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Eight friends, 500 miles, 4 states in 12 days

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- Had I driven my car the 65 miles from rural Rutland, Mass., to Brattleboro, I would have taken a back road up to Route 2 and zipped west until I reached Interstate 91 north. During the 90-minute ride, I probably would have had the air conditioning on and music playing, and wouldn't have felt, smelled, or heard anything outside the car.

Instead, eight cycling buddies and I spent most of a Saturday making the trip on our bicycles. If you're thinking, ''No way could I ever do that," you're probably wrong. It just takes some time and training to increase your mileage, and remembering that you have all day to get from here to there.

Our ''here to there" was the last leg of a self-made ''New Englander" tour organized by our friend Alice Charkes, a high school French teacher and, in summer, an occasional bike tour leader. We started the 500-mile loop from her home in Brattleboro. The first week, overnight stays were in Jamaica and Ascutney, Vt.; Franklin, N.H.; and South Hiram and Sebago Lake, Maine. One night was spent at the home of a friend of a rider, and there was a rest day in Sebago. Week two took us from Sebago to Wells Beach, Maine; Exeter, N.H.; and Groton, Mass., where we stayed two nights with Charkes's godmother and enjoyed another rest day. We left Groton on the rail trail to Ayer, Mass., then took the road to Rutland. From there, we returned to Brattleboro. It would be a beautiful trip in fall.

Charkes, 41, learned her route-planning skills by leading rides for Adventure Cycling Association, a Montana-based nonprofit group that promotes bike touring, especially our ''self-contained" variety, where riders carry their own gear, cook for themselves, and usually stay in campgrounds.

Five of us (including the older set) did the entire 12-day tour, and four of us joined for the second half. We were four men and five women, ages 38 to 65. Charkes's final bookkeeping showed we each had spent about $20 a day for food and lodging.

On the final day, one of the longest at 65 miles, we stayed mostly on back roads, as always. Had I been driving, I wouldn't have smelled the fresh country air as we took off from Heifer International's Overlook Farm, where we had spent the night (and milked cows and fed pigs). I wouldn't have been able to ask the dozens of cyclists going by in the other direction what ride they were on (the Mass Red Ribbon Ride to benefit AIDS groups). I wouldn't have picnicked along Lake Mattawa in Orange or filled my bottles with fresh spring water along the winding, hilly road to Northfield, Mass. And I'm sure I wouldn't have noticed the barn completely covered with old license plates on the road leading to Hinsdale.

Six of us were from New England or the Northeast, while three were from the Denver area. Two had never visited this region.

What was most exciting for the natives was seeing familiar spots in unfamiliar ways. Kristin Thalheimer, 39, of Somerville, though she has cycled extensively in New England, had done so only on day trips.

''I feel very far from home," she said in the York, Maine, area, an hour's drive from her home. ''Arriving by bike and camping, it takes you totally out of your element. If I came by car, I wouldn't have that 'Where am I?' feeling."

I felt the same way. I had visited friends in Exeter before, but never had I arrived by bicycle from the coast, and I certainly wasn't aware of the two lovely campgrounds just outside town.

Our Colorado friends were equally entertained, but for different reasons.

''I really liked New England, but the hills are too steep," said Kurt Koerth, 61, about this, his first trip here. Koerth did the entire 12 days, the first of which were in the Vermont hills, where steep grades make them a bear to climb. ''I liked that the towns were close together instead of 50 miles apart. There's quite a bit of history in them. I had no idea that we would pass boarding school after boarding school. It was amazing. They look like college campuses."

Along with the sights, there are those little treats that happen when you're on a bicycle, like when curious strangers stop to chat, homeowners ask if you need your water bottles filled, and police officers provide escorts. York Reserve Officer Chris Farley, who noticed us regrouping downtown before we rode the 2-mile detour out to the Nubble Lighthouse on Cape Neddick, really did offer us an escort. Farley, 21, from Halifax, Mass., is a student at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and was spending much of the summer on bike patrol. He kindly offered to pedal with us to the lighthouse. Although he doesn't schlep around his clothing, tent, sleeping bag, and cooking gear as we do, he does have to wear a hot, heavy, bulletproof vest.

Other Maine highlights included a shopping spree at the Tom's of Maine outlet in Kennebunk, zipping by the bumper-to-bumper traffic through Ogunquit, and riding along gorgeous Shore Road from there to York.

For Koerth, a special treat was cracking open his first lobster at Fisherman's Catch, a quintessential lobster pound next to our campground at Wells Harbor, Maine. Being a newbie (we talked him through it), he expressed concern that he would splash the Mainer at the next table. He was delighted when the man said, ''Don't worry. It's not a real lobster dinner unless you get squirted on by your neighbor."

Each day we rode, the scenery was different, from the steep hills of unspoiled Vermont to the woods to the coast of Maine, through exurbs and small towns. We spent our layover day in Groton taking the commuter rail into Boston from Ayer. Our first stop was Hilton's Tent City for outdoor gear, then Faneuil Hall for lunch. After we took the official National Park Service tour of the Freedom Trail, we had coffee at Cafe Vittoria in the North End, and walked to the Common and the Public Garden. We strolled past the John Kerry-Teresa Heinz urban manse on Louisburg Square, and would have invited Kerry, an avid cyclist, to join us on our next day's ride, but we figured those pesky Secret Service agents would be a drag.

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

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