OKA, QUEBEC - We didn’t really blend in with the festive Canada Day crowds because our bikes were laden with heavy saddlebags. It was mid-afternoon and the sky was heavy with rain but it didn’t matter – the energy at the intersection of Rideau and Sussex streets in Ottawa was electric. We dismounted our bikes and pushed past the throngs dressed in red and white and waving their Canadian flags, our bulging saddlebags jostling the ankles of adults and the strollers of toddlers.
My roommate, Carol, and I were setting off on a trip we had been fantasizing about for months — a multi-day cycling adventure from Ottawa to Montreal along the Route verte.
The Route verte is one of Quebec’s hidden gems – 5,000 kilometres of sign-posted trail leading perseverant peddlers along secondary highways, backcountry roads, residential side streets and provincial park paths. Twenty years in, the system provides an alternative – and as the name suggests, more green – way to explore La Belle Province.
Route One, from Ottawa to Montreal, follows the twists of the Ottawa River along Route 148 – a road less travelled following the 2012 completion of Quebec Autoroute 50.
Understandably, a 300-kilometre bike ride is not everyone’s cup of tea. But to those dismissing this as an undertaking appropriate only for the spandex-clad, I beg you to reconsider.
Above: Map shows the route Hilary and her friend took.
We had a view of Parliament Hill as we crossed the Ottawa River and rolled onto a National Capital Commission pathway. The Canadian Museum of History had chosen a particularly epic soundtrack to accompany the day’s festivities, and we biked on amidst a heroic pounding of percussion and horns.
That’s when we saw it: our first green and blue Route verte sign.
We yipped excitedly and the sky called back: deep rumbles of thunder and the clamour of rain. The first trial of our trip was here, and we raced to a shelter at the edge of the park. It was confirmation of what I already knew to be true: this tour was going to test both physical and mental fortitude.
Thank goodness for quick-drying shorts and waterproof panniers. After three hours of riding through residential Gatineau, we cruised into Thurso, Que., a small city known more for its distinctive paper mill smell than its location along the Ottawa River. Blood sugar levels were low and grumpiness was setting in.
In preparing for the five-day trip we had packed food for breakfast and dinner, with the intent of stopping for lunch along the way.
So we did as one must do when they find themselves cycling long distances on Canada Day; we parked our bikes at a casse-croûte (French fry hut) and bought poutine. We gleefully sipped the pint of beer I had kept chilled in my thermos, the alcohol turning our dehydrated minds fuzzy.
Thurso was not the last small town we’d stop in over the next four days. In fact, the Route verte passes through veritable picnic heaven.
Montebello is a fine example. Home to more than just the world-class Fairmont Château Montebello, the village exudes Québécois charm, and is a prime lunch stop for bikes and cars alike. At the Fromagerie Montebello we happily sampled squeaky cheese curds and at ChocoMotive, the local artisanal chocolate company, the woman behind the display case slipped us each a free truffle upon discovering we were cycling.
The unconventional always seems to attract kindness, be it extra cheese curds and chocolate, to accommodations for cyclists along the Route verte.
Just one benefit of cross-provincial cycling infrastructure is that campgrounds, hostels, hotels and B&Bs are involved. A “Bienvenue Cyclistes” rate exists at most places along the way, meaning your bicycle becomes an instant discount card for Route verte accommodation.
As budget-minded cyclists, that made all the difference. We chose to camp, having packed and bungeed the essentials into and onto our saddlebags.
Left: The series of cycle paths between Ottawa and Montreal bring you close to nature. Right: Rehydrated cappelletti pasta looks pretty good after a day on the bikes.
It was deeply satisfying riding onto the campsite with nothing but a bike. Campsite neighbours were surprised as we unloaded our gear — tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, dehydrated meals, stove, extra water. The next morning, we would pack up and repeat. There is comfort to be found in a routine involving limited stuff and active bodies.
But to say it was all easy would be a lie.
My roommate and I are recreational cyclists who use our hybrid bikes to scoot around the city. Cycling 75 kilometres a day while hauling 20 pounds of gear wasn’t in our regular repertoire. Over the course of the trip there was a showdown with a raccoon, an onslaught of anger induced by hunger, and a tizzy of tears and swearwords that I had to swallow after we got lost near nightfall on the way to a campsite. But we did it – two young women of average fitness, pounding the pavement for hours everyday. And we’re still friends after five days on the road.
On our final night at Parc National d’Oka, we cooked spider dogs and marshmallows over a celebratory campfire. Staring into the flame, I felt as though I had fit a month’s worth of experiences into a few short days.
That’s the thing about biking. The pace disrupts the apathy that can come from speeding along an open freeway. Over the course of 300 kilometres, I saw western Quebec in a new light. Passing through small towns, stopping at charming lookout spots, and practicing French with the locals was something I would have missed had I driven the same distance in an afternoon. It’s amazing what you can find in your own backyard if you slow down long enough to see it.
This feeling of gratitude was no truer than on the day the Route verte ran parallel to Autoroute 50. I looked up at the cars and trucks barrelling along the highway. My throat was dry and my butt was sore from sitting on my seat for hours. But thinking of the open road my bike would cover that day and the sense of accomplishment I would feel at the end, I couldn’t help but think, “those poor suckers.”