Manchester, Vt. — In a year when guided bicycle tours are going everywhere on earth, through the green hills of Donegal, around the island nation of Sri Lanka, along the biblical byways of Israel, even into Inner Mongolia, it seemed appropriate to visit the source of the craze, Norman Rockwell country in Vermont.
So there I was sitting on the lawn of the Inn at Manchester one sultry afternoon getting a refresher course in country cycling - how to replace a sprung chain, how to address an angry dog - from the man who started it all, John Freidin, director of Vermont Bicycle Touring.
Most historians credit Mr. Freidin with originating the idea, in 1972, of sending groups of cyclists from one inn to the next, equipped with road maps and supported by a van or minibus now universally known in the business as a ''sag wag.'' Today VBT puts together weekend and five-day trips all over Vermont from May through October. No matter how well entrenched bike touring becomes in other states and lands, I see now it will be hard to improve on the Freidin/Vermont package. (Write VBT, Monkton Road, Box 711, Bristol, Vt. 05254, phone (802) 453- 4811.)
After a three-day swing through the Green Mountains of southwest Vermont, I had to ask myself: What better ingredients could a home-cooked bike tour possibly include? You pedal along country roads shared by considerate motorists who invariably provide a wide berth; pass in and out of hardwood forests that will be ablaze come autumn; stop at marble quarries for a swim; case the antique , book, and craft shops; pick up slabs of Vermont cheddar; eat bounteous meals; and watch fireflies dance in the cooling night sky from the porch of a country inn.
Hilly Vermont had always sounded too taxing a place for a leisurely bike tour , but I found it wasn't so. We were surrounded by mountains but stayed mostly in the valleys and took the ups with the downs, challenged but seldom daunted. Mr. Freidin, wry and blond-bearded, had prepared us for the worst in his introductory message:
''We have lots of little hills in Vermont - steep but short. Years ago we had two grandmothers on a tour, and when they couldn't get up a hill, they'd stop and catch their breath for a minute. So we've come to call these breaks Granny Stops. If the going gets too hard, stop and stand beside your bike for one minute, no longer. . . . I promise you it works.''
Every day is different with VBT, but this is what you can expect from a typical weekend tour out of Manchester:
At 7:15 a.m. you are roused by a not-delicate knock on the door. It is Betsy Bates, tour guide, ski instructor, aerobic dance teacher, and yoga exponent, calling all who are willing onto the lawn for warm-up exercises. Some will find this more difficult than biking itself and will steal away to admire the inn's chocolate-brown, cupola-topped barn or to peek in to see what the owners, Stan and Harriet Rosenberg, are making for breakfast.
Today it's blueberry pancakes and sausages, home-baked bread, and fresh fruit , served at three large tables at 8 a.m. By nine, a dozen cyclists are heading up Route 7A, some bent low studying detailed typewritten guides held in handlebar pouches. For example: ''Beside a white house with a white picket fence (on your left), turn LEFT onto Church Street.''
One can easily confuse the white picket fences of Rockwellian Vermont, but on a VBT trip there is always a guide, or sweep, bringing up the rear to aid the lost, the stalled, or the broken-down.
By 10 a.m., most of us have pulled off Route 30 and walked our bikes into a birch and maple woods secreting a splendid old marble quarry, the quintessential Vermont swimming hole. This grayish rock is the stuff that went to make our great federal buildings and every sidewalk in southwest Vermont.
Just outside Dorset, I am drawn to a sagging frame building, the H. N. Williams Department-Store. Inside is a wonderful clutter of nail bins, wooden buckets, bags of horsefeed, and horse collars. The woman proprietor is filling an order somewhere in the back, but an old visitor in coveralls, whiling away a warm July morning, tells me: ''If she don't have what you want, she'll get it for you.''
In trim, white, clapboarded Dorset we eat lunch on the back lawn of the 60 -room Dorset Inn. Breakfast and dinner are part of the VBT package ($65 to $75 a day for weekend or five-day tours), but for lunch, bikers chip in $4 apiece per day for picnic fixings which the guides pick up in the substantial delis and shops of this somewhat gentrified region. Across the street from the Dorset Inn, the green-shuttered Peltier's sells pate de campagne, sockeye salmon fillets, and exotic vinegars, along with Vermont cheddar and maple syrup.
Homeward bound on Dorset Hollow Road and then Route 30, we ride through pages of a scenic New England calendar: in and out of pine and hardwood forests, over bubbling trout streams, past weathered red barns, and up two rough hills where Betsy Bates, the sweep, waits to urge us on. ''Come on, dumplings,'' she shouts. I consider making a Granny Stop but press on. There will be time to rest on the front porch of the Inn at Manchester when darkness comes to the Green Mountains and the fireflies begin to dance.