Three bike tours in Montreal for all ages and stages
Montreal is known for its traffic congestion, but it’s surreal. After riding for a few seconds, my wife and I came to a dead stop. Surrounded on all sides, a stream of red taillights stretches as far as the eye can see. Instead of the rumble of idling cars and furious horns, however, all we can hear are cheerful conversations, a chorus of bicycle bells and dance music blaring from the balconies and front steps that border the street.
We came from Ottawa for the annual Go Bike Montreal festival, and after gladly saying goodbye to our van for the weekend at a downtown hotel, we cycled to nearby La Fontaine Park for the start of the Tour la Nuit – a 22 kilometer route, a party on wheels that criss-crosses four boroughs on roads prohibited to motorized vehicles.
Surrounded by a sea of bodies and bikes adorned with glow sticks and glittering decorations just a few hundred yards from the start line under a peach and crimson Friday sunset, we are stuck in traffic jams that can really bring down your blood pressure. More than 18,000 people take the nighttime ride this year, including a parade of families with children, and half the fun is braking and soaking up the scene.
Beyond the festival, this stop-and-go state of mind sums up cycling in Montreal. The city has added more than 350 kilometers of bike paths during the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding its network to nearly 1,000 km, which means there’s a kaleidoscope of routes to explore. The problem is, you’re going to want to get down and hang out in so many places that you might not get very far.
The Tour la Nuit and another car-free ride, the 36km Tour de l’Île on Sunday, are a great way to get a taste of the city’s bustling neighborhoods and endless pedaling opportunities. But really, you can’t go wrong with a copy of the local cycle route map, a bottle of water and a sense of adventure. “It’s by bike that you see the city on a human scale,” explains Jean-François Rheault, CEO of Vélo Québec, the provincial non-profit cycling organization that organizes Go Bike Montréal. “That’s why more and more people want to cycle when they’re here on vacation. When you are away from cars, there are people and life on the streets.
Rheault’s words rang in my ears as I rode around town all weekend on a mix of on-street bike paths and multi-use trails. Whether cruising along the Lachine Canal, where picnickers dot the surrounding green spaces, or descending a gentle slope on the new cycle highway on Rue Saint-Denis, tempted me to stop at every cafe and pub I’ve seen, I had a completely different Montreal experience than on dozens of previous trips.
Even the city’s industrial heritage—the gigantic shipping terminals and crumbling graffiti-covered factories that line the St. Lawrence River—seem enchanting when you can feel the breeze and know that a snack or drink is just ‘a few dreamy minutes away.
Bike tours for all ages and stages
Family route: Old Port
Start on the bike path at the north end of the Old Port, where a series of wharves jut into the St. Lawrence, and be prepared to stop frequently for kid-friendly activities. Hit the Plage de l’Horloge, then the playground, maybe the Ferris Wheel, then grab a bite to eat on a terrace in nearby Old Montreal. Go early to avoid the crowds of tourists and locals. Public toilets abound and drivers usually stop to let cyclists cross the street – important considerations when you’re with little cyclists.
Occasional cycling route: Lachine Canal
Start at the Atwater Market, near the northeast terminus of the canal, to stock up on snacks for your cart. Then, take the paved waterfront multi-use trail for a 35-40 kilometer round trip through some of Montreal’s trendiest neighborhoods, including Pointe Saint-Charles, a former industrial pocket transformed since the reopening of the canal as a place of recreation 20 years ago. Take a break at the Messorem brewery or the aptly named adjacent Dreamy café, then continue to René-Lévesque Park on a finger of land that juts out into the St. Lawrence. Bonus: the prevailing winds come from the west, so your return should be smooth.
Intrepid Cycling Route: The Great Loop
Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame, linked to the Old Port by cycle paths, are a perfect starting point. Circle both – savor the smooth pavement of the Formula 1 circuit on the latter – then cross the St. Lawrence. Hang right on the Petite Voie du Fleuve, a crushed gravel path on a narrow strip of dirt, then return to Montreal on the Champlain Bridge Estacade, an even narrower two-kilometre bicycle and pedestrian bridge. Take a round trip along the Lachine Canal, then tackle the steep climb up Mount Royal and enjoy a quick descent to the Saint-Denis Street bike path. It will take you northeast through two bustling neighborhoods, Mile End and Little Italy, to the Jean Talon Market, where aromas and your appetite will merge into a happy finale.
The author was a guest of Vélo Québec, which did not review or approve this article prior to publication. Cycling maps are available at Vélo Québec’s La Maison des Cyclists, a bike shop/travel agency/café next to La Fontaine Park.
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