August 24, 2011
During the last couple of days of the ride, I started to notice a new habit emerging. Where on my first day out from Longueuil, I was very focused and interested in making it to my next destination quickly, the closer I got to Quebec City, the more I wanted to draw out the ride and savour it. I felt no rush to get anywhere and though I wasn’t particularly tired, I’d take more opportunities to stop. I sipped my coffee slowly at the house before I hit the road. And then when I saw a cafe in Princeville, just a few KM from where I started off, I stopped yet again for a pastry and another coffee, neither of which I particularly needed. On the other hand, the thing about making stops like this was that it put off the inevitable end to a ride I’d really been enjoying. Not long after I left Princeville the trail returned to gravel.
As you can see I make pretty decent time on a gravel path and it’s quite smooth and pleasant. However, after nearly 400 km of gravel path, I was impatient to get on some paved paths and about 60 km from Quebec City, I got my wish. That was the good news. The bad news, however, was that the pavement came as the path came out of the woods into some fields near the road. Without the trees to block the wind I found that there was a pretty stiff headwind, one that made it difficult to maintain much more than 20 km/hr – a bit slower, even, than I had been on the gravel. But not long after I got to the paved stretch, I reached a milestone:
The ride from Toronto to Montreal was 600 km. I reset the odometer at Montreal and so, after 400 km on my own, I had traveled 1,000 kilometres all under my own power. On the one hand this felt pretty amazing. The farthest I’d ever traveled from home by bike was to Montreal last year – and before that I had never gone more than 100 km on what at the time was a long and difficult ride. Now here I was, a distance ten times farther than that. On the other side of it, though, it was great to think of how far I’d come. Prior to 2007, the last time I’d ridden a bike regularly had been probably the summer of 1986 before I got my license. In 2007, I got a bike so that I could ride along with my son who had just won a bike of his own. In a few weeks, though, I got inspired to try to ride further than that eventually getting to the point where I would commute 40 km round trip to/from work several days a week. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I decided to try anything longer than that. So in essence, it had taken me two seasons to get to the point where I could ride this far. To put it a different way: if you have been reading this and thinking this was some great athletic effort that took years of preparation and immense physical ability to do, you’re wrong. I know many on the ride to Montreal who didn’t start training for the ride until 3-4 months beforehand. So if you’re sitting on the fence about possibly doing a long ride of your own – even if you haven’t been on a bike in a few decades, consider this your push over the edge. You absolutely can do it.
Fortunately an hour or so after I hit the worst of the headwind, I found myself back in the trees again – and nearly ready to kiss the gravel I rode on. I was back up to 24-25 km/hr and closing in on Quebec City rapidly. And about 30 km outside Quebec City the road turned back to pavement and stayed in the woods so I got the best of both worlds as you can see:
The last 30 km seemed to fly by. Not long after the road turned to pavement, I found myself ending up on a busy suburban arterial road in Levis. However, before you all worry retroactively about my safety as you imagine my riding on a suburban Toronto or Dallas street, remember what province I am in. On the side of the road was a physically separated two-way bike lane – the kind cyclists in Toronto dream about.
20 minutes later I found myself at the iron bridge in the foreground of the previous picture. And again, this being Quebec, there was a bike path leading up to it and bikes were permitted on the sidewalk. The railings were made high enough that I had no worries about following over the side. The only difficult part was that the sidewalk was a bit narrow so when I met oncoming traffic I had to dismount and pull the bike very far over so they could squeeze by. The view, though, was stunning.
Once I got to the other side of the bridge, I was back in familiar territory, having spent 8 months in Quebec City on business and biked all around town for most of that time. However, that was 3 years ago, and surprisingly there seemed to be a ton of changes there as well with several more bike lanes added. There was a funny moment at one point on Grand Allee, one of the main streets in the city where I had stopped at a light. A pair of tourists came up to me and asked for some directions in English how to get to the mall, and what else there was to do. I stopped for a bit and gave them directions to both the mall and Rue St. Jean – a far better destination, in my opinion. When the light turned and I took off they thanked me and then remarked to each other, surprised – “Wow! He spoke perfect English!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I wasn’t from around there. And truth be told, in my experience, the majority of people, at least in the touristy parts of town, speak perfect English anyway.
As I approached the walls of Vieux Quebec, what I considered to be my “official” end point, I remembered my arrival in Montreal and how I thought I wouldn’t be overcome by emotion when I arrived and being proven wrong. Well, the same thing happened as I passed through the city gate. There was no police escort, no thumping bassline of dance music heard from several blocks away letting us know we were nearly there, no announcements or cheering crowds. All there was was a single man playing accordion – a lovely welcome in my opinion.
I rode a couple of blocks further until I got to the hotel I’d spent all my time in when I lived in Quebec. Luckily for me, I got there just in time to book the last room available (and at one point they thought they didn’t even have that one). Later, as I walked to dinner I found that most hotels and the hostel down the street were completely booked as well. After a long hot shower and a call home to let everyone know I’d arrived, I headed down my old street, proud of myself for what I’d done and already thinking of what would come next.
August 22, 2011
Either I was really sleepy or the sound and vibration insulation in the hotel was incredible as despite sleeping in an old train station next to a train switching yard, I neither heard nor felt one train in the night. Instead I awoke at about 6:00 refreshed and ready to go. I waited until the restaurant next door had opened and headed over for a simple breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and toast. And of course coffee – we all know what happens when I skip my morning coffee, after all. And once I had finished eating and loaded up my bike, I did as the owner of the hotel said: locked my door then hung my key up behind the counter and let myself out. While the owner was checking me in, I asked him if he knew where the Route Verte was and he confirmed that the path I was looking for was, indeed, the one that followed the train tracks to the east. And so I headed northeast alongside the train tracks.
Day 11 was a good day to remind me about what it means to be a cyclist on the Route Verte. For example, a couple hours into my ride, I came across a full service stop. Does your bike need repairs? No problem! Get them done here and while you wait for your bike to be fixed, grab yourself an ice cream. While I didn’t have a need for any repairs at this point, I certainly did appreciate the ice cream.
