Outside a small-town Quebec school, hundreds of multicoloured nylon tents sprout up like mushrooms. Some 1,700 cyclists, ranging from grandparents to toddlers, finish riding, pitch their tents, and head to a municipal swimming pool. They return to their tent village, famished, and file into a big tent where supper is served. As the sun slips below the horizon, children are tucked into their tents and adults begin dancing. The next morning, participants return from the breakfast, pull down several hundred tents, pack them onto support vans, and head off in waves to their next destination. Welcome to the family-oriented Petite Aventure (The Little Adventure), one of some 20 organized, multi-day cycle-touring trips organized by Velo Quebec. Cyclists in the rest of Canada should take note of what Velo Quebec is up to these days because it might just work elsewhere, too.
Velo Quebec is an umbrella organization that, among other things, offers cycle touring trips from two to eight days throughout Quebec and Ontario. Other destinations include Prince Edward Island, Virginia, Cuba, France, and Turkey. Cyclists are responsible for bringing their road bike, personal items, a tent, and sleeping bag; Velo Quebec is responsible for everything else. Routes chosen for the day are well signpost’ed and patrolled by mechanics and support vehicles, offering rides to tired cyclists. Three meals a day are provided for participants, together with nightly entertainment. This is mass cycle touring made easy and at surprisingly affordable prices (see sidebar).
What differentiates these Velo Quebec trips from those offered by many other outfitters is the scale of such events, the organization’s level of expertise accumulated over two decades, and the family-oriented flavour of the Petite Aventure.
To give you an idea of the scale of things, the Grand Tour sees 2,000 cyclists riding 650 kilometres over eight days supported by 350 employees and volunteers. Velo Quebec also organizes Montreal’s annual Tour de l’Ile (Tour of Montreal Island), an event in its 21st year, where 30,000 cyclists ride 48 kilometres on city streets temporarily closed to car traffic. The Tour de l’Ile, together with peripheral venues such as the 20-kilometre Night Tour, is billed as the largest mass-participation cycling event in the world.
Those urban rides aside, Velo Quebec profits from the charming local countryside for its other tours. Cycling rural Quebec is a treat because the landscape varies from small farms to woodlots to little villages. Distances between villages are rarely far, and it’s easy to tell where the next village is by simply looking for its church spire “”often visible for many kilometres. Ambitious riders will find the hillier sections of Quebec very similar to northern New England. Closer to the St. Lawrence River is a broad expanse of flat terrain used for la Petite Aventure.
The Grand Tour (GT) is Quebec’s flagship cycle-touring event. The 2005 GT starts and finishes in Berthierville (hometown of former race car driver Gilles Villeneuve), halfway between Montreal and Trois Rivieres. From there, the 2,000 participants will pedal east along the Chemin du Roy (King’s Road, Canada’s oldest road, built in 1737), passing Quebec City and its ski resorts. The GT will cross the St. Lawrence River on the Pont de Quebec and return west through a region known as “Little Switzerland.” Cyclists will eventually take a ferry across a UNESCO world biosphere reserve (with 288 bird species and 79 fish species) to reach Berthierville on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.
New in 2005 is an abbreviated three-day version of the GT. For those averse to tent camping, lodging in two-star hotels is available at a premium. According to figures provided by Velo Quebec spokesman Patrick Howe, the GT in 2004 was most popular with riders between 35 and 54 years old, with the eldest participant being 78! Men outnumbered women riders almost two to one and only 6% of participants came from outside of Quebec.
Napoleon once said that “an army marches on its stomach,” and GT participants will be pleased to know that Velo Quebec shares this philosophy. A sample evening menu features “half-pear topped with melted goat cheese, asparagus, poulet Wellington with spinach, salmon filets, and pastry covered with melted chocolate.” Supper is followed by movies, a bistro, and dancing every night. Howe insists that English-speaking participants are welcome and suggests that most participants are bilingual, although much of the entertainment is in French.
