Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017

© Jeannie Rosenberg

The 200-kilometre P’tit Train du Nord is part of the province-wide Route Verte bike trail.

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I prescribe cycling in Quebec

An FM discovers that a spin on the P’tit Train du Nord route isn’t always as easy as it seems

Between 1891 and 1981, Le P’tit Train du Nord (The Little Train of the North) ran through Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. It went up north from Saint-Jérôme towards Mont-Laurier in the morning, and back south in the evening, taking Montrealers to spend the day in the mountains, fishing in the summer or skiing in the winter.

In 1996, a linear park was set up where the train had run, with a path for cycling and cross-country skiing. I remember thinking that a tour on the P’tit Train cycle path (laurentians.com/parclineaire) would make a neat outing someday. Last summer my sister-in-law Mary came up from Cape Breton, and we organized a bike trip. We were considering taking a biking trip in Ireland, and it seemed prudent to do a trial run closer to home.

Now, I am naturally lazy, a trait which I am at pains to combat daily. However cycling makes me feel good. When the weather is nice, I bike three kilometres to work. So our trip wasn’t a marathon.

Mary and I had debated how far we wanted to go. If we averaged 14 kilometres an hour, 42 kilometres would take us only three hours. That said, we would have to contend with baggage and unpaved surfaces. In the end, we decided not to push ourselves and to aim for 30 to 40 kilometres a day.

We would cover only 117 kilometres over three days, and made a reservation for the shuttle service, which will take you and your bicycle as far north as you wish on the route, and then you cycle back. The whole path is 200 kilometres long, and most cycling packages (which can include carrying your baggage from inn to inn) seem to assume a 50-kilometre ride a day.

In order to use the shuttle service (autobuslepetittraindunord.com), we had to be at the station between 7:15 and 7:30AM. We knew we were in the right parking lot (parking is $6 a day) because of all the vehicles with bike racks parked there. At 7AM, two buses with trailers turned up, along with a lot of other bikers. Apparently, your archetypal cyclist is a middle-aged, wiry man with black skin-tight shorts, a bright nylon shirt, fancy bike shoes and helmet and a very expensive bike.

We had my eight-year-old 21-speed Miele and my 34-year-old three-speed Raleigh. We each had two sets of panniers on the back of the bike and we packed light, of course. When all the bikes were strapped into the trailers, off we went. At Labelle, which is kilometre 107 (the south end of the trail in Saint-Jerôme is kilometre 0), everyone got off to use the washrooms, but we were the only ones to get off to start our trip. We hooked on our panniers, and hailed a passerby to take our photo.

Smooth coasting

We set off down the trail on a beautiful day. I started on the Miele, which has an odometer. Five kilometres slipped by, then, 10 kilometres. We could do 50 easily! But by the time we came to 25, I would have been dismayed to discover I was only half way there.

The trail was fine-packed gravel, and it was well maintained and easy to cycle on. We could peddle abreast to chat, except when people passed us going the other way, which was all the time! We peddled at an easy tempo, and switched bikes every 10 kilometres or so; since you sit differently on the two bikes, and this helped avoid stiffness.

I always conceived of travelling from north to south as going downhill. In this case, that was the direction we were heading in and thankfully it actually was mostly downhill.

We rarely went into the towns along the way, mostly eating the food we had brought at one of the many rest areas or halts — really just a couple of benches — that dot the trail.

Because it had been a train track, the grade was only a few degrees. It was difficult to see whether the grade was up or down, but you could feel it! Towards Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré the grade started to rise. I asked Mary, if I had a flat tire. No, she answered. “Oh well, we must be going uphill.”

We came upon our first B&B, the Gîte de la Pisciculture (714 Rue de la Pisciculture Saint-Faustin; tel: 819-688-2195; gitedelapisciculture.com), unexpectedly a few kilometres before Saint-Faustin. There was the sign on the side of the trail and suddenly there was the gîte. Our host and his wife were very friendly, and the B&B had a hot tub and a small swimming pool. Our hostess made us dinner — a good thing, since there were no restaurants nearby. It seemed very cheap at just $85 for two, plus dinner. Then again, the bathroom was across the hall, but really, everything was fine. We set off next day up a very gentle grade after a huge breakfast of pancakes and fresh fruit.

Just a little farther

Our hostess at Sainte-Adèle had told us not to arrive before 3:30PM, so we decided to take a break midway. We stopped at Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts. The old train station, like most of them, had a tourist information office and a display of old photos. We wanted to find a terrace where we could eat and watch our bikes without having to lug our panniers around. As we were leaving, we met a volunteer trail guide who was obviously delighted to have someone to help.

After lunch, we followed the bicycle path to a park, so we could nap under a tree. Then we were off uphill — Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts lives up to its name! There were more and more other cyclists using the trail as we went further south; families with infants in little trailers attached to bikes. Most of them seemed to be people with summer homes in the area.

The Sainte-Adèle station was supposed to be at kilometre 33, but we never found it. We went past the sign posts at kilometre 33, 32, 31, only to discover that it was in fact at kilometre 25. Finally I phoned our B&B, afraid that we had missed it. We were going downhill and I was in no mood to go back up! I got an answering machine. Not five minutes later we found the sign to the B&B called Café Ô Lit (1375 Rue du Mont-Hibou, Sainte-Adèle; tel: 450-229-4068; cafeolit.com). We went down the hill, as we had been told. Then came to a steep hill — it must have been a 60-degree climb!

We got to the top, pushing our loaded bikes, when our hostess called back. She told us we were on the right track, and that there would be a long hill before her place. Another hill?! Yes, we had to push our bikes up a precipitous half-a-kilometre slope. “Well, Mary,” I said, “If this doesn’t give us angina, our hearts are fine!” Note to self: unless you are a strong cyclist, make sure the place you book is close to the trail.

The road home

Finally we arrived at the B&B, exhausted and soaked with sweat. Well, at least I was. I had been cycling on the flat Châteauguay Valley where I live, and Mary had been practicing on the hills of Cape Breton. When our hostess welcomed us, I berated her for telling us the B&B was easy to get to from the trail. She had not grasped that we were coming by bike! To make up for it, she gave us each a cold beer. My animosity evaporated.

The B&B was quite fancy, with reproduction antiques. Our bedroom had a queen-size bed and a futon. We were told breakfast was at 9AM, which I complained was much too late; and we compromised on 8:30. Breakfast was a lavish affair with fresh fruit, yogurt with granola, then croissants, goat cheese and dried fruit and finally eggs Benedict. I love eggs Benedict, but hardly tasted mine; I was so impatient to get going, because showers were forecast and I did not want to go down that hill in the rain; brakes do not work well when wet.

It was a lovely place, and maybe I will go back some day — by car.

Finally, we found that the hill was neither as long nor as steep as it had been the other way, and we got back to the trail with no trouble, and long before the rain. About halfway along our route, a sudden shower soaked us. But it didn’t matter — it was the last day. We had an easy ride through glowing green countryside, and arrived at Saint-Jérôme, kilometre zero. We changed out of our wet clothes, stowed our stuff in the car, and cycled close by for lunch before heading home. There is a certain satisfaction to getting some exercise on vacation, and you can tailor the amount of exertion to your level of fitness: or, in my case, your level of laziness.

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