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Why Quebec endlessly beckons those on a bicycle

May 22, 2019
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A cyclist takes in the St. Lawrence vista at Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Quebec, on Aug. 12, 2015. Along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in this area of around Kamouraska, the panorama of river, sky, flowers and gardens defines the magic of bicycling the Route Verte network in Quebec. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

MONTREAL (AP) — In Montreal each spring, an epic bicycle festival demonstrates how 25,000 people can let the good times roll without bumping into each other too much. 

In Quebéc City and its hinterlands, cyclists plunge into a history shaped by French explorers, the Roman Catholic Church, aboriginal culture and British conquest — plus a quite unexpected taste of Teddy Roosevelt on a trail into the wilderness.

In Charlevoix, an island provides a perfect loop for lovers of quiet roads, gentle hills, flats along the water and eye-candy vistas of mountains you don’t have to climb.

Then there is the south shore of the St. Lawrence, where the panorama of river, sea, sky and flowers defines the magic of bicycling in Québec in ways that words cannot.

Those treats are mostly thanks to Route Verte, Québec’s gift to the cycling world. It’s a vast network of trails and bike-friendly byways that is about to get another growth spurt. Quebec’s “green way” is a gift to the natural and cultural worlds, too, stitching together wild places, pristine villages and a few buzzy cities in a rich, French-flavored tableau

It’s the masterwork of Vélo Québec , the publicly and privately supported bicycling association and Route Verte’s steward.

Since 2013, I’ve gone to Quebec each year, often several times a year, to sample more segments of the network and return to the best. It’s a bit like reading the encyclopedia A-to-Z and rereading the juicy parts, only sweatier.

Sprawling over 5,300 kilometers or 3,300 miles, Route Verte is a handful to get to know, requiring more time than most people have and more legs than are under me.

And the network, a quarter century old next year, will be undergoing its largest expansion in a decade with an announcement coming from the government, detailing the addition of 900 kilometers, said Louis Carpentier, director of development for Route Verte.

Within my geographic range of experience — Montreal east to the Gaspesie region and the Eastern Townships north to a lake trail lined with wild blueberries — there are plenty of great tours in idyllic settings, some so engaging that they’ve become touchstones of nearly every trip I’ve done in Quebec. Here are some (and I go into even more detail on The Associated Press’ travel podcast, ”Get Outta Here ):

MONTREAL BIKE FESTIVAL & RAIL TRAIL

Montreal’s cycling culture turns into a rolling party, May 26-June 2 this year. The Go Bike Montreal Festival is anchored by two family-friendly rides that close downtown streets to traffic and take over the city-island. The premier event, Tour de l’lle on June 2, typically draws 25,000 people on bicycles and countless more cheering them on from neighborhoods along the 50-kilometer (30-mile) route. Music, dance and acrobatics (Quebec, home to Cirque du Soleil, specializes in the circus arts) are part of the mix.

Before the Sunday ride comes Tour la Nuit , which launches some 10,000 cyclists at sunset May 31, many with tricked out bikes strung with decorative homemade lights. This year, the cyclists will enter and circle Montreal’s Olympic Stadium for the first time since “Chariots of Fire” greeted their arrival in the 1980s. “It’s the wow moment for Tour La Nuit,” says Joëlle Sévigny of Vélo Québec.

Sévigny, who calls Montreal the “Copenhagen of North America” for its cycling passion, has managed the festival rides for decades and seen them become an impetus for newbies to make cycling a regular thing. “Tour de l’lle is a real incubator of the cyclists of tomorrow,” she says. “It’s to give the taste of bicycling to people again.”

Nearby, the offroad P’tit Train du Nord rail trail runs 230 kilometers (140 miles) between the Montreal outskirts and Mont-Laurier on Route Verte #2. About half paved, half smooth crushed stone, the “little train of the north” trail offers well-spaced amenities, intriguing inns and a shuttle service to drop cyclists and their bikes at the northern end or places along the way. It can take your luggage to that night’s auberge, too.

Off the bike: Multicultural Montreal is a beehive of summer music and arts festivals. From atop Mont Royal, the dominant image of the city below is a 22-story portrait of native son Leonard Cohen unveiled in 2017 after the singer-songwriter’s death the year before.

