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Where to Road Cycle in Quebec

The following road rides rank among our favourites in Quebec. All are from the guidebook we relied on most often: Le Quebec en 30 Boucles. (A boucle is a loop.) Like the other guidebooks we used, it’s in French. But the maps are excellent, and if you can read of bit of French, you can easily decipher where to begin the ride, then follow the map the rest of the way. The trip numbers here correspond to those in the book:

Trip 2 – The description suggests riding on the roads through much of Gatineau Park, just north of Ottawa. But we preferred staying on the extensive bike paths in the park and along both shores of the Ottawa River.

Trip 4  Laurentides: Brebeuf, La Conception. Often along Riviere Rouge. Length: 57 km. Gain: 267 m.

Trip 5 – Laurentides: Monteregie et Ontario. Along the Ottawa River, passing many historic, stone homes on the N bank. Length: 70 km. Gain: 179 m.

Trip 6 – A beautiful, vigourous loop passing several lakes. Length: 79 km. Gain: 645 m.

Trip 10 – Mascouche / Crabtree / L’Epiphanie. A relatively quiet ride in the countryside just NE of Montreal. Length: 54 km. Gain: 88 m.

Trip 12 – Cantons-de-l’Est (Eastern townships, near  Sherbrooke). Bedford, Dunham. We liked best the section between Frelighsburg and Pigeon Hill. Length: 83 km. Gain: 468 m. But you’ll see options to shorten it.

Trip 13 – Richelieu River: NE of Montreal-St Marc Richelieu /Antoine sur Richelieu / St Denis Richelieu. Length: 47.5 km. Gain: 60 m. 

Trip 16 – Mauricie et Quebec. Cycling on the historic Chemin du Roy, beside le Fleuve St. Laurent, you’ll visit a a few of the most beautiful villages and eglises in Quebec: St. Anne-de-le-Perade, St. Casimir, and Grondines. Length: 62 km. Gain: 146 m.

Trip 17 – Cantons-de-l’Est. Magog, ESE of Montreal. To shorten the ride and avoid some of the Magog traffic, start in St. Catherine-de-Hatley. Visit North Hatley, Hatley, Ayer’s Cliff, and Lac Massawippi. Length: either 58 or 78 km. Gain 600 m.

Trip 24 – Chaudiere-Appalaches. Along the le Fleuve St. Laurent, this ride takes in Beaumont, St. Michel de Bellechasse, and St. Vallier. Length: 54 km. Gain 179 m.

Trip 29 – Bas St. Laurent et Gaspesie. Hwy 132 along the St Laurent is usually very busy, so it’s not enjoyable. If you cycle this, travel from W to E so the prevailing wind is at your back. The section from Metis-Sur-Mer up to St. Octave is tranquil and lovely, with views over farmlands to the le Fleuve St. Laurent. Length: 83 km. Gain: 423 m.

Not Recommended – Trip 25 – I’lle-d’Orleans. There’s virtually no shoulder on the road circling this island outside Quebec City. The asphalt is terribly broken and rutted. Traffic is nearly constant. We didn’t enjoy it. It often felt dangerous.

The following, two road rides rank among our favourites in the Montreal area. Both are from the guidebook titled 15 Circuits Autour de Montréal — Itinéraraires de 63 à 107 km. The maps are detailed and indicate distances between each junction. But the book does not state the elevation gain for each ride. The trip numbers here correspond to those in the book:

Trip 8 – Lachine / Chateauguay / Voie Maritime. We did this 70-km loop on a Saturday, when it seemed all of Montreal was outdoors, in the parks and on the bike paths. It was exhilarating to experience the city by flowing along with the energy and enthusiasm of the locals. Because we were camping at the KOA in St. Phillippe (10 minutes from Sainte Catherine), we started on the Voie Maritime (La Riveraine)—a narrow strip of land in the le Fleuve St. Laurent. The ferry from Lachine departs at 11:15 am, 1:45 pm, 4:45 pm. If you want to shorten the loop, from Lachine you can return on Les Bergers path along the S shore of Montreal to cross Pont Champlain.

Trip 11 – An easy, nearly level loop starting in St. Martine. Traffic was minimal. Pavement was good. The undulating agricultural land was a constantly soothing sight. Length: 65 km or 76.9 km

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50 Impressions from a Cycling/Camping Trip in Quebec

                          click on photo once to enlarge, click on it again to enlarge fully

Most of the time we’re HikingCamping. But once in a while we take a break from the trail and become CyclingCamping.

For the first month of this summer, we were in Quebec—road biking nearly every day, camping in every night.

We visited much of the southern half of the province: from Gatineau in the west, to the east end of Gaspésie. Sure, we stopped in Quebec City and Montreal. Other prominent waypoints were Charlevoix, Mt. Tremblant, Saguenay, Lac St. Jean, and the Chic Choc Mountains. But our goal was to pedal quiet, scenic roads, and admire villages en route.

