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Biking over mountains -- without breaking sweat

The only sound in the crystalline mountain air was the crunch of our bicycle tires on the crushed limestone path. We had pedaled around a bend, leaving behind the frothing Youghiogheny River and its whitewater rafters. Now, as we paused to split an orange, my husband and I looked down the path ahead of us, through the springtime trees just beginning to leaf out. The morning sun slanting between their narrow trunks striped the trail with parallel bars of light and shadow.

"Look," Rick said suddenly. "What does that remind you of?" I saw what he meant, and laughed: "It's the train tracks!"

The shadows formed a perfect echo of the long-abandoned railroad that once ran along this path, transporting coal and timber for western Pennsylvania's thriving steel industry. Today, those tracks are gone, replaced by one of the finest achievements of the nation's growing rail-trail network: the 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP.

We were riding the passage from its western end in Pittsburgh down into Maryland. (We would get on the venerable Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath and end up in Washington, D.C., but you can do a round trip on the GAP from Pittsburgh.)

Last May, Rick and I did the trip to celebrate my birthday. When I told our friends about our plans, some of them were, well, dubious. I know they pictured exhausting days, hard nights in grungy trailside cabins, cold showers or none at all. "Well, if that's the kind of thing you like," they said.

Well, here's how it turned out: We cycled over the Allegheny Mountains and never broke a sweat. (Let me repeat: over mountains, no sweat.) Most miles were totally traffic-free. We got pleasantly tired every day, and slept every night in comfortable, often charming, inns. We ate so well that Rick gained two pounds.

Yep. That's the kind of thing we like.

The GAP has been cobbled together piecemeal over 30 years out of various abandoned railway beds, with the help of seven trail organizations and dozens of federal, state, local and private agencies.

Two features make it a pretty deluxe ride. First, its mostly crushed limestone surface is bike-friendly and fast-draining. Second, and more importantly, the trail's railroad grade means that you're never riding on a hill steeper than a train can climb. In other words, it usually feels almost flat.

Instead of pedaling into and out of valleys, we glided over them on steel trestles -- from the cast- and wrought-iron Bollman Bridge, an architectural artifact just a few dozen yards long, to the 1,908-foot-long Salisbury Viaduct, a modern span over the Casselman River valley. And instead of laboring over mountain peaks, we went through them -- most memorably the 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel, just north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Claustrophobes, take note: That's a long way to pedal underground, even though the tunnel is lighted.

Given the part of the country you're biking through -- settled by Europeans hundreds of years ago, crisscrossed with roads and peppered with towns -- you might expect to see more civilization. Instead, you usually feel separated from it, riding through what's been described as a "green bubble" through overdeveloped America.

Every few miles along the GAP, it seemed, we'd pass another picturesque waterfall plummeting from rocky cliffs, or babbling around boulders, or cascading in sheets down ledges of shale. And then there was the Red Waterfall, near milepost 28, which takes its color from iron oxide and its poisonous character from sulfuric acid, both byproducts of decades of coal mining. Thousands of miles of streams in western Pennsylvania are devoid of life because of acid mine drainage. But progress has been made in cleaning them up, and the fact that a marker near the waterfall notes the historic damage and the EPA's successes is, well, if not exactly cheering, basically a good thing. And it's definitely pretty.

The green bubble also takes you through a region with lots of economic problems. Many of the towns are somewhat poignant: too many empty storefronts or bravely maintained houses, too many "antiques" shops.

The upside of this is that most locals see the trail as a small but real economic engine; several innkeepers and business owners told us that they count on travelers like us for most of their business. Bicyclists and hikers are welcomed with enthusiasm. We arrived at Perryopolis -- our first stop, about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh -- after slogging through a couple of hours of dull gray rain. Mud-spattered, we seemed inappropriate guests for the Inn at Lenora's, a meticulous Victorian bed-and-breakfast with an ambitious small restaurant.

But our gracious hostess welcomed us onto the broad front porch, brought out cookies and tea and a beer for my husband, and helped us hose down our bikes and equipment and stow everything away.

Other innkeepers offered laundry facilities or packed lunches. And several assured me that if weather had halted our trip, they were prepared to make accommodations -- loading our bikes into a van and driving us to our next stop, or refunding deposits if we just couldn't get there at all.

The high point of the trip, geographically and emotionally, came in Meyersdale, Pa. Technically, we were still a few feet below the Eastern Continental Divide (2,392 feet above sea level), which was eight miles away. But it's close enough.

We'd paced our trip to give us a short ride on my birthday. So we arrived early at the Levi Deal Mansion, a B&B named for the coal and timber baron who built it in 1900. From the moment we stepped through its handsome double doors, we were in the Gilded Age. There was nothing fussy or overwrought, no doilies or tassels -- just quiet opulence and extreme comfort.

Our hosts offered us small sandwiches and homemade chocolate ice cream. We had a tasty fried haddock dinner at the White House Restaurant, a 20-minute walk through the warm spring night.

If you want to ride the trail, begin by deciding how much you want to ride every day. My husband and I are lazy and like to sightsee, so we averaged 30 miles a day, which was never more than four or five hours of actual pedaling. A more common pace is 50 or 60 miles a day.

Whichever direction you go, the Pittsburgh end is a little tricky. Unless you're renting a bike right there, you have to get yourself and your bike to or from the trail, and no route is simple. We stayed at a boring motel just south of Pittsburgh. Then we called Bill's Taxis (412-855-4484) and got shuttled out of the urban sprawl and onto the trail near Boston, Pa.

Three things left to say about this trip: First, you'd better like riding a bicycle -- not as exercise, or as a challenge, but as a process. And you'd better like whoever is riding with you -- especially if you ride before June or after August. There are many miles where the local population is just going to be you, the hawks overhead and a couple of turtles plopping into the canal. Love the one you're with.

Finally, when I said it's a no-sweat trip, I was serious. Did I mention that the birthday we were celebrating was my 60th?


If you ride:

*Where to stay: Inn at Lenora's, 301 Liberty St., Perryopolis, Pa. (724-736-2509; Renovated Victorian in quiet town just up the hill from the trail; good restaurant on site for dinner. Rooms from $100.

Levi Deal Mansion, 301 Meyers Ave., Meyersdale, Pa. (814-289-7600; Beautifully restored 1900 house has Gilded Age elegance, modern amenities and sophisticated breakfast. Rooms from $130.

*Where to eat: White House Restaurant, 515 Thomas St., Meyersdale, Pa. (814-634-8145). Unpretentiously good food and bar; known for the tasty fried haddock. Entrees start at $12.50.

Sisters' Cafe, 482 Hughart St., Confluence, Pa. (814-395-5252; Homestyle cooking on a charming town square. Open for lunch every day but Monday, and early dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Sandwiches start at $2.10, dinner entrees at $8.35.

*Biking the trails: Great Allegheny Passage, P.O. Box 501, Latrobe, Pa. (888-282-BIKE (2453); Offers 141 miles of hiking and biking between Homestead, Pa. (near Pittsburgh) and Cumberland, Md. See website for maps, elevations, information on food and lodging, weather and history.