“We’ll start here.”
“At the bottom?”
The crest of the hill seemed to meet the sky. As I peddalled upwards the struggle manifested in my thighs, but I knew it started in my brain.
Some call it suffering. But I’d heard explorer Mike Libecki call the feeling “pre-joy”—it’s not joy yet, but it’s coming. I wondered if he was right. At the foot of the hill I felt good, energized. My legs burned in all the right places. Dan and I even tried to carry on a conversation.
“No problem, we got this.”
“Ya, this hill isn’t so bad.”
We pedalled up and any conviction I felt about the hill quickly waned. (Toronto, from where we both hail, is good for many things, but there are few hills.) Our conversation turned into something like this:
“The… fields… are… green.”
“Yea… very… green.”
“Our first stop is a vineyard,” Dan heaved from somewhere behind me, as we overcame the crest of the hill.
Indeed, joy was coming. (Swiftly, I hoped.) Cycling in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in summer is paradise found—but like all visions of Nirvana you must work for it.
The Townships’ La Route des Vins (the Wine Route) stretches 140 kilometres long—all of which you can bike-trip down!—and is home to more than 27 wineries. Yes—despite the cold, frosted Quebec winter, grapes do grow here! The Quebecois taste for the happy grape goes as far back as French explorer Jacques Cartier, who noticed the abundance of wild vines growing on Île d'Orléans on his first trip up the St. Lawrence. He called the grape-filled island “Ile de Bacchus” after the Roman God of agriculture, wine and winemaking.
Not just any grape can grow here—and it takes a certain type of person to grow them. (Even Samuel de Champlain tried his hand and failed.) We saw the challenges firsthand—and how they’re so ingeniously solved—as we detoured through the vineyard.
On our way toward l’Orpailleur Vineyard—a wine pioneer in the province—we passed six hard-muscled men who were mining a press of grapes. They were chucking full buckets into a contraption, which sifted the fruit from stem like gold from gravel. (L’Orpailleur roughly translates to “gold seeker!”) No rest for the wicked or the winemaker; we were told that just the day before more than 1,100 buckets were filled with grapes. And what we were witnessing was just the first press of the day—they would do two more before its end.
Beyond them, grapevines ambled into the distance, touched ever so gently by the morning light and the shadows of the giant turbines looming over the fields.
Such a stark contrast to the cold slap the grapes endure during winter, protected from the snow and buried under the dirt.
While the winemakers bury the buds under the soil for protection during colder months, a late springtime frost could kill an entire year’s crop. That’s what the turbines are for: they protect the grapes. When turned on they force warm air down, increasing the temperature by about four degrees, which is just enough to change the weather and save the crop.
While I could have happily stayed basking in the morning sunlight with a bottle of wine, I placed practicality before pleasure—and somehow convinced Dan to do the same!—and went back to my bike. We had hills to crush and miles to go, after all.
• • •
La Route des Vins is part of and spills off the more renowned La Route Verte (the Green Route)—which is North America’s largest, most extensive and dare I say it, enjoyable cycling route. From the border of Ontario and across Quebec, it spans from the Laurentians to Montreal, the Eastern Townships to Quebec City and the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, and beyond.
The idea of creating an across-Quebec bike route was begun in the 1980s by Vélo Québec, a not-for-profit that advocates for cycling to reduce environmental impact and increase individual well-being. Yet it didn’t really take off until after the Quebec government came on board in 1995 and now, astoundingly, it connects more than 400 municipalities within the province via 5,300 kilometres of track.
A cyclist’s dream, La Route Verte is a network of on-the-road rights-of-way, rural roads and bike paths that includes rest stops, campsites, accommodations and information centres along the way. Sure, every now and then you hit the inevitable pothole or skid through a small gravel graveyard; but for outdoor enthusiasts nothing beats the incredible views—the verdant fields!, the coastal rides!—and the access it provides.
My legs already felt sturdier, and I could see that Dan, too, was catching a stride. There are so few genuine, guilt-free pleasures in life—and the down slope of a steep hill, after a cycle up, is absolutely one of them.
Maple sugar pie is not. After one last refreshing downhill sweep, we arrived at Frelighsburg, a small municipality in the southern Quebec region of Brome-Missisquoi, which lies on the border with the United States and just under the shadow of Mount Pinnacle.
I got off my bike and with sea legs wobbled to the de facto home of maple sugar pie—Les Sucreries l'érable—and collapsed at the picnic table where Dan, Will and Andrew were mulling over their menus.
Homemade apple juice, and smoked salmon on a Montreal-style bagel with cream cheese as thick as the padding in my cycling shorts. While I’m fascinated by how group dynamics shift and stutter, ebb and flow until the formalities wash away, with this group it didn’t take long. I wish I could say I ate slowly and carefully, savouring every bite—but I think I out-ate the boys.
After the maple sugar pie, we sat in a stupor. It was just noon. Back on the bikes, I felt so heavy that I actually wished for a hill to conquer just to burn it off.
“We’ll meet you up ahead,” Andrew said.
“See you in five kilometres,” said Will, as they piled into our support van.
“Five kilometers, that’s nothing,” I said over my shoulder.
“I bet we’ll beat them there,” Dan shouted back to me.
They disappeared around a bend, leaving us with the grinding of our wheels on the pavement. The path was straight and narrow, until it suddenly wasn’t. We started up a hill and made it to a bend, but the hill continued. Upwards it went, and then higher it continued.
“It just keeps going,” Dan said, as I wiped sweat from my brow.
“After that lightpost, the road will go downhill.”
“Or maybe after that tree.”
The light poles came and went as well as many trees, and yet after every rounded corner the hill slithered up. Legs on fire, we pushed forward until a buzzing began to ring in my ears. At first I thought it was a vulture, but then our drone came into my vision. I looked up and waved—then I saw the incredible view.
Beyond the rolling hills and fields of green, the Adirondack Mountains were in full splendour, and when I looked farther I could even see Vermont.
When asked how the ride was we all said, “Great! Awesome! Amazing! Except for that hill.”
“Do you know what it’s called?” asked our guide, before answering himself. “Joy Hill!”
I should have known.
• • •