Imagine a bike ride where speed doesn’t matter and every pedal stroke carries you closer to another helping of Louisiana music, food or drink.
I lived that dream at Cycle Zydeco, a 200-mile rolling Cajun culture festival. Po’boys, étouffée and jambalaya fueled four days of bicycling, punctuated by the sounds of rubboards, fiddles and accordions.
This was no endurance event to be feared. Mileage hovered around 50 absolutely flat miles per day, and no one hurried as we spun past crawfish ponds and cow pastures in the heart of Cajun Country.
At times I pedaled behind two women on a tandem bike, dressed in multicolored tutus and fishnets, blasting zydeco music and waving at farmers as they sped down the road. I watched someone named T-Boy make boudin, looked for alligators lurking in a swamp, tapped my toes to the finest zydeco music in the land and shared it all with cyclists who came from all over the country for the same experience.
“The priorities are dancing, eating and drinking, and [the participants] just happen to ride a bike,” says Scott Schilling, president of Transportation Recreation Alternatives in Louisiana, which took over the event, now in its 14th year, in 2012.
This year’s ride drew 316 party-loving cyclists, mostly in their 50s and 60s, many from the Midwest; organizers hope to build it to 1,000. About half camped along the way; the rest booked hotels and used a shuttle service provided by ride organizers to get to the start each morning.
Day 1: Into Cajun Country
I queue up for pit-roasted pork at a kickoff party in Lafayette, La. As I pig out, Grammy-winning zydeco musician Chubby Carrier (he weighed a whopping 10 pounds at birth) and the Bayou Swamp Band fill Blackham Coliseum with the sounds of Louisiana music.
“It’s our music, the music I grew up on,” says Todd Ortego, a 56-year-old disc jockey at radio station KBON in nearby Eunice, who has come to watch the fun.
As Chubby belts out a rendition of “Who Stole the Hot Sauce?” Ortego explains a little about the Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop sounds the other riders and I will hear this week. Sometimes it’s still sung in French. Usually it features the whirling sounds of fiddles and accordions, and often you can hear traces of Irish jigs, rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll.
As the show winds down, some folks roll out sleeping bags inside the coliseum, and others pop tents outside. My friend Gretchen Sanders and I have seen the forecast, though, and it calls for rain, so we head to a nearby hotel.
Day 2: 38 miles and crawfish
Chubby arrives with a shiny red beach cruiser. A police escort fires up its sirens, the musician climbs astride his bike and the whole parade rolls away with a cheer at 9 a.m.
In less than an hour we reach our first stop, Parish Brewing Co., where cyclists sample a little beer and I stuff a few Zydeco Bars, a Louisiana-made energy bar with an accordion on the wrapper, into my pocket. I’m trying to pace myself.
We ride for about another hour and pull off at Belle Ecorce Farms, where someone uncorks bottle after bottle of white wine and we dip crackers into crocks of goat cheese. That’s when Gretchen lets out a squeal. She’s found a days-old dairy goat with rosebud ears, and we cradle it in our arms.
A few more miles and we roll into St. Martinville, the heart of French Louisiana. There we feast on crawfish étouffée, listen to more music and rest in the shade of Evangeline Oak, the subject of a romantic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Back on our bikes, we roll past an old sugar refinery, then into Breaux Bridge. Cyclists are putting up tents, but Gretch and I are distracted by Mark Thibodeaux, 54, and Greg Latiolais, 66, of B&L Boilers, who are preparing to cook 300 pounds of crawfish for the group.
We’re innocent bystanders until suddenly we’re enlisted to help. Soon we’re slitting open sacks of crawfish and pouring them into boiling water, dumping in jars of okra and stirring the vat with giant paddles.
“They’re so sweet and tasty,” Thibodeaux says, swooning a little as he explains that these crawfish were harvested within 40 miles of where we’re toiling. He shows us how to hold the head in one hand and twist the tail off to get at the meat. “If you’re born and raised here, you suck the heads to get the juice and the fat. It tastes like heaven.”
We wrap up the night with a visit to Pont Breaux’s (formerly known as Mulate’s), a famous Cajun restaurant where we meet a busload of tourists all the way from France and nibble hush puppies and grilled shrimp while couples swirl around the wooden dance floor.
Day 3: 42 miles amid swamps
The forecast calls for rain, but we head out on our bikes by 8:30 a.m. anyway. Soon we’re streaking toward the Atchafalaya Basin, America’s largest wetland.
