The time had come, or maybe it was overdue for us to go back home to Canada. We started our day off with the hotel’s continental breakfast – pretty limited for fueling what would be the longest day of any tour I’d ever done. I had four slices of peanut butter toast and then a bagel with some more peanut butter besides and washed it down with lots of coffee. Fueled up, we got on our bikes and headed out in to one of the most perfect days for cycling we’d yet experienced. Moderate temperatures, light wind, and dazzlingly beautiful sun. Within a few minutes we were at the border. But before we crossed, we had one stop to make.
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is a unique building. The US / Canadian Border goes through the building. The opera house stage and the library collection are both on the Canadian side in Stanstead, Quebec while the only entrance is in Derby Line, Vermont. So technically it can be said it is the only library in the US without any books (they’re in Canada). The library serves both sides of the border – Canadians can enter the library without going through customs as long as they go nowhere else. A US Border Services is posted in a truck right outside to make sure of that.
The library itself is cozy and wonderful – all of my fondest memories of the libraries of my childhood were inside. The smell of old books, comfortable chairs, friendly staff and old architectural details. I feel as if i could have grabbed a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, curled up on the couch and when I looked up again, I would be six, it would be raining outside and I would be in a library just a little bit to the south. There would be fish sticks and tater tots for dinner when I got home, of course, but not until after Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood was over. All of the comfort rolled in to one small space. As comfortable as it was, we still had many hours to ride before we could stop and by all indications there was no lodging to be found until we got to where we were reserved – 100 miles away.
While the US border lineup was very long, the lineup to get to Canada was a single car – and they were gone by the time we pulled up. As you know, the experience went well. As soon as we crossed the border we had to stop. A large group of bikers were leaving the cafe just north of the border. For a moment we were silent members of the group though I didn’t have the big belly and long grey beard – and my ride was a whole lot quieter.
We headed north, deviating from the route just a touch to get a coffee and some more to eat at Tim Hortons. We sat for a while, enjoying coffee and the feeling of being back home. We were not doing a good job of making progress on our route. At this rate we would be sleeping on the path. We resolved to push on and soon we left the village behind and were out where a car might come every 5-10 minutes. The scenery rapidly changed from what we’d seen in Vermont.
The day would really be divided in to two parts. The first 80 kilometres (50 miles) would be hilly with some significant climbs. The next 80 would be almost exclusively downhill.
The hills were taxing but we felt pretty good at this stage. Still, the kilometres were not ticking off that fast. We’d gone about 30 and had 130 to go – longer than all but one of my previous rides *left* to go. I know myself well enough to know that if I think too hard on that subject I will get overwhelmed and discouraged. And really, in this situation, what would the purpose of that be? I could ride and feel OK or I could overthink it and feel bad. And so off we pedaled. The one thing I did try to do, though, was avoid prolonged stops. Washroom stops were minimized, photo stops were taken only for the best candidates. And we inched forward, up the hills, sometimes at as little as 10 km/hour. (Let’s just avoid doing math for a while, shall we?)
Eventually we got to Magog – a beautiful lakeside town. Though my mind wanted to ignore the fact that it was lunchtime and focus on the fact that we had kilometres to make, my stomach wasn’t going to listen at the rate we were burning calories – and eventually, it would assert itself and bring us to a stop whether we liked it or not – at the location of its choice. And so we stopped at McDonalds. Once we locked up we headed to the door and met a greeter on the way – a jovial, French, Wilford Brimley who asked us where we were from and going and seemed shocked to hear of our plans and wished us a happy journey.
As for our choice of venue: before you judge, just a note about fuel and what works for me. While during day to day life I am a huge fan of vegetables, whole grains and smart carbohydrates, and lean proteins – and watching salt. While cycling, I need things that quickly metabolize: simple carbohydrates and sugars are great. Not too much protein or fibre – these take up space and take too long to metabolize and I could find myself waiting on the side of the road starved for energy while I wait to digest them. And so we each had a double filet of fish and a large order of fries (salt to replenish lost electrolytes), and a large coke for caffeine, sugar, and hydration. On a day of normal activity level, this would be an exceedingly bad idea. But today it was just the thing. We left the place energized and ready to take on the rest of the hills.
Up we went. Looking at the elevation profile it seemed like we had two big climbs left. Looking ahead from where this next photo was taken, it appeared that we had two big hills left before we could relax.
