In fall 2003 we dreamt-up a family bicycling vacation, one that would match our enthusiasm for the outdoors and our new-found love of cycling. It would also continue my efforts to increase fitness and regain athletic ability that "folded" during my work-oriented and stressed thirties. Web research led us to Quebec's Route Verte, one of the world's finest bicycling venues, with over 3,000 kilometers of trails. Our route took us from Sherbrooke, to Quebec City, Trois Rivieres, Mont Tremblant, Mont Laurier, Montreal and Lake Champlain (New York), a cycling itinerary of 1,000 kilometers.
Our "team" consisted of Avery, my ten year old son, who had been riding recreationally and racing occassionally for about a year. He rides a 25 lb. Trek KDR road bike with 650 centimeter wheels. Avery's longest prior bike ride was 36 miles on Virginia's Mount Vernon and W&OD trails. Nathan, age thirteen, is a veteran of two season's bike racing with the National Capital Velo Club (NCVC) and Carmichael Training System coaching. Nathan rides a race-equipped, 18 lb. Cannondale road bike. In season, he averages 125 miles riding per week. Carolyn, my 44 year old wife, is new to bicycle touring, and an avid fitness walker and tennis player -- and a scientist who regularly works 50 hours a week. For this trip, Carolyn upgraded her "old lady's bike" to a 20 lb. carbon-aluminum Trek 1500 road bike. I'm a 44 year old software architect who, in 2001, graduated from a high-stress dot-com position to a much healthier slot in Washington, DC, that allows me to ride my bike to work. I put in 2,000-3,000 miles per year, and occassionally drag through criteriums racing for NCVC. My bike is a 19 lb. carbon-steel Lemond Zurich.
Getting to Canada from Washington, DC, was surprisingly easy. Two half-day drives (with an overnight in Connecticut) led us to the border for a perfunctory waive through by Canadian customs. We settled into two dormitory rooms at Bishop University, a lovely campus outside Sherbrooke. Bishop was one of several exceptional lodgings we discovered. For a mere $28 US per room, we had a home replete with indoor bicycle storage, an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and a fitness center with Olympic size swimming pool and saunas. On Riviere St. Francois (St. Francois River), Bishop sits at the intersection of several bicycle trails, including Route Verte.
Ride 1: Bishop - North Hatley - Axe des Sommets - Sherbrooke - Bishop (35 miles)
This was our warm-up ride. The first ten miles met expectations, coursing along a flat, finely-crushed gravel trail, beside the gurgling Riviere Massawippi to the dam at North Hatley. We lunched at Le Moulin cafe, feasting in the sunshine on a deck overlooking Lac Massawippi. Then we took off on "Axe des Sommets." Not knowing French, the trail name didn't phase me. Soon, the "path of the summits" more than impressed us all as we rode (and sometimes walked) up 18% grades over the backbone of low mountains south of Sherbrooke. (In retrospect, a better warm-up would have had us return to Bishop along the Massawippi.) Avery and Carolyn gritted their way up and across rolling farm lands for approximately eight miles. After the Sommets, we cruised down wooded trails towards the Magog River and the Grande Fourches (grand forks), where the Magog meets the St. Francois in Sherbrooke. Along the Magog and back to Bishop, the trail coursed some light industrial areas with road and rail crossings, interspersed with beautiful lake side parks. In the parks, the trail was a paved, two-lane course running parallel to a marked pedestrian route. Very civilized!
Ride 2: Deauville - Magog - Mont Orford - Eastman (35 miles)
Following our "gentle" warm-up, Care and Avery took a day off to swim, hike and explore artisan shops at Lac Magog and around Mont Orford. The Magog-Orford area is exceptional. Magog contains a park fronting deep blue Lac Memphremagog, with swimming beach, pedestrian and cycling paths, open air cafes, rides and entertainment. Mont Orford, a ski area in winter, rises sharply above the lake like a tough soldier. Starting in Deauville, Nathan and I rode the Route Verte into Magog, past lakes and streams, where we swam and lunched with Care and Ave. Then the work began. We rode the Route up and around the backside of Orford, pressing our light road bikes up steep hills seeming better fit for mountain bikes. After burning many hundred calories, we shot down out of the Parc National du Mont-Orford into the small town of Eastman, where our partners fetched us for a drive back to Bishop.
