I don’t ride a bike to work. Throwing myself down a mountain on a two-wheeler in the name of adrenaline isn’t my cup of tea. My thighs would resign at the sight of spandex bike shorts. I don’t have a bike helmet, or even a bike, if we’re going to get down to the nitty gritty of it. In fact, the last time I rode a bike, my day came to a rather ignominious end in a ditch, emphatically putting paid to the old adage that you never forget how to ride.
As you can see, there’s pretty much no way I could legitimately claim to be a cycling enthusiast. But that doesn’t mean I don’t fancy heading out for a bit of a pedal every now and then – so long as the cycling isn’t too hardcore and I get to take a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine along for the ride.
My new favourite destination for an easy ride? Canada’s pleasant P’tit Train du Nord, a none-too-taxing trail in Québec’s Laurentian mountains. Stretching some 200km north of Montréal, it’s the country’s (and some say North America’s) longest linear park. Not that size matters – more important is the fact that it is well marked, well maintained and the hills are so gentle you’ll barely even notice them. It’s therefore ideal for novices, part-timers or the less than fighting fit.
The culprit behind this ease of route is the park’s namesake – the P’tit Train du Nord, or Little Train of the North. Back in the good old days, the railway used to bring snow-seeking Montréalers up to the mountains but, by the early ’80s, it had been overtaken by the automobile as the transport of choice, so the route was shut down. Canadians are pretty good with their recycling, though, and in 1996 they rejuvenated the rail corridor, ripping up the tracks and replacing them with a smooth gravel bikeway, creating the lazy rider’s paradise you find there today. Trains don’t like steep hills and sharp corners, you see, so you’re left with a path of least resistance to amble along.
As easy as the trail is, I’m still not up to biking the full 200 clicks, so we opted instead to join the trail for a day of riding out of Mont Tremblant, the most well known town en route. The day was cool, but sunny enough to give me my first sunburn of the season as we headed off around the small but sparkling Lake Mercier. The P’tit Train du Nord is renowned for its picturesque backdrops, and it was immediately obvious why. Here the trail hugs the edge of the shimmering lake, shaded by emerald foliage and punctuated with white-roofed cottages and quaint villages. It couldn’t possibly get any more peaceful than this unless you had your own personal masseuse along for the ride.
Before hitting the road, we’d sought advice on where to find the best scenery for the least amount of effort. The suggestion was to head past the lake and out toward the village of St Jovite – an apparently photogenic but not too strenuous ride. We coasted along for about 10km around the lake and then on through the fields on the other side before I realised my usually infallible sense of direction had failed us and we’d gone the wrong way. It was hardly a mistake of disastrous proportions – if I only ever make one wrong turn a year, I’m glad it got to be this one – as the ride around the lake was spectacular with certainly the most beautiful scenery of the day’s riding. And that’s really saying something once you’ve seen the rushing rivers and quaint wooden bridges which line the trail heading the other way out of Mont Tremblant.
Whichever way you turn, or indeed wherever you find yourself on the P’tit Train du Nord, there’s no shortage of scenic rest stops for that picnic of melt-in-your-mouth Québeçois cheese, crusty French bread and a glass of red along the way (a must). The trail is well serviced, with everything from sheltered picnic tables to restrooms to keep the experience comfortable. Many of the old historic stations are also still standing, housing everything from cute cafés and boutiques to information stations – if anything, you’ll find it hard to make good time as you’ll be stopping so often to check out the next village/station/chipmunk.
While the trail is appealing year round, spring is best if you want to steer clear of other people, while summer rules for swimming stops and steamy, sunny days and autumn for colourful foliage to rival that of New England’s famous seasonal hues. But even in winter the trail attracts open to cross country skiiers and snowmobilers.
All up we covered about 50km that day around the mellow mountains of the Laurentians – probably some 40km more than my previous cycling record. But it really wasn’t that hard at all (barring a slightly sloshed 15km back from St Jovite after stopping for a few local brews). While I’m still no expert, it was a confidence builder, and has inspired me to try and get back in the saddle more often.