This guest post from Nicola Ross, author of the Loops and Lattes hiking series in southern Ontario, takes you on a week-long cycling trip from Quebec City to Montreal via e-bike.
In a province known for its superior cuisine, an aluminum pie plate of French Fries drenched in brown gravy and covered in cheese curds – the more the better – seems like an odd favourite food. But there’s no doubt that poutine is as much a part of La Belle Province as is Pepsi.
So, as I drove toward Quebec City to start a week-long cycling trip from the provincial capital to Montreal via Sherbrooke, I planned to search for the best poutine I’d ever had. This objective wasn’t going to be difficult since poutine is available everywhere and, believe it or not, I’d never eaten it before!
Cycling Quebec City to Montreal via an ebike that fits in a suitcase
Fun as searching for poutine would be, I had another objective on this 450 km journey, half of which I’d cycle with my younger sister (Sherbrooke to Montreal). I’d recently gone over to the “dark side.” What’s the dark side, you might ask. Well, in cycling circles it involves adding an e-boost to your bicycle. In my case, I ride a fully equipped New World Tourist Bike Friday touring bicycle.
It may look small in the photo. In fact, it is small, so small that it folds into a Samsonite suitcase that I can take on an airplane. But it’s the sturdiest, most reliable bicycle I’ve ever ridden and though no one ever believes me, small tires don’t add up to having to pedal more. It takes no more pedaling than a “normal” bike. I know you won’t believe me, but it’s true. (Visit Bike Friday if you need proof.)
Bike Friday agreed to convert my bike to E-assist, which differs from a full E-bike. For the battery power (levels 1 to 5) to kick in, I had to pedal. No pedaling = No power.
In return for the conversion, I agreed to give my E-assist bike a workout and write about it. At about $2000 CDN, plus shipping to and from Oregon, the conversion wasn’t inexpensive.
But, as I learned, a “factory job” is the best way to convert your bike. Companies are selling conversion kits, but I was warned to be wary of this less expensive route.
Velo Quebec’s network of trails
I chose to cycle most of the way to Sherbrooke along a route that is both Quebec’s La Route Verte 1and the Trans Canada Trail. I rode along rail trails, other trails, designated bike lanes on roads and, very occasionally, along back roads without a bike lane. It was incredible. At 5,300 km, Velo Quebec’s network of cycling routes is the longest in North America.
I crossed bridges, all of which had bike lanes. The narrow one over the 3.5 km long, five-lane wide Jacques Cartier Bridge into Montreal was an experience.
Cycling Quebec City to Victoriaville
To begin with, the trail was pretty as rail trails usually are. I didn’t need any E-assist, so I rode my first 98 km day, from Quebec City to Victoriaville, under my own power.
It was an ambitious start, but it was good to be outside, and the flat terrain made the distance manageable. It also meant I had two and a half days to cover the second 100 km, so I could ride at a leisurely pace.
It turned out to be a good decision as the route from Victoriaville to Sherbrooke was beyond beautiful and the further I cycled, the more hills I encountered. Nonetheless, I resisted the temptation to use the E-assist. I wasn’t ready yet to cross that line to the dark side – with one exception.
I came to a long uphill road. It wasn’t steep, but I could see the rise stretch into the distance. It was going to be a slog along a not very nice stretch of road. Before turning on the E-assist, I looked around to see if anyone was looking.
Stupid, I know, but that was how I felt. At first, I put it at Level 1, then I decided to see what this baby could do. I cranked it up to Level 3. I flew up that road. It reminded me of cruising in a convertible with the top down. I had a ball.
Using E-assist to help with hills
Figuring I’d better use the E-assist since that’s what Bike Friday wanted me to do, I began using it on Level 1 or 2, going up the rolling hills between Victoriaville, Dunnville, Richmond, and Sherbrooke.
Even with the E-assist turned on, climbing was harder work than I’d thought it would be. That was partly because at first I failed to gear down enough. I was concentrating on the E-assist and had forgotten about my gears.
The more hills I rode up, the better I got at it. I was still huffing and puffing at the top, but, as I’d learn, it was a lot easier with a bit of battery juice than not. It was a good combination: Hills I might normally have to really crank to get up, were somewhat easier but I still had a great workout.
Dinner would be well deserved at the end of the day. And by not powering up too much, I preserved the battery’s life. The worst thing would have been to run down the battery, and at the end of the day when I was tired, have the battery go dead.
Carrying gear on the Ebike
I met my sister in Sherbrooke and we pedaled off to North Hatley in the rain. It was my fourth day of rain, but it had mostly been short showers, so it wasn’t too bad. Some sunshine would have been nice though.
We were staying in inns, rather than camping so my bike was half loaded. The odd set up with one pannier in front and one behind on the opposite side of my Bike Friday was due to the conversion. The heavy battery and electronic mechanism was attached to my seat post so my bike already had a heavy backend.
Normally I tour with a pair of rear panniers. But if I’d done that, I would have been popping wheelies. I reconfigured things by putting all my heavy things (repair kit, extra water, etc.) in my front pannier. This balanced the bike front to back.
I was worried that having one heavy pannier on my front wheel would be unwieldy. It might have been on a bike with regular tires, but on my BMX-sized tires, it wasn’t a problem. It was incredibly stable.
The route continued to be spectacular. It was somewhere between mountain biking and a rail trail. The trail rolled over hills, through forests and past lookouts. It was like having our own private route.