The family-oriented Petite Aventure (PA) is unusual, according to Howe, who is unaware of any similar large-scale event. The trip provides a good taste of overnight cycle touring but with modest daily distances. Designed for young children, the PA is also popular with some childless adults. The trip is so popular that the 2005 edition was filled to capacity in March.
This year’s PA begins and ends at Rigaud, between Montreal and Ottawa, winding its way through parts of both Quebec and eastern Ontario. Some 1,700 riders will pedal 150 kilometres between July 1-3. Entertainment at the PA includes giant inflatable toys for the kids, and some bistro shows are suitable for children as well. A slight majority of the 2003 participants were female, a pattern that stays constant, according to Howe. And some 34% of participants were under 17 years old, with the 35-to-44 age group contributing another 30%.
Howe points out that the “Little Adventure” is not only for kids. Teens can enjoy the option of riding “alone” in the company of many other cyclists along clearly identified routes with mechanical support and first aid help available at any time.
With these and other trips, Velo Quebec tries to cater to many different levels of riding ability and tastes, offering a vast array of destinations. It’s trademark topnotch organization and fine food, combined with no-frills accommodation, ensure low-cost fun. These trips have great ambiance and are a tremendous value.
Riding 150 Kilometres with
Three Young Children
by John Symon
Like many other once-enthusiastic cycle tourers, my life seems divided into two periods: B.C. (before children) and A.C. (after children). Ambitious cycle tours and camping trips with my wife, Patty, were routine before we had children, but seemed impossible afterwards. Then I found out about the PA while my youngest was barely one-year-old, my middle child was four, and my eldest was six. Could we actually ride 150 kilometres (100 miles) over three days en famille and have a good time? A trip to our local bike shop was in order to ask about equipment.
While older children could reasonably be expected to ride some 50 kilometres a day on their own bikes over flat ground, this is impractical for younger kids. Fortunately, bike trailer models from various manufacturers have undergone a tremendous evolution over the past decade or so. While many fine products are now available, we bought a Chariot Caddie trailer for the two younger children to ride in, impressed with the comfort and relative spaciousness of that model. I put my eldest on an Adams Trail-a-Bike, a trailer that imitates a tandem bicycle, allowing the second rider to pedal.
While it was physically possible to pull two children in the larger trailer, we discovered some other considerations during one memorable practise ride. I rode through a small village with two unhappy children who were sitting in the trailer and crying loudly in stereo. Puzzled villagers sitting on their front porches must have first thought it was a slow-moving firetruck coming down Main Street. When they finally saw us, they were unsure whether to laugh or cry. Lesson learned: get the kids used to the trailer on shorter rides, go for distance while they sleep, and otherwise stop frequently.
Patty and I found that we could alternate trailers, quickly switching them back and forth between my bike and hers. I was even able to attach the Trail-a-Bike to my road bike, then hook the Chariot trailer to it, pulling a “double load” down the road. While this double-load setup works well on flat ground, it’s not advisable on hilly terrain. Two loaded trailers can add 200 pounds to your “vehicle weight” and neither your legs nor your bike’s brakes are designed for such a heavy load!
The trailer-hitch mechanisms are very well designed, but check them frequently to make sure everything is in order. Tires and brakes should also be checked. And it is wise to carry spare inner tubes for the trailer tires, which are often small in diameter. A few spare diapers can be useful, too!
The main dilemma with the Trail-a-Bike attached to my bike was ensuring that the second rider was actually pedaling. My son, David, gave assurances that he was indeed pedaling, but his shadow often revealed otherwise. And true to Murphy’s Law, when he did pedal earnestly, it was on downhills when I didn’t need him to. I have also heard rumours of children on such trailers nodding off to sleep and falling off the bike. I am unsure if such stories are true, but kept talking to my son the whole time we were riding, just to be safe. We also took frequent breaks. And cycling at a speed that pleases the kids is a sure way for them to enjoy the experience!
John Symon (www.writers.ca) is a Montreal-based travel writer who has participated in two Petite Aventures and several Tour de l’Iles.