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THE BLUEBERRY TRAIL

   Veloroute des Bleuets circles Lac Saint-Jean, a lake so big you might think it’s the sea. In late summer it makes good on its promise of wild blueberries for trailside scavenging. The lake circuit runs for 256 kilometers (160 miles) on trails, quiet roads, village pathways and occasional paved shoulders. Signed as Route Verte #8, it meets the standards that are the hallmark of all designated routes in the network: Inns with Route Verte accreditation must offer healthy food choices, safe storage for bikes and tools for repair while campgrounds must make room for cyclists even if full. 

The route is perfect for self-supported touring. But it’s also part of Vélo Québec’s summer extravaganza this year, the Grand Tour , a week of fully supported cycling that unfolds in a different part of Quebec each year.

I spent a day on the Grand Tour several years ago, with more than 1,200 cyclists and 200 support staff, and marveled at the logistics of what was essentially a moving village. Transport trucks outfitted with showers set up at each day’s destination, cyclists rolled up to a field of tents that were pitched for them before their arrival, and all were fed three meals a day before evenings of music, dance, drinks and games.

The 2019 Grand Tour, with an option for inns if camping’s not your thing, runs Aug. 3-9, covering 400 or 870 kilometers depending on the route chosen. People can also sign up just for the Aug. 3-5 weekend.

Off the bike: At Zoo Sauvage in St-Felicien , you come almost face to face with bears, reindeer and other wildlife, but you’re the one in the cage — a tram rambling through the habitat — while the animals roam.  It’s a zoo for people who don’t like zoos. At Dolbeau-Mistassini, Trappist monks make and sell locally famous chocolate-covered blueberries . Also by the trail: Val-Jalbert , a re-created lumber mill village from the 1920s with a jaw-dropping waterfall.

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QUEBEC CITY & RAIL TRAIL

Quebec’s historic capital, like Montreal, has extensive bicycle paths for commuters and several of prime interest to visitors. Starting at the ferry terminal, the Promenade Samuel de Champlain path going west borders the riverfront for 12 kilometers, looping onto a narrow walkway on the bridge crossing the St. Lawrence and joining with another trail in the town of Levis. The Levis trail offers a spectacular view of Quebec City and a chance to return on the ferry, closing a 30-kilometer loop, or to go longer. Another trail runs out to Montmorency Falls, a higher-than-Niagara waterfall and recreation area with zip lines and via ferrata climbing.

Nature is nearby. The Jacques-Cartier trail outside the city runs more than 80 kilometers on stone dust through forest and meadow with several towns along the way.

It was there that Paule Bergeron from Quebec City’s tourism department, while guiding my companion and me on a ride, led us to a trailside plaque at Saint-Raymond commemorating a visit by Teddy Roosevelt in 1915. Six years after his presidency, he came on a hunting expedition into the Quebec wilds.

The man who once led the Bull Moose Party found himself confronted by a real bull moose. Although protected by Quebec hunting laws at the time, the animal, like Teddy, was not one to back down. According to a newspaper story, the moose bellowed, pawed and charged the hunting party and Roosevelt “dropped him with a bullet to the heart.”

The plaque, in French, shows Roosevelt posing with the antlers and pays tribute to his devotion to nature and his creation of national parks in the U.S. It says he capped his trip by handing out chocolates to children at the local train station.

Off the bike: Le Grand Marche, a sparkling showcase for the region’s rich culture of gourmet foods, has its grand opening mid-June after years of development, and Quebec City is suffused with the charm and flavor of New France.

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THE RIVER/SEA

This is where I always go back to, no matter where else I go.

On Route Verte #1, spread over more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) cyclists can go along the south shore of the St. Lawrence for days, a week or more, seeing the river widen going eastward into the wild beauty of the Gaspe Peninsula until the far shore disappears and the sea, somewhere, begins.

My hotspot is a day ride from the river road at Notre-Dame-du-Portage to Kamouraska and back, about 70 kilometers in all. In this wide panorama, the sky seems always etched with drama, as stormy sheets of rain and shafts of sun sweep over the mountains on the other side, the river churns in hues of brown and blue, and mist half swallows islands. The canola fields surrounding Kamouraska make for a brilliant yellow carpet and village homes — a kind of folk art in themselves— are lined with gardens. Sunsets are routinely extraordinary.

Off the bike: Kamouraska is a lively village with restaurants, fires by water and a bakery that sells out before closing time. An hour away by car, Parc Bic is a gem for hiking, camping, seal-watching and sunsets, with a half hour or so of riding.

