Urban Cycling Tours As A Business
(FSB Magazine) Boston -- Heading for the Massachusetts Turnpike, a Mercedes sedan closes in on the back tire of my bicycle with an aggressive honk. Less than a mile of Boston's streets have designated bike lanes, and Commonwealth Avenue - where I'm trying to avoid construction sites and deep trolley tracks - is not one of them. "Stay close to me - this traffic circle might get hairy!" shouts Andrew Prescott, one of my guides. Dodging rush-hour traffic isn't easy, and with a few hours still to go on his Paul Revere Ride to Freedom tour, I'm wondering if I'd be happier straddling a horse.
Or forget the steed: I could have retraced Paul Revere's midnight ride in a hot air balloon, or at least an air-conditioned tour bus. But somehow there was something alluring about reliving early American history from the saddle of a bike. For one thing, I get to experience little sensations that might have affected Revere as he rode west out of Boston on the night of April 18, 1775: the smell of dense foliage along the wooded path he took to warn fellow patriots that the British were coming, for instance, or the feel of grass beneath my tires on the square where redcoats killed eight American militiamen during the Revolution's first battle.
To experience it all, I've paid Prescott $150 for a five-hour bike tour that traces Revere's 20-mile route from Boston to a field just outside Concord, Mass.
Prescott, 31, founded Urban AdvenTours (urbanadventours.com) in 2004. With help from six employees, he's found a niche guiding bikers along trails in and out of the city. Clients, many of them Bostonians, appreciate this nontouristy approach. "AdvenTours gave me an alternate lens on where I live and work," says Panos Panay, CEO of online music company Sonic Bids (sonicbids.com), who rode 15 miles through Boston and Cambridge with Prescott on a Friday afternoon in July. "Now that we're all focused on the environment, anything that gets people outside on a bike is great."
While Prescott's main mission is showing his clients a good time, he also believes that bicycles can help create cleaner, greener cities. Prescott bikes everywhere he goes and does not own a car. For larger loads, such as the bikes he delivers to his clients' doorstep, he uses a converted 1987 postal truck that runs on used vegetable oil from Prezza, a local Italian restaurant. "While a bicycle is the ideal green symbol," says Prescott, "I think the biodiesel truck gives us more presence."
When I turn up at Landry's Bicycles (landrys.com) near Boston University at 9:45 A.M., Prescott fits me with a hybrid bike - a cross between a mountain and road bike - made by Specialized, a bottle of water, and a helmet. He runs through our itinerary with our very toned guide, Ed Ballo, co-creator of today's route. Soon we're heading for the Charles River bike path, cycling east toward the shop where Paul Revere etched an engraving of the 1770 Boston Massacre (when British soldiers killed five local residents in the center of town).
Shouting sporadically over his shoulder, Ballo, 51, points out landmarks along the way: MIT's sprawling campus across the river, the outdoor music venue Hatch Shell (its wooden interior was restored in 1990 by a craftsman specializing in wood floors), and the former Charles Street Jail. Built in 1851, the jail will reopen later this year as the luxurious 300-room Liberty Hotel (libertyhotel.com).
My legs start to throb after an hour, but I'm bolstered by the thought that I'm supplying the physical power driving us three miles to the Old North Church. From the steeple of that church, patriots hung the two lanterns that signaled a British advance across the river. (A single lantern would have indicated that the redcoats were taking the longer land route, curving around Back Bay and heading west toward Waltham.)
We wheel through the narrow alleyways of the North End, Boston's Italian district, jostling for space with agitated sanitation workers in giant trucks. The hardest part of the tour comes shortly thereafter, as we bike through several hilly suburbs with little stopping or conversation. Ballo gets chattier when we reach the town of Lexington, where Revere rendezvoused with fellow patriots Sam Adams and John Hancock, and warned them that about 800 British troops would be arriving later that night.
We fuel up on sandwiches near the field where the redcoats fired their muskets at the colonists for the first time. The grassy square is quiet, and a 16-year-old boy dressed in knickerbockers and a tricorn hat eyes us warily. He's employed by the town's historical society, which arranges for residents to dress up as Sons of Liberty and give free tours. The young man looks as enthusiastic as I feel when Prescott says it's time to start the last leg of the tour. "Approximately 98% of the casualties of the battle of Lexington happened on this road," says Ballo.
I start to feel like a casualty when the path through the woods turns to sand, making it hard to maneuver. But as I try to convince my screaming muscles that six more miles is cake, I notice that we're the only riders on the road and that all evidence of modern life has melted away. Every quarter-block or so, we cruise by 18th-century properties enclosed by low stone walls. For the first time, as we pass the clearing where Revere was captured, it's easy to imagine the midnight riders crouching low over the necks of their mounts. Distant thunder sounds like muffled musket fire. When we pull onto the North Bridge in Concord - near a grassy knoll marking the Revolutionary War's first gunfire exchange - even the tourists milling about don't ruin the mood.
I'm trying to imagine how 250 inexperienced guerrilla fighters managed to fend off the king's soldiers when Prescott glances at his watch. We want to linger, but we have only six minutes to race to town to catch the commuter train back to Boston.
Ballo wraps up his lecture on how the Minutemen pushed the British troops back toward Boston, and then we're off. After I wrestle my steed onto the train, the conductors grumpily order us to walk back through four empty cars to store our bikes. Once we're seated, Prescott explains his efforts to make Boston more bike-friendly. San Francisco, he notes, is roughly the same size as Boston but boasts 40 more miles of city streets with bike lanes. He's an active member of three pro-bicycle coalitions that are lobbying city authorities to create cycling paths in the parks along the 27-acre Rose Kennedy Greenway and elsewhere.
No such initiative is yet on the table: For now, Prescott can only hope that bike-centric companies such as Urban AdvenTours will help make Beantown drivers more aware of cyclists. He has a long road ahead of him. Then again, so did Paul Revere.
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