Ride Report: Toronto to Montreal
At the end of September I rode from Toronto to Montreal, mostly following the Waterfront Trail in Ontario, and then the Route Verte in Quebec. This route is quite popular with local cyclists, but it’s not documented too well online. The best resource is this cached website on The Wayback Machine which helpfully lays out all the points of interest along the route, but is a little out of date and is not the easiest site to use for planning.
I took six days to ride the 400 miles (643km). None of the days were very difficult and if you were pressed for time you could probably do it in four or five days depending on how you planned your days. There are enough camping and food stops along the way to allow for pretty flexible itineraries.
Day 1 – Toronto to Darlington Provincial Park (56mi / 90km)
I had ridden today’s route a few months ago on a Sub 24 Hour Overnight, so there weren’t really any surprises with the route. The scenery wasn’t as exciting as some of the days, but it was still nice riding. If you’re looking to do this trip a little faster, you could take the GO Train to Oshawa and skip today’s route completely.
Much of the ride felt very suburban, although the route followed a dedicated lakeshore trail almost the whole way. You pass two nuclear power plants (both of which had an unsettlingly large number of Monarch butterflies…) and get a nice little bit of climbing as you ride through the Scarborough Bluffs near Toronto.
The big excitement for today came not even 15 miles into the ride when I could only access 3 gears in my rear cassette. I’ve got Shimano bar-end shifters mounted on Paul Thumbies, and after a decade of use the indexing on the rear shifter finally gave out. Normally, you’d turn the shift lever a little bit until you felt a click and it would shift to the next gear. But instead of having 9 clicks, I now had three – two at the lowest end of my cassette and then one at the very top end. Since I still had 485 miles left, this wasn’t good news.
Luckily these were the last shifters Shimano ever made that support both friction shifting and index shifting. Friction shifting means that instead of clicking from gear to gear, you move the shifter until the chain feels like it’s properly aligned with the gear you want. It’s a little more work, comparable to driving a car with an automatic transmission or a manual transmission. “Friction vs indexed” is one of the all-time bike touring nerd debates, and I’ve mostly been an indexed person because I’m pretty lazy. But after flipping the switch over to friction mode I was able to smoothly shift across my entire range of gears again, and in a shocking revelation I actually really enjoyed it so much that I think I even prefer it now. In fact, I still haven’t “fixed” the indexing even though I’ve been back a few weeks. I’ve gone full Fred.
The day’s ride ended at Darlington Provincial Park, where I nearly had the entire park to myself. This would be a trend for the whole trip – most parks and campgrounds I stayed at close October 1 or 15th at the latest, so they were pretty empty by the time I rolled through. I got a nice campsite right on a small bluff above the lake, where I enjoyed a sunset view of the Toronto skyline in the distance.
Day 2 – Darlington Provincial Park to Presqu’ile Provincial Park (68mi / 110km)
While planning my route I somehow led myself to believe that the only hills of the trip were on the first day, but day two ended up being slightly hillier, with constant small rolling hills as I continued to follow the coast of Lake Ontario eastward. The weather for today couldn’t have been better for riding – overcast and cool, with a slight tailwind most of the day.
I planned on stopping for lunch in Port Hope, which was roughly the halfway point of my route for the day. When I rolled in to town I found way more people downtown than I expected to see on a Friday afternoon. It turned out that Chinook Salmon were beginning their annual run up the Ganaraska River to spawn. Half the town seemed to be lining the banks of the river fishing, and the Catholic church was having a big fish fry on the shore.
While the fish and chips were tempting, I wasn’t sure my stomach could handle that much grease while riding, so I opted for a burger and fries. It was obviously a much healthier choice, especially since the burger joint was famous for replacing the buns of the burger with two grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s worth noting that one of the best things about riding a bike all day for an extended period is that you can basically eat anything you want without too much guilt. I knew I’d be burning those extra calories off.
The day ended at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, which is known as one of southern Ontario’s best parks. It’s famous for some epic birdwatching as birds migrate every season, and there’s a giant kiosk by the park office where you can report what birds you’ve seen that day and see a chart for the past year. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise, although I think I arrived a little past the migration peaks. I still managed to spot quite a few birds, and will have to come back next spring.
Day 3 – Presqu’ile Provincial Park to Kingston (80mi / 129km)
On this trip I’ve been making the overnight oats from this video. They’ve been pretty easy to prepare and taste good in the morning. So good, in fact, that last night a racoon tried to steal them from my campsite.
