Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Bon Ton Roulet, seven day bike tour of the Finger Lakes

From Saturday 24th July until July 31st I was on the famous Bon Ton roulet bike tour. This is a very inexpensive bike tour that attracts riders from all over the USA and beyond. For well under $500.00, you have your meals and support provided. Here is the trip and my observations of the cultural differences between the USA and Canada

The Finger Lakes region is known for its lakes, hills and wineries. I have never seen so many wineries it seems every little patch of land is converted to a winery. There were farms for sale for their 'vineyard' possibilities. While their reisling wines are passable, the wines on the whole are pretty terrible. Visiting a winery like I did on numerous occasions is fun, but don't expect a good wine. On the other hand, their beer is fantastic and unheralded. This area could become known for its beer!

We arrived at the Auburn High school and set up camp. This was my first experience with a tent city. The breakfast is served by local community groups starting at 530. In the next morning, I got up, packed the tent, my bags and picked up my cue sheet. The ride was from Auburn NY to the village of Penn Yan. I took the long route of 76 miles. There was some climbing but not too much, The scenery was very lovely passing through farmlands and hills along the lake. The tour relies on paint markings on the road to tell you where to go. There are two rest stops, 15 miles from the start and 10 miles before the end.
The rest stops were themselves a cultural study. They had the usual water and gatorade and fruit but also a huge assortment of candies! From twizzlers, to suckers, chocolate to cookies of all kinds it is there!

The first day was very very hot with a lot of humidity. I drank a lot of my salty water and felt fine.
KEuka College where we stayed had some beautiful buildings and fantastic sports facilities. The town of Penn Yann itself is a delight and a study in small town USA Each little town or village had a nice post office, a church or two and an ice cream parlour. What more could you want? Your cultural, social and dietary needs!

Day Two PENN YAN To Naples: Wine, inns, firecracker cops and the barefoot cyclist

This proved to be THE climbing day of the tour.There was 37 miles of climbing for a route of 70 miles. The route followed a lake and went into the village of Hammondsport. Some very steep descents! Hammondsport was a charming village with a village green a church and a few antique shops and an ice cream shop. In New York Ice cream shops are splendid. Every little town has them and they are wonderful with hundreds of flavours. This one looked like the Malt shop that Archie and Veronica would have used with booths, swivel seats and old fashioned milk shake machines.

After Hammondsport came the mother of all hills. The rest stop today was at the Lakside resort which is an inn on the lake. We sat at tables and watched the boats and the sunlight on the lake. Today was especially hot and after the mother of all hills, I climbed further to the Heron Hill winery. I was rewarded with a great view and stopped for two hours with some friends I met from Indiana, Richard and Kari. We spend a hilarious lunch and I had crab cakes and three glasses of Reisling wine.

NEVER drink wine on a hot day on a long hilly tour. 10 miles after our lunch stop, with more hills and heat I passed the final rest stop with 10 more miles to go and more hills. I could not make it. I had to get a sag vehicle to take me the rest of the way.

At camp, I had a massage party for my bruised ego and a lesson learned about heat, humidity, hills and reisling wines!

Naples itself was a pretty little town, famous for its grape pie. I bought a small one and shared it with Jim. The bakery was a home, you knocked on the door and the top half opened and the bakers husband sold you a pie. The high school, like all was enormous with lots of facilities. The dinner was pretty terrible but the scenery, as always terrific.

Jim and I went to Toppers inn in Naples. This is an old fashioned hotel with winding staircase, old photos a piano and nice seating. It is the kind of hotel Jesse James would have liked. We sat on the patio and had some Yeungling beer. I watched an older man in a splendid white beard pedal his bike barefoot. He was neatly dressed and had a well maintained bike.

Back in Tent City in Naples there was more excitement, although by this time my tent was pitched far from the maddening crowd. I heard fireworks and assumed there was a celebration. Each night at the Bon Ton there was entertainment, tonight was a rock band who celebrated to the delight of the locals. One of the cyclists realized that there were youths throwing firecrackers at the tents. She was a policeman from Boston and chased them in her flip flops. She apprehended one of them, the others came back to rescue him. The sheriff was called with sirens blazing and parents were called. She strained a muscle and was unable to complete the ride but was known as the Firecracker Cop.