On the Orford trail, Nathan's pedal and cleat broke, and he was forced to ride, essentially, with one foot at half power, while the other foot did most of the work. Ouch! In Sherbrooke, we bought a replacement pedal and cleat set. The two bike shops we visited in Sherbrooke were exceptional. At La Randonnee, on Rue King Ouest, our mechanic Bob found that he did not have the right screw to fit Nathan's high tech pedal. "No problem," he said. "Follow-me." Bob leapt on his mountain bike and rode down the highway with us a few yards behind in our support car, to a specialized hardware store, where he helped translate so that we would get the correct screw. Back at La Randonnee, the shop cut the screw to the correct length and, "voila!", Nathan's pedal was fixed. Price: 50¢. Bob, aged 40-something, has never owned a car. He rides many thousand miles each year, snowshoes or skis to commute in winter, competes in mountain biking, and teaches sports to area students. Cycling runs deep in Quebec. We met more than a few people like Bob, with exceptional passion for cycling and deep and kind insights.
Ride 3: Richmond - Danville - Kingsey Falls - Danville (22+ miles)
Carolyn, Nathan and Avery began the Route Verte at Richmond, about 20 miles north of Sherbrooke, and rode east to Danville. The day was lovely and sunny. Driving the support wagon -- our small Honda SUV, -- I pulled onto road crossings with the Route Verte to take pictures of my mostly novice flock. Carolyn and the boys roared into the first meeting place like a racing peleton, smiles stretched across their faces. "This is great. I love my bike," Carolyn exclaimed. The boys were pumped. The three had averaged 14 miles per hour, and topped twenty on the flat, crushed gravel trail. I was inwardly thrilled. After the rough first day, I had misgivings about launching such an ambitious venture. Riding through the Quebec farmlands, under a blue sky in the Asbestos valley, proved an infective and sweet tonic. Before I could snap half-a-dozen photos, the gang was off, racing down the Route to Danville. At a trailside bicycle shop and juice bar, we refreshed, parked the car, and set a further objective of riding together to the Parc Marie-Victorin in Kingsey Falls, eleven miles beyond Danville. At the park, after 22 miles in the saddle, Care and the boys opted to have a leisurely lunch and walk, while I raced back to fetch the car, which returned us to our Danville lodging.
Nicole Jousselin, proprietor of Maison McCracken, greeted us as old friends at her lovely bed and breakfast. The boys received the "Out of Africa" room, decorated with mementos from Messr. and Mdme. Jousselin's years teaching in Niger, while Carolyn and I settled into the master bedroom. The B&B was replete with antiques and silver, and gleaming hardwood floors, mantels and mouldings. Our hostess had set dinner reservations for us at Le Temps des Cerises, a former Presbyterian church converted to an airy French restaurant, serving local faire and seafood. Dinner was astonishing. More astonishing was Mdme. Jousselin's breakfast, and her care and service. We had freshly baked brioche, homemade jams, granola, yogurt, and french toast made with coconut milk with an accent of cardamon topped by creme fraiche and berries. I can argue that our hostess' breakfast table bested those of Hotel du Crillon and George V in Paris. What a find, deep in the Quebec countryside!
Ride 4: Danville - Quebec City (76+ miles)
Day four was one of a set of daunting long days in the saddle. Nathan, Avery and I rode off in a light drizzle from Danville towards Quebec City. Our goal was 83 miles hence. Carolyn met us at various check points, about every ten to fifteen miles. At about mile 34, in Princeville, Nathan decided to bail. He and his bike were coated with wet gritty grime, and his foot was aching from the Mont Orford ordeal. Avery soldiered on. He is an extremely tough and able ten year old. The sun came out, but our pace slowed to ten miles per hour, give or take. We crept into Sainte-Julie, for an energy bar break and meet-up with Nate and Care. Having completed a half century (50 miles), Ave retired, but I pressed on, upping the pace. When the trail turned from light gravel to pavement about 22 miles from Quebec City, I rejoiced, and notched my pace to above 25 mph. At a gas station in Saint-Agapit, I took my bike to a self-serve car wash for a fresh-water rinse. Care rang my cell phone, and soon all the boys were in the car wash rinsing their bikes, splashing about and laughing. We called it a day, and drove to our hotel in Vieux (old) Quebec. My cyclocomputer showed 76 miles.