I woke up around midnight and heard some very suspicious scratching sounds coming from my site’s picnic table. When I pointed my flashlight in the direction of the sounds, I caught an impressively well-fed raccoon trying to open the lid. Not really wanting to get up, I made some vaguely threatening noises and waved the light around hoping the raccoon would get the idea and leave my breakfast alone. Oddly this didn’t work. As I begrudgingly got out of my tent he picked up the container and ran into the woods on his hind legs. I tried to give chase but lost him in the brush. Luckily for me he eventually gave up on trying to get the container open and in the morning I found the container mostly unharmed. Breakfast never feels so earned as when it’s recovered from a thieving raccoon.
Around 6:00am a light drizzle started that followed on and off for most of the day, but aside from that I enjoyed some of the nicest riding of the trip. Prince Edward County is full of vineyards, breweries and fancy weekend cottages for rich people, so there was a bit of weekend traffic in the towns but the country roads were nice and quiet. I also got passed by three different motorcades of men with their mid-life crisis vehicles. The first was a pack of Harley-Davidsons, followed about an hour later by a seemingly endless parade of old Ford Mustangs, then finally a smaller group of Porsches. It made me a little angry that so many Baby Boomer retirement fantasies involve continuing to spew carbon dioxide into the air in a final middle finger to the future as they exit the stage.
Polluting Boomers aside, Prince Edward County really is very beautiful to ride in, and it ends with a short ferry ride from Glenora to Adolphustown which I had completely forgotten about after planning my route. Ferries are pretty rare along Lake Ontario, so this was a fun little bonus adventure.
After getting off the ferry, the road continued to follow the Loyalist Parkway, and Union Jacks became more common than Canadian flags.
Kingston is the largest city between Toronto and Montreal (I have not fact checked this but it feels right), and I had trouble finding a place to camp nearby so I ended up grabbing an AirBnB room downtown. Later I learned that there’s lots of cheap camping along the locks on the Rideau Canal, which also seems like a nice option for a future bike tour.
Day 4 – Kingston to Iroquois (78mi / 125km)
Today’s ride was the first day where it stopped feeling like summer and definitely felt like fall. Even the trees seemed noticeably more autumnal. Also the winds changed overnight – instead of a gentle tailwind blowing from west to east, I now rode into a noticeable headwind coming from the north east, which would be with me the rest of the trip.
The other big change today was that I left Lake Ontario behind and started riding up the St. Lawrence river. This was the first time I had ever seen the river, and my prior conception of it was that it was a bustling shipping channel like the Panama Canal or something. This might have been true 50 years ago, but today it’s a nice quiet river that has a few freighters on it.
For lunch I stopped in Brockville, where I hoped to find a bike shop and pick up some chain lube. Riding in the rain yesterday had washed all the lube off my drivetrain, and today it was starting to get annoyingly squeaky. Unfortunately it was Sunday and the only two shops in town I could find online were closed, but I did find a cool old railroad tunnel that was turned into a half kilometer light art exhibit. That’s a decent consolation prize.
My riding for the day ended in the town of Iroquois, which has a nice city campground near the river on the edge of a small municipal airport. The photo at the top of this post is from that campground. When I got there the office was closed, so I picked a site on the edge of the park. I was the only tent camper there, everyone else seemed to be seasonal occupants in RVs. Hours later I found out the closest RV to me had four small yappy dogs as occupants, which was worrisome. They eventually settled down and I had the best sleep of the tour, waking to the sound of a freighter’s horn blowing on the river in the morning.
Day 5 – Iroquois to Glengarry Campground (60mi / 97km)
Without a doubt, today was the most beautiful and enjoyable ride of the trip. Just about everything was perfect and at times I started considering the financial and spousal consequences of just becoming a full-time bike nomad (Verdict: tempting, but probably not worth it).
The morning’s route went through Upper Canada Village, a historical park set up to remember the ten communities that were permanently submerged when the Saint Lawrence Seaway was built. As usual, I had the 15 miles of Waterfront Trail and roadways through the park entirely to myself. I saw only one other person, an elderly man on a bike who seemed startled to see me. I also saw a fox, who did not seem startled at all and completely ignored me.
I stopped at Glengarry Campground near the town of Lancaster for my last night of camping on the trip. The only other person there was an Australian guy travelling around in a camper van, and the person working in the office gave me at least $20 worth of candy for $2 because the campground was closing in a few days and they needed to get rid of the camp store’s inventory. I highly recommend traveling at the very end of the season, if only for the candy discounts.
