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The Heidelberg countryside

Deep in the German forest that first morning, I heard the magical, comical call of the cuckoo. An hour later, on a narrow farm road, I came upon a field of brilliant yellow rape plants, and the air was so still you could hear a chorus of bees at work on the blossoms.

These were just two moments in a novel bicycle tour I made one bright spring week along the romantic byways between the upper Rhine Valley and the Black Forest. Here was incontrovertible proof that the industrial Germany of booming autobahns and smoking factories can be neatly bypassed.

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Bike touring is big business these days (witness the endless columns of ads in Bicycling magazine), and there seems to be a tour for every taste and level of endurance. WunderBiking Tours, an arrangement worked out by Lufthansa and a Frankfurt bike-tour company called Terranova, is for the cyclist who can manage 25 fairly level miles a day, enjoys good food, and appreciates a comfortable hotel room at night.

To keep its customers off the famously busy German roads, the Terranova company has mapped out routes with almost military precision, using mostly forest trails and farm lanes where auto traffic is forbidden. Groups of 18 cyclists pedal loosely together, never far out of touch with a guide and a roving van driver, who shows up like clockwork at appointed stations to see that all is in good repair or to lift everyone over a particularly busy section of road.

If all this sounds too programmed, then you should have heard the spontaneous squeals of delight from me and my two-wheeling mates as we raced down sylvan paths meant only for deer and rabbits, or came around a bend on the piny Philosophers Way and looked across the Neckar at the huddled red roofs of Heidelberg.

WunderBiking tours leave twice a month with Lufthansa from North America until Oct. 12. Cycling starts at a woodland hotel near the Frankfurt airport and progresses south for 7, 10, or 13 days. With air fare and about $100 a day, you get a package that includes breakfasts, dinners, and use of a bike. Tillman Uhlig, the Terranova owner, has specially ordered wide-wheeled, three-speed bicycles for the alternately bumpy, loamy, pine-needle-strewed roads.

Lilacs, wisteria, and the yellow Ginster were abloom when we set off one Monday morning south of Frankfurt through darkling woods damp with recent rain, then switched to country lanes off-limits to all motorized traffic except farm vehicles. Late in the morning on the way into the town of Ladenburg for lunch, the guide and driver demonstrated a company stratagem designed to protect cyclists when it's necessary to use a two-lane highway. The van brings up the rear as a sweep, keeping cars and trucks from passing the rank of cyclists.

Never mind that the impatient motorists blew around the van and us too, there was enough biking room on the far right, and in minutes we were sitting down to huge luncheon pancakes filled with bits of ham and bowls of a cream soup made with the white spring asparagus so plentiful in the area.

WunderBiking tours allow for plenty of sightseeing time, often inspired by Mr. Uhlig's personal interest in history and architecture. Ladenburg is perhaps best known for a house (now a museum) where Carl Benz perfected the benzine-driven auto and later - adding his daughter's name, Mercedes, to his own - developed a storied highway machine.

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Late that afternoon we breezed along the forested Philosophers Way leading to the pretty university town of Heidelberg. In a gathering thunderstorm we walked our bikes quickly across the Old Bridge and up to the portals of the Zum Hotel Ritter near the market square.

After a day on the trail the first priority is a bath, then a visit to the nearest bakery or cafe. Dodging the droplets, I settled into a cafe on the main street and, despite the nearness of the dinner hour (in the Zum Ritter's fine dining room), indulged in a slice of spicy, jam-filled Linzer Schnitte.

Next morning, the sun shining again, we pedaled through the deep Heidelberg forest, passing only an occasional hiker or jogger, heading south for the night's stop in Bretten.

After lunch in Horrenberg (plates of the tender yellow asparagus, served two-dozen different ways in some restaurants) we were lifted by van to Bruchsal. There we toured the totally rebuilt rococo castle destroyed by Allied bombs the night of March 1, 1945. Now our leader put us on a train from Bretten while the driver, 23-year-old Martin Klug, who is also a trained Terranova guide, ferried the bikes ahead on his flatbed trailer.

Once you get the WunderBiking system into your blood, you can't get enough of it. Late in the afternoon we retrieved our bikes outside the Hotel Krone in Bretten and took off on a rather freewheeling excursion, with the conscientious Mr. Uhlig in the lead. We followed him on a narrow, muddy path along a steepsided ravine, then through a forest he had never mapped.

Eight kilometers from Bretten we rolled into the stunning, half-timbered village of Maulbronn and sat down in the main Platz for a cold drink. Now the hidden beauty of WunderBiking Tours asserted itself. Too tired to bike back and late for dinner anyway, we were treated to a ride home in the omnipresent van.

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