Overnight in North Hatley – a scenic stop cycling Quebec City to Montreal
We pulled into La Auberge Chocolatiere wet, but happy. It’s owned and run by a couple and their seven children. I’m not saying it’s connected, but there were a lot of Catholic churches nearby: stone ones, brick ones and wooden ones. It’s a picturesque village. Our favourite by a mile. We had dinner in a brassiere where they made their own beer – and poutine.
Living in Montreal, my sister is a poutine pro. She recommended the traditional poutine with gravy and cheese curds, but there are endless poutine options these days, including:
· Foie Gras Poutine
· Lobster and Snow Crab Poutine
· Onion Soup Poutine
· Butter Chicken Poutine
· General Tao Poutine
· Poutiflette Poutine (with lard, carmelized onions and leeks)
When our poutine arrived, I looked at it and said, “This is just French Fries with gravy and some cheese on top.” I’m not sure what I was expecting since I knew that poutine was French Fries covered in gravy and cheese curds, but after years of hearing about this gastronomic marvel, I had expected something more, something organismic.
My sister dug in with relish. “I love poutine,” she said. There wasn’t any gravy dripping from her chin but it felt like there should be. She was in heaven. I dug in too. The French Fries were soggy – how could they not be as they’d been drenched in brown sauce. The lumps of cheese were chewy. I added salt.
Okay, my dad grew up in Quebec, but maybe I missed that part of his DNA – the part that would have loved poutine had it been available when he was alive.
The hills of Mont Orford National Park
Hard rain delayed our departure the next morning, but once we got going, it was cycling bliss. It was also where I passed over to the dark side. The route took us through Mont Orford National Park, a popular ski area.
The trail was wide but had lots of heavy gravel and we were on loaded biked. When confronted with the first of many steep hills, I went for it. Cranking up the power level to four, I geared down and made it to the top. With my E-assist, I climbed all but two of the inclines, though my failure to gear properly, not lack of power, was at the root of one of those unsuccessful ascents.
My sister who was riding her Bassi Hog’s Back gravel bike without E-assist pounded up all the hills but one. I was impressed, though at the top of the toughest one she said, “Hills like that make me want to vomit.”
Her comment made me aware that having that E-assist turned my day into a pleasure despite my having dreaded the hills before we set out. It wasn’t easy getting up them. Even with a Level 4 assist, I was on the verge of having to stand on my pedals to power to the top, but any thoughts I had that I would have climbed them unassisted were shattered when I compared my riding with my sister.
We often cycle together. She’s generally a bit faster than I am, but not much. A few times, I used Level 1 or 2 to go up longer less steep inclines – the kind that you have to grind up patiently. When I did this, I left my sister in my dust.
Any misconception that I had that my E-assist wasn’t assisting me was shattered. It helped a lot as normally I would have been behind her on this type of slog. The E-assist was a great equalizer and then some.
I realized it was really important for me to let her know when I cruised by that I had help. There’s nothing worse than someone gloating as they ride by you on an E-bike. I think my sister appreciated that I felt guilty accepting help – not guilty enough to not take the assistance, but guilty nonetheless.
Overnight in Magog
We stayed overnight in Magog where my sister captured the photo of me with my second attempt at poutine. The host at La Maison Drew recommended a corner diner called Chez Paul.
We dropped off our gear and headed downtown for an afternoon treat. We had to line up at the counter and although there were other things on the menu that was posted high on the wall behind the sinks and prep area, everyone ordered poutine.
We decided to share a medium-sized traditional poutine. It came in the aluminum plate you can see in the photo below. This wasn’t foie gras poutine, it was working-person poutine.
When our order arrived, my sister once again pounced on our snack. I took a forkful and maybe it was because I’d now been in Quebec for a few days, or maybe it was Chez Paul’s skill (turns out the establishment is well known for its poutine), but this time there was magic in this simple combination of carbs and fat. Our shared medium portion was enough, well almost enough. I suppose we would have forced ourselves to finish a larger order! It was great. I was smitten.
Cycling Quebec City to Montreal with a night in Granby
The next day, we cycled to the larger city of Granby on a beautiful sunny Sunday. By mid-afternoon, the trails had become crowded. It was obvious that Quebeckers love their bikes.
We kept rough count realizing that at least half the bikes on the trail were E-bikes, mostly fully electric. They whizzed by us, for the most part ridden by grey-haired folks. It became clear that having a little help on a bike was extending the cycling lives of people by ten years or more. It was great to see everyone out enjoying themselves.
Cycling Granby to Montreal
Our final day was an 83 km ride into Montreal. The trail was long, flat and tedious in sections. It was a hot muggy day and given it was my seventh day on my bike, I was tired. My sister was riding a bit faster than I was so I thought I’d experiment. I turned on Level One, pulled up beside her and then eased back on pedaling.
We must have ridden for 50 km that way: each of us in our comfort zones. Level 1 was the great equalizer.
We stopped in Chambly where I had the best ice cream ever. Made in Coaticook, Quebec on the US border near Sherbrooke, the brand goes by the same name. I had a large scoop of their maple syrup ice cream, and it was dreamy. The best touch was the small chunks of maple sugar throughout. Then it was into the chaos of Montreal, over the Jacques Cartier Bridge and a last climb up to the Plateau where my sister lives.
I used my E-assist for that last climb. Like my doubts about poutine, my concerns about the dark side had disappeared with the rain. I’m all in now.
Having the E-assist option turned my trip into pure pleasure. E-assist doesn’t mean the hills are easy. I still felt I deserved French Fries drenched in gravy and covered in a bit of cheese at the end of each day when touring on my E-Assist Bike Friday.