At McGee’s Landing, we pedal up the levee and join the crowd of cyclists piling onto boats for a 30-minute swamp tour. The million-acre swamp looks like it’s filled with tea. We see cypress trees and draping Spanish moss (once used as pillow stuffing and wall insulation) as we putter through the mist, but not a single ’gator shows its head.
Back at the landing, we sample beignets and hop back on our bikes. We whiz past a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and a bunch more crawfish ponds. Then, we pull into Bayou Teche Brewery, where we take teeny samples of passion-fruit-infused wheat beer. Delicious.
Down the road in Arnaudville, where 40 percent of the population speaks French and an étouffée festival takes place every May, we park our bikes in front of the Little Big Cup cafe. We eat gumbo on the back porch as rain pounds like bullets on the metal roof.
When the rain eases we strike out again, heading for the small town of Sunset, the newly declared Rubboard Capital of the World. There I’m mesmerized by the accordion played by a member of the Back O’ Town Playboys. Squeezed shut it shows a crawfish, expanded it’s a crab.
We spend the night in Opelousas, Zydeco Capital of the World and birthplace of recording artist Clifton Chenier. In the town’s Yambilee Building, we settle in with plates of grilled catfish topped with crawfish étouffée, then mingle with our fellow riders as Corey Ledet and his Zydeco Band take the stage.
Day 4: 50 miles to Fred’s
Even before we get to Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, I’m pretty sure this is going to rank as my finest day on a bicycle. Ever.
An hour in, we stop at T-Boy’s Slaughter House, where we sample boudin and cracklings and watch T-Boy himself whip up some sausage. Ground meat and onions shoot out of a tube, inflating yard after yard of casing like circus balloons.
We don’t dally, because we’re on our way to Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, which is open only from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturdays. A few hundred bicycles are parked outside the unassuming bar when we arrive. We swing open the door and are hit with a sort of liquid Louisiana — it’s hot and dark, and people are swilling drinks, most notably little bottles of a cinnamon-flavored Schnapps called Hot Damn. Some guy is bending over an accordion, squeezing it to within an inch of its life.
The crowd, including a bunch of folks wearing clattery bike shoes, surges around him. A tiny little white-haired woman named Tante Sue (the wife of the bar’s namesake Fred, who died in 1992) walks around smiling, waving a little homemade no-kissing sign and warning patrons not to dance on the cigarette machine.
When we finally break back out into the sunshine, our ears are still ringing. Across the street, we sit down with bowls of homemade jambalaya served up by the Mamou Athletic Booster Club.
It’s 13 more miles to Eunice, home to the Cajun Music Hall of Fame. Along the way we pass an array of roadkill: nutria and armadillos, snakes, turtles and frogs. Per Cycle Zydeco tradition, many of the carcasses are adorned with Mardi Gras beads tossed there by passing bikers.
In Eunice, Zydeco legend D.L. Menard is celebrating his 83rd birthday, and he’s the featured guest on the “Rendez-vous de Cajuns” radio show that’s being broadcast. The Cajun French accents are so thick it’s hard to understand everything that’s said, but the music draws couples young and old to the floor in front of the stage.
Final day: rain or boudin?
It’s pouring when we wake up. A few hardy souls hop on their bikes, but we pile onto a shuttle bus headed back to our car in Lafayette. I find myself sitting next to Johnny Hauck, a 61-year-old stevedore from New Orleans who has done Cycle Zydeco 11 times.
“I love zydeco dancing,” he says. “I love cycling. I love the hospitality of the people in southwestern Louisiana and I love the out-of-towners enjoying it all, trying to learn how to dance and experiencing the new and different foods.” Other highlights? Listening to the birds as he pedals down deserted roadways, and looking at the trees.
“I like the wind in my face and looking at wildflowers on the side of the road. It gives me time to ponder.”
That’s the thing about bike trips. Everything slows down. You can chat with other folks on the road. You smell things. You feel the place as much as see it.
When we get back to Lafayette, we get in our car and take a much speedier ride to Scott, to catch the Boudin Festival, where we’d originally planned to ride. As it turns out, the rain isn’t so bad, and we almost wish we’d pedaled this last leg of our journey.
We take a few hours to salute the local sausage, traditionally made here with a mixture of pork and rice. There’s more music, too, of course.
A band is pounding away when the power blows, so they do what they have to do — they hop off the stage and into the crowd, where they play, enthusiastically and fantastically, unamplified.
It’s a rousing finale to our leg-powered, two-wheel trip through Cajun country.