Quebec is a cosmopolitan, culturally stimulating destination. We took a non-biking day to walk the old city, do laundry, and watch myriad street theater and artists. The boys had their portraits drawn by Pierre Viger. A BMX cyclist drew a crowd of a hundred in front of the Chateau Frontenac, where his stunts included jumping over two supplicant audience members and twirling the bike under his body while he leapt skyward. The boys bought small treasures from art shops. We supped on Quebecois delicacies.
Ride 5: Quebec - Chutes Montmorency - Quebec (35 miles)
Starting beside the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (Saint Laurence River), we rode the paved Route Verte east towards Ille d'Orlean, for a ride in the old farm settlement recommended by Mdme. Jousselin. A missed or missing sign led us astray, up a local bike path into another section of Quebec along the Riviere Saint Charles. With help from some from local cyclists, using our broken French, we retraced our path to the Saint-Laurent, and followed the Route to Parc de la Chute Montmorency, a "very cool" park with a several hundred foot waterfall and a tram to carry passengers to the top. We skipped Ille d'Orlean because it required crossing a high bridge over the Saint-Laurent, in traffic with no bike lane -- a bit much for my boys, to say nothing of mom and dad. The ride west on the Saint-Laurent settled us back in the old city, without navigational incident.
Ride 6: Quebec - Parc Jacques Cartier (21 miles)
From the Saint-Laurent, a segment of Route Verte headed north on the Corridor des Cheminots, towards the Station Ecotouristique Duchesney. Duchesney featured mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, climbing walls, hiking trails and other tantalizing amenities. While Carolyn and Ave drove, Nathan and I rode 21 miles up a continuous light grade of the Corridor cycling path, in the sunshine, amidst many tens of Quebecois (it was Saturday). The ride was quite pleasant; however, a persistent headwind made us work harder, with our backs lowered and hands in the handlebar drops. At Duchesney, after a fine lunch, the boys headed off on rented mountain bikes and Carolyn hiked a nature trail, whilst I plinked away on my laptop computer in the sports lodge. The boys took a swim in the chill lake, and we all returned by car for our last night in Vieux Quebec.
Trois Rivieres top
Ride 7: Quebec - Trois Rivieres (50+ miles)
Our team picked-up Route Verte a few miles west of Quebec City, on the Chemin du Roi -- the way of the kings. This is an awesome path for seeing the province, coursing along the broad Fleuve Saint Laurent, through farmlands and small towns with picturesque churches. Care, Nate and Ave began the day riding in a steady drizzle. After twelve slow miles, the gang loaded in the support car and we continued west for another dozen miles until we found a lunch spot, where we polished off salads, pasta and bowls of hot soup. (The tiny restaurant, Le Bistro Urbain in Donnaconna, proved one of the best meals of the trip.) The dank sky broke about 3 pm, and the boys and I joyously continued down the Chemin du Roi to Sherbrooke, riding until 7 pm. On the Route, the wind challenged us, with gusts exceeding 30 mph. We rode in close paceline formation to shield each other. We rode past and occassionally stopped at trail side parks on the banks of the river. For one stop, a longish "energy bar break," we shed our gear and ran through a few Pilates routines to stretch our backs and relieve our seats and shoulders. A mildly complicated drive through Sherbrooke and north to Shawinigan led us to our hotel, where we collapsed for the night. Nathan and Avery had logged 50 miles, while Carolyn and I took 12 and 38 mile splits.
Mont Tremblant-Mont Laurier top
Mount Tremblant is a healthy Disneyland for the outdoor set. We enjoyed mountain biking, swimming, kayaking, hiking, trampoline tumbling, mountain luging, wakeboarding and rope course scrambling, among many options. The kids were in heaven. Tremblant amenities and culture were impressive, with many tens of shops and restaurants, and open air concerts at the mountainside every night. Except for a minor (but lovely) 15 mile ride to the village of Tremblant and back, we paused bike riding for a few days while challenging ourselves with other action.