The province trumpets itself as a cyclists’ haven. Promotional materials—provincial, regional, local—work in concert to give the impression Quebec rivals Europe for safe, beautiful bicycling opportunities. Cycling maps are available free-of-charge at most tourist info centres. “Share the road with cyclist” signage is ubiquitous. Bike lanes beside roadways are pervasive. Dedicated bike paths are common.

So, did our experience corroborate the hype? And how did we feel about the scenery we witnessed? The people we met? The camping along the way? What encouragement or warnings can we offer others contemplating a similar journey?

Here you go. 50 impressions of Quebec from a couple of trailer-toting road bikers:

(1) The effort Quebec has made to welcome cyclists and accommodate cycling is admirable. We gratefully applaud.

(2) Quebecois motorists, however, don’t get it. Many are oblivious to cyclists. Some are so intentionally rude it seems they resent sharing the road. Overall, they drive very aggressively—not just in the big cities but throughout the province. 90 kph in 60 kph zones seemed to be the norm. We’ve cycled in many countries, but only in Quebec have cars heading toward us been passed by speeding motorists who could obviously see us riding toward them. It’s an outrage: dangerous and alarming. And it happened to us several times.

(3) Though Quebec is Canada’s second-largest province, it’s the most populous: 8 million people. So the busy-ness, the buzzy-ness of Quebec should not have surprised us. But it did. No place on our entire trip did we escape traffic. Everywhere we drove or pedaled, Quebec is inhabited. Of course, the far north is dominated by forests, lakes and streams, and pierced by few roads. The rest? Plenty of roads, but far too many people, and way too many cars driving much too fast, for it to feel like a cycling haven.

(4) The roads in Quebec are worse than those we cycled in Cuba (http://www.hikingcamping.com/free-cycling-cuba.php). That is to say, they’re positively third world. Long stretches of pavement are so broadly and deeply fissured, it’s as if they’ve been clawed by rampaging dinosaurs. Potholes certain to damage a road-bike wheel are common. Often, the crumbling roads have been “repaired” with patches so rough they too are serious obstacles for road bikers. The quality of the roads here is appalling. In our experience, smooth pavement is rare in Quebec. You’ll find it on some major highways, but only sporadically on the smaller roads appealing to cyclists. Sure, winters are long and cold here. Sure, the weather is hard on pavement. But cycling aside, the pavement in Quebec is in such desperate decay, it must contribute to automobile accidents. How can a province that inflicts such a heavy tax burden on its citizens (15% sales tax!) not have sufficient funds to properly maintain its roads?

(5) Despite reckless drivers, traffic, and lousy pavement (points 2, 3 & 4) we enjoyed the cycling, the province, and the people. We’re glad we invested so much time there. In the end, it was hard to for us to leave.

(6) The Quebecois (in person, not in their cars) are open, friendly, welcoming. Nearly all were kind and helpful. They seemed to laugh readily and easily. We enjoyed them very much.

(7) The Quebecois were always surprised when they discovered we were from Alberta. And not just surprised, but grateful and impressed that we’d made the long journey. Apparently not many western Canadians drive to and throughout Quebec. Our entire time here, we saw only a couple B.C. and Alberta license plates, and none from Manitoba or Sakatchewan.

(8) The farther east you go in Quebec, the less English is spoken. It seemed to us that many, perhaps most, residents of Montreal are comfortably bilingual. But we passed entire days in Gaspésie when nobody we met spoke English.

(9) When traveling throughout Quebec, it’s helpful to have at least a small, emergency “tool-kit” French vocabulary. Better yet to have a few French phrases to ease your way through common situations. It’s simply good manners. It shows respect. And sometimes, a little French might be necessary to communicate accurately.

(10) Still, vastly more Quebecois speak English than western Canadians speak French.

(11) Not once did we encounter any resentment toward us as Albertans, or toward us as Anglophones who speak French like drunken oafs.

(12) The ability to read French is essential if using Quebec cycling guidebooks. We found no English-language editions.

(13) The four cycling guidebooks we used and recommend are Le Quebec en 30 Boucles, Le Québec Cyclable ? Pistes Cyclables au Québec, 15 Circuits Autour de Montréal ? Itinéraraires de 63 à 107 km, and Le Québec à Vélo, 20 Circuits Découverte au Québec. All are available online from Mountain Equipment Co-op (www.mec.ca).

(14) Cycling guidebooks like these can be a helpful reference for traveling. They direct your attention to villages you might otherwise miss when motoring and following only a highway map. They also reveal walking opportunities.

(15) The province is wonderfully green, lush, verdant. Small farms are prolific.

(16) Outside the cities and major towns, most of Quebec that we drove or cycled through is inhabited—consistently but not densely. On the bike routes we chose, we were forever passing houses and farms. Typically, each was within sight of another, yet all were surrounded by land (mostly cultivated), thus all possessed a measure of privacy. It seemed to us a very pleasing, rural environment.

