As you may have heard, I had a nice riding vacation the week before last. The drive home was a bit pressured because I was trying to stay out of the path of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, but until then, I had a great time.
Later posts will talk about different legs of the trip, but for now, I'd like to review the highlights.
Start: North Hero State Park, VT
Day 1: VT to Montreal
Day 2: Montreal to St. Jerome
Day 3: Shuttlebus from St. Jerome to Mont Laurier; then ride to Labelle
Day 4: Labelle to Val-David
Day 5: Val-David to Montreal
Day 6: Montreal to St-Jean-sur-Richelieu
Day 7: St-Jean to North Hero, then drive like mad before the storm!
I had wanted to go to Quebec because I was looking for a long rails-to-trails conversion, something like the Great Allegheny Passage that I had ridden the year before. Quebec has the P'tit Train du Nord, a 125 mile trail between Mont-Laurier and St. Jerome. Quebec also has an extensive network of conventional bike paths, called the Route Verte. As an added bonus, I would not be surrounded by the sounds of English. To me, a vacation feels more exotic if I need to work to communicate.
My biggest ride thus far was the GAP/C&O combo between the outskirts of Pittsburgh and Washington, DC last year. I will freely admit that I did not particularly train for this ride -- and I paid the price for it on the road. A few more high-mileage days in June and July would have done wonders for me.
I have very different impressions of the two main stages, the Route Verte and the P'tit Train du Nord. The PTdN, as mentioned, is a rails-to-trails conversion that goes through the Laurentian mountains. The northern end is paved; the southern half is packed gravel. They advertise a maximum 4% slope -- and that slope, I need to let you know, extends for kilometers at a time. I expected it to feel like the GAP, with plenty of stops along the route, little towns eager to support riders (and get some income in the process.) Instead...
Between Mont-Laurier and Labelle, it was a long way between towns. Sure, there were outhouses and waterfountains on the trail, and these were much appreciated. But after being spoiled by the GAP, I was surprised to come into towns and not find a bike shop, for example, near the trail. There are B&Bs and hotels, sure... but it was clear that tourism was not the focus of the towns along the trail. Better for the towns to have other sources of revenue and jobs, but I missed being fussed over.
Hotels and campgrounds that earn the "Cyclists welcome!" seal to use in their advertising have to do certain things to prove themselves bicycle-friendly. Hotels need to have indoor, secure parking for bikes. Both hotels and campgrounds need to have tire pumps. Warning: they are not required to have good pumps. At one campground, I was offered a pump that appeared to be designed for inflating volleyballs: Schraeder only, and no gauge. Bring along a converter if you have Presta tires.
On the lower half of the PTdN, towns were more frequent with more touristy activities right along the trail. Mont Tremblant, for example, had lovely restaurants and a bicycle shop right on the main road; there were also kayaks and boats to rent, should you feel so moved. This section felt more welcoming. Of course, the path was packed gravel and it still had 4% inclines. For Mr. Beanz this will be no obstacle -- but for me, pedalling 90 pounds of bike-and-stuff, it was a nice challenge.
The southern terminus of the trail, St Jerome, really goes out of its way to attract cyclists. The trail ends at the town train depot. There's an archway that marks kilometer zero -- no scrabbling around Georgetown to found a well-hidden milestone, the way you need to on the C&O!
And then, there is the entirely separate Route Verte system. Route Verte encompasses a huge swath of Quebec. Trails extend in all directions, between Montreal and Quebec City; then up into the Laurentians, along the water to Ottawa, or out the Gaspe peninsula. There are multiple numbered routes, just as with the US interstate system.
The good and bad part of the RV is, they didn't set out to build it from scratch. The network uses whatever roads and trails were there to begin with, and tries to find low-traffic stretches of asphalt. RV2 from the US border to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, is just normal local low-traffic roads. There are no bike lanes, no paths, nothing. The route goes past some public parks with toilet and water facilities, and town that have food for sale are marked on the maps. In contrast, between Saint-Jean and Chambly, RV1 runs along a canal path conversion (gorgeous!) In Montreal, RV1 jinks across city bike paths alongside main streets. And in the Montreal suburbs, the route uses any available blacktop. For example, I was directed across a high school parking lot -- from the sidewalk, across the parking lot to the school building, along the front of the building, then cross the parking lot again and out to the street. At another point, the trail ran across the platform at a commuter train station -- not around the building, but up onto the loading platform and then back down. Good thing I wasn't going through at rush hour!
Signage along the Route Verte was a problem. The guidebook features low resolution, triptik-style maps. If there's construction involving the streets that comprise the RV, well, be psychic to figure out where to pick the path up again. The route was fairly well marked in the countryside, but in the suburbs key signs were missing. Since Quebec is civilized enough that there may be more than one bike path, it's not enough to follow the bike markings on the pavement -- they may not be taking you where you want to go.
The most annoying problem with signage was in a suburb of Montreal called Longeuil. There, the path splits for the approach to the city: a 26 km northern route to a ferry, or a 20 km southern route to a series of bridges. Since the tour book mentioned that cyclists would need to carry their bikes up and down some stairs to access the ferry, and since my bike with its luggage weighed 90 pounds, I picked the southern route. 16 km later, I come to a sign that says that the first bridge in the sequence is closed for the weekend. AAAARGH! Why didn't they tell me that at the decision-point?
Of course, tricky hills, flat tires, rain storms, and bad directions help give a vacation its flavor. The vacation wasn't just about the 388 miles; there were also countless smiles along the way.