I continued further and as luck would have it, I found myself passing through Warwick, where my friend Tino suggested I stop at a fromagerie for lunch. (By the way, Tino took much of the same route I did but then continued back to Montreal along the north side of the St. Lawrence River. He took some fantastic photos along the way.)
I had a delicious lunch at the fromagerie but in addition to the fantastic food, I noticed what a role bicycles played in their business. When I parked my bike, the rack was almost completely full. And then, when I found a seat out on the patio most of those at the tables had bike helmets on themselves. But perhaps the most telling thing was that after I had finished eating and had payed my bill, my waiter caught me as I left and asked me if I needed to fill up my water bottles.
I continued onward to Victoriaville arriving in mid-afternoon My host gave me directions to her home using Victoriaville’s Velogare as a starting point. Again showing how bike-friendly this province is, in addition to the usual washrooms, tourist info, and places to refill your water bottles, you’ll even find showers here.
Not long after I arrived at the Velogare, I found myself at Dave and Anne’s home. And while I’m beginning to feel like a broken record, I’ll say that once again I was welcomed like a old friend. Dave helped me bring my things in and we put my bike in the living room. Before long, I was showered, changed, and enjoying a chat on the back porch while we waited for Anne to arrive.
After Anne arrived, we toured Victoriaville, looking at the nearby lake, driving to the top of the mountain with views of much of the ground I’d covered over the previous days. Finally we ended up at a monastery that was likely seeing its last generation of brothers going through. Once a busy monastery full of monks, now most are in their 60s and 70s and their numbers are dwindling as fewer and fewer people take the vows to join the order. The land that the monastery once had has now been donated to the city and I really enjoyed wandering through the grounds and visiting the gardens that are still kept up by the remaining brothers.
After that we went back to the house and had a fantastic dinner out on the back deck before going into the yard to sit by a campfire and chat for a few hours before heading off to bed where I slept beautifully on my last night. Well, beautifully except for the point where I woke up at about 2:00 AM convinced that I had made a huge mistake by wearing the 2011 Bike Rally jersey the previous day and now as this was my last day on the ride, all 300 riders would be expected to wear their jerseys. I got as far as pulling my jersey out of my bag to see if I could wash it before going back to sleep when I remembered: Yes, I was indeed intending to arrive in Quebec City the next day. However, I was the only rider on this portion of the ride and nobody would have any opinions about what I wore. I curled back up in bed and went to sleep.
August 21, 2011
When I woke up on Day 10, I took one look out the window and was a bit disappointed. A storm was rolling in quickly and before long it hit full force, eventually even knocking out the power for a bit.
My hosts graciously offered to host me for an additional day but I resolved to watch the weather while I ate breakfast and see what it looked like. And after a bowl of oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts cooked in coconut milk, I looked outside and it seemed like the storms were going to move on – at least for a few hours. And so, I thanked my hosts, filled my water bottles, and headed out.
Google directed me out of Sherbrooke along a relatively busy road with hardly any curb lane. All in all, until I was well away from Sherbrooke, the riding was stressful and unpleasant. Of course that sounds worse than it really was. Relative to what I’d been enjoying it was pretty bad. Relative to some of Toronto’s suburbs (I’m looking at you, Mississauga) it was still quite pleasant. And eventually I escaped the city and made it out into the outskirts where the smell of exhaust gave way to those of woodsmoke and manure.
Eventually, I came to an intersection where Route Verte #1 crossed the road and I was able to get away from the cars again. Looking at my map I saw that just north of Sherbrooke there was another stretch of trail marked as steep and poorly maintained. However, it looked as if I had passed that by and so joined the trail. However, after some time, I began to get the sinking feeling that perhaps that part lay ahead and if that was the case I wanted to avoid that stretch and take the road instead having had such great success with that approach the previous day. And so, when the trail crossed the road I sat and deliberated a bit. With few cell towers around from which my phone could guess my position, google maps wasn’t particularly useful guessing my position to within 5 km or just over 3 miles. Not particularly useful. Looking at the signs I guessed that my best bet would be to turn left and see if that would bring me to a main road that led north. The road led down some great hills that let me relax and coast a bit and enjoy the speed for a bit.
After a few km, the paved road turned to dirt. Not the most comforting thing I could have seen. I passed a few roads but when I put them into google maps, I had no luck, often being given locations hundreds of km from where I was. Eventually, though, after a few more km, I found a farm with its address written on it and it came up in google maps. Sadly, where it came up was back in the outskirts of Sherbrooke. In other words, I’d gone in a bit of a circle. I decided that best thing to do was to cut my losses, turn back around, and head up the hill to the path and take it regardless of the condition. And so I started back. And to add insult to injury, the weather chose that moment to bring on a bit of drizzle. Apparently, mother nature, unable to provide a sad musical soundtrack for me decided to give commentary in the best way she could.
In about 5 minutes, a minivan pulled up and a 60 something man who reminded me a great deal of my grandfather pulled up and said something I couldn’t understand in French. I told him my French was pretty bad and he switched to English letting me know I’d strayed far from the trail. He told me where the trail was (of course I knew that as I was headed there), but when I mentioned that the trail was a bit rough for my liking he said that that was no problem, I could easily bypass that part of the trail and pick it up later. All I needed to do was continue on this road to the village of Waterloo. I thanked him and he headed off leaving me to pedal back up the hill in the rain.
Fortunately the rain stopped, and after about 40 minutes, I found myself in Waterloo right near a sign for the Route Verte. Not wanting to get myself hopelessly lost again or to head back down to Sherbrooke one more time, I stopped on the side of the road and broke out the map again. After about a minute I heard a shout behind a playground fence off in the distance. It was the man from the minivan calling me over. I ran over to him and he told me that I was on the right track and only needed to continue straight ahead to make my way toward Victoriaville.
And so, once again confident of my directions, I continued onward. The road eventually turned from being paved to a dirt road much like the one I’d grown up on with hardly any cars to be seen.
After some time on the dirt road, I was directed to another bicycles-only path along the Saint-François River. As I rode along the path, the wind began to pick up and it looked as if another storm might come in. It seemed like as good a time as any to take a snack break and so when the next rest stop with a shelter came up, I took advantage of it.
