Slowing down lifes pace by pedalling and snacking from New York to Montreal
Shifting gears on my rented chunky French bike somewhere north of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., I was overcome by the beguiling smell of chicken. Along the gently curved slope of Route 9, I climbed a hill at Cherry Choke Road and came upon PJ's Bar-B-Que, a funky roadside rib shack that had been sending smoke signals over the bike path. I was midway through a five-day journey from Brooklyn to Montreal, but I had to throw down my kickstand. Like all good road trips, this one was being paused temporarily on account of unforeseen circumstances: in this case, home-cooked ribs and chicken.
My journey to the Tour de l'Ile - a 52-kilometre circuit through Montreal each June - was arranged and paid for by Velo Quebec to promote an increasingly popular pastime: the long-distance bicycle trip. Canadians love cycling, buying almost 1.5 million bikes a year and spending close to $1 billion on equipment. Thanks to travel companies such as Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com) in Toronto and City by Cycle (citybycycle.com) in Vancouver, long-distance bike trips are no longer the sole domain of super-athletes in fluorescent clothes.
"The demographic is definitely changing," says Philip Guest, founder of Nova Scotia's Free Wheeling Adventures (freewheeling.ca), which offers cycling trips through Israel, North Africa and Western Canada. "Bike tours aren't designed to be strenuous," Guest says. "They're designed to slow down life's pace."
As I set out from Brooklyn en route to Montreal, I noticed that New York is doing its bit to make the Big Apple bike friendly. In May, a section of Times Square was permanently closed to motorists, and there are bike paths along the Hudson River where cyclists can travel from the Upper West Side to Ground Zero without encountering a single traffic light. Zigging and zagging like a courier through Manhattan is an adrenalin rush. And there's nothing quite like pausing on Canal Street to negotiate a good price on a fake Rolex from the perch of one's bike.
On most high-end tours, there's a mechanic who drives a van with a trailer for shlepping the bikes, because on many long tours it eats up too many vacation days to cycle the entire distance. (Brooklyn to Montreal is 500 kilometres, but our group of 12 cyclists, ranging in age from 22 to 67, cycled only about 250 km of the distance covered).
On the first day, our route took us out of New York City into Poughkeepsie, into the Hudson River Valley, then headed north through Dutchess County to FDR's birthplace in rural Hyde Park (pedalling, one inevitably connects with local history). We circumnavigated the 100 km from the Hyde Park Brewing Co. to Saratoga National Historical Park, whereupon we dismounted from our cycles and jumped right into the mineral springs. Our schedule was loose, which made it easy to incorporate an unplanned nosh or impromptu dip. That night I slept soundly, muscles swollen.
My favourite moment came the next day at Mt. Defiance in Ticonderoga, N.Y. A detour off the Lake Champlain Bikeways - 2,000 km of bike paths through New York, Vermont and Quebec - mile-high Mt. Defiance twists and turns as it narrows and, for a moment, I felt I was riding into the sun. At the top of Defiance, looking over both Lake George and Lake Champlain, I struck the Titanic pose over the prow of my bicycle and decided, right there and then, it would be fine on this trip to have the local black raspberry ice cream after every meal.
But there was more to our five days on the road than dessert. At Lock 12 in Whitehall, N.Y., about 200-km south of Montreal, flags flew at half-staff to honour an American infantryman killed in Iraq. When you're seeing the countryside on a bike, flea markets, chicken stands and reminders of political reality are all necessary stops on the road.
We cycled through bitty towns like Plattsburgh and Coopersville, then, after heading north out of Vermont, we approached Quebec at Rouses Point. I pedalled up to the Canadian border.
"You guys are cycling 500 kilometres?" observed the guard. "Jesus, after 20, my legs are shot." Seeing our sweaty intergenerational crew, the guard waved us through with amused disbelief.
In Canada, we traversed farmland flanking the Richelieu River and passed a $900 Volkswagen for sale on a lawn. Taking in the brightly coloured patisseries and cheese shops (with ads for such delights as blackberry poutine), I thought, "Toto, we aren't in Brooklyn any more."
It had been a long, uphill slog to Quebec's legendary Route Verte, which connects Ottawa to New Brunswick and was voted the greatest cycling route in the world by National Geographic Adventure magazine. We took the bike path into Chambly, where we waited for the ferry into Montreal with at least 50 riders from all over the northeast who were already there, giddy with anticipation for tomorrow's big ride.
One was Lorna Thompson, 64, a cyclist from Vermont. She and her group, called Local Motion, ride about 10 miles an hour and aim to cover 100 miles per day. "You know, I was 50 before I peed in the woods, 57 before I did my first bike trip," she told me.
When we boarded the ferry for Montreal, it looked like a modern-day Noah's arc: big bikes, small bikes, fancy ones with two seats and four pedals designed for riding with kids and the super-luxe gleaming-machines that probably cost as much as the boat.
Famous for its friendliness (and for the night ride the evening before the morning rally, where Montreal's famous nightlife gets to shine), the Tour de l'Ile is a bike rally and not a race - as officials repeatedly remind participants. This year, the 25th annual rally attracted 35,000 cyclists and plenty of bystanders, cheering from rooftops and front patios, shutting down traffic for as far as the eye could see. Montreal, at least for a couple of days, was definitely going to be a biker town.