extended to include the Chesapeake Bay fishing village of Tilghman Island.
Where else can you get views of farms and waterfront and ride across the Tred Avon River on the Oxford-Bellevue ferry -- all in a 15-mile, virtually hill-less loop? An insiders' hint: Plan your trek to include a lunch stop at the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, a restaurant featuring great crab cakes and a view of sailboats docked in the harbor. And when passing through St. Michaels, be sure to visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
South of Easton in Dorchester County awaits another spectacular cycling destination -- the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Riding a bike along its narrow roads that wind through marshes and past tidal pools reveals a world where the bay and the Eastern Shore merge. Don't forget to take binoculars -- the refuge teems with birds and wildlife.
Farther east, on the Atlantic coast, lies Assateague Island, a 37-mile-long barrier island. It offers a chance to try a different cycling style -- riding a fat-tired mountain bike on the beach.
Here's how it's done: Consult a tide table and ride the beach at low tide, sticking to the surf-compacted sand. (A word of warning: If you miss low tide, be prepared for a long push through ankle-deep sand.) Pounding surf, ocean views and an unspoiled beach make Assateague a world-class mountain biking destination.
Head west to Frederick . . .
While Maryland's Eastern Shore is a perennial favorite, the rolling foothills to the west of Baltimore also offer top-notch cycling. Frederick County evokes images of Vermont, with covered bridges crossing crystal-clear streams, quaint farms, narrow traffic-free lanes and mountain views.
While the roads aren't as flat as those found to the east of the Chesapeake Bay, Frederick County still offers plenty of easy riding -- if you've got a multispeed bike and a sense of adventure.
Here's the best bet for casual cyclists new to Frederick County: Explore the stretch of gently rolling countryside between the towns of Frederick and Thurmont, which features fish hatcheries; the restored, Colonial-era Catoctin Furnace; and the villages of Lewistown, Creagerstown, Graceham and Ladiesburg.
. . . and trails beyond
For splendid views of the Potomac River, consider a leisurely ride along a portion of the C&O; Canal Towpath Trail. Convenient access points include Great Falls and Whites Ferry in Montgomery County, and Nolands Ferry, Point of Rocks and Brunswick in Frederick County.
The easiest way to enjoy the C&O; Canal by bike is an out-and-back ride that starts from your parked car. (Hint: Ride upstream and the return leg is downhill.) But consider this option: Set up a one-way ride by parking another car at your destination. That way you can do the ride in one direction, without turning back and retracing your route.
In Western Maryland, the cycling diversity continues. A few miles west of Frostburg lies the Allegheny Front, the edge of a huge mountain plateau that stretches from West Virginia, through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. The plateau, with cool summer temperatures and gently rolling mountain ridges, is a mecca for mountain bikers who enjoy riding forest trails.
One of the best destinations for a mountain bike ride is New Germany State Park, located in Savage River State Forest. The trails in the park and nearby state forest feature spectacular views of mountains and valleys, solitude and wildlife -- all the qualities that attract visitors to the mountains. You can stop by the state forest headquarters across from the entrance to New Germany, pick up a trail map and get suggestions from a ranger for a scenic ride.
That's a brief rundown on some of Maryland's best cycling destinations. One last point: With riding like this, who needs Colorado?
Joe Surkiewicz, a Baltimore free-lance writer, was technical consultant to Best Bike Routes in Maryland. His book "America ** by Mountain Bike: The Central Appalachians," a collection of more than 50 off-road rides, will be published this fall by Menasha Ridge Press/Falcon Press.
Bicyclists, including casual riders and Lycra-clad enthusiasts, can draw on an array of resources to help them in their search for great Maryland riding:
* Best Bike Routes in Maryland is a collection of 10 tear proof and waterproof maps describing touring and off-road routes throughout the state. The complete set, which fits in a bike handlebar bag, is $30; individual county maps are $10. Available at local bike shops and book stores, or call (800) 394-3626 to order.
* The Baltimore Bicycling Club is one of the largest recreational bicycling clubs in the United States. It organizes and conducts ,, regular rides and tours for all levels of riders, including beginners. Call (410) 484-0306 for membership information.
* Chesapeake Wheelmen, P.O. Box 4344, Baltimore, Md. 21239. Sponsors road races for beginning through professional level bicycle competitors.
* League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.), Suite 120, 190 Ostend St., Baltimore, Md. 21230. Call (410) 539-3399. Headquartered in Baltimore, L.A.W. is the largest and oldest national bicycling organization, focusing on advocacy, education and touring information.
* Spokes, a monthly publication that's free and available at most bike shops around Baltimore, features articles and information for recreational cyclists in the Baltimore/Washington area.
* Dirt Rag, a magazine for mountain biking enthusiasts that's available at most bike shops, covers places to ride, land-access issues, new equipment and events throughout the mid-Atlantic.