A bit of rain did eventually come along but barely any worth noting and so I had a couple of my carrot cake bars, drank a bit of water, and prepared to get back on the road again. I did take a wander down to the edge of the river. The Saint-François River reminded me a lot of the White River near where I grew up and I felt a bit of regret that I didn’t bring along a bathing suit on this trip.
Finally, though, I knew that if I didn’t continue now I might just end up relaxing in the shelter all afternoon – which could mean that I’d end up sleeping there for the night at the rate I felt I’d be going before long. And so I got back on my way, making it to the next major city, Melbourne, before long. In Melbourne, I crossed the river and entered the town of Richmond where the path turned north again, crossed some railroad tracks, went a bit further and then abruptly ended. I went back and checked it out again from where the bridge entered the town and still no luck. All there was was a trail that continued a bit past the tracks with a sign indicating that it was part of the Trans-Canada trail (which I’d been riding all along). There was another gravel trail that followed the train tracks east, but there was no Route Verte sign on them and there was even a sign detailing a bunch of daily, weekly, and monthly usage fees. Figuring that the trail went further north along the road I continued onward. After a short distance I lost any indication of a bike route, but I did find a restaurant with a patio and as it was nearly 3:00 PM, I was definitely ready for lunch. As I sat on the patio waiting for my fish and chips, another storm rolled in and then back out – this one a bit stronger than the one that came by as I sat by the river a few hours before.
Once I’d finished my lunch, I consulted google maps which directed me to the main road between Richmond and Victoriaville. After some trial and error, I found it and concluded that it was much worse than the road into Sherbrooke. In fact, it was actually a bit scary – filled with many large transport trucks and without any curb lane to speak of. I rode back into town and tried to look for the Route Verte again.
I finally rode back into town and stopped just down the street from what appeared to be an old railway station and opened up my map. As I stood there straddling my bike reading my map someone called to me. I looked up and there were a pair of cyclists on the other side of the road heading for the Depot. I headed up to meet them and we had the same question for each other – where the hell did the trail go? The couple, a man from the south of France along with his Torontonian girlfriend had been riding from Longueuil and were on their way to Quebec as I was. And, in fact, as I looked at his partner’s bike, I recognized it. She was the person from whom I’d heard that Granby was out of hotel rooms several days earlier. Meanwhile, it was not only getting later, another nasty storm appeared to be headed for town. I’d had enough, and it seemed to be something of a message that the Depot we were at happened to be a hotel. A note on the front door instructed us to use the phone outdoors to call the proprietor for service. Within 5 minutes he arrived and let us into his hotel. There was only one other room occupied and so we each booked a room. The Hotel de la Gare appeared to be stuck in a time warp. Not only were there no telephones or Internet available in any of the rooms, there wasn’t even cell phone service available. On the other hand, the rate was 1/4 that which I spent at the Chateau Bromont, and the room had everything I needed, was quiet despite the proximity to the railroad tracks, and was spotlessly clean. I wheeled my bike in and proceeded to shower and took a few notes about my recent travels.
Eventually dinner rolled around and I decided to wander out into the town. Though it was early in the evening – no later than 7 PM, everything seemed to be closed and the town was deserted. As I left the hotel I managed to get some cell phone service and let folks who follow the twitter account for this ride know where I was. More than one person suggested that perhaps I’d unwittingly stepped into a horror film – perhaps Psycho. Fortunately that was not the case though I never did see anyone outside the hotel all the way across town to the pizza place – the only restaurant that appeared to be open.
After dinner I headed back toward the hotel under a nearly-full moon listening for any sound of life – cars, people, dogs, and not really hearing anything. As I got closer to the hotel, I said a quick goodnight to everyone on twitter telling them where they should send help if they didn’t hear from me in a day or two before heading back into the hotel from the past.
August 20, 2011
I awoke on Day 9 to a bit of somewhat concerning news. The forecast was calling for a good chance of showers – 60% to be exact. I weighed my options. On the one hand, I could relax in bed, have a leisurely breakfast and maybe write a couple entries for here. On the other hand, after a couple of hours, staying in a hotel would get pretty boring. I’m not a big fan of television, I didn’t bring any books to pass the time, and there’s only so much web browsing one can stand on an iPod’s screen. I resolved to go downstairs, grab breakfast, and make my decision when I got back upstairs.
When I looked outside, it was overcast but not actually raining. At that point I thought back to Day 2 and realized that if I couldn’t handle a little rain I had no business being on this ride. So, as nice as the idea of slipping back under the covers and sleeping the day away sounded, I gathered my things and went out to the shed to pack my bike and pulled it around to the front of the hotel to check out.
Getting back to the path was far easier than finding the hotel was and before long I was back on the Route Verte and headed eastbound again. And about 10 km in I stopped at another tourist information centre where I got another bit of helpful information. The woman in the centre asked if I had skinny tires (I don’t) and mentioned that while the Route Verte goes up Mount Orford, the trail is quite rough and very steep. She suggested an alternate route along Highway 112 that those with road bikes use. I opted for that one and when the trail crossed Route 112, I hit the road.
After riding on mostly gravel trails for over 100 km, riding on the road was something of a dream. My speed picked up and the kilometres seemed to fly by. At the same time, instead of the storms that had been forecast, I was now in the middle of a gorgeous sunny day. Finally, it was lunchtime and I found myself entering the village of Eastman. Though it seemed that most of the businesses were closed, a health food store was open that had a kitchen. And actually, it appeared to have an entire house attached where a young father and mother were taking care of their ~3 year old while they worked. I ordered a greek pizza and sat out on the porch to wait for it. While I waited I talked with the owner about my ride so far, including how much I had been enjoying cycling in Quebec. Finally, though, the pizza arrived and it was as delicious as it looked.
After lunch I refilled my water bottles and headed out on the road. However, I didn’t make it more than a couple of kilometres before I had to stop again. This time for “Les Beignes Dora” a bakery with coffee and donuts. I pulled over and ordered a maple donut and a coffee and went back outside to drink my coffee and watch the world go by. I was beginning to think that while the roads might make for faster cycling, the extra speed could easily be offset by all the great things I found to stop for!
