I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL CYCLIST, but there was a time in my life when biking made me feel like more of a champion. I commuted everywhere I needed to go. Biking was easy, and my legs were strong. Then I became a freelance writer and sat in front of my computer for a year. And then I decided to bike Eastern Quebec for three days.
The region of Quebec is home to over 4,000km of marked bike paths and bike-friendly roads on a network called La Route Verte (The Green Route). “The Montrealers say that we live in a village,” a man from Quebec City told me, laughing beneath his bike helmet. “But I’d rather live in a village where I can bike everywhere. And I want to be close to the green places.” A few hours west, those green places are known as the Eastern Townships, where residents of Montreal and Quebec City alike come to enjoy the hilly, bikeable roads that connect small towns, farms, and vineyards.
These are the city routes and green places that introduced me to Eastern Quebec and reintroduced me to every muscle in my ass.
1. Quebec City Bike Tour
If you only have a day in Quebec City, joining a bike tour for a couple hours in the morning is the easiest way to get a feeling for the layout of the city. I’m normally pretty stubborn about going it alone, but this is a matter of necessity.
We hit the waterfront promenade near the Hotel Frontenac, the Parliament Building, the Plains of Abraham, the stone archways of the historic Old City, the sidewalk cafes (terrasses) of Grand Allée, and the edgy student neighborhood of St. Roch. It’s the foundation I need to come back and explore the areas that interest me most later in the afternoon (the Old City) and later in the evening (St. Roch).
The Old City is located on a steep bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The hill leading up to this historic district is steep enough to necessitate a funicular that allows walkers to avoid “L’escalier du Casse-Cou,” a staircase whose name literally translates to “the neck breaker.” The funicular doesn’t allow bikes, so do a few squats in preparation for the ascent. The ride back to the rental shop is a lazy roll down the hill.
- Distance: ~5km
- Bike rentals at Cyclo Service (289 rue Saint-Paul) start at $15 for two hours or $35 for a day. Two-hour group tours leave every morning at 10AM. Customizable tours for routes outside the city are also available.
- If you’re staying for a couple days, Quebec’s International Hostel is particularly bike friendly and offers secure bike storage in an inner courtyard.
2. Montmorency Falls
My guide asks me if I’m up for an excursion outside of the city after a morning exploring the city by bike. I ask him to translate the French word for drafting — i.e., using the biker in front of you as a wind breaker, making it easier to pedal.
“Coup-vent,” he tells me. It’s a noun: “The wind break.”
We strike a deal, and he agrees to be the coup-vent. He bikes into the wind, and I pedal hunched over in his windless wake. We take the Corridor du Littoral, a designated path on La Route Verte, northeast out of the city in the direction of an 84-meter waterfall.
He tells me that he used to walk down the hill with his father to visit the falls during his childhood, especially in the winter when the snow and frozen water pile up, creating an epic sledding hill. He tells me that he and his friends biked up and down that hill, around the falls, and across the bridge to Île d’Orléans on repeat every summer, their legs pumping on and on, exploring. Their parents would beg them to come indoors. Now he begs his kids to put away the video games and make the same trips with him. There’s a nostalgia for this place.
Groups of school kids ride their bikes in lines like ducklings on the path ahead to visit the falls for their year-end field trip.
- Distance: 20km roundtrip
- It’s free to visit the falls, but a ride on the gondola and access to the viewing bridge costs $11.
- Make a stop for Quebec’s beloved poutine toward the end of your ride. A pile of French fries doused in beef gravy and topped with squeaky cheddar cheese curds is a disgustingly satisfying way to end a day of biking, and I imagine an even more satisfying way to end a shit-faced night of binge drinking. The locals say that the chain Chez Ashton does it best.
L’Estriade is good for solo-biking people watchers. It’s located slightly north of Bromont, a ski-resort town that’s one of the major hubs on the Eastern Townships’ cycling routes.
This is an intermediate path that’s mostly flat and runs through thick trees for kilometers before opening up to expanses of yellow-flowered farmland. I take the 21km path between Granby and Waterloo. Dead serious road bikers pass me deliberately. Old ladies with their hair tied in scarves smile serenely with radios in their cruiser baskets. An old man drags his Jack Russell terrier in a mini tent on wheels. Small children pedal furiously to keep up with their dad, who doesn’t seem the least bit worried about losing them.
I sit in the public park in Waterloo to rest. A bearded man is sitting on a bench facing me. We have a staring contest. He looks sad, and I think about crossing the park to sit down next to him. “I like your beard” is an opener that almost always works. After a few more awkward glances, I decide he doesn’t really look like he wants any company, and my ice cream is melting all over my hands while I try to remember the French word for beard. I’m definitely creeping him out.
- Distance: 42km roundtrip between Granby and Waterloo. Shorter variations possible with stops in Bromont or Shefford.
- Designated parks every couple kilometers make it easy to find a place to rest, buy water, or enjoy a picnic. Older couples lie side by side under the shade of a tree, families sit at picnic tables, and I take a break from my bike.
- Deer and small children on bikes may appear out of nowhere.
4. La Route des Vins
La Route des Vins (The Wine Route) is a network of bike-friendly roads connecting the small villages and vineyards of an area in the Eastern Townships just a few miles north of Vermont. The circuit is considerably more difficult compared to L’Estriade, and I was one of the only casual bikers out that day.
Most of my companions were pros on road bikes or retired couples in beemers. They were driving between the vineyards, honking and waving sarcastically as I pushed my bike up the steep hills near Lake Selby. I smiled and waved when I rolled by them a few kilometers later, inching along behind an old man on a tractor who seemed suspiciously satisfied by the diversion he was creating.
A particularly vigilant guard dog at the Verger Ecologique apple farm between Stanstead and Frelighsburg has little patience for lingering bikers, and will let you know when your time sitting under a tree near the farm has reached its limit. Taxi Velo (1-877-766-VELO) is handy for pickups anywhere in the region, with vans that can accommodate multiple bikes. Useful if you drink too much wine at the end of your circuit and need a lift back to your hotel.
- Distance: The circuit is ~30km roundtrip, (Dunham->Stanstead East->Frelighsburg->Dunham), with the possibility to extend to around 60km roundtrip via Bedford and Pigeon Hill.
- I started the circuit halfway between Dunham and Stanstead East in the parking lot of the Vignoble de L’Orpailleur, saving exploration of the vineyards and farms in the area as an incentive to finish the route.
- Vignbole de L’Orpailleur offers tours of its vineyard and bottling facility for $7, which includes a tasting of three different wines. The ice wine tastes like boozy honey.
- Vignoble Les Trois Clochers is owned by a spitfire woman named Nadège who will ask you if you slept through your high school French class in one breath, and in the next recount the love story that started the vineyard 15 years ago.
- Ferme Paradis des Fruits is a family-owned fruit farm located between the two vineyards. Therese will tell you how her parents purchased the land 50 years ago and developed the production of everything from apples and pears, strawberries and blackberries, to honey and cream. You can self-pick seasonal fruits year round.