Wednesday, June 02, 2021

CycleTour2021 Wrap-up

After reading through my posts for this tour, a couple of things become clear. First, we really needed a vacation. After a stressful 14 months dealing with not only the pandemic, but also the stress and sadness of losing Sonia's parents, this tour was so necessary to remind and reassure us that we could rekindle the sense of adventure a bicycle tour brings.

But on a related note, it was simply too short. We were happy to have a day off after Day 8, but normally, our return home would have been only the midway point of a tour, and while it's always nice to come home, I think both of us would gladly have continued on indefinitely. And indeed, we are planning for an even longer-than-usual tour once the world opens up again. If Sonia and I have learned anything from our experience together, and from the last year in particular, it is that life is too short to "wait until retirement." 

This morning, I read through my blog entries for the 2019 tour, and it is clear that the 2021 tour, while really lovely, just doesn't compare. Quebec is an astonishingly beautiful province, and even though it has one of the best bicycling networks in North America, exploring it by bicycle is much more challenging than Europe, and simply not as pleasant. For sure, one part of this is that we are from here, so it seems less exotic; but another but part is the infrastructure (both cycling and railway), the greater distances between towns, and the fewer accommodation options. On our European tours, we have been able to change plans on a whim, which, in my opinion, really adds to the "make your own adventure" feel of the trip. In Quebec, while we did not book anything in advance, we were more or less confined to a fixed route. I shouldn't blame it all on the province, though. Stronger, braver cyclists willing to stealth camp or endure more dubious lodgings would probably have the time of their lives. 

But I also don't want to make it sound like we didn't enjoy the trip. We absolutely had an amazing time—by far the best of the three tours we have done in North America. Touring in the spring is the best. We started just as the leaves were coming in, many of the flowering trees were in full bloom, the sound of migrating songbirds was a constant soundtrack, the air was clean and fresh, and the sense of renewed optimism was palpable throughout the trip. The landscapes were truly breathtaking; we crossed what seemed like hundreds of bridges over waterways large and small; with a few exceptions, the bike paths we travelled on were extremely well maintained; we encountered some lovely people; we camped successfully for the first time in years; we challenged ourselves physically; and we returned home mentally refreshed, with nary a thought of work to disturb us.

A couple of highlights: the 75-kilometre stretch from Rivière-à-Pierre to Quebec City is exceedingly beautiful, especially the northern section. If you want to feel like you're in the middle of nowhere on a bike, this is a pretty good spot for it. And the 150-kilometre stretch between Quebec City and Richmond—with the exception of a few stretches where the bike path runs parallel to Route 116—is unfailingly lovely and at times, an absolute delight. I would do either sections again in a heartbeat. 

Other observations: the camping was not an unmitigated success, but nor was it disastrous. I'm not sure we will want to go on a tour where this was the only sleeping option, but I could see us doing it again on a similar kind of trip. The gear (NEMO Aurora 2-person tent and NEMO lightweight  inflatable sleeping pads) worked very well. But setting up camp after a long day of riding turned out to be a little more work than our middle-aged bodies prefer. One thing we did enjoy was having the Crux Lite camping stove available to make tea. I think that this will become part of our regular touring kit, even in Europe. The stove weighs almost nothing, and a single fuel canister (which are readily available everywhere), for the purposes of making tea at least, would probably last weeks.

And so we turn our attention to planning the next trip, which will take place in the spring of 2022 with any luck.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

#CycleTour2021 Day 9: A familiar road home

After a relaxing day off on Saturday, we awoke this morning to drizzle and rain, which was forecast to end by mid-morning. So we had a lazy morning and packed our panniers one last time. The rain ultimately ended at around 10:30, and we were on the road by 11. 

Today's route from Granby to Longueuil was one I know well, having ridden it numerous times over the years, and many times last year in particular. So I knew full well that it would be a long ride for Sonia, but I also felt confident that after her show of strength in the hills on Thursday and Friday, this relatively flat ride was eminently feasible for her, even with some forecast headwinds. 