Finally, on a bit of a sugar high, and well-caffeinated, I got back on the road and continued east toward Magog. As I went, the wind began to change and I picked up something of a tailwind that made the riding easier and put my average speed back up to about 27 km/hr again. Eventually I rolled into Magog and found myself on another lovely paved path along the shores of Lake Memphremagog. The longer I rode the harder it was to make progress with all of the beautiful scenery.
I took a break to look at my map and I estimated that I had about 20-30 km to my next host’s house depending on where they lived in Sherbrooke. However the sign I saw later seemed to indicate something completely different.
I made the decision that I would stay on the road all the way to my next host’s home. After a bit of confusion trying to find my way to the road out of Magog, I found myself on something of a hellish suburban arterial. Fortunately, though, there was a curb lane for much of it so while it was ugly, it didn’t feel particularly unsafe. Meanwhile, I noticed that the wind was picking up even more, and off in the distance to the west was a rather scary bank of clouds that looked not unlike the ones I tried unsuccessfully to outrun on Day 2. I picked up my pace and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t get drenched again.
The closer I got to Sherbrooke, the bigger the tailwind got. Unfortunately, at the same time, it was clear I’d be racing this storm to my host’s house. Finally, I made it to Sherbrooke by the time the tailwind had reached it’s peak. It was so windy, in fact, that with only a little extra effort I rode into the city at just under 60 km/hr – about 37 mph down Boulevard Bourque. The further into the city I got, though, the busier the traffic got. Fortunately, though, I was going fast enough most of the time to just take the lane and keep up with the automobile traffic – a much better alternative to going slowly and being passed too close as everyone tried to squeeze by. And, of course, the other advantage was the fact that maintaining 35-40 km/hr meant I would be that much more likely to beat the storm that was bearing down on me.
Finally, after a few consultations with google maps, I managed to find my way to my host’s street at which point I learned something about Sherbrooke. It has some serious hills. The last one before their home was even bigger than the one I had to climb to get to the ski resort. But on the positive side, I did manage to beat the rain.
When I arrived I was warmly welcomed by Eric and Josiane who made me instantly feel at home. Like my partner, Sage, Eric is also a storyteller, and like me, Josiane works behind the scenes providing what I might call “creative support” but also acting as something of an agent. So we spent much of the evening talking about storytelling, soon finding out that Sage, my son, and I had seen Eric perform when he was last in Toronto a few years back instantly making it feel like an incredibly small world. Eventually the topic turned, as it often seems to when couchsurfing, to travels and they both shared some fascinating stories about their travels, Eric having recently returned from Serbia, and Josiane having visited Iran twice, including one trip in which she spent several months there studying Farsi. And of course a visit to a storyteller wouldn’t be considered complete without having heard another of his fantastic stories.
Though it was a short day of riding by comparison, I was still quite sleepy and ended up going to bed relatively early that night, hardly waking up once that night, and, mercifully, not once waking up and looking for any of my teammates or worrying that I might have somehow missed a Bike Rally departure.
August 19, 2011
Day 8 arrived and I woke up with a start. Where was my team? When were we supposed to leave? Did I sleep through breakfast? Yes, apparently I was still traumatized by having missed breakfast 3 days earlier and my subconscious was being extra careful to make sure I didn’t screw anything else up.
Once I woke up enough to realize that I was in no danger of riding with an empty stomach and that riding alone was going to be the plan, I headed downstairs. My morning was remarkably like any morning at home – start the coffee and breakfast, check email, take care of the cats letting one out and another back in. At the same time, though, I was already planning my departure. As my host was still asleep, I didn’t actually start packing but had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done. And soon enough Hélène awoke and I finished my packing, loading my bike up for the next leg of the trip. I did notice one thing, however. Without a strict start time, my natural tendencies took over and instead of heading out at 8:30 or 9:00 like I had always thought I would do in my imaginings of the ride, I actually didn’t get on the road until about 11:00. The good news, though, was that I actually knew where I was headed, and after only about 100 metres on the street, I was on a dedicated path.
The first part of the path was of the quality I’d come to know pretty well over the next several days. Called “stone dust” on the maps, it was actually a better surface than it appears to be. The surface was not as loose as it looks so while it did provide a bit of drag, it didn’t feel slippery at all. The best part, though, was that it was almost completely bump free so the ride in the end was smoother and far better than what I experienced on the Thousand Islands Parkway. And even better: by the time I reached the edge of Longueuil, it had turned back into pavement. At this point I ran into a 50something couple on high end carbon bikes who were out for a quick morning ride. They were intrigued by my long bike and asked how much it weighed (probably a bit over 70 lbs now) and how it was to pedal. My answer after several days of riding was now much different. Now it was “Not too bad – it’s obviously heavier but you get used to it.” I ended up proving to myself just how much I’d come along by keeping pace with them at over 35 km/hr as we rode down the path. It was nice after weeks of worrying that I might not be able to manage a heavily-loaded bike to find that it wasn’t going to be a problem at all.
The pavement continued until I got to the town of Chambly at which point the path turned southward on the Chambly Canal at which point there was only very occasional pavement for the next 30 km or so and my average speed slowed down to about 22 km/hr. On the other hand, the views were quite lovely.
The path along the canal was full of people of all ages – lots of people who from the looks of their bikes were from the area, and a couple other riders who were going a longer distance with panniers strapped to the front and back of their bikes.
