Freewheeling Through Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains
Biking through the Laurentians is a trip that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, and happily my good friend Joanne agreed to come with me on a 145k ride from Nominingue to Saint Jerome. It is a pretty tame ride, with only one uphill stretch (albeit 14k long and with an elevation of 450 metres). The path winds its way past pretty old stations that have been converted into cafes and tourist centres, over old rail bridges and alongside rivers and lakes. Beautiful.
When we booked the trip, we were confident that we could do it with ease. Three months beforehand, we’d planned a training schedule and bought padded shorts. But on the day we started out, Joanne had only actually been on her bike once, for about 20 minutes, and she had a rather nasty and embarrassing fall.
Plus, storms were forecast for the two days we’d be cycling. We were both worried that the trip may be less cakewalk and more disaster.
Following the Railway
The trail through the Laurentians follows a disused Canadian Pacific rail line that last carried passengers in 1981 and was transformed into a bike path in 1996, hence it being called Le P’tit Train du Nord. To ride the trail, you park your car in Saint Jérôme, and just pedal off down the path, or use the services of Transport du Parc Linéaire – a family owned business that transports bikes and riders to any one of the villages along the bike path to start their trip. Aline and Michelle Raymond, who have been running Transport du Parc Linéaire for the past 14 years, specialize in designing trips to suit every level of fitness, with stops at Auberges along the route.
As we loaded our bikes onto the trailer, Madam Raymond informed me that the week before there was a group of twelve cyclists from Massachusetts on the trail, and the youngest in the group was 71 while the oldest was 78. This made me feel a little better, if they can manage it, surely we could.
We arrived at our accommodations, the rather eccentric Auberge Chez Ignace the early evening. Chez Ignace’s eccentricity, stems from the fact that on every wall and in every nook and cranny, there are badgers, boars, birds of prey and just about every Canadian animal you can think of stuffed and mounted. The food there was superb, and all of the Belgian style dishes on the menu all sounded absolutely divine. We started with a plate of homemade deer paté, then we had to try the escargot, which arrived covered in bubbling cheese and was absolutely delicious. I settled on a rabbit in prune sauce for my main, while Joanne ordered chicken in a tarragon sauce. We washed it down with Belgian beer, and of course had to sample some of the equally delicious desserts. This was slow food at its best: The meal took three hours.
When we awoke the next morning, the sky was gray and threatening rain, but it was, thankfully, dry out. The hotelier had our bikes all ready to go, and he told us that by the time we reached the next auberge, our luggage would be waiting for us
A Leisurely Start
From the start it was an easy ride, a flat and leisurely pedal along the paved bike path. The sides of the path were freshly mown, and smelled divine. They were framed by huge wild daisies, Indian paintbrush and other beautiful wildflowers I didn’t know the name of, as well as wild strawberries which we couldn’t help stopping to pick every time we saw a decent sized patch. We didn’t really see anyone for the first hour or so until we were passed by one of the 25 or so patrol riders will that travel up and down the path in case anybody needs help along the way.
Every couple of kilometres there was a place to stop and rest, usually with benches and a composting toilet (thankfully the ones we stopped at were always very clean and non-smelly). We biked blissfully along for 18k, until we reached the village of L’Annonciation, where we decided that it was time to grab a coffee. There wasn’t much open in the way of cafes or anything, but we found a hole in the wall “Biscuiterie” on the main drag that we had to stop at, mostly because we’d never heard of one before.
We bought Pets de Soeurs, which translates as “Nun’s Farts” (traditional French-Canadian pastries made with butter and maple sugar) and coffee in polystyrene cups, which we enjoyed on a bench outside. Then on we went, biking easily along until the next stop, for lunch, at La Belle, where we loaded up on carbs (fairly decent chicken poutine) and cola before setting off for the final leg of out journey, towards Tremblant. It was a gorgeous ride alongside the shores of Lac Tremblant, we whizzed by quaint private docks and chalets, the trail a little busier here than anywhere else so far.