Day 6 – Glengarry Campground to Montreal (67mi / 108km)
I imagined today’s ride would be a triumphant victory lap into Montreal. Maybe not quite as dramatic as the peloton entering the Champs-Élysées to finish the Tour de France, but a nice way to cap off a glorious week of bike touring.
Nature had other plans.
The rain started around 4:00am, and stayed a light drizzle until the minute I put my leg over my bike. The entire morning was spent pedalling through a rain that wasn’t quite a storm, but was more than a shower. If my wife and a dry AirBnB weren’t waiting for me in Montreal, I probably would have just found somewhere to wait it out and cut the day’s mileage short. But I was motivated, and once I accepted the facts that a.) I was already wet and b.) I would continue to be wet all day, the riding actually became somewhat fun, in a “type 2 fun” kind of way.
Shortly before crossing onto the island of Montreal, I met the only other bike tourer I had seen the entire week. His name was Benoît, and he was catching the train back to Montreal instead of continuing his tour because of the weather. Just when I started to think he was being king of a wimp, he casually mentioned that his current tour started in Iraq in February and he’d ridden in over 20 countries this year. His grizzled appearance and well-worn gear verified his claims, so I started to question how wise it was for me to continue riding in the storm. But I really didn’t want to end the tour with a train ride to the finish, and I pressed on.
About 15 minutes after passing up the train ride into town I got my first flat tire in three or four years. It happened in the ritzy neighborhood of Beaconsfield, and I had an audience of two women looking out the window of a big house as I changed my rear tire on their tree lawn during a rainstorm. I’m sure they were just as entertained as I was.
Montreal has fantastic bike infrastructure, although it seems like at least 50% of it is under construction at any given time during the summer. My pre-planned route became worthless as I encountered endless “Voie Barrée – Détour” signs. The best ones were the ones that just vaguely pointed in the detour’s direction. My iPhone was mounted on my handlebar so I could look at the map and try to figure out the right way to go. Since the iPhone XS Max is supposed to be water proof I wasn’t too worried about the rain (Note: this will come back to bite me later in the story), but the falling rain drops started registering as taps on the screen, causing my routing app Komoot to start adding random destinations to my trip and completely throwing any sense of order out the window.
At this point it was storming even harder, I had soaked through all my rain gear, and all I wanted was to throw my dumb bike in the river and never speak of this trip again. I knew my AirBnB was kind of near Mount Royal, so I trudged on towards the giant glowing cross on top of the mountain that was barely visible through the clouds while everything felt much too metaphorical for my tastes.
Eventually I found some bike commuters who seemed to know where they were going, so I just followed them through downtown. Aside from a restaurant patio’s large potted palm tree that blew over in front of me and caused me to put my feet down in an ankle-deep puddle to stay upright, the ride downtown was fairly uneventful and I even got a shout of “Chapeau! Bon Courage!” from someone standing under an awning. Maybe today was more like the Champs-Élysées stage of the Tour than I gave it credit for.
You may have noticed today’s update doesn’t have any photos. After I made it to my AirBnB and dried off, I took my phone out of my pocket and noticed that it wouldn’t turn on. It turns out that when they say an iPhone is “waterproof” they mean that you can drop it in a swimming pool and pull it back out. You can’t leave it exposed on your bike handlebar in a rainstorm for a full day. Judging by the number of people in the Apple Store with me later that night, I’m not the only person who didn’t know this. Thankfully AppleCare+ came to the rescue, and I walked out with a replacement phone. The only thing I lost was today’s photos that hadn’t had a chance to back up to iCloud.
Aside from the final day, everything went about as well as I could have wished for on this trip. And even during the miserable last day, I was still able to appreciate the experience and take the challenges in stride. This was probably the last camping trip I’ll be able to squeeze in for 2019, but I definitely would like to do some more ambitious trips in 2020 as well as continue to explore Ontario and the Great Lakes region.
In fact, I’ve already bought a new Rivendell Sam Hillborne and am in the process of building up my dream touring bike. My Surly Long Haul Trucker has served me well for a decade, and I’m excited to put some kilometers under my new wheels as soon as the snow thaws.
Written by Mark Allen, who lives in Toronto and is currently open to a new product management role in Toronto or with a distributed team. Say hello on Twitter.