Eventually the time came for me to stop for lunch. Ever since I started planning this route, I had joked that I should power the whole trip on poutine. By that theory, a dish of french fries, gravy, cheese curds and (as in one of my preferred types) sliced hot dogs, should have all the fats, salt, carbs, protein and fat a cyclist needs to succeed in a ride. And while it was a joke, I did think it appropriate to have my first road food be a meal of poutine. But the challenge was to actually find food. One of the things about the Route Verte – or at least this route is that it’s relatively isolated from towns. It rarely passes directly through a town and so what I found over the course of the ride was that unlike on a road trip where you might pass restaurants frequently, or at least billboards advertising them, you’ll have to watch the map and see when you’re coming through a larger town and be sure to stop and look around if lunch is going to be soon. And so at Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, when the trail crossed the main road, I turned toward the town instead of continuing along the trail. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was back sharing the road with traffic when, not 100 feet from where I entered the road, a kid gave a blood-curdling scream out the passenger window to try to startle me as he passed. It might be noted, however, that after 8 months of daily commuting to/from work in Quebec City, and probably 60-70 km on the road on this trip, this was the only unpleasant interaction I’ve had with a driver (not including those caused by inattention). Finally, after a half a kilometre or so, I arrived at a little drive-up casse-croûte (snack bar) where I ordered a poutine avec saucisses. I did make the mistake, however, of ordering a medium. Even burning all the calories I had (and would) burn, this was just too much food. Still, the little bit I did have was enjoyable.
Now completely satiated, it was time to get back on the road and head for Granby where, not having found a couchsurfing host, I hoped to find a nice B&B for the night. I rode back up the main road, not encountering any obnoxious kids, and was back on the path again. After about another 90 minutes I found myself in Farnham and looking up I saw two people in parachutes coming down into a nearby field. And a few minutes later I passed Parachutisme Nouvel Air and in fact the path went right by their property. I briefly wrestled with the idea of doing a tandem jump but eventually decided the cost and time it might take were more than I wanted to spend that day and I moved on.
And it was a good thing I didn’t take that extra time because by the time I arrived at the Farnham information centre, I overheard another couple of cyclists saying that apparently there was an auto show in Granby that night and that as a result there were no rooms left in the town. And so, I had to make a quick decision – hopefully one that did not involve my sleeping under the stars as I’d sent my tent back to Toronto already. I looked on my map and with the last 5% of my cell phone’s charge, called a few places in Bromont. The first place I called was also completely booked and so I finally called the Hotel Chateau Bromont. As it turned out, not only did they have a room available, they had one that included dinner and breakfast. And though it was a few km out of my way, the thought of staying in a really nice hotel really beat the idea of cowering in the bushes being eaten alive by mosquitoes and hoping it didn’t rain.
And so now I was committed to another 20 km or so of riding – another hour before I would be able to have dinner and relax a bit. But the day was beautiful, everyone else on the trail seemed happy and so life was good. And it was about to get even better just a few km from Bromont.
After about 60 km of gravel I was back on pavement and my speed could pick up a bit. And before long, I found myself heading in to Bromont. And like so many towns and cities in Quebec, cycling was integrated beautifully into the city plan. In this case, the trail I was on routed through a strip mall before heading south to the hotel.
But you’d think I would’ve learned from my experience finding my previous night’s lodging and I would have managed to get detailed directions to where I was going. But no, I really had no more information other than the address of the hotel. And with 5% battery remaining in my phone, I had to be extremely judicious as to what I used it for. I consulted google maps for directions and got the same sort of directions as I’d learned to expect in Quebec. Lots of general “bear right towards X street” that implied that I might find a path or bike lane somewhere but nothing definitive enough to make it possible for me to easily find it. But using google’s directions as a guideline, I headed south and as I did I was reminded of what the “-Mont” in BroMONT meant. It meant that there were going to be some pretty big hills at the end of my day.
Finally, I found my way to another hotel that looked to be in the general vicinity of the hotel I was going to and asked them for directions. As it turned out, it was only about 500 metres from where I was. Fortunately there was a nice big downhill ride to get there. Unfortunately it was followed by an even bigger uphill at the other side. The last 100 metres as I pulled in to the hotel were the some of the steepest I’ve ever climbed but I was rewarded with a nice hotel and a nice view.
When I arrived I got another insight into what it’s like to cycle in Quebec. When I checked in I asked them if there was bike parking. Indeed there was. A few clicks on her keypad and my card was now able to not only open my room but a large shed in the back where bikes could be safely locked. I parked the bike, unloading only those things I needed and headed in. It was now almost 8:00 PM – 9 hours after I left Longueuil.
After a long day like that, a long hot shower is always heaven. And that night, dinner was fantastic – a four course meal of gazpacho (with basil foam – an odd concoction that looked like whipped cream and tasted like basil), crab stuffed trout, salad, and bittersweet chocolate cake for dessert. However, I probably would’ve appreciated it even more had I not been quite so tired. I spent much of dinner trying really hard not to fall asleep at the table.
The night ended in a really comfortable bed. And like every night I fell asleep almost instantly. And like many nights on the trip I awoke in the middle of it, once again wondering if I had somehow missed the Bike Rally departure and wondering where in the world all the other riders and crew went.
August 19, 2011
Not long after I arrived, my host, Hélène arrived home from work. I was welcomed like an old friend and after I had a shower, she asked all about my travels to date while her two cats introduced themselves themselves to me. Then, over dinner – grilled sausages and salad in the back yard, we began to plan the next day – a busy day checking out Montreal.
Despite staying up pretty late talking (for someone who woke up at 5:00 AM and then biked over 100 km), I found myself awake and ready to go at 6:00 AM. I had hoped to be able to sleep in on my rest day but my brain seemed to have been trained and was, in fact, quite ready to go. I made my way downstairs and made a bit of coffee and caught up on some email. As I drank my coffee the bells of the church down the street began to play a beautiful song while the sun streamed in the windows.
After Hélène woke up we headed out to the market and picked up things for breakfast: ham, eggs, cheese, bread, and fresh croissants from the bakery down the street. Along with that we picked up the newspaper to find out what was happening in the city that day. And after a huge breakfast and even more coffee, we packed up and headed into the city.
Our first stop was on the top of Mount Royal – Beaver Lake. As we went up the mountain I admired the cyclists heading up the mountain. Sure, I’d already come over 600 km, but these people were powering up a really steep hill like it was absolutely nothing. Of course the reward at the end would be to be able to ride back down. And having done a few training rides up the Niagara Escarpment, I can tell you that often those rewards can be pretty sweet.
