July 3-5, 2021
Coureur de Bois had been on my to-ride “bucket list” for a decade. Fellow Huron randonneur Terry Payne rode Coureur de Bois in 2011, and his descriptions of a challenging ride with beautiful scenery, horrible roads, and ambiguous cues convinced me that I had to do it one day! After doing my first 1,000 (Lake Ontario Lap) in 2015 and doing 1,200’s in 2018 and 2019, I realized that a 1,000 is actually much more challenging than a 1,200: With top-notch support and organized controls, the Granite Anvil was a “picnic” compared to LOL!
In addition to Terry Payne’s yarns of Coureur de Bois, my motivation for doing the ride was fed by the romance of the fur trade and French Canadian history that was taught to all children in Canadian Schools in the 1960’s (before the realities of certain events and the treatment of indigenous peoples tainted our perspectives). Perhaps more than a lot of English-speaking Ontarians, I had a fascination for rural Quebec which evolved while I was a summer student in the Gaspe in the mid-1970’s. Bicycling along the shore of the St. Lawrence River on my CCM Gran Tourismo 10-speed during that wonderful summer was, in fact, the only real cycling I’d ever done in Quebec!
Until a week before the Brevet, I expected that I might be the only rider signed up for Coureur de Bois 2021. (If it had worked out that way, I am certain that my ride would have ended in dismal failure). But on June 25, I was delighted to receive an email from Peter Grant indicating that he and JungAh Hong also intended to do the ride. Peter explained the history of the CdeB route:
“The route has been used since about 2005 and has been updated after each ride with input from our riders as well as notes sent by Quebec riders. There is a lot of Route Verte, particularly approaching and leaving Quebec City. There is more than 20km of bike paths around the city of Quebec.
Some the paths on the south shore I have ridden before on a cross Canada ride.
I remember that there were areas were bike paths were the only option for cycling, but that they could be confusing. That was true of the area where we will cross the Chaudière River just after turning west bound and leaving Quebec.”
It was a relief to know that I would not be dealing with the ride alone! I told Peter and JungAh that I would be arriving in Ottawa the day before the ride, and JungAh suggested we get together for lunch, to discuss last-minute logistics. Peter, JungAh and I were joined for lunch on a sun-drenched roof-top patio by Vytas Janusauskas, who rode the inaugural CdeB in 2005. We were cajoling Vytas to join us on the ride, which he said he would do if we paid a high enough fee!
After lunch, I headed to my Orleans Air BnB (from which I had intended to bike to ride-start the following morning). Guy Quesnel, with his usual top-notch organization skills, had arranged for car parking close to the official start, so a pre-ride to the brevet starting point wasn’t necessary and getting prepared to ride became even easier.
While “killing time” on Friday afternoon before ride day, I received an email from Vytas informing us that he and his wife Colleen had decided to provide drop-bag and meal procurement support at the two planned overnight controls! Only true randonneurs will fully appreciate what a significant commitment and “godsend” this offer presented. Peter, JungAh and I had anticipated that we would be arriving at each overnight hotel after near-by restaurants were closed, facing a mere few hours of sleep on an empty stomach. But with Vytas and Colleen procuring meals, ready and waiting in our hotel rooms on arrival, life would be good! Even better, I could plant a few cans of beer in the drop bag for my favourite form of day-end “carb loading”!!
From anticipating a “solo” ride with no support and unknown weather a week before, prospects for the ride, and the weather forecast, were definitely getting rosier!
I arrived at the ride-start parking site about 4:15 am and began to get my bike ready. There was another car at the far end of the parking lot, with what appeared to be another cyclist. I was completely focused on my own tasks so I didn’t walk over to see who it was. Guy Quesnel, and Peter and JungAh arrived a few minutes later. Guy informed us that we would have a fourth registered rider, but I didn’t recognize the name when Guy pronounced it. It was only when the “mystery rider” rolled under the light of the street lamp that I realized it was Serg Tsymbal, who I had ridden with on several brevets. In classic “rando” style, Serg had driven down from Kitchener the evening before and slept in his car!
So four riders set off promptly at 5 am, with two days of “no rain but strong North East Winds” in the forecast. Peter stormed out of the gate, setting a brisk early pace as we weaved through the streets of Ottawa suburbs into the countryside. I’m never very good at remembering specific details once the ride itself starts – geographic features, weather and road conditions, and hazards and highlights all blend together as the kilometres accumulate.
