STRASBOURG, France — There's an intermediate period, often called middle age, that settles in on us: We're too old for youth hostels, too young for Grand Tours.
European biking holidays can be the solution, combining visits to superb restaurants and country inns with moderately challenging days of cycling. It's an increasingly popular option, with hundreds of summer and fall outings offered by American and Canadian firms.
The most popular vacation choice is still France--no surprise, considering the excellent secondary roadways along relatively flat terrain, the countless impeccable chateaux presided over by white-hatted chefs, and the respect and wide berth given les cyclistes by French motorists.
As a novice who had never cycled on anything more sophisticated than a three-speed, I signed up for Butterfield & Robinson's tour of Alsace, a nine-day ride along the Wine Route of eastern France.
A leisurely 150 miles later I was no worse for wear. Granted, the first day was touch and go for my city legs, but the gentle beauty of the countryside and the reward of a good soak in the tub of yet another fine inn amply motivated me.
Charmed by Alsatians
We cycled in groups of twos and threes, stopping often for cafe au lait, croissants or just for a rest, so we had many chances to meet Alsatians.
They showed none of the haughtiness too often associated with Parisians. Indeed, like the well-groomed grandmother we met in Ville, they sought us out.
As three of us retrieved our bikes from a hedge where we'd leaned them during lunch (locks are rarely necessary), she left her luncheon group to inquire about our trip. We explained, using the international language of smiles, gestures and shrugs.
But then she took us by surprise. Eyes twinkling, she carefully recited the gem of her vintage World War II vocabulary: "I love you very much tonight." She gracefully retreated to her Sunday luncheon, leaving us smiling at her charm.
As we explored cobbled squares, curious homemakers would call out to us from their second-story windows, asking our nationality. We heard them translate to their families, "Ah, Americains et Canadiens," as if that explained our interest in their time-forgotten village.
Alsace, possessed alternately by France and Germany over the last hundred years, combines German cuisine with a light French touch. This fortuitous blend has given Alsace more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other area.
We sampled more than our share, starting the first night at Hostellerie du Cerf in Marlenheim, 12 miles from Strasbourg. We wondered how we would ever manage the next day's trek after indulging in the banquet prepared for our group: two appetizers, including a foie gras-stuffed rabbit, main dishes of fresh sole and pigeon in puff pastry, and three desserts.
We survived, but after a few nights of such fare, John Elkins of Colorado spoke for us all: "I feel like a French duck, being fattened for pate."
Although the four-hour star-studded meals were consistently delicious, they become tedious. As amateur athletes, we would have appreciated lighter fare and shorter evenings.
We ate our evening meals together but our days were unstructured. At breakfast our two bilingual leaders would give out a sheet of detailed instructions to get us from here to there, along with the phone number of the next hotel, and would color a squiggly orange line on our route maps.
Supplied with a booklet that briefly discussed the historic, architectural and cultural background of each day's journey, we were on our own until dinner.
Leaving our hotel each morning, we carried nothing but maps, suntan lotion, plastic water bottles and sweaters. Invariably we'd meet other cyclists seeing Europe on their own.
On their expensive bikes loaded with gear (one rider carried a folding chair), they may as well have been riding the fat-tired one-speeds of my youth. They told us of problems carrying bikes aboard trains, making repairs, and even finding storage for the cardboard boxes used for shipment.
After meeting those Spartans, we doubly appreciated the luxury of having our guides look after the details while we concentrated on exercise and adventure.
Along the day's 20- to 35-mile route we each sought out a private itinerary. Don, the Boston surgeon, broke speed records in his enthusiasm to visit all the guidebook entries, including eerie, wooden-cross cemeteries of German occupation troops and the modernistic Albert Schweitzer Museum in Kaysersberg.
For Carla, who had brought a 10-pound wine encyclopedia all the way from Wisconsin, it was serious viticultural discussions, tastings and note taking.
For Bob, a Chicago importer, the highlight was the food, so much so that he biked 20 miles out of his way to lunch at the legendary Auberge de l'Ill.
Leaders Ferried Luggage