Canada’s greatest cycling trail

A mix of dedicated bike trails and cycle paths, the 5,000km La Route Verte is North America’s longest cycling network, taking in Quebec’s cities, rivers, lakes and fjords.

Struggling up a steep hill in the blazing afternoon heat, I heard a noise. An old man was effortlessly cycling past me, laughing and pointing to the electric motor attached to his bike. His French was too quick for me to catch, but I’d guess he was saying something like, “you need to get yourself one of these”, pointing out the fact that I was grinding away on my own bike, making slow, sweaty progress. But what would be the fun in that?

I was halfway through an eight-day, 500km trip along several sections of La Route Verte (The Green Road), a recently completed 5,000km network of connected cycling trails across Canada’s French-speaking Quebec region. A mix of dedicated bike trails, on-road cycle paths and dirt tracks, La Route Verte is North America’s longest cycling network, named by National Geographic as the world’s greatest bike trail, taking in the gamut of what Quebec has to offer: from cosmopolitan cities to tiny riverside villages, from thick forest, windswept coast and rugged mountains to glistening rivers, lakes and fjords.

I picked up a rental bike and cycling gear from Cyclo Services on the edge of Quebec City’s Old Town, and caught a ferry to the south shore of the Saint Lawrence river, leaving behind the hilltop hotel Le Château Frontenac, where US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King drew up plans for the D-Day landings during World War II. Picking up a section of Route Verte 1, which for much of the day joins with the 470km, car-heavy Navigator’s Route, I kept the mighty Saint Lawrence on my left and pedalled northeast through vast stretches of countryside toward the art-filled, waterfront towns of Cap-St-Ignace and Saint-Jean-Port-Joli; the farmland broken up by small villages of white wooden houses and churches bearing the region’s distinctive silver-coloured spires. 

The further I rode, the grander and wilder the landscapes became, the warm sun lighting up fields of yellow canola. The Saint Lawrence, an almost constant by my side, seemed to change colour throughout the day, from choppy, muddy brown to a calm, silvery blue.

For the early French explorers who arrived in Quebec province in the 1530s, the Saint Lawrence was key to the development and success of the region. The riverside settlements of Kébec and Ville-Marie – which were the start of French expansion into an area that became known as New France – would many years later become the booming urban areas of Quebec City and Montreal respectively. The Saint Lawrence was also vital in the early transport of fur and lumber, and saw action during WWII as well, with fighting between German, British, Dutch and Canadian submarines and warships.

Riding away from the river and out into the open countryside en route to my overnight stop in the village of Kamouraska, 152km northeast of Quebec City, I noticed a statue standing alone in a field – a grey and ghostly figure with a small, pointy face. As I got closer to the village, designated one of the most beautiful in Quebec, I saw similar statue down by the water’s edge, this one featuring two figures huddled together. The riverside duo stood arm in arm, pointing east, where I was heading. It felt like a good omen.

The next morning I quickly covered another 45km, following Route Verte 1 northeast to the small riverside port of Rivière-du-Loup, and caught a boat out to Brandy Pot Island. “Some say the name comes from the time of prohibition in Canada, when smugglers used the islands,” said guide Greg Gionet as we circled the island, watching for seals basking on rocks. “But the name dates further back. When the first navigators came here, there were lots of holes that rain water gathered in and over time it turned the colour of brandy or whisky.”

I stayed overnight in the 150-year-old Brandy Pot Island lighthouse, which was vital to the safety of fur, lumber and other trade ships travelling on the treacherous and rocky river. In the days before automation, the lighthouse keeper had to stay up all night to keep the lights burning.

Built in 1851, the lighthouse was abandoned in 1964 and fell into disrepair until a local company turned it into a three-room B&B in 1989. It is now a listed Federal Heritage Building, and the island is a protected wildlife reserve, home to breeding and nesting guillemots and razorbills.

In the evening, I stood on the lighthouse’s balcony and watched furry chicks pester their mothers for food. My own dining experience was more sophisticated. I joined a table of motorcyclists and birdwatchers in the lighthouse’s kitchen for a feast cooked up by the island chef, including lobster and asparagus, smoked eel, scallops and dark chocolate cake, much of the food sourced from the river and surrounding area.

The next morning, fuelled by a hearty breakfast of toast with goat’s cheese and smoked sturgeon, I returned to Rivière-du-Loup, caught a ferry for the hour-long journey to the town of St-Simeon on the northern side of the river, and embarked on Route Verte 5. The terrain in the Charlevoix region was very different from what I had experienced on the opposite banks: the roads so far had been flat or gently curving, here they snaked and rolled, dramatically rising and falling. Day-tripping drivers, Harley biker gangs and that lone senior electric cyclist sped by me on the long, hot, often steeply climbing highway; a yellow sign warned of moose crossing the road.

About 40km north, the route curved around the coast of Baie-Sainte-Catherine and headed into the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, a deep blue, cliff-walled fjord about 105km long, 4km wide and 270m deep that looked like it could have been lifted straight out of Norway. After the lumber industry depleted local forest, the area became designated a protected national park with a coastline famous for spotting resident beluga whales and other species that migrate here to feed in the nutrient-rich waters.

“In a fog like this, we stop the boat and listen, and then hopefully we’re able to find the whales,” said Francois Lapointe, who leads whale watching tours out of Tadoussac, a town reached by ferry across the fjord mouth from Baie-Sainte-Catherine. We heard the expelling of air through a blowhole and tracked down a humpback, watching as her dorsal fin arched out of the water. “This is a 12 to 15m-long humpback called Tic-Tac-Toe,” Lapointe said, recognizing her tail markings. Returning to shore, I saw a pod of beluga whales travelling across the fjord.

The last three days of riding highlighted just how diverse La Route Verte can be. From Tadoussac I cycled northwest along Route Verte 8, through the small town of Sacré-Coeur to Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, where the highway is lined with pine forests, granite cliffs and clear rivers where people fish for salmon. I sped through the distance before catching a ferry from Sainte-Rose-du-Nord across the fjord to Le Baie, one of three boroughs making up the city of Saguenay. From there, the weaving route brought big towns and stretches of grey highways, abandoned trains and industrial zones, then a forest-and-river trail over dams and bridges. It also brought heavy rains in the afternoon and a punctured tyre, which I fixed by the roadside before riding further west through eerily still countryside.

I got my first glimpse of Lac-Saint-Jean the following day as I arrived in the town of Métabetchouan. The massive lake, a focal point of the Saguenay region, is so large that it feels more like an ocean. A freight train rumbled into town at the same time, the romantic “Americana” sound of its whistle fading into the distance.

A 256km bike trail known as Veloroute des Bluets (Blueberry Bike Route, after the region’s abundant fruit), loops around the lake, connecting cyclists to the town of Chambord, where buses take travellers back to Quebec City. But first, I headed anticlockwise around the eastern shore of the lake to Fromagerie Médard in Saint-Gédéon to sample rich, creamy cheeses, then the nearby microbrewery Microbrasserie du Lac St-Jean, where I worked through six taster glasses of beer: IPA, blueberry, stout… every bite and sip was worth travelling the 500km from Quebec City for, and it was all the more satisfying getting here with just pure pedal power.

It is possible to plan both short rides and epic journeys using the websites for La Route Verte and Velo Quebec, the organisation that oversees cycling infrastructure in the region.