Once we got there, we found a place that rented Pedalos – pedal boats. As it sounded fun, we booked one for a half an hour and headed out on the lake. While we were out there Hélène noticed that Luck Mervil had also decided to spend his morning there. We pedaled around for a while, enjoying the day. About half way through I had to laugh as I realized that here I was – having a day off and still pedaling.
After making our way back to the dock and having our photo taken, we headed back downtown destined for the Old Port. Our intent was to wander around there for a bit, grab a bit of lunch and then make our way over to the Parade Des Jumeaux. As we walked through the city it seemed that we couldn’t turn a corner without running in to a huge wedding party spending what looked to be immense amounts of money all for one day – something I have absolutely zero understanding of (but that’s neither here nor there…)
All went as planned until the parade. We found the parade staging area, we found several of the twins as well, but somehow we never actually saw the parade itself. Still it was a great time. This year the theme was “weddings” and so between all the weddings that day and the Bike Rally’s unexpected participation in someone else’s wedding photos, I was beginning to sense a theme.
After the parade we made our way back to the car, eventually ending back up in Longueuil. Once we were back we stopped at the grocery store to pick up things for dinner (brochettes, salad, and rice), and also for me to pick up a few snacks for the next day’s ride. I’m not terribly fond of the energy bar selection most grocery stores have but this one did have some “carrot cake muffin bars” that didn’t look too bad. And as it turned out they were actually quite good – so good that I was sad to eat the last one three days later.
After dinner, though, the day was still not over. After the sun set we headed back into Longueuil and stopped at an ice cream parlour where we both got soft serve vanilla cones – except in this case they were extra-decadent as unlike a typical soft serve cone, this one had real maple syrup drizzled on it following the cone’s twist.
Ice cream in hand we headed back toward Montreal and worked our way up the Jacques Cartier bridge which was now closed to traffic to provide space to observe the finale of the Montreal International Fireworks Competition – in this case 30 minutes of what might in many cases be the finale elsewhere. And thanks to the wonders of youtube, you can see it here:
As the fireworks finished, we worked our way back to the house where we chatted a bit more before it was time to go to sleep. I definitely needed a good night’s sleep as the next day I would be back on another ride that promised to be well over 100 km.
August 18, 2011
The night before the last day of the official Bike Rally started with something that would start to become a habit over the next week or so: waking in the middle of the night with confused anxiety about the ride. Perhaps it was missing breakfast the morning of Day 5, or maybe it was something else entirely, but my subconscious began to be convinced I was going to screw something up big time on the Rally. In this case, I went to bed at about 10:00 PM just as the night’s social event – a dance in a nearby tent – began to heat up. Still, there’s nothing like riding over 100 km to make it possible for you to sleep under nearly any conditions. An hour or so later, however, the dance ended. It was the ending that woke me up as I heard one of the co-chairs of the Bike Rally speaking over the PA thanking everyone for coming and making a few announcements before shutting down for the evening. However, in my exhausted and disoriented state, I woke up and was convinced for a moment that what I was hearing was the morning announcements and that in the next 10-15 minutes everyone would be leaving for Montreal. And not only had I not had breakfast this time, I hadn’t even packed up my camp! It was only about 30 seconds of panic, quickly cured by my noticing that it was still very dark, but it was really startling.
The next morning I was wide awake before 5:00 AM and was ready to go. Not wanting to wake others with the sounds of my putting my camp away, I took my blackberry to the washroom and plugged it in and let it recharge while I waited for it to be a reasonable hour. Time passed quickly, and as others woke up, I started to put my things away. This time, however, I had to carefully pack. While others would be taking all their things out of their bins and carrying them back on a train in luggage, I was only taking part of it along on the bike. The remainder would be sent back on a truck instead of my bike. So I divided my things into two bins. One bin would hold everything I intended to bring to Quebec City and the other would be sent home. Tent, some laundry, dishes and the red dress from day 3 went into the Toronto-bound bin. The second bin held two compression sacks wrapped inside waterproof bags. One contained a few day’s worth of clothes. The second held my sleeping bag and pillow. In addition to that I had a small sack that held all of my snacks, a few tools, and my iPod and Blackberry. Finally, I had a backpack with my toiletries, maps of my route, and a bluetooth keyboard for the iPod which I had intended to use to write these entries but which turned quite flaky and was hardly usable.
Once I was packed, I went to breakfast and ended up having breakfast with some of the folks responsible for marking the route ahead and learned of a new twist that had just come up. A bit of construction would add a rather annoying detour. After getting that update, I was glad to have the opportunity to thank them for the great work they did. After all – though I carried maps with me on the trip, I can’t think of any time I actually needed to look at them. I just followed the coloured markings on the pavement – often accompanied by cheering Road Safety volunteers at various turns.
Day 6 is the only day we have a really hard and fast timeline as we needed to be in Lachine to gather as a group and ride in single-file along the Lachine canal to Old Montreal where we were to meet our police escort. And because the police pushed our schedule back a bit, we ended up leaving 30 minutes earlier than usual with an abbreviated bit of stretching.
And then we were off. If on Day 5 I felt as if I had used the previous days to warm up for the ride, this was even more true today. I felt stronger than ever and kept up a good pace – averaging about 26 km/hr – not too bad with a bike that weighed well over 40 lbs. The mood was overwhelmingly positive and in about a half an hour we reached the Quebec border. Many of us stopped to get photos with the border sign (mine didn’t come out well enough to share, sadly) before moving on.
And here is the first of what will likely be many comments on cycling in Quebec: It is immediately evident upon crossing the border that you’re in a province with a completely different attitude toward cyclists. Not long after the border we found ourselves on a bike lane that after a few kilometres became physically separated. At one point we had to cross a busy highway. To do this, we were directed to a bridge accessible by biking up a ramp in the shape of a corkscrew, over the bridge, and down another corkscrew at the other side. No hauling a bike up the stairs was necessary. This velotopia went on for quite some time until the detour was reached. At that point, the path was closed for highway construction and we were directed onto a rough gravel track – one that was too rough for most folks to ride on and so we ended up pushing our bikes through something of a desolate wasteland for about 3 kilometres. Eventually, though, we made it through and spent a bit longer on some country roads before ending up at lunch.
