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June 25, 2010

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Family Cycling in Montreal

“If you go this way, it will be about six kilometres.”   A sharp pain hit my chest as I heard those words.  The young employee at Ça Roule, a cycling shop in Old Montreal, was tracing a course on a map with his finger.  “It’s an easy route.”

Well, easy if you cycle every week, but not if you haven’t taken your dusty bike out of the basement for over seven years.  I do spend about ten minutes on an exercise bike sporadically, but I had a feeling that patchy activity I like to pass off as physical fitness wasn’t going to be much help in this situation.  And we weren’t just talking about a few kilometres on a cruiser bike.


Getting Started

Our destination was La Ronde, an amusement park on Île Sainte-Hélène on the St. Lawrence River, an island known for being the location of Expo 67.  I’d be walking around the park for a few hours and then cycling back to Old Montreal again, a very difficult and painful 12 kilometre round trip.  And I would pretty much be on my own.

My husband, Phil, would have his hands full cycling with our six-year-old Madison on a Trail-a-Bike, a one-wheeled extension with pedals and fixed handlebars attached to the seat post of his rented bike. To further complicate things, dark clouds threatening to burst at any moment had now replaced the pristine, blue sky that had greeted us early that morning.  I immediately began calculating how much it would cost to taxi the bike and myself back to the shop upon my likely collapse.

I guess I could back out, but that would disappoint Madison and my husband, a once avid cyclist.  As well, I would look like a big chicken once this story got out, and believe me, it would get out.

With our helmets on and belongings strapped safely to the bikes, we got on our way.  Or rather, Phil and Madison got on their way.  While they biked across the street and started riding the trail going along the St. Lawrence River, I slowly walked my bike over to it.   I decided to adjust my helmet again and contemplated applying sunscreen, although it was likely going to rain at any moment.

Finally, there was no more delaying it.  I told myself it was time to go and I rationalized that broken bones heal and that helmets protect your head. So, with one final deep breath, I was off!  I did some white-knuckle wobbling for a few metres but soon got the hang of it.  I was going at a snail-like pace, but at least I was moving.  The trail was smooth and well marked, so that was going to help me out a lot.

Our Route

Feeling more confident, it was time to enjoy the sights the St. Lawrence River had to offer.  This was the more industrial area of the quay, but the large freighters – some quite rusty – were fascinating as they were docked in sleepy silence along the trail. I caught up with the Lance Armstrong wannabes.  Lucky for me they had stopped, but Phil was looking perplexed at the map we had been given at Ça Roule.  He wasn’t sure if we were on the right track to Île Sainte-Hélène.

As we debated over our next move, a couple of uniformed bike riders stopped next to us. They were police officers in training whose job is maintaining order along the bike trails and helping out cyclists.  While they spoke to us, another cyclist rounding a corner too quickly ended up taking a spill, so one of the women ran over to make sure he was OK as he sheepishly got up.  I thought to myself, what a great idea to have these teams out and about.

But although they were extremely nice and really tried to help us, the two cadets weren’t quite sure how to get to La Ronde on our suggested route.   Well, the dark clouds seemed heavier than ever and we seemed to be lost in Old Montreal.  Even our six-year-old was getting worried. It wouldn’t have been a terrible idea to head back to the bike shop, but we weren’t prepared to pull a cowardly lion just yet.

We retraced our steps and found a small bridge to go over, but we were now on Mill Street biking along huge factories and sharing the road with monster transport trucks.  My confidence evaporated as my cycling became more erratic than a turkey drunk on brandy.  After a few minutes we spotted cyclists whizzing by at alarming speeds at the end of the street and I breathed a sigh of relief.  We had found the bike trail again.

We could now see the City of Montreal on the other side of the St. Lawrence.  As we cycled along admiring the scenic river route to our left, we stopped in front of the remarkable Habitat 67 project.  Built for Expo 67 by Moshe Sadie, a university student studying architecture at McGill, Habitat 67 was a vision of housing in the future.  We marveled at the three-dimensional stacked cube design and wondered what vintage treasures might be furnishing the occupied units.

According to the map we had, it was time to leave the bike trail and go through some parkland.  We were thrilled to see another Expo 67 remnant, a gigantic blue robot sculpture, standing guard in the quiet park.  At almost ten metres high it was quite impressive.

We crossed the road to get to the bike trail again and within minutes we were on the grounds of the Biosphère, that enduring symbol of Expo 67.  Although built to house the United States pavilion at that time, these days the structure is dedicated to the study of environmental issues.

My legs were telling me (actually screaming) that it was time for a break and this was the ideal place to stop.   After we parked our bikes, Madison and I walked into the sphere while Phil explored outside.  We didn’t have time to check out all the exhibits, but just walking through it was an amazing experience.  I felt as if I had stumbled on to the film set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The intricate metal lattice that towered above our heads felt more in place in space rather than a Montreal park.

After our much needed break we realized we were only about five minutes away from our intended destination as we spotted roller coasters in the distance. We continued along the bike trail, went under the noisy Pont Jacques-Cartier, the bridge connecting Montreal to Île Sainte-Hélène, and voila, we had arrived intact, bikes and all.

“Half way there,” I thought.  Now that wasn’t so bad, even if my lower extremities were numb, perhaps from use of muscles that didn’t know what their real purpose really was until this moment.

La Ronde, Canada’s second largest amusement park, was fantastic.  We ate, rested, took in some rides, walked around and then it was time to leave at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Of course, the moment we strapped our helmets back on, those darks clouds made good on their threat.  It began to pour, but we decided not to wait it out and go for it.  As we began, Phil yelled over the rain and wind to be careful.  The trail was now very slick and it would make it harder to break.

With no stops, the ride back took only 30 minutes.  We were drenched, but as if on cue, the moment the yellow sign of Ça Roule was in our sightline the rain stopped and the sun came out to dry our helmets and rain jackets.

As we handed back the bikes, Phil and Madison had big smiles on their faces.  And so did mine, but it was for a different reason.  I couldn’t believe how scared I had been just a few hours ago.

Check out this video on our cycling adventure:

More information:

Ça Roule is located at 27 De La Commune East in Old Montreal

caroulemontreal.com / 1-877-866-0633

Bikes, rollerblades and childrens’ trailers and tandems are available for rent.  Fees vary depending on time of day and what week of the day it is.  For example: a bike can be rented for a full day on a Monday to Friday for $25 (plus tax).  That fee includes a helmet, lock, trail map and repair kit.  Reservations are recommended especially on weekends.

Story: Anna Rodrigues
Images : Phil Raby

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© 2007-2010 Trips with Kids - Unauthorized reproduction of this article, video and images is prohibited.

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