And so, up we went…And down another hill. Then up another hill, and down another one. We got on a path for a little while and then found ourselves on another set of small back roads. And we also started noticing signs above the bicycle route signs: “La Montagnard” My French is not good so I didn’t even think to translate it. Perhaps we should have as I am pretty sure I said “I think this is the last hill!” at least seven times only to end up with a much larger climb to follow. Our final climb eventually did come – a category 4 climb, in fact. At the top of the hill we met another touring cyclist loaded down with more gear than we had – four panniers. He laughed and simply gasped “La Montangard”. In case you hadn’t guessed already – it means “The Mountaineer”
This, as it turns out, was the last hill. We had a steep, fast descent and then we hit the path. Now in 2011, I rode this same route, Route Verte 1, from Montreal through the Eastern Townships (skipping La Montagnard that time). One thing I noticed was that significantly more of the route had been freshly paved. For those who aren’t cyclists, let me tell you, there is a huge difference between the best stone dust trail and a paved one. Stone dust trails are good – they’re separated from traffic and can be relatively smooth, but they also provide lots of resistance that is much reduced with fresh asphalt.
The other thing I noticed this time, going the other direction, is how much of a hill it was. We literally had a gentle downward incline for 80 km – almost 50 miles. This meant we could cruise along at 25-30 km/hour with next to zero effort with only a few stops for water, a photo, or the occasional break for another quart of french fries. We got in to a steady rhythm and cadence motoring onwards, switching lanes every now and again to pass someone, stopping for the occasional road crossing. The pavement eventually ran out with about 30 km to go, but as the sun went down the scenery got even more magical.
And then I noticed: it’d been a while since we’d eaten last and we had a ways to go. My legs were feeling weaker and my stomach was feeling really empty. My blood sugar was crashing and I was headed for bonking. I have only experienced that once – but once was enough and had me pedaling in my absolute lowest gear feeling I was working my hardest just to move on a flat. I had 30 km to go that time as well and didn’t know what I was going to do – there was nowhere to stay and I was not sure I’d make it by nightfall. As physically bad as I felt, emotionally I felt worse – tearfully calling my partner to get some encouraging words. Eventually, I did push myself to the end – I didn’t know it was about food at that point, but I did notice a little nibble on an energy bar helped. When I got to the campsite I ate a ton and immediately felt transformed.
So needless to say I didn’t want that to happen again. I consulted Google. There was a store in the next town – 12 km ahead. About 30-40 minutes ride at our current pace. (Fortunately the dreaded slowing hadn’t hit). We rode there and I went in – and came out with a couple of cans of pop and a half a dozen donuts. When I came out, Daegan was chatting with some locals about our trip. Like the customs officer and greeter at McDonald’s before them they were also incredulous at our riding so far. (Hilariously, there were exponentially more cyclists on the road and trails in Quebec than we saw in the US where folks were nonplussed at our riding).
Off we went again, now with loads of energy – and the scene got even more ridiculously beautiful. As the sun went lower in the sky Daegan called out and started pointing. On the north side of the trail there were 6-7 hot air balloons in the sky at various distances and elevations. And then we both noticed the south side. There were half a dozen people parachuting down together into the field next to us.. They landed so quickly we couldn’t get a shot. But the balloons stayed above us for quite some time.
The sun was falling fast so we had time for one more photo before we had to get going – there were another 20 km to go and not much daylight.
Onward we went, the trail occasionally joining a city street, going along one side of a freeway, under it, back to the other side, over a bridge and next to a canal through the picturesque village of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. We weren’t going to make it before dark, though. We pulled over and installed our lights before heading out for the last 5-6 kilometres pulling up to the hotel in full darkness.
We must have looked a sight to the woman behind the counter. Shiny with sweat and sunscreen and a layer of road grime over everything. As she was checking us in I felt something on my arm and saw that one of the many gnats that plagued us throughout the day was crawling on my arm. But as was typical for this day, she was more surprised at how far we went than appalled at how we looked.
We found our way inside and transformed ourselves. Never on this trip was a shower more welcome or necessary. We walked across the parking lot to grab a simple suburban chain dinner and slept deeply.
As for today, it was a day of errands and relaxation. We booked our last two days in Montreal and changed our tickets. Look out, Toronto, we’re returning on Wednesday afternoon.