Ride 8: Mont Tremblant - Mont Laurier (overnight) - Mont Tremblant (146 miles)
Avery bent his front wheel on a slotted street grate in Mont Tremblant village, so his bike was out of action until we could buy a replacement 650 cm wheel. This made an easier decision for me to embark solo to Mont Laurier, whilst Carolyn and the boys enjoyed Tremblant's healthy froth. Quebec province, in an effort to boost tourism, has a coordinated program to enhance cycling on "Le Petit Train du Nord" -- the former railway bed that underlays Route Verte between Montreal and Mont Laurier. From about eight miles north of Tremblant to Mont Laurier, the trail is paved, which provides 70 miles of cycling heaven. Every few miles there are trail side shelters, many with toilets and water. There are quite a few bed and breakfast inns and, in small towns, trailside or near-trail eateries and information centers. This makes for a very comfortable long bicycle ride (stop for hot soup and a sandwich when body aches) or a number of linked short rides. (An inexpensive service will shuttle luggage, people and/or bikes from one B&B to the next.)
For me, the magic of the Petit Train was coursing serenely through the northern countryside. The trail ran alongside beautiful lakes and streams in the forest and open fields. During my weekday sojourn, there were few people. I'd sit on picnic benches by a river or lake to take in wildlife, shoot pictures, and contemplate. White tail deer trotted along the trail before me as I rode, quail and pheasant shot off from either side, and small mammals scurried about. The 73 mile rides, each way, took me about six hours. Back in Tremblant, sitting in a hot tub with Carolyn, the world seemed quite fine.
Ride 9: Mont Tremblant - Montreal (15/80 miles)
Carolyn and Nathan rode from Mont Tremblant towards Montreal 80 miles to the south, under a blue sky beside the a burbling stream. This Route Verte section is flat and covered with light gravel. We lunched in Saint Jovite, and ended the biking segment (after 15 miles) in order to quickly get to the big city, where we needed to rent a bike for Avery and re-arrange our lodging.
Ride 10: Montreal - Vieux Harbor, McGill, Mountain, and Olympic Village/Biodome (25 miles)
Montreal is another Canadian bicycling mecca. The city boasts more than 20 bicycle shops, tens of miles of paved bicycle paths, and stimulating routes alongside the river, through the city centers, and up and around Mont Royal and national universities. We chose several of these routes. On Saturday, in the Vieux (old) Harbor area, we rode along the powerfully flowing Fleuve Saint-Laurent through crowds of Montrealers and tourists, past small stage acts, painters, music and street theater. We took several trips through the city to the McGill College area, and a few laps on trails in the mountain park (namesake of Montreal -- Mont Royal). We visited the former Olympic Village and Biodome, a zoological habitat inside the converted velodrome, where Avery spotted a large iguana high-up in the towering forest canopy -- reminding him of his dear iguana,
Chamaca, at home.
Ride 11: Montreal - New York (Lake Champlain) (42/80 miles)
Nathan and I rode the Route Verte south from Montreal 42 miles towards the New York border (80 miles away). The first half of the Route, escaping Montreal, was poorly marked, but with the help of friendly cyclists, we found our way safely to the main course. The ride began from our hotel near McGill College, wending through busy rush hour traffic. We crossed the Sainte-Laurent to Ille Sainte-Helene and Ille Notre-Dame, a venue for the 1976 Summer Olympics, and site of the past weekend's Indy-class motor races. Nate and I enjoyed speeding on the cleaned bike course where, two days earlier, exotic Ferraris had shot along at 180+ mph. On the south bank of the river, Route Verte markings and directions were problematic. After 15 miles, we were on the main Route and soon in the beautiful town of Chambly, with lake-front cafes and attractive marinas. We continued south on the canal du Chambly to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, and met Carolyn and Avery for a late lunch. South of Saint-Jean, the Route was all on road, so we decided to pack our bikes on the car, and press further into the United States. We overnighted in Albany, and the next day pressed home to Washington, DC.
We all had a great time. The boys rated this their best vacation ever. Each of us achieved one or more personal bests -- longest ride, most miles in a week, most challenging mountain ride, first time on a mountain luge. The beauty of the Quebec countryside, combined with the extensive trail network made for an extraordinary expedition. The amenities and culture, from Tremblant to Vieux Quebec to Maison McCracken, provided a sugar coating of fun and stimulation to our cycling toil. At home, we each found our cycling legs stronger than ever. Our only question: Where to go next summer? (We're thinking Italy, southwest US or Spain.)
