Bike travel: fitness with a view

One of the best forms of exercise to maintain good health is cycling. Riding a bike not only gets your heart pumping but also increases leg strength, which boosts mobility and makes getting in and out of chairs and cars easier. And it’s easy, inexpensive and fun.

More and more active Canadians are looking for travel opportunities that include some form of fitness activity, such as cycling or hiking. The bonus of this type of vacation is enjoying the landscape of a destination at your own pace.

Whether the cycling adventure is a daily ride to enjoy the solitude of a bike trail near home, a weekend excursion along an interesting bed-and-breakfast route or a scenic vacation in another country, getting on a bike to see the world is definitely the way to get fit and enjoy the view. Here’s two different cycling adventures.

Of sunflowers and vineyards
by J. David Cowan

Suddenly, without warning, I was compelled to stop. I had been biking for nearly four hours and had travelled close to 30 kilometres. I stopped, not because I was tired but because I had just crested a small hill along our bike trail and found myself closing in on one of thmost beautiful vistas I had ever seen.

Light and shadow
Indeed, I was almost obligated to stop to soak it all in. Along the trail to my left were rows upon rows of sunflowers. Like a small army, they stood at attention perfectly aligned as far as the eye could see. To my right, slightly off in the distance, was our destination, a quaint little village nestled perfectly into the side of a small mountain. Typical of France’s Loire Valley, it was home to a small community that thrived on the land around it. Directly in front of me, the sun was perched on the horizon, forcing its rays through a gang of angry clouds, which was closing in on its turf. The clouds rumbled, in a desperate attempt to push the sun behind them, once or twice threatening with eerie sparks of lightning. The sun, seemingly relentless, would not back down and continued to cast its warmth on the appreciative land below. It made for a picture worthy of oil on canvas. And so there I was, flanked on either side by sunflowers and mountains, confronted by sun showers and lightning, feeling I had cycled into paradise.

I would have lingered and enjoyed the scenery, but the rest of my group was well beyond me now, and I was sure there were many similar experiences ahead.

This truly was cycling at its finest — a wonderful mix of healthy exercise and breathtaking scenery, organized by Frank Pettee, owner of Le Vieux Moulin, a charming French country cottage inn which specializes in cycling and walking tours.

Next page: Five-course meals

After spending almost five hours on a train from London, we were immediately thrown onto bicycles for our first day of cycling. After a xx-hour ride, admittedly a little tired from the trip but flushed with the exhilaration of our first day’s adventure, we returned to Le Vieux Moulin for a much-needed shower and dinner.

Le Vieux Moulin, meaning The Old Mill, is a paradise that most people only dream of finding. The inn comprises two buildings nestled against the banks of a small canal: a 17th-century structure in which grist from the mill had been stored has been converted into cosy guest suites, while the mill itself, which was built in the 14th century, is the intimate setting for dining.

Five-course meals
Our dinner that night was a succulent five-course meal prepared by Pettee’s wife and occasional chef, Coco. Pettee, a fit 68-year-old, left his guests to reflect upon their day but would often casually float by with a well-timed story. All in all, it made for a wonderfully relaxing meal, a perfect conclusion to our day

Our goal the next morning was the village of Sancerre, a Protestant stronghold in the 16th century and the site of many religious wars. Our ride today was going to be longer than yesterday’s, and I was unsure if I could keep up with Pettee, an exceptional rider and eager guide. Fortunately, he is aware of his guests’ capabilities, perhaps intuitively, and conducts his tours accordingly. We began at a gentle pace, rolling along the countryside past expansive vineyards.

Similar to the other villages in the region, Sancerre reigns near the peak of a mountain over lush lands below. We reached it by midday, perfectly timed for lunch in a local café, La Bonne Auberge. After enjoying the charming ambiance, not to mention the wonderful meal, we continued our ascent through the village to the top of the mountain where we stopped once again for a short walking tour of Sancerre’s centre, a collection of exquisite and inviting shops along narrow cobblestone streets.

On our third day, we woke up feeling rather melancholy — our last morning at Le Vieux Moulin. In three short days, I had toured one of the most famous wine regions in the world, sampled delectable French cuisine, witnessed nature’s inspirational beauty and was rejuvenated by exhilarating and much-needed exercise. It was an adventure for all ages for any level of rider and an experience not to be missed.

Next page: Conquering Confederation Trail

Conquering Confederation Trail, P.E.I.
by Laura Bryne Paquet
As I approached the lighthouse in East Point, P.E.I., on a drizzly September morning, I wondered for the umpteenth time whether I was nuts.

Earlier that summer, I had signed up for the Women’s Institute Legacy Bike Tour, a 280-kilometre, five-day fundraising ride along P.E.I.’s Confederation Trail. I’d planned to train daily all summer — but, of course, I hadn’t.

So here I was on the Island, planning to ride up to 77 kilometres a day and starting to panic. Would everyone else on the tour be a 25-year-old speed demon?

I needn’t have worried. Most of the 130 participants gathered at the base of the lighthouse appeared to be weekend riders just like me. Cotton sweatshirts were more common than high-tech Lycra gear. Most of the riders were Islanders — the best-natured folks in Canada — and they ranged in age from 12 to 82. With relief, I stopped worrying about my athletic prowess (or lack thereof) and started to enjoy the passing scenery.

Protected from wind
The Confederation Trail runs through the middle of the Island, along an old rail bed. At first, I was disappointed that stands of pine and birch often obscured the view of rolling fields and snug farmhouses, but I soon developed a deep appreciation for trees.

Trees provided welcome shade on the second day of the tour, when the mercury edged near 30 degrees. Trees muted the effect of the driving rain that dogged us on day four, as we struggled through the remnants of Hurricane Gustav. But mainly, trees blocked the wind. And for that, I loved them as I have never loved trees before.

I also developed a deep affection for Islanders. School groups turned out along the route to cheer us on. Nursing homes and service clubs opened their doors to us, and legions of Women’s Institute members fed us. Hundreds of people put us up in their homes. In fact, the hospitality was so unrelenting that I gained five pounds on the trip.

A group triumph
Five days after we left East Point lighthouse, our little band — aching, wet but immensely proud of ourselves — rolled along a coastal road that links the end of the trail to North Cape. An RCMP cruiser led the way, siren wailing. Periodically, a cheer rippled down the line of riders. We’d helped each other through the rain and the humidity, and learned each other’s stories during long chats on the trail. Our victory in reaching the end was sweeter because we’d earned it together.

Shortly after 5 p.m., I slapped my hand against a black-and-yellow caution sign. This was the end of the road. Beyond the sign, the Gulf of St. Lawrence crashed against a rocky coast.

I’d done it. But riding such a distance turned out to be less satisfying, in the end, than discovering the Island in such an intimate way. The red P.E.I. mud was ground into my shoes, and the generous P.E.I. soul was lodged in my heart.

I clambered off my bike and whooped for joy. I may not have set any land-speed records, but I hadn’t been nuts after all.