Once again, Aeolus was smiling on us, and, aside from a few stretches where the path tacked closer to the wind, we mostly had at worst a fairly hefty crosswind and for long, glorious stretches, a slight tailwind. The weather was still cool and overcast when we made our first stop for lunch and final tea ceremony of the tour in Saint-Césaire. Then it was on again into the heart of Québec's Montérégie region, passing Rougemont on the right and Mont Saint-Grégoire on the left. By now, the clouds were beginning to clear, and as we passed through Marieville and Richelieu, the sun was shining in earnest. 

We took another good break at Fort de Chambly park, where the Richelieu River tumbles over the Chambly Rapids into Chambly Basin. I've seen it many times, but it's still an impressive sight. Despite the coolish and windy weather, the park was full of families and young people enjoying the spring weather, and the sense of collective optimism that this wretched pandemic might finally be coming to an end was palpable. 

Over the course of the final 25 kilometres from Chambly to Longueuil, we played leapfrog with a group of six or eight 20-something cycle tourists, and it was a delight to see them and their enthusiasm. We finally rolled down our street around 4:30, clocking in at 75 kilometres—Sonia's longest ride ever, and my longest ever tour day. We are tired but happy to be home. I'll put my thoughts about the tour overall in a separate post in a few days, once I've had some time to digest it all, but I can say that this was a very good tour. Not quite as magical as our European tours, but by far the most enjoyable one we've done in North America. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

#CycleTour2021 Day 8: Opposite day

 While Day 7 started with an easy 20-km ride and ended with numerous challenging hills, today started with 20 kilometres of hills and ended with an easy downhill run from Waterloo to Granby. From the very first instance of planning for this tour, years ago, I knew this day would be challenging. The Route Verte here passes along the local bike route known as “La motagnarde,” which should give you some idea of the kind of relief we were facing. In particular, the Chemin de la diligence is an old coach road that cuts straight across the terrain like a Roman road, with no consideration whatsoever for making things easier for future cyclists. 

Last night, we slept quite well for almost 11 hours. And still, if legs had eyes, mine would be looking at me with an expression that conveyed, “you really want to do this again?” We had a few sprinkles in the night, the first precipitation we have seen on this trip, but the morning was bight and warm and showed no signs of becoming overcast, as the forecast had been predicting for days. We were on the road by 9:40 and the path from the Lac Stuckley campground up to the Route Verte was a truly sadistic way to start the day. The RV through the parc was no better, and I actually had to push my bike up one particularly diabolical grade. 

Then it was downhill into the town of Eastman, which is is where the real fun started. We embarked on the Chemin de la diligence and soon realized that the next 13 kilometres was going to be a challenging hour. The road features three big climbs and an equal number of thrilling descents. I got Yul over 50 km/h for the first time, but that was too much even for me and I hit the brakes. But ultimately, we got to the top and were all smiles, knowing that our day was about to get a lot easier. 

We rolled into Waterloo just before noon, and I stopped at Au p’tit poulet for some well-deserved fries, which went very well as an appetizer for our lunch. The rest of the day was spent zooming down the truly lovely bike path between Waterloo and Granby, the Estriade. Our digs for the night is the home of Sonia’s recently late parents in Granby. Tomorrow is a rest day, and, since the forecast for Sunday is looking like rain, we may not get home until Monday. My legs just gave me a look of gratitude.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

#CycleTour2021 Day 7: Hot ‘n Hilly

 Today was a good day, despite it being much longer and even harder than yesterday. At least the ride went relatively smoothly, even if it did have its literal ups and downs. It was also the hottest day of the tour, 

Knowing it would be a hot day, we got an early start and were rolling by 8:30. The first 20 kilometres of today’s ride was along the bike path that follows the lovely Rivière Massawippi from Lennoxville to North Hatley, a path we had taken a few years ago with my nephew Kyle. This part of the ride went by in a flash. We stopped in picturesque North Hatley for second breakfast and to rest a little, knowing that the easy part of the day was behind us, and it was only 10:30! We also know North Hatley well. Sonia’s late father, Jean-Guy, played saxophone for 60 years in the Harmonie de Granby, and they would often give summer concerts at North Hatley’s cute bandstand. Indeed, the last time we were in North Hatley, it was to come and hear Jean-Guy play.

