A couple weeks ago, I loaded up my bicycle with saddle bags and camping gear, and set off on a 5-day ride from Pittsfield up to Montreal, Quebec. It was my first bicycle tour in 5 years as well as my first solo ride. I know many of you were praying for my safety and for a pleasant ride, and those prayers were certainly appreciated, so the least I can do is give a little summary of the tour.
Day 1: The first day was a pleasant, fast ride up Route 7 to Bennington, VT and then on some unpaved back roads into Arlington, where I made camp at a nice spot along the Battenkill River at the base of the mountains. Thankfully, what seemed to be the only open restaurant in the whole town was within walking distance of the campground, so after a nice dinner, I crawled into my sleeping bag happy and well stuffed.
Day 2: The rain started just before daybreak. I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag, hoping for it to stop, but the rain kept coming. I finally emerged from the tent to find standing water in my bags and was good and wet myself by the time I had loaded up my bicycle again and started riding. While it was my shortest distance day, it was also the most rugged terrain I would cover on the trip; just over 40 miles of steep mountain passes and remote, unpaved back roads, and most of it in steady rain. Even with the difficult terrain and wet conditions, Day 2 brought some of the most spectacular scenery, as challenging climbs opened up into incredible views of distant farms tucked into valleys surrounded by mist shrouded mountains. I was especially thankful for being able to spend the night indoors with family friends in Middletown Springs, where I could relax, refuel, and most importantly, dry out.
Day 3: With the steepest mountains behind me, I now had to cover my longest day, at 70 miles. Dry clothes and sunshine were a welcome change from the previous day, and while much of my route was still on little-traveled and unpaved back roads, I was now rolling through populated farms instead of empty mountain woods. I couldn’t ride through Vermont without stopping in the town where I was born, so I made a detour into Orwell. It was really nice to see the village again, but the detour also added 10 miles to an already long day. The hills gradually became shorter and the flat stretches longer, as I worked my way further up the Champlain Valley, but I was unable to outrun the rain clouds moving in from the lake. By the time I arrived in Middlebury, I was soaked for the second time in 2 days. I was also getting tired, and still had a good chunk of distance to go. Thankfully, the sun returned and helped dry everything out again as I headed for my campsite at Mount Philo State park. Although flat terrain was becoming more the rule by this point, Mount Philo proved to be a serious exception. I was met at the entrance by a friendly park ranger along with a seriously steep road that wound its way up to the campsites at the top. The final mile of the longest day would be a grueling slog that required every bit of remaining strength. The view from the top was amazing, and the stars later that night even more so, and I was finished. I went to bed exhausted but happily satisfied.
Day 4: The heavy mileage from the previous day made for a slow and sore start to the next leg of the journey, which would take me into Burlington, over Lake Champlain and up through Grand Isle towards the Canadian border. Burlington is a great place for bicycling. Its popular bike trail runs along through residential neighborhoods, along the lake, and then out onto a causeway, and all the way to Grand Isle. The lone gap in the causeway is covered by the “bike ferry”, designed specifically to carry bicyclists and runners across 200 feet of water to where the trail resumes again. The trail made for a very unique and enjoyable ride, but my late start was catching up to me. The afternoon was fading and what my sore legs really wanted was to ditch the bike and just go jump in the lake, whose cool blue waters had been taunting me all day. On top of that, I still wasn’t sure where I would be spending the night. My goal was to be as close to the border as possible, but it was looking like I would either have to cut the mileage short that day, or choose between a terribly overpriced motel across the state line in New York and an RV campground known for its rude staff and obnoxious and racist guests. I wasn’t thrilled about any of those choices, and no one I asked along the way seemed to know of any others. It was time to make the call to “mission control”, aka, Mom and Dad. Their research turned up yet another site, even closer to the border, and right on the lake. I straggled in as the shadows were growing long, hoping it would be the answer to many prayers throughout the afternoon. The office was already closed but I found the owner nearby, and when he saw that I was on a bicycle, he dropped the price for the night. The campsite turned out to be the most pleasant of the whole trip, sunset swim in Lake Champlain included. It was, most definitely, a very gracious answer to many prayers.
Day 5: I was thrilled to cross into Canada, fueled by the anticipation of completing my journey. The quiet road leading to the border suddenly split at an official building that looked incredibly out of place among the woods, houses and farms all around it. Crossing took all of about 2 minutes, and the rolling farms and woods of Vermont soon gave way to the wide open, pancake flat farmland of southern Quebec. Pedaling was a breeze all the way to St. Jean-Sur-Richelieu, a small city about 25 miles outside of Montreal. I knew that beyond this point, I would soon start to hit city traffic, and that many of the roads leading into the city would not be bicycle friendly, if not closed to cyclists entirely. I needed a safe route in, and the maps in my collection were no help. I was losing time and growing frustrated when I pulled into a local bike shop, hoping for some better information. The shop owner was very helpful, and steered me onto the Routes Vertes (Green Routes), Quebec’s extensive, well-marked bike trail system, generally regarded as one of the best in the world. It was my golden ticket into the city. I zipped over the path as it ran along the Richelieu River, past kayaks and boats cruising the Chambly canal, then cut across the back streets of picturesque bedroom communities, through the busy suburbs, and finally up over the towering Jacques-Cartier Bridge and into downtown Montreal. I had made it, and successfully completed my first solo tour.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to do this trip and for the prayers that followed me along the way. There were no flat tires or breakdowns of bicycle or body, and many opportunities to enjoy the stunning beauty of creation in this part of the world. I learned to appreciate the peace and quiet of the campsites as great places to do some Bible reading and memorization. I am also thankful for a great “Couchsurfing” host who provided a free place to stay and showed me a great weekend in Montreal. It was also special spending time in the city together with my parents, who took their own mini-getaway, and made it possible to come home the easy way, in the car. Massachusetts to Montreal was a great ride, and I’m hoping to take a longer, more adventurous ride in the future, although some of the ideas I have up my sleeve make my Mom cringe (as any good mom would do, I guess). Maybe she’ll mind less if I have company. Any takers?
By Ian Bridgman