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ISLE-AUX-COUDRES

In the mountainous Charlevoix region, cycling tours are for huffing-puffing people but there’s an exception: a jewel of an island 15 minutes by car from Baie-Saint-Paul, an art and tourist hub. Isle-aux-Coudres is reached by a free 15-minute car ferry sailing hourly in summer. The road hugging the shore is 27 kilometers and quiet once ferry traffic dissipates. A restored windmill and water mill gives tours and sells its stone-ground whole wheat and buckwheat. The scenery is stunning .

It’s a flat or gently rolling ride except for a long, very steep hill off the ferry. To skip that, bring your car on the ferry and park at the tourist center at the top of the hill. I learned that lesson the huffing-puffing way after parking on the mainland and taking only my bike.

Off the bike: In Baie-Saint-Paul, art abounds and Habitat 07 is a grass-roofed ecological prototype house adapting ancestral materials and techniques to modern ways. Tours available.

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ESTRIADE

A web of bike trails and designated cycling routes connects cities, farmlands, vineyards and towns in the Eastern Townships. It was there in 2015 that Vélo Québec put on its Grand Tour, dipping into Vermont. Among the trails, Estriade goes for 100 kilometers (60 miles)  offroad, mostly paved and bordered by dozens of sculptures by international artists along a section.

The townships are a region of lakes, Victorian homes, orchards, covered bridges and resorts, maintaining a patina of England or New England over a decidedly French-Canadian culture.

In 2017, the Canadian mystery novelist Louise Penny hosted Bill and Hillary Clinton for a getaway at plush Manoir Hovey on Lake Massawippi. That’s where the ex-president and his wife celebrated his 71st birthday. In the tiny village of North Hatley nearby, shopkeepers who speak little English fondly remember her good cheer and his tendency to chat people up, as if campaigning for something.

Off the bike: Stargazing at Mont-Megantic , the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve and one of only two in North America. The other is in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Wineries, cideries, breweries.

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HOW TO:

—The Route Verte website is the go-to place for planning a trip on the network, whether a weeks-long expedition or a day ride.

—Montreal Bike Festival: Sign up , pick up your bib in advance at Velo Quebec headquarters or another designated location, and ride. Night ride Friday, May 31, Tour de l’lle is Sunday, June 2. Fast cyclists can register for the Express and start first.

—P’tit Train du Nord: Shuttle from St-Jerome to the end of the trial, or various stops along the trail, and bike back. Shuttle service will take your bags to each night’s inn for an extra fee.

—Quebec City: Get on the riverfront Promenade Samuel de Champlain path at the ferry terminal, bike west past works of outdoor art, cross the bridge on the narrow walkway, and follow bicycle route signs to get on the bike path in Levis, Parcours des Anses. Bike the trail to the Levis ferry terminal (or beyond the terminal and back), and return on the ferry.

-Jacques-Cartier trail: For five Saturdays in the summer and fall, a shuttle will take cyclists and their bikes to Riviere-a-Pierre. For a circuit of two cities and this trail, take Via Rail from Montreal to Riviere-a-Pierre (box for bike required), cycle Jacques-Cartier to Quebec City and take the train back to Montreal from there (no box required).

—Isle-aux-Coudres: Take the free, hourly car ferry to the island, a 15-minute drive from Baie-St-Paul, park at the visitor center at the top of the hill on the island and bike the road circling the island. Avoid the inland road crossing the island. You can also park your car at the mainland ferry terminal and only take your bike on the ferry, but you’ll have the long, steep hill to climb.

—Veloroute des Bleuets: Counterclockwise around the lake is recommended. Planning resources here .

—Route Verte 1 along the river: For a breathtaking day ride, begin in the village of Notre-Dame-du-Portage and go west to Kamouraska or beyond, then back. Most of the ride is on the shoulder of Route 132, offering stunning vistas, but make sure to start on the parallel river road in Notre-Dame-du-Portage. This is just one slice of a long-distance touring route that hugs the widening river and Gulf of St. Lawrence into the Gaspe region.

—Estriade/Eastern Townships: The townships have a multitude of well-developed routes and, as in some other regions of Quebec, shuttle and bicycle-taxi services. 

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Visitors to Val-Jalbert, a re-created paper mill town from the 1920s along Lac-Saint-Jean, are dwarfed by the roaring Ouiatchouan waterfall, which once powered the mill. The spectacle dominates the town, both by day when visitors can stroll the streets, and by night when the waterfall is dramatically bathed in lights of changing colors and the town is reserved for guests who stay there. It's a popular stop for cyclists on the Blueberry Trail around Quebec's Lac-Saint-Jean. (AP Photo/R.M. Green)