- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

NEW ORLEANS — The heavy green flora stretches over the street, a cooling canopy of branches to hide the South’s sun. To my left rolls an old-time streetcar, one of the reasons St. Charles Avenue oozes charm.

The trolley and I wage a friendly battle of leapfrog, and for a moment our strides synchronize, my pedal stroke to its electronic whirl.

However, with the streetcar weighed down by frequent stops, my purple mountain bike, stubby tires and all, soon pulls away. The train’s tourists — an arm resting on the window sill, head tilted toward the breeze — are helpless to boost their boxcar’s bustle.

In a city that brings an architectural, artistic or natural delight at every turn, I’m quietly confident they envy the fun and freedom I’m enjoying. Exploring New Orleans by bike, I’ve learned, is the only way to go.

This day’s ride almost never happened. After my first trip to the Big Easy, I wasn’t ever going to return. I am told my visit was all too typical: Hotel-French Quarter-restaurant-hotel. Expensive parking, lots of walking and a dirty, smelly, beer-and-sex-soaked Canal Street. An interesting day trip, but once was enough.

Then, by chance, a friend and I were driving through New Orleans with bikes in tow and decided to stop. We parked on St. Charles, for free, mounted our bikes and saw a whole new world open up.

We cruised toward downtown, passing majestic Audubon Park, across from Tulane and Loyola universities. Iron gates guarded Italianate homes and white wooden columns.

We cycled alongside the Mississippi River and cruised through the Marigny — an idyllic Creole neighborhood behind the French Quarter, where box houses in a carnival of colors jostle for elbow room. Without our bikes, we never would have ventured far enough from the Quarter to find them.

This Big Easy I liked. No ugly smells. No three-hour walks. The trip was on a whim but turned into a memorable afternoon.

For my second ride through the city I want more structure. I first call the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, but can immediately tell they aren’t prepared to help a cyclist.

Then I find what I need: Laidback Tours, a small, off-the-beaten-track shop that runs bicycle and kayak tours. Veda Manuel, who with husband Musa Eubanks owns the guide service, tells me to buy the Bicycle Map of New Orleans.

I find the handy fold-out map at the Tulane University bookstore. The map lays out the city streets in an easy-to-read-manner, and it highlights the roads that are safe and scenic.

My first stop is Adam’s Bicycle World. Joe Ferra, a mechanic who regularly rides his bike to work, maps out a route that will cover all the sights in just a couple hours. He tells me about biking the Big Easy.

“It’s not a very bicycle-aware city … as far as the quality of the streets and the awareness of the motorists, but it’s so small,” Mr. Ferra says. “Tourists can literally see everything in the city on a bike with a minimum level of fitness. You can have a fun day.”

That’s what I set off to do. St. Charles Avenue and my battle with the streetcar is first on the day’s itinerary. I cruise by proud and majestic homes, then by a plantation-style building surrounding a courtyard, an academy from the late 1800s. The pace of the city picks up, as I move downtown from the residential area known as the Garden District.

Then the live oaks — the trees whose branches extend far out over the street — sprout a surprise: beads by the hundreds. It reminds me of how some people never take down outdoor Christmas lights, so they dimly twinkle all year. Here, it’s Mardi Gras beads.

The road bends and the New Orleans skyline comes into view. I pass the Lee Circle monument and hook a right toward the National D-Day Museum. Two crowns of the Mississippi River bridge peek above the bricked buildings of the Warehouse District. The downtown apartments are adorned with plants, and the old and seedy but popular bars give the area a 20-something ambience.

No other bike tourists have yet crossed my path, although bike messengers doing their day’s work have. “Everyone rides their bike through the Quarter. It’s much faster than a car,” says messenger Jim Kosten. “It’s the only way to get around down here.”

Distant clouds threaten rain but so far have only spit out a few drops. It’s welcome relief from the Southern sun.

With Algiers Point across the Mississippi River on my right, I pick my way slowly down the Riverwalk area along the levee (bikes are allowed here, but you have to be alert). I turn toward the French Quarter and zigzag my way past the horse buggies and fortune tellers. I head toward Laidback Tours.

At Laidback Tours, the owners meet me in their small shop, complete with a grand piano (for a blues and bicycle tour, of course) and a small cafe. The shop is stuffed with kayaks, regular bikes and recumbents, for those who like to stretch out while they pedal.

They say they have a lot of repeat customers, and I believe them.

“You can’t have a bad day riding these streets,” Mrs. Manuel says, noting that the experience is so visually affecting that the bike tour guides can hear the customers oohing and aahing behind them.

New Orleans has a good climate for riding year-round, but autumn is a great time because the sun’s heated rays fade, Mrs. Manuel says. In fact, fall and spring are the most popular times for local bike trips. And she says biking is perfect for French Quarter-weary tourists.

“No one ever leaves the Quarter,” she says. “On bike, you can go from the French Quarter to Uptown, plus you can stop, unlike when you’re on the trolley.”

Mr. Eubanks saddles up to take me on a quick tour. We never even leave his neighborhood, but the commentary is captivating. He shows me a cemetery where 35 persons might be buried in one above-ground tomb (the gory details on that you’ll have to get from him). He points out the oldest home in the area, a former plantation. And I learn about the nearby citrus groves.

“I don’t know how you can’t say this is a great city for cycling. Sure we need to fix some potholes, but once we do, it will be a perfect cycling city,” Mr. Eubanks says.

I bid goodbye and spin one last time through the French Quarter.

Dusk lowers its cool blanket, and the sounds of the city sing. I pass a horse and buggy as the jazz crescendos. Just as a trumpeter starts his solo, the high notes fade into the hokey Cajun accordion so prevalent in the kitschy tourist shops. That soon fades into a rhythmic clicking as I roll by two boys tap-dancing for change.

Mrs. Manuel’s parting words couldn’t ring more true. “The great thing about New Orleans is you can get around the entire city on low-traffic streets. And it’s flat. And it’s beautiful.”

Rent wheels, hit the trails

Laidback Tours rents high-quality bikes for $25 to $45 a day. If you’re on foot and in the French

Quarter, take a cab - it’s a long walk.

Make time to take a guided tour, it’ll be the favorite activity of your trip. Prices vary, from $40 for a two-hour group tour to $115 for an all-day private tour. Call 504/488-8991 or visit www.laidbacktours.com.

Rentals: French Quarter Bicycles, 522 Dumaine, 504/529-3136, $5 an hour or $20 a day. Bicycle Michael’s, 622 Frenchman, 504/945-9505, $7.50 an hour or $20 a day.

Trails: A bike trail some 20 miles long runs west along the Mississippi River, starting at Audubon Park. On the north side of town, ride alongside Lake Pontchartrain, a popular spot on weekends.

Don’t miss: Audubon Park, where steamy greenery and exotic birds captivate. It’s a social scene, with lots of joggers on the wide, paved path.

Be alert: Bad drivers don’t understand why bicyclists don’t get out of their way. Red-light running is epidemic. Be careful not to wander too far off major paths, since some neighborhoods are more dangerous than they appear.

You can contact the New Orleans Bicycle Club at www.gnofn.org/~nobc. To book a room or check the local monthly calendar for events, contact the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/672-6124 or www.neworleanscvb.com).

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