Advice for Families
Our trip worked well, generally exceeding expectations and missing "disasters" -- bicycle crashes, kids not wanting to ride, non-functional bikes, etc. Having a partner with a support car was critical to our success -- it carried the bikes when we weren't riding and all our stuff. Meticulous planning, with trails mapped out and hotels selected in advance, clear agreements on rider/driver meeting places, and the ability to communicate by cell phone helped make the many logistics fit together. We always biked with two sets of repair/crash kits (e.g., tire flat fix kit, multi-tool, first aid material, maps, and rain jackets); this prepared us for contingencies, such as one rider peeling off to get the car or help. We didn't train extensively for the trip, except that my boys were already pretty active cyclists. For beginning cyclists, riding 4-8 hours is a *lot* different than riding for one hour. It is not a linear progression; seat, leg and shoulder pain -- not to mention fatigue -- accumulate over the miles. In our case, while the gang may sprint and sing at 15 mph for the first hour or two, later in the day, the ride can slog like molasses. A nice lunch break or diversion like a swim fortifies all for longer distances.
Bicycle riding can be hazardous. Folks crash, and you often ride on or across roads with cars. Fortunately, on most roads comprising Route Verte (which is mostly off-road), traffic volume is low and there are separately marked bike lanes. As a precaution, we ride in bright clothing, and activate blinking lights when on the road. Carolyn or I generally ride "caboose," at the rear, to shepherd and protect our children when on roads.
We plotted a "circle the province" route, hitting the main Montreal-Quebec loop of Route Verte. This necessitated moving from place-to-place and a support car to carry our gear. By taking a single base -- Mont Tremblant, Bishop University or Vieux Quebec stand out -- riding excursions from that one location would provide lots of exercise and enjoyment, while avoiding the hassle of picking-up and packing. For example, a tourist bureau has laid out quite a few trips in the Laurentians (see "Links"), comprising over 1000 Km riding. Other stay-in-place formats can easily be devised. In the Montreal-Mont Laurier circuit, a taxi service will ferry riders, gear and/or bikes among locations (e.g., B&Bs). My sense (as a Boy Scout leader) is that camping would also be quite workable for youth groups.
Except for Maison McCracken, which we found listed in the Route Verte guide (see "Links"), most lodging we arranged using the Internet. This worked well, except for Trois Rivieres where Travelocity listed only two accommodations, and the one we selected was far north of the city, in a place known as Shawinigan (which I dubbed "Siberia"). Our planned economy hotel in Montreal was over booked, and most other hotels were full, so we splurged and caught a night in the über-luxurious Fairmont.
Following are links to notable accommodations we stayed at:
Because we were traveling later in the month of August, inexpensive accommodations at universities in Quebec or Montreal were not available. Reportedly, however, the following schools have good lodging:
Packing List for Cycling top
- seat wedge, fanny pack and/or back pack (every rider)
- ID and wallet (every rider)
- helmets and gloves (optional) (every rider)
- sunglasses (every rider)
- sunscreen lotion (carried by at least 2 riders)
- car keys (1 always with Care and 1 always with Jim)
- tire patch kit (carried by at least 2 riders)
- C02 inflator & 1-2 spare cartridges (2 riders)
- multi-tool (2 riders)
- grease/cleaning rags (2 riders)
- tire levers (2 riders)
- spare inner tubes (2x700 -- 1 ea. carried by 2 riders -- & 1x650 cm)
- maps (1 rider)
- compass (1 rider)
- written note on where to meet SAG wagon
- cell phone (Nate, Jim, Care)
- jackets and/or long-sleeve shirts (for each rider)
- small first aid kits (carried by 2 riders) -- several large bandaids, ointment, Advil.
- Camelbacks (optional)
- 1-2 water bottles (per rider)
- sandals/off bike shoes (optional)
- bike locks and keys (optional)
- full regular kit, including wrenches, lubes, cleaners (in car)
- extra pedals/shoes (e.g., mountain pedals/shoes) (in car)
- floor pump (in car)
- extra inner tubes (in car)
- large first aid kit (in car)
- bike lights (as needed)
- extra batteries and/or charger for bike lights (in car)
- extra CO2 cartridges (in car)