By Bill Scheller
Photos courtesy of Velo Quebec
The stretch along the Lachine Canal was a welcome relief.
I wasn’t in a boat, although the old canal, the pre-St. Lawrence-Seaway route around the roiling Lachine Rapids, is a lovely place to paddle a canoe while conjuring images of fur-trading voyageurs. I was on a bicycle, part of a throng of 35,000 cyclists following a 31-mile (50 km) route through Montréal’s downtown streets and western suburbs.
A few months before my ride, my favorite radio raconteur Stuart McLean commented on his CBC program that Montréal had become “one of the world’s great bicycle cities.” I live in northern Vermont and visit Montréal frequently, but I had never really noticed the phenomenon Stuart was talking about. I’ve driven in the Quebec metropolis (usually, it seems, while trying to find a parking space near Schwartz’s, the smoked meat temple on St. Laurent), and walked many miles along the city streets. But I’d only biked there once, at the rain-soaked end of a 90-mile (145 km) ride from home, and had never paid much attention to how many cyclists were wheeling their way through the traffic.
On this trip, though, the cyclists were the traffic, and I was in the thick of it. Every year, during the first year of June, the bicycle advocacy group Velo Quebec sponsors the Féria du vélo de Montréal– the Montréal Bike Fest, a celebration of all things two-wheeled. The highlights are “Un Tour de Nuit,” a 12.4 mile (20 km) night ride, and the 50km “Tour de l’Ile,” the circuitous Sunday morning event that included that water-level run along the canal as a respite before the final push through a downtown I had never remembered as being quite so damned hilly. Of course, I had never tackled those streets on a bike after nearly three hours of pedaling – but Montréal does rise to the summit of eponymous Mount Royal, and even small mountains like this one have their foothills.
The Tour de l’Ile is aptly named: during my 2011 run, although the route didn’t wander too far to the east, my 35,000 fellow cyclists and I did pedal through much of the western portion of the Island of Montréal. The 2012 edition, to be held on Sunday, June 3, will take in much of the northern part of the island. Wave after wave of bikes will depart from Montréal’s Parc Jeanne Mance, and then cruise into the leafy residential quarters of Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Outremont before looping through Saint-Laurent and Montréal-Nord on the way back down into the Plateau neighborhood and the finish back at the park. From what I recall of the city’s topography, this will mean getting the steeper climbing done early – an advantage for those who can take off like a shot, but a dicier proposition for those of us who like to build up to hill challenges by getting limber on the flats. There will be no Lachine Canal straightaway for this year’s participants, but there will be the usual three rest areas, where cyclists can take a breather, tank up on liquids, and take in a calorie or two.
The Tour is by no means a race, but a certain element of competitiveness is hard to avoid – this writer, at least, skipped all but one of the rest stops in order to try to hit the finish line before any of the eager group of colleagues who started out together. Let’s just say I wheeled in before some and way behind others — and that by those last couple of miles, I was competing mainly with myself.
Weariness aside, the atmosphere throughout the tour – and on the preceding Friday night Tour la Nuit – is jolly and exhilarating. The streets along the route are cleared of automobile traffic, and nearly 1,000 blue-shirted volunteers are stationed along the way. They’re there not only to shout “bonne journée,” but to point the right way at intersections where the path might be in doubt – an especially welcome service on those few occasions when you aren’t part of a gaggle of cyclists who know where they are going.
My 2011 circuit took me into neighborhoods about which I had no clue; I still don’t know exactly where I was half the time, although I do recall that the locals on their stoops and sidewalks were everywhere enthusiastic about watching us pass by.
It’s an enthusiasm that has become endemic in this bike-crazy metropolis, where Stuart McLean’s comment about Montréal’s being “one of the world’s great bicycle cities” is backed up by statistics: more than 80 percent of Montréalers own bikes, one in three of them buy cycling equipment every year, and there are bike rental shops in every neighborhood. Over 300 miles (500 km) of bicycle paths crisscross the city, and 22 miles (35 km) of streets have bike-only lanes that are plowed in the winter. (Diehard Montréal cyclists go in for winter tires and Velcro gloves that grab compatibly equipped handlebars.) Perhaps most striking of all are the 500 BIXI bicycle rental stations, where some 5,000 bikes are available at the swipe of a credit card.
The BIXI setup, of course, gives Montréalers and visitors alike a sure way to beat those Mount Royal foothills: you can pick up your ride at an uphill location, and drop it off on the flats before tackling the next hill by Metro. But for the real flavor of two-wheeling through this great bicycle city, haul up your 21-speed road bike and sign up for the Tour de Nuit, the Tour de l’Ile, or – best of all – both. And think of the meal you’re going to have after that shower. There are a couple of restaurants in Montréal …
IF YOU GO:
The 2012 Tour de l’Ile takes place of Sunday, June 3, with a 9:15 a.m. start at Parc Jeanne Mance; the Tour de Nuit is on Friday, June 1, with an 8:15 start at 8:15 on Boulevard Saint-Joseph. For details, including registration costs (participants can enroll right up to the last minute, visit http://www.veloquebec.info/en/feria.