As I was sitting in my chair in tent city, I saw the barefoot man wheel his bike in tent city. I spoke with him. His name was Don and he was a local. He and I spoke of the joys of not wearing shoes and he was delighted to find someone who was of the faith. I hastened to add that I would not ride my bike barefoot. He walked on smiling.

It was at this point in my trip that I realized Americans dont recycle. They throw away. Where we went, there were mounds of garbage or trash. I spoke about recycling and it seems that New York state is far behind Canada and there is a massive re education to be done before it even hopes to be successful.

DAY Three: Naples to Geneva: Private college and the best meal ever~
After my experience yesterday, I decided to take the short route which was only 48 miles. There were again some hills and a climbing distance of 23.4 miles but overall it was pleasant. I stopped at the Onanda park for a swim. There was a lifeguard of about 17 who informed me that I could not swim as he was not in his chair. Like the other cyclists we ignored him. There is nothing like a swim in a lake during a HOT and humid and hilly ride!

We rode through a little town of West Lake which is lovely with another waterfront park. The parks are really beautiful, well maintained and just wonderful. There was nothing tacky about the state parks that we stopped at. I had expected RV's and campers but there were only tents and nice little buildings for people to use. Our rest stops were often in one of these log pavillions.

We were now in Mennonite or Amish country and I saw them in their horse and buggy. There were some whose religion did not allow them to use rubber and so their tractors had metal wheels. I could see their print on the fresh asphalt of some of the roads. The roads, unlike many in Canada, are in excellent condition with very wide shoulders. The Mennonite families are a delight. I often saw the children in the buggies with their straw hats and bonnets, or girls in the fields with their chickens. I was sorry they did not have a baking stand but I did find one on the last day to my delight!

By this time in the tour, I did not stop for lunch having learned my lesson the dat before. Instead I lived on watermelon at the rest stops and peanut butter and bananas! I got my gears checked by the bike repair man who also unstuck my brakes. My bike was restored.

We arrived in Geneva and stayed at Hobart college. Hobart college is a private college with tuition of 50k. The grounds are unbelievable like Cambridge in England. There were two soccer fields, football and beautiful pools. The residences were splendid condos overlooking a lake. I sat and watched as swallows ate the mosquitos (There were none) on the lake as the sun set. Geneva is a beautiful town.

The food at Hobart College was the gastronomical highlight of the tour for me. THe dinner was london broil, a wonderful salad, potatoes, green beans. It was superb so much so that I made sure to tell the chef. The desert for me was boston creme pie and homemade ice cream.

I was rather sorry to leave Geneva

Day Four
Geneva to Watkins Glen: Bad wine and interesting Pick up Lines

By this point in the tour, I should point out that the Bon Ton is about half men and half women. Jim was always long gone by the time I would have breakfast and invariably along the ride or during meal I would be joined by a handsome fellow who would ride with me or ask me out. Today was no exception. It was the Bon Ton PICKUP!

I rode with Bob Stanford who was an ULTRA cyclist having done Paris Brest and clocked countless miles. He had ridden across America on his own. By this time I also learned about the Ride Across Iowa and decided I would NEVER do that tour. 17.000 riders descending on small towns like a swarm of locusts and often going hungry did not appeal to me. I was told that you almost always are in huge packs, which is also unappealing. I struck that tour from my list of want-to-dos. Bob and I decided to do the short route but to almost race it. 48 miles of speed.

There were two rest stops, a swim stop and Wagners vineyards. By this point in the tour there were hundreds of winereries, every one who had a backyard stuck a sign and called themselves a winery! Wagners is one of the largest. The wineries have some hilarious names like Pompous bastard and Dr. Franks but there were also countless Chateaus. The Chateau's appeared to be clapboard buildings perched on tiny hills overlooking a few forlorn grape vines! Wagners was large and this was our rest stop. We had the usual assortment of fruit and drink and were encouraged to partake in wine tasting at Wagners.

The wine tasting man was a stout man who appeared bored and rattled through what he believed to be Wagner's finest. It was truly appalling! It is best described as Plonk or the kind of wine you would buy for a high school party if you wished to be sophisticated but had no idea what to buy. If you did buy wine, the tour would deliver it back to your destination so you did not need to carry it. The gatorade at the rest stop (the orange one) tasted far superior to Wagner's plonk!