Then it was up and away, with emphasis on the up. The Route Verte follows the road out of North Hatley, and it is a famously steep grade. I had to stop halfway up to give my legs a rest, but ultimately, it was easier to pedal that to push the bike up. The Route Verte turns off the road after several hundred metres, but keeps climbing, albeit on quiet country roads. What goes up must come down, and there was a lovely long descent down the other side. Flying 40-km/h down a gravel country road on a loaded touring bike is not for the faint of heart, but I recommend it! This up-and-down theme continued all the way to Deauville, at the top of Lac Magog. (Confusingly, there is a town in Quebec called Magog too, and it also is at the top of a lake: Lac Memphrémagog). Deauville has a cute little public beach, and it seemed the perfect spot to stop for lunch and, in Sonia’s case, for a refreshing dip in the lake. We had lunch, performed our tour tea ceremony, and had a little lie-down in the shade before topping up the water bottles and heading out 90 minutes later. 

Hi We followed the Route Verte through some lovely forest land toward Magog, still very much in up-and-down mode, but we left the RV early and skirted the northern end of the town to save quite a few kilometres off our day. Magog is a lovely town, but we’ve seen it many times. Our shortcut took us instead through the industrial part of town and along some fairly busy roads, but this was the only way this day was going to happen, and it all went smoothly, aside from a school bus driver who decided to give me a scare. 

Our destination was Parc du Mont Orford, where there were still many available campsites on this Thursday before the May long weekend. We rolled up to the service centre and got a site booked and then were on our way again, with another 5 or 6 kilometres through the park to get to our site. A grand total of 70 kilometres and, more significantly, 745 metres climbed. Nothing special for the serious cyclist, but both touring records for us. 

We found our site, dug into our panniers for whatever swim gear we had, and immediately walked down to Lac Stuckley for a swim. The water was bracing but a welcome refreshment on this hot day. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

#CycleTour2021 Day 6: Voie barrée – détour (ou non)

 Today ended up being slightly shorter than yesterday kilometre-wise, but it was oh-so-much harder, partly because it was hillier, but mostly because of a seemingly never ending series of detours, and because our route took us almost due south, between the lovely Rivière Saint-François and the noisy Autoroute 55. And gone also was the well-maintained bike path of the previous five days. Today, we were often on soft, ill-loved bike paths, tire-shredding gravel roads—or worse! (Including several hike-a-bike sections). On the other hand, it was distinctly not an arrow-straight rail trail; we rarely rode more than 100 metres in any one direction or on any given incline. [Insert left-right-up-down arrow key emojis]

But enough wingeing! It was a beautiful day, I was riding my bike with the love of my life, and I am sitting at a quiet picnic table beside the river with a beer beside me. Life could definitely be worse! We got a fairly late start this morning. Our first night in a tent was... OK. Earplugs saved the day (or, to be more accurate, the night), and we slept reasonably well, but I don’t think either of us would say we slept soundly. I am confident that tonight will be better. This campsite is on an island in the Rivière Saint-François, and even now, at rush hour, the traffic noise is not distracting. The 9:30 curfew will be in effect for another week, so I expect the evening to be much quieter. 

How to describe the ride today? Frustrating, perhaps. The Route Verte, which is usually very well marked is... less so in this area, for some reason. Maybe because it’s such a mishmash of hyper-local trails, right-of-ways on private property,  municipal bike paths, and whatever side streets and back roads can be used to link everything up. But easy to follow, it is not! Especially with all the various detours occasioned by springtime road repairs and the like. Frustrating also because this is SUCH beautiful country, and it it could be exceptionally beautiful riding, but it would appear that industrial and commercial interests hold sway here. A bike-path/route along the Rivière Saint-François seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t see any 3indication that it is in the cards.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

#CycleTour2021 Day 5: Cycling still has things to teach me

I am writing this from a campground just outside of Richmond, QC; this will be our first time ever camping on tour, and our first night of camping in maybe 15 years. We used to love camping, but at some point, the idiots running generators and blasting music, combined with a string of bad weather, convinced us that it was just not in the cards for us anymore. But the pandemic and the logistics of this particular tour oblige, so we bought some light camping gear and have hoped for the best. I would like to have tested our setup beforehand, but this tour is so early in the season that the campgrounds have only just started opening up. I guess tonight will be the litmus test; either things will go OK and we will consider camping as an option for future tours, or we will be selling some lightly used camping gear in the near future. 