It was apparent that both JungAh and Serg were excited to be approaching their first-ever visit to Quebec. Serg wondered whether we’d be able to do a short detour to see “Montgomery Falls” (I explained it was “Montmorency”, and that I, for one, would not be joining him to see the falls!). Aside from his jacket, Serg had brought no additional clothing, having anticipated that “Quebec is warm, right?!? It’s not Manitoba!” His plan was to catch a few hours of sleep on convenient park benches under the temperate Quebec night sky. But with the brisk cool winds off the St. Lawrence River blowing in our faces, Serg readily accepted the offer to share the hotel rooms which I had booked for each night. Serg continued to talk about “Montgomery Falls” being higher than Niagara, and I realized that his mis-pronouncement probably sounded no more absurd than my own efforts to pronounce place names, or menu items at control stops! Montgomery Falls it is.
It was about 8:30 am when we crossed the bridge at Hawkesbury into La Belle Province! Apprehensions that we would encounter legendary bad roads were not immediately realized. (As Peter had indicated, much of the route in Quebec follows “La Route Verte”, which Vytas described as “roads dedicated to cycling because they are so bad that car driver’s wouldn’t want to use them!”). While we eventually did encounter some pretty bad roads, we also encountered some wonderful new sections of pavement. Overall, I won’t make an assessment on the state of roads in Quebec vs. Ontario, although JungAh, Serg, and Peter may have a strong opinion about it. As for the drivers in Quebec, we experienced a full spectrum of behaviours ranging from ultra-polite to aggressive and hostile. Unfortunately there was more of the latter, with a number of dangerous close encounters and verbal (unintelligible, to us) taunts. This was a big surprise and disappointment for me, given all I had read about Quebec’s push to be a haven for safe cycling .
For the most part, we rode traditional randonneur “accordion style”, sometimes as a group but often separated. Three of us were carrying Spot Trackers, which greatly facilitated Vytas and Colleen’s control support efforts. So when we arrived at the Travelodge in Trois-Rivieres at 10:15 pm, the Pizza and Salad we had previously ordered (along with the aforementioned drop-bag of beer) was hand-delivered to our rooms by Vytas & Colleen!
After a few hours of sleep we were back on the road at 5 am, contemplating whether we might find any quick breakfast stop before the next control at St Stanislas. Thinking the control closed at 07:28, I raced ahead of the others, only to note as I rounded the corner into the tiny hamlet that the control card said 07:48! The others rode leisurely into town a few minutes later, ahead of the control close time. Of course, the only gas station / variety in town was closed, and breakfast would be further down the road.
As we pushed on toward Quebec City, Serg and I gradually rode ahead of Peter and JungAh. Having to stop at a traffic light part way up a >10% incline, I was forced to dismount and walk. Serg, with a much lighter load and superior biking skills, was able to keep riding and got ahead of me. I had to work hard to catch back up to him as we wove through the streets of Quebec City. An extremely steep descent towards the ferry terminal was an excellent test of new V-brakes recently installed on my ancient LiteSpeed. Extensive reconstruction and detours on the bike path along the waterfront slowed us down – I expect this section will be wonderful for the next running of CdeB, after the construction is complete.
Serg and I arrived at the Ferry Terminal at 14:13 and easily found the kiosk for bike tickets. We were delighted that the Ferry was just loading when we arrived. Standing in the queue, I checked the “Follow Riders on the Road” on the Randonneurs Ontario website. It looked like Peter and JungAh were close behind, but we could not see them as our Ferry left the dock. Although Peter and JungAh were back only a few minutes, waiting for the next ferry (which was itself delayed!) put them further behind. While JungAh and Peter waited on the north shore, Serge and I were being pushed southwest, along beautiful bike paths in Levis, by a strong tail wind under a hot afternoon sun! We easily maintained a 25km/hr moving pace and arrived at the second hotel in Becancour (across the river from our first night stay) at 21:35! Again the custom food order (2 subs apiece, along with my remaining beer) had been deposited by Colleen & Vytas in our hotel room fridge. Aided by the sleep-inducing qualities of a cold tallboy, Serg crashed quickly. I couldn’t “turn off”, and waited for JungAh and Peter to arrive more than an hour after us. Unlike the hot sun and tail wind that Serg and I had enjoyed, JungAh and Peter had to deal with post-sunset cold temperatures and unhelpful still air.