(17) Even the smallest Quebecois villages appear to be pinned to the Earth by the gleaming, silver steeple of a Catholic church. Many of these churches are huge. Some are architecturally gorgeous. Towering above blazing-green Quebec, these churches are a frequent, dramatic sight. It sometimes felt that, lacking a map or guidebook, a cyclist could navigate across Quebec by steeples, because they’re often visible from afar. These churches, by the way, are ideal places to start and end a bike ride. Their parking lots tend to be spacious and—Monday through Saturday—empty.

(18) Many Quebecois houses evince old-world craftsmanship, are colorfully painted, and meticulously maintained. They have a charming style that includes steeply-pitched ski-jump roofs, covered porches, and filigree ranging from subtle to ornate. Nowhere else in Canada is there such a preponderance of distinctive, admirable houses. All this fine architecture and pride-of-ownership significantly boosted the reward/effort ratio of our rides.

(19) Much of the southern Quebec countryside ranges from level to gently rolling. There are some monster hills, but we encountered few while cycling. We appreciated not having to face frequent, long ascents. It made the cycling much less onerous and a lot more fun.

(20) Loops. A loop road-cycling route is always preferable to an out-and-back. Quebec is laced with so many roads that loop rides are nearly always possible.

(21) For the many reasons cited above (points 15 – 20), southern Quebec kept us wanting to re-mount our bikes day after day. Despite the considerable drawbacks (points 2, 3 & 4), we believe Quebec offers more and better road biking than does any other Canadian province. That’s largely because we were constantly cycling through countryside where nature dominates yet is generously peppered with scenically-engaging civilization.

(22) Quebec has many appealing villages. A couple that leap to mind are St. Jovit, near Tremblant, and Kamarouska, en route to Gaspésie.

(23) Kamarouska has what surely ranks among Canada’s best bakeries. It’s called Boulangerie Niemand. You’ll find it at 82 Avenue Morel. For details, visit www.boulangerieniemand.com, or call (418) 492-1236. The owners, Denise and Johan, are gracious and hard working. Their German-style loaves are as delicious and healthy as any bread we’ve ever tasted.

(24) Kamarouska also has an excellent, fish-market restaurant: Poissonnerie Lauzier – Bistro de la Mer. It’s located at 57 Avenue Morel. Website: www.poissonnerielauzier.com  Phone: (418) 492-7988. We recommend the lobster bisque and the salmon dinner.

(25) Quebec has many small cities that struck us as desirable places to live. Victoriaville, for example, southeast of Montreal. Or Magog, in the eastern townships.

(26) Magog has a superb Mexican restaurant. It’s called Guacamole Y Tequila. The meal they served us was wonderful—and that’s coming from a pair of discerning, life long, Mexican-food afficianados. The restaurant is in the heart of town, at 112 Rue Principale Ouest. Phone: (819) 868-0088.

(27) In Magog, across the street from Guacamole Y Tequila, is Bar Laitier la Lichette, where they make gelato with as much dedication, creativity and passion as any gelateria we’ve sampled during many months in Italia. Their address is 25 Rue Principale Ouest. Phone: (819) 919-0972.

(28) Our favourite Quebec beers are Alchemist, Belle Gruelle, and St. Ambroise. We always kept a bottle in our trailer fridge, tucked up high against the freezer, so we could split an ice-cold one with our post-ride dinner. (We’re also partial to Original 16, brewed in Saskatoon, and we brought a dozen of them with us on our eastward “crossing.”)

(29) In Quebec, we were often near water (rivers, lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Atlantic Ocean), so the air was usually moist. It was soft, fragrant, soothing. Perhaps because we’re usually in dry environments—big mountains, desert canyons—we were always aware and appreciative of the gentle air in Quebec.

(30) Camping is expensive in Quebec. Many times we turned away from campgrounds where it would have cost us $40 or $50 for a single night. (The price included only water and 15-amp electricity, no sewer hook-up.)

(31) We camped free-of-charge more than half the time we were in Quebec. (By “camp,” we simply mean we parked late in the evening, stayed in our trailer there that night, then drove away early in the morning.) It was easy. It helped that our car and trailer are small. It also helped that our trailer is endearingly innocent. We camped behind churches, beside cemeteries, in school parking lots. We restricted ourselves to inconspicuous spots where we were unlikely to be noticed and, if noticed, would not cause concern. Nowhere that we free-camped did we feel threatened or in any way uncomfortable. Nobody ever questioned us. Nobody ever gave us a suspicious or resentful glance. A couple times we asked permission to “park” for a single night on the uncultivated edge of a farmer’s field and were kindly welcomed.

(32) An astonishingly high percentage of Quebecois own enormous 5th-wheel RVs. We saw them everywhere. Often it seemed one of these white whales was parked beside every rural home we passed. RV dealerships are widespread. We saw hundreds of used 5th wheels for sale by owner. We were told the owners of the used ones were selling them so they could buy bigger ones. The buzz in one Gaspésie village was that a local had recently purchased a 5th wheel comprising two storeys.