Lunch was not my usual leisurely experience. This time, as we were on a tight timeline we were given pre-made boxed lunches with sandwiches and chips. I ate mine quickly and got back on the road.
The post-lunch trip seemed longer than usual – particularly those through the outer Montreal suburbs. Still, they were beautiful parts of town and so while it took a while, the scenery was lovely. My favourite part of this stage, though, was passing a group of 3-4 boys of about 10-12 years old. They all wanted high fives as we passed, and as we gave them they shouted out “You’re doing a great job! You can make it!” There was something especially sweet about their being there to welcome us – without even a parent’s bringing them there. Eventually, though, we arrived at Lachine where we were met by Scotiabank staff (one of our major sponsors) with chilled fruit cups, freezies and good wishes. After enjoying a snack, it was time to move on. We headed down the canal in single-file with our next destination the Old Port.
As we rolled into the city, en masse, we encountered an odd sight. After 30 minutes of riding close together calling out every potential obstacle to those behind us: “Oncoming bike! Pothole! Slowing!” we heard a new obstacle being announced: “BRIDE!” There, in this deserted street in an industrial area of the city was a bride and photographer in the middle of the road. Not missing a beat the photographer motioned for us to stream on both sides of her as he got photos of her surrounded by identically dressed cyclists.
After a relatively short wait in the old port, all of us were in and we were told that the police were ready for us. We headed in, just as a gentle rain started to fall – four of us abreast headed for Rue Berri. Last year I found the arrival very emotional – it was hard not to be teary as we rolled in. But this year, I thought I would be immune to it. I was an old hand at this – and not only that, this wasn’t even my final destination. What a fool I was. I didn’t even make it to the end point – all I had to do was hear the loud music playing in the distance where I knew we’d arrive and see the cheering crowd and I was as teary as I’d been last year. The arrival is such a beautiful culmination of a wonderful experience. Hugs and congratulations were exchanged between riders, crew, and those who were waiting to see us arrive. And as the music played, the street filled with more and more riders and crew.
After the initial celebration the music stopped and announcements started. The co-chairs and others congratulated us not only on having cycled the whole way from Toronto to Montreal but for another amazing feat: together we had raised $1.237 million for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation.
As everyone else headed to the trucks to put their bikes on and gather their things from their bins, I headed over as well. I found my bins, and loaded everything I was taking on to my bike, said my goodbyes and then realized that while I had my couchsurfing host’s address, I hadn’t bothered to figure out just how I was going to get there. Fortunately for me I had charged my blackberry that morning and google maps gave me a suggestion as to how to get there. After a little confusion, I found my way to the Jacques Cartier bridge – a busy crossing from Montreal to Longueuil. Fortunately, though, there’s a bike path that leads to the bridge, and then right up over the bridge. Unfortunately, though, it’s a bit of a hill. And so I got my first taste of what climbing a hill with my bike would be like fully loaded and now weighing somewhere over 70 lbs. Surprisingly, though, it was far easier than I expected. The handling was only slightly different, and the pedaling not so difficult. The only noticeable change was that I did go a bit slower. Where I’d been averaging 26 KM/hr earlier in the day, I was now managing about 20-22.
The Montreal area is fantastic for cycling. It is filled with physically separated lanes, paths, and simple and safe ways to get just about anywhere. However, the challenge was to integrate that with google maps. Google maps does a great job of directing you from street to street. But it doesn’t do the best job of telling you how to get on a physically separated path that doesn’t follow a road. Directions are more like “Turn right *towards* (street name)” or simply “Turn left”. Eventually, though, after a bit of trial and error, I did find my way to my host’s house – a lovely home in the old section of Longueuil. Unfortunately, though, she wasn’t home from work yet. A friendly note instructed me, however, to make myself comfortable in the garden. And so I wheeled my loaded bike into the back yard and sat down – still only slightly more than half way from my goal with many adventures still ahead.
August 18, 2011
After two years on the Bike Rally I’m going to take a year off. My friends, coworkers, and strangers who sponsored me were incredibly generous and over two years pledged around $8,000 – more than I ever thought possible. Peoples’ generosity was really inspiring and did much to lessen my cynicism in a world that sometimes seems more than a little rude, selfish, and unkind. That said, I do want to give my friends’ wallets a break after pretty much continually asking for pledges from about December of 2009 to just about a month ago.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t be doing a long ride next summer. It also doesn’t mean I won’t be trying to bring more good into the world by doing it. And so I present next summer’s project – designed to continue to reduce both my own cynicism and hopefully yours as well:
Next summer I’ll be riding from here in Toronto – what many consider to be Canada’s least friendly and rudest city to what many agree holds that title in the United States: New York City. I won’t be asking for any mone. Instead I’ll be asking for a different contribution from you. Between today and my departure next summer I want to collect pledges of acts of kindness – at least 500 to be exact – so more than one a day. Like any charity ride, I know the pledges will vary in scale and can be as little as buying a coffee for someone or giving a friend in need a hug. I also know from some of the stories I’ve already heard that they can be pretty huge. The point is that while North American culture is portrayed as a cold, selfish one, I’m pretty sure that there’s still no shortage of good things being done without anything being expected in return. And having been on the receiving end of many such acts, I can also say that even the smallest acts can make someone’s day and make them more likely to pass the goodwill on.
Over the upcoming weeks I’ll be setting up a site to collect these pledges, and their associated stories and I’ll be sharing them with you. In the meantime, I’m collecting stories of acts of kindness you have received to encourage others to pledge by showing them how these acts are valued by those who receive them. If you have a story to share, please message me or contact me and do let me know if you would like to remain anonymous as well.
August 14, 2011
Day five started out pretty well – I woke up early and with lots of energy. So much energy, in fact, that I took down my tent, then helped other teammates pack up their things. By the time I’d finished that the day took a turn south. I grabbed my plate, cup, and fork and headed for the food tent only to find that it was completely finished. The food was packed away, the coffee poured out, and everyone was preparing to leave for the first break. I began to curse myself for not quitting coffee before I left as I had originally intended. Food wasn’t hard to come by – I had a few energy bars and other teammates gave me a couple as well so while I didn’t have my usual hearty breakfast of oatmeal, baked beans, and a scone, I had something to power my legs. But there would be nothing else for another 30 KM.