With that out of the way, today was an absolutely gorgeous day of cycling. Once we got out of Victoriaville, the Parc linéaire du Bois-Francs was more of the same lovely riding, and in fact its straight-as-an-arrow character began to change as we travelled out of the flatlands southwest of Quebec City and toward the more hilly country of the Eastern Townships. This made for a nice change of pace and of scenery. We stopped for 2nd breakfast in Warwick, a well-known cheese town, but the cheese shop was too far out of the way, so we decided to forego it. Aeolus was smiling on us again today, with the winds from the northeast, so we made pretty good time getting to Danville, where we had lunch (and made tea, a new tradition is born!). 

From here, the trail entered a really lovely valley, with a winding brook and pasture lands, sheltered by forested hills on either side. We passed the odd farm, but truly, one could believe oneself a century in the past, so sleepy and bucolic was the scenery. We stopped often to take pictures and look at birds. Truly, some of the loveliest cycling we have ever done in Quebec. Overall, this 150-km stretch between Quebec City and Richmond has greatly exceeded expectations. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. As we were riding along, it occurred to me that I am still learning about myself thanks to cycle touring. I am still learning to live in the moment and not always be wanting to move on to the Next Thing. I am still learning to not worry and be confident that whatever happens, everything’s going to be OK. But when I think about my state of mind in 2015 on our first tour, I think I might have made some little progress. 

We arrived in Richmond shortly after 3, and stopped at the Fromagerie Campagnard for what Quebecois call “crottes de fromage” (cheese curds) and some delicious aged cheddar. Then it was off to the grocery store for provisions and the final, cruel, 83-metre climb up to our campground. We can hear Autoroute 55 very well from here, but we hope that things will quiet down after 9:30, when the pandemic curfew, which is still in effect for another few days, takes effect. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

#CycleTour2021 Day 4: a study in contrasts

The idée fixe of this trip thus far has been a fine brisk morning, and this morning was no different. But by the time we left the excellent B&B in Lyster, Gîte du Coteau, it had warmed up enough that I didn’t need my jacket, even though we got on the road even earlier than yesterday morning. 

Today was to be a shortish dayonly 49 km to Victoriaville—so we took our time, stopping often to watch birds and take photos. It being a Monday morning, we had the bike path to ourselves, and in fact we did not see another cyclist for the first 90 minutes. The first 25 km of this ride, between Lyster and Plessisville, were some of the most idyllic riding we have ever done on tour. Much of it was through maple forest, and we found ourself stopping just to listen to the abundant birdsong, uninterrupted as it was by any other human-made sound. We did see the occasional sign of human occupation (other than the bike path itself), which manifested itself by either a stretch of forest that had been logged selectively (apparently to cut back certain species to allow sugar maples to grow), or a woodpile made from said logging. 

But none of that was going on this morning. All we heard was the sound of our tires on the gravel and the many resident songbirds, including all three Mimid species we see in Quebec, the gray catbird, brown thrasher, and northern mockingbird. 

Alas, this state of existence mostly ended after we rode through Princeville, with its lovely Église Saint-Eusebe. After that, the bike path began to run parallel to Route 116 again for a long stretch. Coupled with our forgoing of 2nd breakfast (a mistake!), which caused our energy levels to flag at this very moment, and a very slight headwind (the normal state of affairs), the euphoria of the previous two hours began to melt away. 

By the time the path finally curved away from the highway, it was well past noon, and we were tired, irritated, and hungry. We were only a few kilometres away from our destination, but when we came across a quiet suburban park, we were finally able to stop for lunch. It also seemed like a good idea to open up the kitchen pannier, pull out the camp stove, and make a saucepan of tea. This proved to be just the elixir we needed. Coffee is wonderful, but there’s something really special about a freshly brewed cup of tea to go along with your picnic lunch. 

Tea for two!

Now feeing MUCH better, we rode the final seven kilometres to our B&B for the night, which entailed another noisy ride along a busy road. But the B&B is very comfortable, and after settling in, we decided to go for a walk at the adjacent Mont-Arthabaska park to use some different leg muscles and take in some nice views of the area. A second short ride to get dinner provisions completed the day’s activities. 

So much for an shortish day.