We cycled to some falls but could not swim and went on to our destination which was Watkins Glen. Watkins Glen is famous for Nascar but is an unremarkable little town. We stopped at the local beach for a swim. Bob wanted to go out with me but soon learned I was happily married but I introduced him to Judith the other KNBC rider. Judith was not interested.

That night Jim, Judith and I walked to the only pub in town. It was called the Crooked Rooster and was a brew pub. I had the firehouse red. The beer in Upper State new york is outstanding. They should concentrate on this and not the wines! Leave wines to others!

The day was very humid and hot and we returned to tent city in lightning. It rained and rained that night. I stayed awake worried that my tent would collapse or leak or both. I slept about one hour.

DAy FIVE: Watkins Glen rest day: secrets from the women's washroom

Today was the day of the century ride but I was too tired. Many people chose not to ride and I learned the reason why in the ladies washroom!

By this time people were saddle sore and many used chamois creme. The cremes came in tubs and were plonked down on the washroom sinks. There were names like Butt Creme, and udderly smoooth. I had never seen it before and thought it was a form of kinky sex aid! You apply this vile stuff to your shorts or your private parts before a ride. It is supposed to prevent sores, chaffing etc. This is because people insist on riding with horrible saddles that are made of plastic and do not give. The only thing that breaks is your buttocks! Why people want to torture their posteriors on such saddles is a mystery to me. I have a tensioned leather saddle, a brooks. It is as comfortable as my armchair and I don't even need to wear padded shorts let alone even think of the Butt Cremes! Why won't people learn!

There were many bikes on the tours. Recumbents, Friday bikes, a single speed (Yes a single speed), a bike with a motor for the hills, and a bike that was retro. He had tweed and leather bags, leather hand sewn handlebar tape and handmade leather touring shoes. I have seen the shoes before but they have laces. Mike had a nice bike though! There were pink Cervello diva bikes, numerous Trek Maradonnas and lots of heavy touring bikes. The average age was at least 58 years old. Were I to do the tour again, I would take my touring bike as I really needed that granny ring!

Since I had missed the century ride, I did a short 50 mile route which took me well into Amish country. I passed by a mennonite (Amish?) Schoolhouse with its whitewash and boys and girls outhouses. What a contrast to the huge and well equipped schools and campuses that I had seen. Simple and plain. I also watched a mennonite boy in workboots and a straw hat on a beaten bike with a broken fender and no gears, ride up a hill past huffing and puffing cyclists bedecked in lycra jerseys of all colours and sizes.

The size of the cyclists surprised me. Many were slender and lean but there were some who were very ample in girth. I have no idea how they made it up the hills! These larger folks were usually concerned about the weight of their bikes!

My short rest ride as great and I returned to Watkins Glen at 11am and did my laundry. It was my first time in a laundromat! That is an experience!

For dinner Judith and I met with Donna and Lynne and we went to the Stonecat restaurant, organic food. It looked good but all I could afford was a small soup and salad. Donna was 78 years old and would ride part of the way. She and Lynne who was younger would stay in Bed and breakfast. They told us about their bike adventures and we had a pleasant dinner.

Day six: Watkins Glen to Courtland; Getting lost and MOOSEWOOD

After a day of rest, I took the long route some 85 miles. I actually did closer to 97 miles but there is a reason. I had now learned to rely on the paint markings on the road and would also look for other bikers. We all had licence plates on our bikes identifying us as tour members as well as green identity bracelets. Thus I did not take a cue sheet. They always would get soaked and disintegrate with the sweat. The day was much cooler today and I should have taken one.

The tour today took us to a golf course for the rest stop and Ithaca New York, home of Cornell university and the famous moosewood restaurant. The last rest stop would be the bird research centre, sapsucker woods in Cornell.

The ride commenced with about a 10 mile climb and many more to follow. The scenery took us along ridges and a lot of beautiful dairy farms. You could smell the hay and the clover as you rode along. We had a LONG downhill to Ithica which is a city that sits in a basin. We rode on busy streets which was stressful and I found my way to Mecca...or rather moosewood.

