I had this notion that it would be fun to ride from St Jerome to Mont Laurier on the somewhat slightly famous Petit Train du Nord bike path. Initially constructed as a railway line in the late 1800s it was converted to a bike path in the 1990’s and is one of the longest purpose built bike routes in the world.
It’s been on my radar for a long time, and finally was able to slot in two days to do the route. Now, bear in mind, most folks opt to take the very well organized bike shuttle from the train station in St Jerome to Mont Laurier, and then spend 3 or 4 or 5 days riding down the route. Emphasis on down – although as I learn, it’s not quite a flat pancake as advertised.
My goal was somewhat different – to ride the entire length on day one, overnight it in Mont Laurier then return south the second day. Seemed doable on paper – my weapon of choice for this bike battle is a carbon 29er with minimal bike packing gear – fast packing I guess is the right way to describe my setup.
Being Friday there was only one morning train to St Jerome from Montreal West, so I was prepared not one but two nights beforehand and at 6:15am was already on the platform squinting into the rising sun expecting the behemoth of a commuter train to magically arrive sometime more or less before my departure time
As posted, the train did arrive on the nose of its due time of 7:05am along with another train that also arrived exactly 7:05 on the opposite side of the platform. OK no problem, just check the number of each side of the platform (I was looking for number 2) and off we go. Not so fast sport – the platform sides were not marked or numbered in any way and I freaking, looking left and right at both approaching trains for a clue, some sign as to which one to choose. One of the drivers saw my flip-flopping head and pointed to the other train. How he knew, who can say! Only that he was right – the St Jerome train was on my left and as soon as it stopped I hauled my bike up on board, strapped it in and settled down for the ride.
It’s about an hour’s total journey – first we go west then turn back east and then finally north off Montreal Island and onwards past small commuter towns and farmland. Arriving at St Jerome at 8:20am there was really nothing more to do that take a couple quick selfies and a photo at the official post, then onto the path! Time, set, go.
I had packed pretty well this time (by my standards anyway) and was putting the bike packing gear I bought in February for Stagecoach 400 to the first big test. For the record, I used my Alpkit Possum medium under top tube back which held all my electronics, headlamp, extra batteries on one side and on the other held my vitamins, aspirin, creams and chain lube. I used an Alpkit Medium Fuel pod for stuffing about 7 Cliff bars and later in the ride some gummy bears. Full technical report to follow in part 2.
Firstly, the path from St Jerome is a gently rising (think between 2 and 4 percent) ascent up to Mt Tremblant about 70kms away. It’s nice to get the wheels turning finally, and I’m more or less happy with my fully loaded 29er as I spin off at my infinity pace – which today is about 21km/hr.
It’s a beautiful day and the kms soon start falling away. The countryside is closed in around me, lots of over-hanging trees and close rivers bordering the route, but you’re never too far from a road or a town or homes. There’s a few people already out on the trail and I wave to each as I go by. I feel like a happy dorky school kid with the wind blowing in my face and the smell of dirt in my nose.
It’s not long however before the sun takes its rightful place at the head of the table, shortly thereafter joined by its close friend the headwind. Soon my happy infinity pace is challenged by low 30 degree (Celsius) temperatures and high 30 km/hr headwind. Welcome to the rest of the day. I eat slowly, I drink steady and swallow 3-4 of my great South African electrolytes every hour.
I am content to reach my first major stop at Sainte-Adele and take a few minutes to sit in the shade and eat an ice cream and chit chat with other riders. Most are older couples or groups from Montreal out for a day trip and others from the US visiting just having fun on their touring bikes. Lots of French and English spoken by people like this on the stretch to Tremblant. The most southern section was definitely the busiest in terms of rider traffic.
Onwards towards Tremblant the riders become less day tripper cruisers and more triathlete training. It’s fun to watch the styles and attitudes switch from casual and care free to focused and form driven.
I stop somewhere around the 82km mark near the edge of the town limits and reward myself to some breakfast. I say breakfast, but it’s already 1:30pm and the first few hours have been long and tough with the heavy winds. The plate I’m served is enough to slow a moose down, but I do my best to cram as many calories in as possible. It proves the best bike meal I ever ate so far – it turns out to fuel me pretty much 100% until I reach the end of the line at 8:30pm that night.
I take my time, relaxing over lunch, chatting with the waitress in my high school French, and then after almost an hour finally stir myself for the next leg. It’s fun riding through the outskirts of Mt Tremblant, and there’s plenty of visual distractions. Once north of the city, considerably less so, and up until the next late afternoon stop am pretty much hunkered down and focused on my riding – keeping cadence and output nice and steady. It’s easy to do this with a foundry force headwind.
There’s a lot of very pretty scenery – think trestle bridges, wildflowers and fresh sprouts on fir trees. The path is clear and well maintained – about 15 kms north of Tremblant it turns again to asphalt, and remains like this until the end of the route. I guess that a cross bike would actually be the ideal rig. Not much use having a mountain bike on this section.
I find a nice bench in the shade and unclip for an afternoon nap; falling asleep effortlessly. I wake almost an hour later, groggy but happy and ride onwards looking for a spot for a cold Pepsi which I find at the next station Labelle. This station, for my money is the best stop on the route. Not the cheapest, but the owner is super friendly, and zooms about at warp speed helping his guests. I could stay all afternoon eating and drinking no problem!
The great thing about this route from a touring perspective is that I don’t have to go off the route at all so far – overall the services are amazing – with restaurants, and cafes in the old stations. There are also water fountains and taps for refilling packs and bottles and some of the stations have air and tool stands as well. It’s still important to be well prepared with spares and tools, because once out of the stations it is a long walk back should anything go wrong.
Once I reach the 150km marker the afternoon starts to slide away, as do other signs of civilization – the bugs are out in force and attack me every time I stop, so I stop stopping. If I had known what a motivating factor they would be I’d bottle them and bring them home as my new training partners.
A quick pit lane at a tiny SAQ depanneur near Nominigue for more cold drinks and more trail mix is the last point of the day – and I am tempted to take one of the cheap motel rooms at this point, but press on the final 30kms seeming to last forever. I’m not super inspired at this point, but keep grinding away anyway.
When I reach Mont Laurier I’m feeling pretty much in the same condition I felt leaving St Jerome, and for about an hour formulate a plan to turn around and continue riding into the night. That’s for next time though! And the thought led me to discover a great 200 mile gravel race in Kansas, but that’s another story.
It’s very satisfying to reach the destination feeling strong and fresh. Total distance 205kms average speed 21km/hr in 9 hours 43 minutes. Be warned! It’s not flat. My total elevation gain for the day is 1729 meters (apx. 5672 feet). In fact you could say this is the greatest false flat day of my riding life.
I sit at the near deserted Mont Laurier station for a while, enjoying the moment. It’s handy to be able to use my mobile hotels.com app and get a cheap motel as I pass a few moments sitting there. Using a coupon my room costs a mighty $15 or so!
Once checked in, it sure feels great to wash the road off. Who knew so much can stick to your legs over 12 hours. OK, so it’s definitely not as hardcore as camping or riding into the night, but that’ll come soon enough. Or one of these days.
I head out for a quick supper and well-earned beer. Then another well-earned beer. OK fine, no desert, how’s that for restraint. I spend a half hour or so back in my room prepping the gear for the morning and at 10pm hit the sack. Sleep comes fast and easy.