Another Lovely Auberge
We reached the Auberge Le Voyageur B&B tired and happy. We’d spent about five hours on the trail, including our various breaks. The bright and airy B&B seemed pretty deserted, and as they didn’t do dinner, we went into Saint Jovite (2k down the road) to find somewhere to eat.
The town was quaint: There were lots of cute stores to browse in and plenty of dining choices. We chose a trendy looking bar called “Z”, which had great calamari and salads, which we chased with a white chocolate raspberry cake. It was a little pricey, but we had figured that eating in such a touristy area would be. We went back, took turns to soak our weary bones then got an early night in preparation of the 82k we faced the next day.
Breakfast at the Voyageur was sumptuous. There were pastries and freshly squeezed juice the moment we sat down, then we were offered waffles or a massive ham and cheese ciabatta – I had one, Joanne the other, and both were great. There was a dish of Creton, a traditional meat spread made with pork, veal or chicken (spiced similarly to tortiere), to spread on fresh bread too.
We left the B&B Voyageur at 9am, to grey skies and drizzle. It would have been nice if the rain started after we had completed the 14k incline that was waiting for us, the only real incline on this stretch of the path. The path was no longer paved, and we immediately found the gravel harder to bike on.
One Heck of a Climb
The drizzle stopped after the first hour, just as the steep incline started wearing us down. We wanted coffee badly, but it took us two hours to get to somewhere we could stop and get one. With parked outside the café, our legs were jelly and our butts were burning. We could hardly speak until we were well into our bowls of latte.
“At least we’re done on the incline now,” I said. But I was wrong. There were still three more kilometres of steep climb to knock the wind out of our sails. “We should have trained harder,” I said. “We should have trained, period,” replied Joanne, “still, these padded shorts were a wise investment.”
Just before we reached the crest of the incline, we saw a beautiful doe with huge ears standing across the path. We got fairly close before she darted away. Seeing her gave us a little extra per oomph to get to the top. And once we did reach the top and saw the sign saying that we were at the highest elevation, we whooped and hollered in delight. Then followed delicious coasting, that allowed us to stretch our tired legs and actually enjoy the sights around us.
At 48K, we came off the bike track at Sante-Agathe-des-Montes and followed the designated bike Route through a rather industrial looking part of town. We were tired and hungry, it was getting colder and gloomier the further we got away from the bike path and we weren’t sure that we chosen
good place to stop. Then suddenly we came across a pretty street of shops and restaurants. It was raining pretty heavily, so we just dived into the first place that looked okay, an Italian restaurant named Del Polpolo, that was actually a Chinese Italian restaurant, but whatever, we were starving.
The next 16k were hard, because it rained heavy and the gravel paths were getting a little sloppy to ride on. We were cold and miserable. “This isn’t fun anymore,” I moaned. I told Joanne I wanted to call a taxi, she glared at me and told me to keep pedaling. We stopped for coffee at the old rail station in Sainte-Agathe, and our spirits lifted a little.
The Home Stretch
Fortunately, just as we set off again, the sun came out and it got warm fast. Our moods lifted and we began to see the bright side. We were tired, sure, but it was pretty much downhill all the way, and how far we had come! We coasted our way along. At the 15k marker, we saw eight eagles soaring together over a gorgeous meadow, framed by cliffs. Now the weather was perfect, sunny and hot. My shoes were dry and I could feel my fingers again.
The final stretch was a little laborious, and as we cycled into urban Saint-Jerome the views were nowhere near as pretty. It was a hard slog, and the km markers we’d been relying on disappeared. We ached. Then we saw the arched entrance to the bike park and I think I actually screamed I was so excited. We were glad our biking ordeal was over, because yes it was an ordeal riding through the driving rain, but mostly we were so bloody proud with ourselves for having biked 145k.
Given chance to repeat the experience, I’d love to attempt the complete trail, all 230k of it, but take my sweet time ambling from one lovely auberge to the next. I’d break the cycling up into more easily managed stretches, that allowed more time to explore the quaint villages along the way, immerse myself more fully in the French-Canadian culture and more time to stuff myself with nun farts and quench my thirst with huge bowls of coffee.
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