Moosewood, home of the iconic cookbooks, there it was. I had a seat at the bar and had a bowl of cold gaspacho soup and lemonade. I spoke with a patron called Nancy about the arts and blissfully enjoyed my pilgramige to Mecca. It was superb. I told the owner about Bridgehead who serve Moosewood soups. I thought she would be thrilled but she was not. Bridgehead does acknowledge Moosewood but Moosewood was not impressed. I bought a T shirt.

The ride to Cornell is UP UP UP hill. A goat could not ride those hills! Once we left Ithaca, I made my first wrong turn. It was a beautiful country road with one way bridges. I realized my mistake and backtracked.

We continued to climb passing splendid scenery and fields along the lakes. The second rest stop was at the bird sanctuary or Sapsucker woods. This was very impressive with viewing areas for the birds, a heron nesting ground and a large hawk who entertained us at 230 by swooping down and capturing a mouse. We wanted to tip him!

The long route I took had about 40 miles in total of climbing but the scenery was breathtaking. I found I can run up a hill and try to keep my cadence steady. Alas I run out of gears and rather than wobble like a drunken sailor I dismount and walk. This was the day I did some interval work and rode up as fast as I could and rode as fast as I could for 14 minutes. I roared up a hill and felt my heart beat as if it would jump out of my chest. I slowed down and the heart thanked me!

Lots of fun!

I got lost again but this time discovered a great ice cream place called Toad Too. In the middle of nowhere but they had over 100 flavours and great signs. I ordered a soft ice cream with custard and licorice flavour. How wonderful. I had gone some 7 miles out of my way, but found the paint again and resumed my way.

At the end, I did close to 97 miles.

This last night there was a party with a DJ and the dinner was a fish fry. IT was great. Fish fry and all the Yuenglings beer you can drink. You cant beat that. IT is a fundraiser for the YMCAS and I suggested ways they can make more money

Last day: Cortland to Auburn and Mennonite Baked Goods
This was a 45 mile ride. Very short, some good hills and wonderful scenery. The best part of this day was a sign saying fresh baked goods. I stopped, and there were many others to see two old older Amish women in a cabin selling baked goods.

Pies, breads, cookies and cherry turnovers. I bought the later. It was fantastic! After a week of cafeteria food, real food was treat! We rode on up some inclines and I walked up one long long hill and took numerous photos. It is very hard to capture what you see, it is mainly and experience.

Packed and drove home.

This is a wonderful tour but you have to be in very good shape. The hills make our Gatineau Hills look like small speed bumps. A granny gear is pretty well essential because you cannot keep a good cadence with a compact and with the distances you risk pushing too much with your knees.

The base stations where you camp have great massage therapists. I had two massages.,..well worth it and fun!

Camping and Tent City
I brought my own tent but bought a towel service from Comfy Campers as well as coffee. A clean fluffy towel every day and good coffee are essential. It is best to camp far away from the loading trucks and center because you will be keep awake by people who are packed up by 5am.

I brought a really good mattress...also essential~

Don't go for the wines. Enjoy the scenery but dont drink

Drinking on a hot ride
Nope, alcohol dehydrates you and drains your energy

Single ladies
I was averaging about a pick up a day. I am not sure this is usual as I asked around. Maybe it was because I was always in a great mood!

Paint up your bags. There were 600 riders and finding your black bag among hundreds of others at the end of a ride can be a chore!

Tools etc
bring them. I destroyed a valve on my inner tube and had to replace it.

At $435.00 US for two meals a day and a fully supported tour, this price cant be beat.

People and overall experience

The volunteers, the staff the other riders are all wonderful. I left with a lot of photos, a finer waistline and a lot of email addresses.


  1. Thanks for the post, we got a flyer for the Bon Ton Roulet and are considering it, depending on the RAGBRAI route this year (RAGBRAI is the ride you said you'd never do.) You might be more interested in SAGBRAW in Wisconsin, we did that in 2010 and loved it.

  2. Two friends and I are doing Bon Ton this year (2011), and I enjoyed your blog -- of course it makes me even more worried about the hills! Perhaps sometime you can consider taking part in PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan). It is always the last full week in June and and the 750 spaces fill very quickly. The planning and work on the ride is done completely by volunteers, and we don't make money for any causes -- just want to give everyone a great time. Our fees this year were $110 for registration and $75 for breakfast and dinner each day -- definitely the least expensive multiday tour in the country. Check us out at


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