(33) There are a couple reasons for the Quebecois 5th-wheel craze. (a) They use them as base camps for hunting in the winter. (Quebecois are fanatic hunters, we were told. Apparently the province nearly shuts down at the start of hunting season.) (b) Many Quebecois keep their monster 5th wheels at campgrounds, where they use them as weekend cottages in summer.

(34) Private, lakeside campgrounds in Quebec are typically crammed with these humungous 5th wheels. The RV owners pay to keep their rigs at campgrounds year-round, so they can visit them whenever they want.

(35) We can’t fathom the attraction of constantly going to the same campground where your 5th wheel is slotted in with others as if in an RV sales lot. And for us—tourists towing a tiny trailer—these campgrounds held no appeal. They really aren’t campgrounds. They’re 5th-wheel ghettos. And they have very little space to offer true travelers. The big rigs hog all the prime real-estate. We stayed—out of necessity only—at a couple of these “campgrounds.” It was early in the season. The white whales were mostly empty. We were nearly alone. Still, we found these fiberglass ghost-towns weird, ugly, creepy.

(36) In Quebec, provincial parks (sometimes called “National Parks”), and genuine (federal) National Parks do not allow seasonal occupancy in their campgrounds. So they’re not blighted by 5th-wheel ghettos.

(37) Reading about the history of Quebec while traveling the province made our experience there substantially more meaningful than it would have been had we remained ignorant tourists.

(38) Learning about the history of “New France” enabled us to understand why some Quebecois would want independence from Canada. Quebec really is a nation within a nation.

(39) Nevertheless, we believe Quebec should not call provincial parks “national parks.” Not as long as they’re still part of Canada.

(40) Pulling a trailer was essential to making our Quebec journey enjoyable. We don’t like having to find accommodation each night, and constantly haul our gear in and out of different spaces. And we prefer living outdoors as much as possible. Plus, our little trailer enabled us to often camp free-of-charge (point 31), which helped us afford us a long stay in Quebec.

(41) That said, we cannot enthusiastically recommend driving the entire breadth of Canada—a task we’ve now completed twice. For us, it was just that: a task. An excruciating task. Partly that’s because we dislike sitting and never sit for long periods, so having to sit in our car day after day after day was torture. Even if you can tolerate sitting in your car that long, most of the drive is a cruel experiment in scenic deprivation. Between the Rockies and western Manitoba, there is no topographical relief—nothing to alleviate the monotony of horizon-to-horizon prairie. The granite outcrops and highway-side lakes near Kenora are a welcome diversion—at last, something to see!—but shortly beyond, the highway plunges into dense bush and remains there most of the way across Ontario. Not until we reached the west edge of Quebec—for us, a five-day drive from southwest Alberta—did the motoring become pleasurable. From there, the eastern tip of the Gaspésie Peninsula was still several days distant. And the entire time we were in Quebec, the inevitable, return drive hung in our mental sky like an ominous cloud. We began referring to it as “the crossing,” because it seemed epic, like a trans-ocean voyage.

(42) Driving across Canada, we witnessed perhaps a dozen others doing the same, but on bicycles. To us, a trans-Canada bike trip looked miserable and dangerous; a spectacular waste of time and effort. Most of the way, the cyclists were pedaling on the major trans-national highways. Not in bike lanes, but on the road edge where often there wasn’t even a paved shoulder. Roaring transport trucks constantly passed within a few feet of the cyclists. The noise, as well as the threat, seemed great and nearly constant. On highways walled-in by forest, there’s no more to see from a bike than there is from a car. The distance just takes weeks longer for cyclists to vanquish. In rural Ontario, cyclists must often contend with an onslaught of mosquitos when they dismount. And much of the way, they’re far from any trace of civilization when they stop for the night, which explains why they’re laden with massive panniers that slow them to a crawl on the long, steep hills. Those who’ve cycled across Canada are proud of their accomplishment. Many consider it a pivotal event in their lives. We understand and respect that. We certainly admire their tenacity and endurance. But with so many beautiful and thrilling places to cycle on this planet, grinding across Canada doesn’t strike us as an option worth considering.

(43) We also saw many long-distance cyclists working their way around the Gaspésie Peninsula. This seemed to us a worthwhile venture. At times we envied them.

(44) Camping every night as we drove across Canada, we sometimes found ourselves flailing and slapping at an onlaught of mosquitos. For us, Ontario was the worst. The mosquitos were a nightly torment: a dozen or more would slip into our trailer whenever we entered or exited. Before going to sleep, we’d spend half an hour hunting each one down and swatting it. Kathy finally said, “This is too tedious. Let’s just get a vacuum, wave it around, and suck ‘em all up.” We both thought that was a brilliant idea. So, in Deep River, Ontario we stopped at a Canadian Tire store intending to buy a small, portable, battery-powered vacuum. We actually tested every model they offered. We walked up and down the store aisles, looking for bits of detritus, trying to gauge each vacuum’s mosquito-sucking power. But they were all too weak and most were way too expensive, we decided. Not such a brilliant idea after all. So our nightly swat-fests continued until we arrived in Quebec, where we were relieved to find the mosquitos generally weren’t such a nuisance.

