On the map, our planned bicycle trip could be measured in inches: a straight
shot up the Hudson River’s narrow blue line, a jaunt along Lake Champlain, a
short border crossing into Canada, and voilà – we’d be on international turf. On
the ground, however, our more than 370-mile journey from New York City to
Montreal took more twists and turns than the map implied.
The good news, I discovered, is that trips like this aren't about fitness –
or my father-in-law Dave O’Leary, a former contestant on the epic CBS TV show
the Amazing Race, would have left me behind like road kill. They're about
persistence and flexibility. And a lot can be said for travelling light.
We brought with us only a handful of modern conveniences: a smart phone, a
credit card and a small pack of clothes and rain gear. Easy access to
technology gave us the freedom to improvise from some of the tried and true
routes found on bikemap.net, which hosts hundreds of maps
from people who have done this same trip in hundreds of ways. It also allowed
us to make hotel reservations the day of, often just minutes before we pulled
into our final stop.
We didn’t always make the right moves; we woefully chose to head up the west
side of Lake Champlain, which by consequence included a climb through the
Adirondack Mountains. And the hotels we chose weren’t pretty,
or always comfortable. But our method meant we could meander at any pace we
Starting our ride at New York City’s Van Cortlandt Golf Course in the Bronx,
a mile of dirt led to the South
County Trailway, a 14.1-mile rail trail that stretches from Elmsford, a
village just north of the city. Combined with the North County Trailway, the
former railway runs for 36 miles of tree-lined near-solitude, away from traffic
and – mercifully – from inclines. But it also costs you panoramic views of the
Gliding through a tunnel of forest, autumn’s leaves had just fallen.
Somewhere south of Elmsford, so did we: I glanced back, lost the edge of the
pavement and slid end over end, taking my father-in-law with me. We spent our
first stop pulling leaves out of our bike shorts. I spent the rest of the
five-day trip splinting my broken pinkie finger with duct tape.
Near the town of Carmel, we were spit out into the byways of New York State,
just in time for the heat and humidity of hilly Putnam County. Wilting in the
autumn swelter, we hit the trip's first real navigation challenge. Instead of
relying on my father-in-law’s bike-mounted Garmin GPS, which has a good
reputation for getting you where you want to go fast, we spent most of the trip
using Google maps bicycling directions, which shouted directions through one of
my mobile’s headphones.
The upside is Google takes you on smaller roads, past rustic barns and
soybean farms. The downside? It also sent us up at least one endless, winding
hill, both of us praying each turn wouldn’t reveal another climb.
We were exhausted by the time we arrived in picturesque Rhinebeck, a town of
upscale restaurants, historic wooden buildings and the Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential
Library. New York City was almost 100 miles behind us, and it showed.
Strangers paused to chat, offered us their phone numbers in case we got in
trouble and gave us route advice. As we stood in line at a bakery, feeling
wrung out and queasy, a man even asked if he could put us up for the night.
Despite the temptation, we trekked on.
The next morning’s ride brought our first real views of the Hudson River;
with rolling green hills, the hint of the Catskill Mountains, in the distance,
we skirted the steep, mansion-lined banks of America’s first great waterway.
Yet as we pedalled toward Albany, some 56 miles from Rhinebeck, the sky looked
increasingly grim, finally bursting near the city of Troy. The rest of the day
was a race against the rain – and not always a successful one.
Flat tires are common on trips like this, but so are bigger mechanical
problems. While we packed light, especially when it came to clothing, we didn’t
skimp on the bike gear. We packed tubes and tools, as well as a folding tire
and spare spokes, both of which we ended up needing. Hunched over a broken bike
on the side of a highway in the rain, a kindly policeman helped us jury rig a
spoke without a wrench. Bring everything you may need and take the time to test
it – especially since, the further north you are from Albany, the fewer bicycle
shops there are.
Some 165 miles later, riding past views of Lake Champlain and through small
towns – and despite my father-in-law’s spoke, which broke for the second time
of our trip – we made it to Plattsburgh, the last city on the US side of the
border. The town was holding a fair to celebrate the final time the US repelled
a Canadian army invasion, in the War of 1812. A drummer dressed in period
costume explained how the Americans had easily smashed an oncoming Canadian
fleet by using their local knowledge of the lake.
Bicycling across a quiet country road towards Montreal, we found that the
same border seemed woefully unprepared for another invasion. My mobile sent us
to a sleepy border station that seemed to have been built where there was once
a stop sign on a two lane country road. “Do you do this often?” the Canadian
border agent asked, slightly confused by our chosen mode of transport.
Here, farmhouses looked European, the cars were from international
manufacturers and my high school French didn't cut it at roadside diners. It’s
not quite Europe, but it’s not Texas either.
After 370 miles on two wheels, it wasn’t easy to keep going once Montreal
was in view – appearing over a field of soy like Oz's Emerald City. But if
you’ve made it this far, travel just five miles west to the Récré-O-Parc
de Sainte-Catherine bike path. The unobstructed views of the stunning St
Lawrence River and Montreal's impressive skyline are worth the ride.