Biking in Sonoma and Napa: Tips for Two-Wheeled Trips

Malcolm Carlaw
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There are few things more quintessentially Californian than a weekend in the wine country, and in northern California, two of the most renowned regions in the world—Napa and Sonoma—are right in our backyard. For outdoor enthusiasts, there’s no better way to savor them than on a bike. It’s a true sensory experience, from feeling the California sunshine on your face, to seeing the rows and rows of vines just a few feet away, to—of course—tasting the fruits of the vintners' labor.

With the grapes already harvested, the scenery might not be as lush this time of year as it is in spring or summer, but the fall/winter seasons still present a tempting time for a two-wheeled trip to wine country. Vehicle traffic isn’t quite as busy as it is in the high season, and tasting rooms and hotels are less crowded, too. So, for a wine-and-two-wheeled weekend in Sonoma or Napa, here are some insider tips for a smooth ride. Cheers!

In Napa, make Velo Vino your first stop.

Velo Vino in St. Helena is the ideal spot to start a two-wheeled exploration of wine country.
Velo Vino in St. Helena is the ideal spot to start a two-wheeled exploration of wine country. Blane Bachelor

This tasting room/cycling hub, located right on Highway 29 in St. Helena, is paradise for both bike and wine lovers. Brought to you by the same folks who started Clif Bar, Velo Vino , which opened in 2011, doubles as cycling central for locals as well as visitors. They’ll set you up with a rental (unless, of course, you know about Spinlister ) and suggest routes suited to your skill level (and their free maps also list detailed directions). After your ride, settle in with some Northern-Italian inspired vittles from their recently launched food truck and a flight from Clif Family Wines in the cleverly designed tasting room, which is inspired by the lodge-like “refugios” of the Swiss Alps.

Pick your route carefully.

The rural roads of Napa and Sonoma counties are idyllic for cycling.
The rural roads of Napa and Sonoma counties are idyllic for cycling. Flickr/Jun Seita

Some first-time visitors to wine country assume that the roads are all rarely trafficked, pastoral stretches. Not so. Take the Silverado Trail, for example: Locals may refer to it as “the trail,” but it’s anything but what that moniker would suggest. It’s an extremely busy, two-lane road with more than its share of distracted tourists, as well as the (sometimes) impatient residents who have to deal with them. In other words: It doesn’t exactly make for a leisurely ride, so it’s one you’ll definitely want to avoid if possible.

A great local resource for helping you pick the right route are local bike shops. If you’re renting your wheels there, they’ll provide you with a map and tips on routes. (And if you’re riding your own bike, most will still be happy to help). Some recommended places: Calistoga Bike Shop, Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg, and Napa Valley Bike Tours (along with sister company Sonoma Valley Bike Tours). Rental rates vary depending on your ride, and most companies offer everything from hybrids to ultra-light, carbon-fiber bikes for hardcore roadies, and helmets, locks, and sometimes even wine bottle carriers.

Consider going with a guide.

If you’re visiting Napa or Sonoma for the first time, it can be intimidating trying to figure out which wineries to choose and how to get between them—not to mention transporting your bounty of bottles. And that’s where guided tours, which are offered at most rental shops, come in. No stressing over directions or which wineries are bike-friendly, and whatever bottles you buy will be transported back to the rental shop for pick-up (and trust us, those suckers can get heavy after hours of riding and tasting).

Always be courteous on the roads (and in tasting rooms).

It's always time for a toast when you're on your bike in wine country.
It's always time for a toast when you're on your bike in wine country. Blane Bachelor

Thanks in part to cycling elites like Levi Leipheimer, who lives in Santa Rosa and frequently touts Sonoma County as a world-class cycling region, biking in these parts has exploded in recent years, from tourists out for a casual tasting tour to pro-level riders. As a result, the always-tenuous relationship between cyclists and motorists has become a little tenser, and accidents are on the rise. Do your part in keeping yourself (and others) safe and sane by riding on the right side of the road, not taking the lane when it’s unnecessary, stopping at lights and stop signs, and signaling when you turn.

Continue spreading the good vibes in the tasting rooms, too. In the past, bicyclists have been discouraged from visiting some places because they clomp around in their noisy shoes, chug the water, gobble the crackers, and sometimes don’t even buy a tasting. Needless to say, that’s not a lead anyone should follow.

Keep an eye on the Napa Valley Vine Trail.

The view from Miner Family Winery
The view from Miner Family Winery John Morgan

One of the most exciting developments to happen on the outdoor scene in Napa Valley in years, this Class I, multi-use trail —which is being spearheaded by vintner Chuck McMinn, of swanky Vineyard 29 in St. Helena—will eventually run 47 miles from the ferry terminal in Vallejo all the way up to Calistoga. Among the latest developments are a six-mile section from Napa to Yountville, which is supposed to get underway in spring 2015.

The project, which will cost an estimated $50, will bring a much-needed route that safely connects wine country towns all the way through the Napa Valley for cyclists, walkers, runners, and everyone in between. This won't be the spot for high-flying, hardcore roadies, but it's certain to add a whole new way to enjoy wine country without having to get into a car.

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