(45) The famous Quebec cycling path known as the “Route Vert” is often unpaved. Sometimes it’s just the rough shoulder of a busy road. Other times it’s a dedicated bike path but unpaved, suitable only for fatter tires. We rode a few paved sections, but they were slender corridors through monotonous, viewless forest: boring. The name Route Vert suggests idyllic cycling. Some sections live up to that implicit promise. Most do not. Skinny-tire road bikers shouldn’t focus on the Route Vert.

(46) Though the purpose of our Quebec sojourn was to cycle, we did some walking and hiking. For example, to fully appreciate the magnificent Fleuve St. Laurent, we found it essential to walk along the water’s edge. When driving east, be alert for places where you can get down to the shore and walk during low tide. Here’s one walk we enjoyed and recommend. Start in St. Denis, northeast of Montmagny. Walk the village road along the sea, then round the marshy bay on the unpaved road. Continue around the forested peninsula, then tag on to the paved road and loop back. Total distance: about 15 km.

(47) In the Chic Choc Mountains, we day-hiked a loop trail that started at the Parc National de la Gaspésie visitor center and gradually lofted us over the 1151-m summit of Mont Albert. If you’re a hiker, we recommend it. Though that elevation sounds hill-ish to a western Canadian, the Chic Chocs are so far north that we were in tree-less tundra up there. Caribou country!

(48) Lac Saint-Jean is huge. It covers an area of 1,053 sq km (407 sq mi). And it’s ringed by the  Veloroute des Bluets (the Blueberry Route)—Quebec’s most famous cycling path. We gave it a go but actually found it scenically tedious because the surrounding terrain is bread-board flat and the architecture seemed dull to us compared to elsewhere in Quebec. We much preferred cycling in the Cantons Est (the eastern townships).

(49) Late May to late June seemed an optimal time for road cycling in Quebec. The field’s were green, and the weather warm, yet the Quebecois had yet to begin vacationing, and most tourists had yet to arrive, so the vehicle traffic was below peak volume. Campgrounds were open, but most of their available campsites were vacant.

(50) http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/velo0.html is a useful resource for planning a Quebec cycling trip.

Next post coming soon: Road Rides We Recommend in Quebec

 

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Cycling Mt. Lemmon, Tucson, Arizona

A Paved Road So Compelling, We Asked Ourselves “Why Hike When We Can Ride?”

Though hiking is our focus in life, we occasionally take a break from the backcountry to go road cycling. Riding is an effective way to stay fit when trails are snow covered but paved roads remain dry.

Choose the right road, and cycling can be just as scenic as hiking—perhaps more so, if you factor in how far you can ride in a day and how much scenery that distance allows you to appreciate compared to a day on foot.

During our recent foray to Tucson, Arizona, we brought our road bikes. Sure, winter hiking is superb there. But while driving to trailheads in the Santa Catalina Mountains last winter, we realized the highway climbing from Tucson up 9157-ft (2792-m) Mt. Lemmon is a world-class road ride on par in every respect with Mont Ventoux, of Tour de France fame. We had to try it.

Lemmon is the highest and largest massif of the four sky-island mountains surrounding Tucson. Sky Island means an island of forest in a sea of desert. Lemmon towers over Tucson, and the highway (skyway, is more like it) affords views of other, prominent sky-islands including Tanque Verde Mtn (nearby SE), Rincon Peak (distant SE), and Mt. Wrightson (SE).

The road has many names. Most people call it the “Mt. Lemmon Hwy.” Some call it the “Catalina Hwy.” And it’s now officially the “Sky Island Scenic Byway.” The mountain was named in honor of botanist Sarah Lemmon, who in 1881 was led to the summit by Native American guides.

The ride is spectacular, exhilarating, challenging. It’s a constant, serpentine, cliff-side ascent above canyons, beneath hoodoo pinnacles, ultimately into a grand forest. It climbs from sand to ice, from saguaro cacti to ponderosa pines, from snakes to bears. Views are frequent, often panoramic. And the pavement is perfection: smooth, with a slender-but-adequate shoulder providing a margin of safety. In all of North America, very few roads offer such magnificent cycling.

As for vehicle traffic, cyclists can relax on the Mt. Lemmon Hwy. The road is so sinuous, it’s difficult for motorists to drive dangerously fast. If you ride here midweek, you’ll encounter only light vehicle traffic. And if you ride here on a weekend, when vehicle traffic increases markedly, you’ll be among many other cyclists strung out along the entire route, so motorists will be alert to your presence. Plus, Tucson is a bike-friendly city where—generally—cyclists are expected and accepted. In that regard, Tucson is refreshingly European.*

The Mt. Lemmon Hwy was completed in 1950 after 17 years of construction. It was awarded the Arizona Engineering Excellence Grand Award for Context Sensitive Design in 2005, because it deftly preserved the tumultuous terrain and delicate environment.

