One of the great things about biking is there’s no one way to roll.
For some of us, it’s all about winning the town-line sprint or being the first one up the hill. But for most of us, riding a bike is about getting out, slowing down, and having fun. The joy you felt as a kid, with the wind in your face and the click-click-click sound of a baseball card in your spokes: It’s yours to have again.
Since May is national bike month, let’s dust the cobwebs off your wheels and head out. We’ve put together a few suggestions for rides in area communities. When it comes to riding around the Hub, the farther west you go, the better it gets.
So where to start? I suggest beginning with the Dr. Paul Dudley White Charles River Bike Path, which meanders along both sides of the Charles River between the Museum of Science in Boston and Watertown Square, with an extension that reaches into Waltham.
Most people are familiar with the portion of path along the Esplanade. But you are feeling a little adventurous, right? You could start at the museum, sure, but maybe you decide to start a little farther west, near the Boston University Bridge. After all, the scene along the Esplanade is, well, a scene. But it’s also crowded once the weather turns nice, a traffic jam of strollers, joggers, skateboarders, pram-pushers, roller-bladers, and fishermen. Though it could be worse: Just take a look at the cars on Storrow Drive.
On Dr. White’s bikeway, once you are west of Massachusetts Avenue things start to open up. Slide beneath the BU Bridge and you’ll be amazed at the sound your bike makes as it bumps along a wooden footpath that sits a few feet above the water. And that train yard on your left? It was where C.A. Parker of Harvard University won in 1878 what many consider to have been the first bicycle race in America.
After the Larz Anderson Bridge, near Harvard Square, the bike path becomes a little wider. When I’m feeling adventurous, I like to ride along the hard-pack trails that hug the shoreline and pretend that I’m in the woods, far away.
You could turn around once you reach Watertown Square. But don’t: This is where the ride gets even more interesting. Cross the square on the Newton side of the Charles. After about 100 yards you will cross a steep (but short) bridge that goes over the Watertown Dam. For the next few miles you can continue along dirt paths, wooden footbridges, and paved roads that hug the Charles River. Some days the only other creatures I see are blue herons, turtles sunbathing, and fish leaping out of the Charles (really).
Once you reach Waltham Center, it’s time to turn around and head home. If you’re lucky, you might get a well-deserved tail wind, and the satisfaction of getting far away, even though you stayed within Route 128.
The Minuteman, points west
Now that you’ve conquered the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path, as well as the Charles River Greenway that goes into Waltham, why not give the Minuteman Bikeway a whirl? On a nice day, this is as crowded as the Esplanade, so you may wish to head out early. Or late, when kids are either napping or getting ready for bed.
Unlike the path along the Charles, the Minuteman Bikeway draws a Lycra-clad crowd, most of whom are courteous and know that it’s critical to call out “on your left” as they pass you. But be aware: Some of these scorchers just can’t help themselves as they pretend to be like Lance Armstrong and show you how fast they are. For that reason, I always use a mirror on my bike helmet, even if it does look a little geeky.
For this ride, you can start in Cambridge, behind the MBTA’s Alewife Station, and pedal west toward Bedford; there are also access points along the way in Arlington and Lexington. You will pass soccer fields, ponds, and shopping areas. Arlington and Lexington have everything that you want, including pizza, pastry, and ice cream, the three major food groups for the intrepid cyclist.
Warning: The bikeway uses surface streets to cross Arlington’s busy town center. If that seems like too much to handle, there’s no shame in walking your bike. It’s worth it: On the other side you will pass by Arlington’s Great Meadow, a perfect place to test your trail-riding skills.
The Minuteman Bikeway continues out through Lexington, over Route 128, and ends in Bedford. You could turn around here and go back.
This is where it gets really interesting. And I know I shouldn’t be letting you in on the best secret place to ride, because once I let the cat out of the bag, it won’t be secret. But it will still be one of the best places to ride. So here goes.
But first, another warning: This route is not paved. It is uneven, sandy in places, bumpy, and dusty. It’s not for the new rider. And I wouldn’t ride my $10,000 carbon-fiber bike (if I had a $10,000 carbon fiber bike) here. But I would use a mountain or a cross bike.
At the Bedford terminus of the Minuteman, take Railroad Avenue for about a quarter mile, until the road turns right and a parking lot signals the start of the Reformatory Branch Trail. Take it. You won’t be sorry.
For the next few miles you will ride through forest, across farmland, near marshland, and across Hartwell Road, Concord Road (Route 62), and Monument Street, until you eventually reach Lowell Road, which will take you into Concord Center. This secret path makes me feel as if I’m in Vermont.
If you’re a hard-core cyclist, the kind of rider who likes to pedal 100 miles before lunch, then continue on. For the rest of you, the choice is to either turn around at Concord Center, or drive out here and start your ride near the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Where to ride in these parts? There’s no bad route, as all of these roads are beautiful.
In the summertime, you may wish to join the Charles River Wheelmen’s Thursday evening fitness ride, which starts at Hanscom Field. They make it easy for novices to avoid getting lost by providing cue sheets online. The ride snakes around the back roads of Bedford, Concord, Carlisle, Westford, and Chelmsford.
At the end of the summer, with the sun setting and the hay baled, it’s hard to believe you’re not in France. This is where I’d live if I ever won Powerball.
Off-road fun in the city
And now for something completely different: Cutler Park in Newton, Needham and Dedham, which has about 700 acres of conservation land and a wonderful loop trail that is open to mountain bikes from April 15 to Dec. 31.
Because it’s a loop, you can begin anywhere, though I like to start on Dedham Street in Newton, near the former site of Brook Farm, a 19th-century utopian community. This route is challenging, with sharp switchbacks, rough trails, and some intermediate technical sections. Skip this ride if you’re balance-challenged. Or not: There are some sections that are flat, and you can always push your bike across the more difficult stretches.
The downside of this ride is that you have to briefly ride along VFW Parkway, then along Needham Street in Dedham. Plus, the white noise of traffic along Route 128/Interstate 95 is ever present.
The upside? Several hundred yards of wooden footbridges, with cattails that obscure your view. There’s marsh land, pond views, and the chance to hit the trail and still be home for dinner.
Country roads, great views
For those of you who like to stretch your legs on a long road ride, Cutler Park is also the beginning of several loops that roll through Needham, Medfield, Natick, and Sherborn. Check out the Charles River Wheelmen group’s website (www.crw.org) for directions, or just look down and follow the upside-down white T painted on the road.
Once you get past Route 128, you’re in biker heaven. The downside: The roads are narrow, and some motorists seem to believe that it is perfectly acceptable to pass on a blind curve.
But you, wise rider, have a mirror, so you will be prepared and know when someone is passing well before they reach you.
The upside of this ride? You will pass apple orchards, corn fields, horses, llamas, goats, chickens, and wild turkeys. A few years ago I had to stop as 20 horses galloped across the road. I have also seen foxes and deer and even a coyote out here. No moose, yet.
So why not clean off your bike and head out for a ride? There’s a whole world waiting out there for you to enjoy.Jonathan Simmons writes the On Biking column for boston.com’s Your Town sites, and is the author of “Here For The Ride: A Tale of Obsession on Two Wheels.” Follow him on twitter @On_Biking