I headed out feeling pretty sorry for myself. And it went downhill from there. I was tired and not really enjoying a breakfast essentially made up of candy bars. After a short time a headwind compounded my grumpiness. By the time I was 10 KM from the first break I was in a lovely headspace. “This is it!” I thought. “I’m going to finish this stupid ride and then I’m going to go home and put the bike on craigslist. I hate riding a bike, I hate this ride, and I don’t even think I want to ride when I get home. It’ll be transit for me from now on. I can’t wait until I get back home and can trade this bike in for a transit pass. A transit pass to put me on a lovely air conditioned subway, book in one hand, coffee in the other. Mmmmm…What a nice picture that is…” And this is the internal dialog I got to listen to for over 30 minutes. But I was good – I didn’t get any of that on anyone else. As people passed and said their good mornings, I put on a cheerful face and greeted them right back. And eventually I got to the break where I looked at the water, ate a few snacks, and then headed back out – not much happier than when I arrived. But hey, I only had another 600 KM to go before I could find a lovely new home for this bike with someone who loved it.
I pulled out of the break and started heading east. Less than a KM later I saw a welcome sign: “Tim Hortons”. There was no time for a second thought – I turned in to the parking lot and ran inside. I didn’t have time for a leisurely hot coffee and breakfast sandwich so I did the next best thing: a large iced coffee and a couple of bagels for the road.
It’s a little embarrassing to say just how much of a transformation that created. By the time half of my coffee was gone I was no longer writing the craigslist ad for my bike in my head. And by the time I had finished my coffee I remembered that Day 5 is my absolute favourite day of the ride.
The best thing about Day 5′s ride is that much of it is on the bike paths near Cornwall. They start out winding through the trees near the main road but then before long you end up along the canals for what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful scenery of the Bike Rally. Further wonderful is that you don’t have to share the road with other cars. By the time I got to this point, my caffeine-withdrawal-fueled dreams of never riding a bike again had completely evaporated.
Eventually, though, the lovely ride along the water had to end and we turned north and sadly, into the wind. The temperature heated up to the point where despite the wind, the air felt hot and the heat radiating upward from the road made it feel even worse. This, plus the fact that I had to pedal even going downhill should have lead to another draft of my imaginary craigslist post. Instead, though, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I reached the next goal for the day – Dairy Queen.
The Lancaster Dairy Queen has been a big supporter of the Bike Rally for some time and has become a traditional stop near the end of Day 5. By the time I got there the parking lot was filled with cyclists enjoying treats. The management of the Dairy Queen reacted to our frequent patronage by offering to donate $0.50 per Blizzard or Royal Treat sold to the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. After a long hot ride from the cool edge of the river, I was very happy to have a sugar-filled treat.
One of the best things about that stop, though, is that it’s less than 3.5 km to our campground. So running on a sugar high, I headed east and came across this sign just a couple KM from the Dairy Queen.
August 14, 2011
As the ride went on, I began to have a love/hate relationship with the Xtracycle. On the one hand, I was pleased to have it. It was going to carry everything I needed from Montreal to Quebec. How could I not like *that*? And even better, it was my old bike – the one I rode to Montreal on last year. I’d ridden it for thousands of KM and knew it fit well. When clipped in to the pedals, it literally felt like a part of my body. On the other hand, it weighed over 40 lbs. My riding style was tuned to the weight of the old bike – over 15 lbs lighter. And so, I would try to keep pace with those who rode as fast as I would have followed in last year’s rally. But at this stage in the game my legs were not strong enough to do that. So I found myself working hard to keep up with other riders going 30-35 km/hr and then burning out until the next break. After a few days of this, though, I learned from these mistakes.
On Day 4, I had my first mechanical problem of the ride only about 20 km in to a 100 km ride. I shifted my gears and there was a grinding, and the chain leaped off the front sprocket and tried to wrap around my leg. My guess is the bike got knocked when it was in the truck and needed to be readjusted. I thought I caught it in time by shifting back down but it was too late. Before long I couldn’t pedal anymore and had to pull over. Looking at the chain I saw something I hadn’t seen before.
The chain had turned sideways at one point and could no longer grip the sprockets. I was dead in the water. Fortunately, though, within 5 minutes a Road Safety van had arrived, and another 5 minutes after that, the mechanic arrived. Turns out the problem was relatively simple – the chain is so long that it somehow added a loop in when it came off the sprocket. The solution was simple as well – use a chain breaker to open up the chain, remove the loop and reattach it. Very easy with a chain breaking tool, but unfortunately we had to call ahead to the mechanic van which was already at the next break and in the middle of working on someone’s bike. Finally, however, they arrived and the bike was fixed. Unfortunately, though, just as it was fixed, who should roll up but a pair of cyclists, one with a pink pushbroom head in his helmet a la a Roman Gladiator. These were the sweeps whose job it was to bring up the rear and, if necessary, put really slow riders’ bikes on the van and haul them to the campsite. By breaking down I was at risk of not getting to finish this leg of the trip under my own power. So much for pacing myself. Once I got started I pushed myself as hard as I could, taking only a few minutes at the first break to refill the water bottles and grab some snacks for the road. I continued to push myself to the limit, even bending the rules a bit taking the Thousand Islands Parkway instead of the (terribly paved, rutted, sand-covered, tree-root-wracked) bike path adjacent to it. While it isn’t officially supported, a good number of cyclists, particularly those with road bikes who might be brought down by sand on the trail or by a tree root under the pavement), take this route. I took it last year as well, as my experience with the trail was that the pavement was so bad I checked more than once to see if I had a flat that was slowing me down. In any case, by the time I’d reached lunch, I’d passed easily 40-50 other riders and was well away from the pink broom wearing boogiemen determined to make this ride “A trip from Toronto to Quebec City – well except for 60 km spent in a minivan”. By the end of Day 4, I was pretty tired, but surprisingly far less tired than I thought I would be. Could I possibly have managed to get used to this bike?