We’ve cycled Hwy 1 along California’s Big Sur Coast, the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, and Utah’s Hwy 12 from Escalante to Capitol Reef National Park via Boulder and Torrey. All are premier rides. But Mt. Lemmon is our favorite.

In December, 2009, Team Radioshack trained for the 2010 Tour de France on Mt. Lemmon. No wonder. Winter weather here is so consistently sunny and warm that you can usually ride in shorts and short sleeves. Only if it gets windy higher on the mountain might you need tights and a wind shell.

Our first day on Mt. Lemmon, we cycled 14 miles (22.5 km), gaining 3,500 ft (1067 m) from elevation 3050 ft (930 m), to Windy Point Vista, at 6560 ft (2000 m). Pedaling at our loping, “scenery first” pace, it took us about one hour and 40 minutes, plus 20 minutes for stretching and refueling. Bear in mind, we stopped and gawked at all the vista pullouts. We recommend you do, too, even though your bike already grants you a vastly better view than is possible from a car.

Going that slow was a joy. We were constantly captivated by the views and astonished by the highway itself. In some places, only if you tilt your head way back will you see the highway almost directly above you. Yet only a few, brief sections of pavement qualify as “steep.” Languorous switchbacks keep the ascent mercifully gradual.

The 14-mile, downhill blast is ecstatic. From Windy Point Vista, we probably pedaled no more than a dozen crank revolutions (in the vicinity of Green Mtn trailhead). We arrived at our parked car within 35 minutes.

We were back on Mt. Lemmon a week later. This time we covered 20 miles (32.2 km), gaining 4895 ft (1492 m) to the Palisade Visitor Center at 7945 ft (2422 m). The 20-mile, downhill blast: 50 minutes. Emotional effect: a strong, lasting desire to return to Tucson and ride Mt. Lemmon again and again.

You’re a hiker who rides? Mt. Lemmon is one of those rare places where you might prefer a bike beneath your bum instead of a pack on your back.

Getting There

Drive to the junction of Sabino Canyon Road and Tanque Verde Road. This is in NE Tucson. Udall Park is on the SE corner. Reset your trip odometer to zero here, then proceed E on Tanque Verde.

1.2 mi (0.75 km) Bear left on Tanque Verde Road, where right leads to Wrightstown and Pantano Road.

4 mi (2.5 km) Turn left onto Mt. Lemmon Hwy.

7.3 mi (4.5 km) Park on the right, just beyond milepost 1, at 3050 ft (930 m).

The Ride

0 mi (0 km) Milepost 1, at 3050 ft (930 m).

5.7 mi (9.2 km) Molino Basin rest area, at 4370 ft (1332 m).

9 mi (14.5 km) Thimble Peak Vista, at 5320 ft (1622 m). Here you can peer W, across Bear Canyon—the largest drainage in the Santa Catalina Mtns. Seven Cataracts Vista is shortly beyond, followed by three long switchbacks. Soon enter a forested canyon. Beside you is a creek drainage harboring sycamore trees.

12 mi (19.3 km) General Hitchcock campground, at 5920 ft (1805 m). It’s closed (gated) during winter.

14 mi (22.5 km) Windy Point Vista, at 6560 ft (2000 m). A spectacular vantage. Public toilets. In the next couple miles, you’ll pass Geology and Hoodoo vistas.

17.6 mi (28.3 km) San Pedro Vista. The Galiuro Mtns are visible E.

20 mi (32.2 km) Palisades Visitor Center, 7945 ft (2422 m). Pass a water faucet and public toilets on the right, just before arriving.

25 mi (40.25 km) Village of Summerhaven, 8080 ft (2463 m).

*Here’s another, exceptional ride in Tucson. Drive to the East section of Saguaro National Park. From the visitor center, cycle the 8-mi (13-km) Cactus Loop. Do it twice. The scenery is good, the pavement smooth, and the midweek vehicle traffic is nil.

 

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Bicycle Cuba: They’ll Love You For It

By guidebook authors Craig & Kathy Copeland, originally published in the travel section of the Calgary Herald.

The Canadian Embassy claims that about 500,000 Canadians visit Cuba each year. It’s not true. Oh, the number’s accurate, but the statement’s not. Because very few of those Canadians actually visit Cuba.

Cuba

They cluster within the confines of all-inclusive resorts. They spend their time exclusively with other Anglos, particularly Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham and the like. And they do it sprawling on beaches that Cubanos, unless employed by the resorts, are forbidden to set foot on. It might be a vacation from Canada, but it hardly qualifies as “visiting Cuba.”

If you really want to visit Cuba, shun the crowded resorts. Explore the island. Get to know the Cuban people by staying in their homes, laughing with them, joining them for rice and beans. It’s safe, affordable, easy. You can do it with a rental car. You can do it by bus. Better yet, do it on your bike.

