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Bicycling Québec's Eastern Townships/Estrie With Children

by M.S.

An article in the local paper ran the headline when we were there: "La Meilleure Destination Velo Au Monde" - the best place for cycling in the world. I haven't been everywhere, but I'm willing to believe it.

We were: husband (too much work this summer, not enough time on the bike), wife (a bit fanatic, you know: "bad day biking is better than a good day doing anything else"), daughter aged 16 (big Postie fever and good legs) and son aged 12 (new-to-him bike but more enthusiasm for Game Boy).

You can get four bikes on an Allen car bike rack , but if they all have drop bars and all have racks - hmmm. Good thing husband is an engineer. Took him 2 and 1/2 hours to figure it out. He took notes, which was another good thing.

I don't know why it took this former (very former) French major so long to get to Québec. Speaking, hearing, reading French - it was great!

Day One

We found the "piste cyclable " (bike path, with varying subtle interpretations and meanings). Son loves it because he likes to pass people. Daughter sneers at it because you can't go fast. I find it anthropologically interesting, but am sorry there's no shade. Husband likes it okay. It goes to Waterloo, and we see commuters, recreators, and a panniered tourist or three. Almost no recent "road" bikes. The path was about 15 miles long.

Then we go on Rte. 112. No shoulder, drivers drive fast, and don't cross the midline to give you more room. On the other hand, there were no instances of aggression or tomfoolery. My theory is that so many citizens ride bikes for transportation that they're also likely to be the drivers who passed us.

We turned off Rte. 112 and left all traffic behind. All traffic. It was great. But there was a price to pay. Route 112 is the only road in the valley. All other roads cross the mountains. We went onto Chemin des Diligences (stagecoach road) which went up a great hill, followed a long ridge, then downhill at 38 mph. Son was surly except during the downhill. We returned to Rte. 112 and followed it up and down hills (nothing extreme) to the outskirts of Magog. A scary moment where cars exited and entered from Autoroute 10. It was unexpected and we weren't riding together for protection. Son who has not a lot of experience with interstate overpasses said he just followed his sister. My knuckles were white.

A lovely long downhill thank God into Magog, and we rejoined a piste cyclable, like a boardwalk next to the Lake Memphremagog . Total: 42 miles, with overuse injuries experienced by husband after mile 32 and son said his butt really hurt.

The B&B lady gave us ice in bags and when I asked where to hang up the handwashing I'd done, she offered to do the rest in the W & D! I didn't say no. I'd definitely recommend "Amour & Amitie."

Day Two

Unbelievable breakfast.

The males are done in, so I get our hosts to look into a taxi to take them back to Granby to fetch the car and turn it into a sag wagon of sorts. The hosts first offered to drive us themselves, and the two male bikes, then found a neighbor who was going to Montr´al anyway. The Qu´bequois - what a people! - (actually our hosts are immigrants from greater Paris).

Rule #1 of cycle touring (and life): remain flexible!

Daughter and I headed off with a half-pannier onto our original itinerary, intending to meet our males at the next B&B, in Mansonville. It was sort of a Thelma and Louise moment - in a good sort of way. Piste Cyclable back out of Magog then onto Chemin Southiere. Okay at first, but then: straight up a long, long way and very very steep. Daughter dubbed it "hors categorie." I had to rest once and walked the last tenth. She didn't walk at all.

Left onto Chemin des Peres. Great road that rolls gently up and down a ridge overlooking the lake. Then it gets serious. Long uphills, long downhills. Repeat. Up at 5 mph and down at 33 mph. Repeat. No shade. Crosswinds. Hot temps.

I figured it out: because they get more snow even than here in Central New England, they have to put it somewhere, so they cut back the trees and bushes far from the road edge. In any case, there ain't no shade except dawn and dusk.

The hills were a surprise, but I shoulda had a clue from the fact that downhill skiiing is right around here. Did I mention it was beautiful? No? Well beautiful scenery I'm beginning to think means difficult cycling.

Chemin des Peres turns into Nicholas Austin and we rested in Austin. We went through Bolton Centre and Bolton Sud and then took the road to Mansonville. Finally, a road that follows a river (I think it was the Mississquoi). A little uptick in traffic as a result.

Total for the day: 27 measly miles, a trifle that felt like an andiron. Our rate of speed was 11.8 mph, and we weren't even much loaded. We only cycled for 2 and a half hours but because of the heat, sun and wind and hills we had to rest often. Took us 4 and a half hours. But after a shower I was raring to go---to dinner. The guys beat us to the B&B by an hour and a half. They'd had their own cross-province adventures - in the car.

Day Three

We travel by car what we would have seen by bike. It was 37 miles, no traffic, nothing at all in fact but beautiful scenery. The last 7 miles or so were steeply hilly. I discovered something important: I overestimated not what was possible to accomplish per day, but what we'd want to do, considering it's a vacation. Even daughter wanted to do "something else" by day three. Stuff like showers, handwashing, eating and packing take much longer than I'd realized. And it's logarithmic - the more individuals, the more time.

We end up in Dunham, ditch the bikes, and take the car on to Bromont to a water park. There, husband breaks a small bone in his foot and I come down with a sore throat and fever.

Rule #2 of almost cycle-touring, and life: remain flexible!

Coming back to the B&B by night we took a wrong turn and discovered the dark secret of provincial life: they don't put signs up identifying the road you're on or the way to anywhere. We almost end up in Montreal. I don't have hysterics, but I come uncomfortably close. We asked for directions 3 times and people were invariably helpful and patient and sweet - and accurate - it's just that there aren't road signs, even around a big a town as Cowansville.

Day 4, 5 etc.

- Since this has stopped being a cycle tour by now I'll just say that we have a heck of a good time in Granby (again) and in la Ville de Quebec. Day whatever - even in la Ville which we know is built on a cliff on the St.Lawrence, people ride bikes. I took mine and went to the Falls of Montmorency, first by city streets of the Haute ville then down to Basse-ville (the brakes work), and finally found the piste cyclable. It was quite a surprise to find a whole network of paths, so that you had to read the signs, and continually ask people the way. Again, no shade, so I was glad it was a cloudy day. It was 20 miles round trip. No English heard the whole way - it was fantastic. Coming back up the Cote de Montagne in the city I feel like the "lanterne rouge" of the Tour de France. I was proud just to have done it, even if I had to walk some.

I felt so at home in Province Quebec from a cycling point of view. My bike is 23 years old and looks it. We saw a few high end, duded up folks but very very few. I wondered where they were, are we just not on the type of road they'd be likely to use? But we were on all types of roads and pistes. There would be a women's Mondiale the following week exactly on some of the roads we were on - so performance cycling does exist. But there are many many times more the number of regular old folks with utilitarian machines, just getting from here to there for pleasure or for business and not in any hurry either. Almost everybody had at least a rack. Lots of trail-a-bikes, child carriers and trailers. We saw only a couple of tandems and one recumbent and one tricycle. But mostly what impressed me was the sheer number of people on HPVs.

My uninformed opinion is that the infrastructure dedicated to pistes cyclables will not imply forbidding bikes on the roads. If you're on a bike, you still have to get around everywhere, and the pistes don't go everywhere.

In closing, remember you heard it here, well not first, but most recently: Eastern Townships of Quebec remain "la meilleure destination velo au monde." Thank you to who helped prepare us just enough without taking all the adventure out of it.

This article originally appeared on the Touring email list.

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