With much less sleep than Serg and I, Peter and JungAh were once again ready to ride at 5 am. We covered the 72 km to Sorel by 8:06, conscious of the 8:44 control close time and 9:00 scheduled ferry departure. Riding beside JungAh towards Sorel under the early morning sun, I asked if she had any idea what “coureur de bois” was all about. It surprised me that she had no idea what the name referred to – but then, in perspective, I realized I knew nothing of her South Korean history nor the folklore of Serg’s Ukrainian heritage. I tried to explain the “Coureur de Bois” to JungAh. I also tried to teach her a song which I understood to have been popular with the Coureur de Bois, helping them to pass the hours as they paddled along. The song is “Mon père n’a plus qu’vingt-neuf poulets “, and it had been an “earworm” which I had been humming to myself for over 700 km!
As I began to sing it out loud, JungAh took out her phone to capture my poor singing, which you can watch here. Whether paddling a canoe or pedaling a bicycle, the song is a perfect anthem for Randonneuring …
Marchons au pas accéléré
Et allongeons la jambe
Et allongeons la jambe, la jambe
Car la route est longue!
(Very roughly translated,
“Step up the pace,
and stretch out your leg,
because the route is long!”)
We arrived in Sorel with sufficient time to enjoy a “grande” A&W breakfast before racing to the ferry terminal. Under bright sunshine, we enjoyed the crossing back to the north shore, and the ride south west toward Blainville.
When I had been sharing my plans for Coureur de Bois with family and friends in the days before the ride, a family member asked “don’t you have to tow a canoe full of beaver pelts, to make it a real Coureur de Bois ride?” While my heavily-laden bike sometimes made it feel like I was towing a canoe, the one experience we got to share with original Coureur de Bois was the “portage” – We encountered several serious sink-hole-induced road closures, where we were obliged to carry the bikes over treacherous paths. If I had been on my own, I probably wouldn’t have scouted out a way through these road blocks. Input from Peter, JungAh and Serg “saved my bacon”.
I should also mention my Garmin 1030. A recent software upgrade, complete with enhanced map display and directional chevrons, was supposed to make navigation easier. But on the bi-directional segments of the Coureur de Bois route, I still found the Garmin (or me interpreting the Garmin, or both) to be error-prone. On more than one occasion, Serg kept me from heading back toward Montreal as I heeded my 1030’s prompts. Whatever brand of bike GPS you use, you should spend as much time together as possible to be sure you understand each other’s limitations!
As my Garmin announced completion of each 100 km “lap”, I was pleased to see that Serg and I were more or less sticking to a 24 – 25 km/hr moving average. Vytas and Colleen texted me, indicating that JungAh had encountered problems and was thinking she might dnf. If they had to go back to pick up JungAh, they might not be at the finish to give us our drop bags (a trivial concern, as compared to retrieving a stranded rider).
After being worn down by some bad roads, ferry delays, and what she experienced as hostile treatment by Quebec drivers and some people she encountered at controls, JungAh had a flat at 893 kilometres, and discovered that her pump was malfunctioning. In her own words:
“This was my first time in Quebec except Gatineau, and I was surprised to receive such poor treatment for speaking English. I love the little chats with locals during my ride which didn’t happen during this ride. As soon as I started talking in English, their face just changed. Now I know better what to expect. I better start learning French …I just laughed at myself how I never get flats on the road but it somehow happened during my biggest ride just 100km from the finish. I guess my pump got too much rain over the years. It was rusted inside and leaking air.”
Unfortunately, Serg described his first impression about Quebec as being very close to JungAh’s.
Vytas and Colleen were able to rescue JungAh and drive back to the ride finish shortly before Serg and I arrived. We pedaled into the parking lot at 11 pm, ahead of threatened rain, to enthusiastic smiles and clapping from JungAh, Vytas and Colleen, and Guy. Peter was still out on the road, dealing with darkness and a short cloudburst. He would successfully complete Coureur de Bois exactly three hours after our arrival.
Riders who have completed PBP will tell you about the incredible range of emotions encountered as you approach the finish. For me, the Coureur de Bois finish also produced a complex emotional reaction: pride, of course, in completing a challenging course. And a sense of awe in travelling though the history of a country I love. But also a feeling of sadness, that two relatively recent immigrants (and randonneurs extraordinaires!) had a less-than-positive experience.
For me, this ride would have ended very poorly without Vytas & Colleen’s support, Guy’s coordination, Peter’s insights, and the enthusiasm and support of three fellow riders. I hope that JungAh gets back to Quebec soon (with a working pump) to experience good folk and French Canadian joie de vivre, and I hope that Serg one day gets to see the beauty of Montgomery Falls.