Cycling eliminates all barriers between you and the people whose culture you’ve come to admire. It’s an act of faith. It says “I’m not here to just look, I’m here to be with you.” Cubanos, a socially exuberant bunch, will love you for it. You’ll come home emotionally enriched for having truly visited these long-suffering yet extraordinarily welcoming, generous, fun people.

Our Cuba cycling trip began in mid-December when we arrived in Havana, taxied to the casa particular (Cuban version of a B&B) where we’d reserved a room months in advance, and discovered: no room for us.

We never learned why. Before we could engage our 100-word Spanish vocabulary pasted together with Tarzan grammar, Cuban resourcefulness and hospitality rescued us, as it would throughout our journey. Neighbour spoke to neighbour who escorted us to a neighbour whose spacious, clean, comfortable guestroom was vacant.

Our hosts, Orlando and Raisa, greeted us with warmth and grace. Both are retired physicians. We were astounded to discover that Che Guevara had been Orlando’s comrade and patient throughout La Revolucion. Learning about Cuban history and society from Orlando, who speaks fluent English, was surreal.

After a day and night walking through Havana Vieja (old Havana), we assembled our bikes on Orlando and Raisa’s porch, loaded our panniers, hugged our new friends goodbye, and pedaled out of the city.

We started late. Our day’s mileage goal was too ambitious. The sun winked below the horizon while we were in lonely rangeland, well shy of the next town big enough to have a casa particular. We carried no tent or sleeping bags, because camping is allowed only at a few widely scattered campismos.

Riding into the dark was an option. We had headlamps. Cuban motorists are marvelously considerate of cyclists. And most roads are paved. But a single pothole could render a sophisticated bike irreparable in this land of scarcity. So, on instinct, we approached the one house within view.

A woman was in the yard. We asked her an inane question because it was all we could think to say: “Is there a casa particular nearby?” Her answer was cryptically hopeful. “There might be,” she said, then retreated to consult her husband.

A moment later they emerged, opened the wrought-iron gate and invited us in. Neither spoke a word of English. They motioned for us to push our bikes right into their living room.

Both were shy, clearly unaccustomed to spandex-attired Anglo cyclists. This was no casa particular, we realized. These people, Celia and Diego, had never had foreign guests. Yet they ushered us in with sincerity and assurance. No hesitation. No fear.

Celia was instantly concerned for my wife’s comfort. She noticed Kathy’s cycling shoes were awkward on the tile floor. She left then returned, offering a pair of flip flops. She noticed Kathy’s shirt was damp. She left then returned, offering a neatly folded, white cotton dress.

They didn’t know we probably carried more in our panniers than they had in their home. They didn’t care. Celia insisted we sit while she made up their extra bed. Then, despite our protests, she cooked us a delicious dinner.

In the morning, she refused to let us depart without feeding us a hearty breakfast. Where all this food came from, I don’t know, because I peeked into the kitchen and saw nothing.

We thanked them profusely and handed them the Cuban equivalent of ten Canadian dollars—about a month’s salary for the average Cubano. They refused it until we pleaded that money was the only gift we had to offer in exchange for their immense kindness.

Celia cried as we left. No doubt she was worried for the crazy Anglos on overloaded bikes who obviously didn’t know what they were doing. At least she’d made us keenly aware that we’d embarked on a profound experience.

The cycling was brilliant: past sugar cane fields, through lively villages, and along the ocean. The weather was comfortably hot and consistently sunny. The meals prepared for us by the madres (mothers) at every casa particular were heaping, tasty, and fortifying.

We cycled from Havana west to Vinales. For an entire day, between Soroa and La Tranquilidad, we were passed by just five vehicles while we followed a ridgecrest road lined with an explosion of tropical greenery and affording glimpses of the Caribbean far below. In the east, between Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba, we cycled three 70-km days with the ocean often in sight, the surf frequently audible, and vehicle traffic nil.

But in each hamlet we entered, someone immediately reminded us that cycling wasn’t the goal, it was merely the means. Our bikes propelled us into the heart of this fascinating society and into the embrace of its people.

They greeted us with smiles, waves, handshakes. They showered us with attention, compassion, deference. They treated us like rock stars come to town. They showed us that visiting Cuba only to escape the brunt of a Canadian winter is an act of frigid indifference.

Twice more we were invited to stay with families who were as accustomed to Anglo visitors as they were to Martian invaders. Each time they forced upon us the most lavish meal they could muster and the biggest bedroom in the house.

So when a Canadian leaned out the window of a resort tour bus and asked, “These people. Do they steal from you?” I was appalled.

Here was a man whose language I spoke yet whose question I could barely comprehend. I groped for a response.

“Just the opposite,” I finally said, then rode away.

If you go

Getting there: Skip Varadero, where there’s nothing but mega-resorts. Fly directly to Havana. The old city is enthralling and it’s farther west. That’s the direction of the country’s most rewarding three- to four-day cycle tour, to Vinales, in a lush valley studded with mogotes (limestone pinnacles). If you intend to cycle in the east, consider a return flight to Canada from Santiago de Cuba.

Staying there: A casa particular is a private home licensed by the Cuban government to rent rooms to foreign visitors. You’ll find them in every sizeable town. Look for a green triangular symbol on the door. Expect to pay $15 to $35 for a room for two. Book a casa in Havana before leaving home. Elsewhere you’ll find lots of vacancies. Just knock wherever you see the green triangle. If you don’t see one, ask around.

To make reservations at Orlando and Raisa’s in Havana, email fdezadan@infomed.sld.cu. Telefono 07.830.3774 and 830.0837.

Address: Calle 17 N. 1251 esquina 20

In Vinales, look for Casa Maricella.

In Bayamo, stay with Manuel and Lydia (cheche@UD6.co.cu). Telefono 423175 and 422950).

In Santiago de Cuba, stay with Mayde and Pedro (maydepedro@yahoo.es) Telefono 53 22 643307. Address: Calle 6, No 302, esquina 11, Rpto. Vista Alegre.

For a day or two of privacy and luxury, stay at the Hotel Marea del Portillo, on the coast road southwest of Bayamo. It’s a joint Cuban and Canadian-owned, all-inclusive resort, but it’s small, isolated, and less expensive than most, with rooms on the beach.

For more information: Visit http://users.pandora.be/casaparticular. It lists hundreds of casas throughout the country.

Travel tips

Food. Eating well is easy and inexpensive in Cuba. But cyclists won’t find convenient, nutritious snacks. Bring a couple energy bars for each day you’ll be riding. In every town, it’s easy to find a caf or snack bar to purchase ham and cheese sandwiches or eggs and rice. Plan to eat breakfast and dinner at your casa particular.

The food will likely be excellent, and your host will keep the profit, whereas most of your room tariff goes to the government. A typical casa breakfast—fresh fruit juice, sliced pineapple, papaya and bananas, bread, butter, jam, an omelette, and robust coffee—will cost about $4 per person. You’ll pay about twice that for a fish dinner served with bean soup, tomato and cabbage salad, rice and beans (moors and christianos), and fried plantains.

In most towns, also look for signs denoting a paladares, which is a home or privately-owned small restaurant licensed to serve tourists food. The host of your casa can also recommend private homes that might not be licensed to serve meals. It’s good to eat in private homes because unlike the charge for the room which is taxed heavily, the family is allowed by the government to keep most of the profit from serving food.

Water. Cubanos are as health and hygiene conscious as Canadians. But their plumbing is ancient and occasionally suspect. Bottled water is widely available, but for savings and convenience bring a water filter or purification drops.

Transportation. Viazul provides punctual bus service to 32 towns and cities across the island. You’ll ride in a modern, comfortable, Volvo coach. Your bike will ride in a spacious storage compartment. A ticket for the three-hour trip from Havana to Vinales costs about $15. A ticket for the 14-hour trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba costs $60. Check schedules and prices at www.viazul.com, but wait to reserve seats and buy tickets until you’re in Cuba.

Money. Bring at least $500 cash to exchange at the Havana airport currency exchange office. Don’t purchase a Transcard before leaving home, because many banks and hotels won’t honour it. Instead, use your credit card to get cash advances at banks. There are two currencies in Cuba: the peso for Cubanos, and the peso convertible for visitors. One peso convertible is roughly equivalent to one U.S. dollar.

Language. Outside Havana, few people speak English, but everyone will try to understand your paltry, mangled Spanish. So bring a Spanish phrase book and do your best.

Sights. Founded in 1512, on the south coast, east of Cienfuegos, the city of Trinidad is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in all of the Americas. It’s small—just a few square blocks of cobblestone streets crowded with pastel coloured homes, churches and plazas—but so impressive that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Gifts. Cubano children habitually seek gifts from visitors. Bring notepads, pens and crayons. In most towns you’ll also see medical clinics, all of which need basic supplies. Bring them ibuprofen, aspirin, or anti-bacterial ointment.

Guides. “Bicycling Cuba,” by Wally and Barbara Smith, is the one book you’ll want in your panniers. It contains maps, detailed route descriptions, casa addresses, and advice on planning your trip.

Politics. Fearing government reproach, Cubanos are hesitant to discuss politics in general or Fidel Castro in particular. Besides, fluency in Spanish is necessary to probe beyond the superficial. To begin understanding this complex island nation, read Ben Corbett’s “This is Cuba” and Isaac Saney’s “Cuba: A Revolution in Motion.”

Suggested Itinerary. After your five- to six-day western tour from Havana to Vinales, bus back to Havana. Then bus four hours to Santa Clara. From there, cycle south over the Sierra del Escambray via Topes de Collantes to Trinidad. Or if you prefer an easier, though less scenic route, cycle southeast from Santa Clara on virtually flat roads to Sancti Spiritus. Then head southwest through Valle de los Ingenios to Trinidad. After several days there, bus to Bayamo to start the 4-6 day tour along the south coast of the eastern province of Oriente.

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Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

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