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Vermont two-wheelers take pedal power to Montréal


Published June 6, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.

One hundred-plus Vermont cyclists, their helmets festooned with gauzy green ribbons, composed a colorful contingent pedaling along car-free Montréal streets in the annual Tour de l'Ile last Sunday.

"It was so cool to ride on four-lane roads and feel we're just taking over," said Patty Hallam of Middlebury. "Bikes ruled that day!"

For Hallam and the other participants in this year's VerMontréal bike tour, the ramble round a celebrating city marked the last leg of a three-day ride that pushed off from Snow Farm Winery in South Hero. The 99 registered riders and about a dozen volunteers rolled toward Montréal on rural roads in the Champlain Islands and on a north-south network of bike paths, foot bridges and a ferry in Québec. The tour was organized by Local Motion, a Burlington-based bicycling advocacy group.

"This thing is really growing," Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said the day after completing the 100-mile ride to Montréal and the 30-mile Tour de l'Ile. Sorrell noted he had just emailed that same message to Tom Torti, head of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "I told him the chamber needs to get involved. There are huge possibilities because of Vermonters' concerns about global warming and the chamber's concerns about tourism and economic development. Biking is good for you, good for the environment, good for the economy," Sorrell said.

Less than half as many bikers took part in the first VerMontréal excursion three years ago. And the ride could reach "major and special" dimensions two years hence as a centerpiece of the 400th-anniversary celebrations of the European discovery of Lake Champlain, says Local Motion director Chapin Spencer.

By then, communities all around the lake will have become more aware of the Champlain region's biking opportunities, Spencer predicts. Local Motion sponsors the VerMontréal tour mainly to "ignite the imaginations of Vermonters regarding long-distance cycling," he says.

The Québec portion of the tour, including the mass ride through Montréal, "shows Vermont has a lot to learn" from its bike-friendly neighbor to the north, Hallam suggests. The 3000-mile cycling route criss-crossing Québec "really does make it possible to get around exclusively on your bike," she observes.

Sorrell offers a similar assessment. "You can see that biking is much more part of their culture than ours," he says. "The Tour de l'Ile is such a great event, but Montréal is always a good place for biking, and many people in the city take advantage of that."

While Local Motion and similar groups have greatly improved cycling experiences in parts of Vermont, riders in the Burlington area must still pedal uncomfortably close to cars on shoulder-less stretches of Spear and Dorset streets and on Williston Road. In-town biking can be treacherous elsewhere in the Champlain Valley, too. "Middlebury's not a big place, but the traffic pattern makes it kind of intense for bikers," Hallam notes. "Riding on Main Street can be a little tricky."

Last weekend, however, the riding was free and easy on the pancake-flat route from South Hero to downtown Montréal. Mild temperatures and mostly sunny skies provided the riders - many of them second- or third-timers - with an enjoyable contrast to the raw wind and driving rain on the second day of last year's event.

Cyclists moving at various speeds were led and tailed by Local Motion volunteers and accompanied by a motorized "sag wagon" as they covered Friday's 65-mile section of the tour. After crossing into Canada at the sleepy Alburg border station, the tour followed Velo Québec's Route Verte bike trail to what Spencer describes as "the unrecognized and wonderful city of St. Jean sur Richelieu." Riders who never get enough could bike along St. Jean's canal path to historic forts and center-city restaurants. The $329 price of this year's VerMontréal tour included an overnight stay at Auberge Harris, a riverbank inn catering to bike tourists.

The second day consisted of a 35-mile ride through more densely populated areas along the well-protected Route Verte, culminating in a bike-ferry crossing of the St. Lawrence River. Cyclists generally completed this leg of the tour by early afternoon, allowing time for lunch at Atwater Market and additional pedaling on Montréal's extensive bike-path system. After dining at one of the city's French, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, African or North American-style restaurants, the Vermonters spent Saturday night at the luxury-class Plaza Hotel on Rue Sherbrooke.

Sunday morning, the festive group assembled at the starting point of the Tour de l'Ile near the forlornly soaring tower of Olympic Stadium, former home of the Montréal Expos. About 30,000 other riders also traversed the shoreline loop around Montréal's eastern perimeter, rolling through neighborhoods seldom visited by U.S. tourists and stopping at parks stocked with refreshments and staffed by bike mechanics. Volunteers posted near sharp turns shouted warnings in French, while costumed performers along the route drummed, juggled and strutted on stilts. Spectators on balconies and sidewalks yelled encouragement to riders of all ages and many colors.

The Vermont delegation was actually more homogeneous, age-wise, than was the Tour de l'Ile as a whole. Spencer notes that the 99 riders ranged in age from mid-twenties to late seventies, but averaged somewhere in the mid-fifties.

Why so gray?

One reason, Spencer suggests, is that "baby boomers enjoy the active-vacation concept." And those who seek to combine exercise with sight-seeing are more likely to take part in a low-impact sport like biking, rather than running or climbing, as their knees get wobbly and their backs cramp up.

Sorrell, for example, was a regular runner until he underwent hip-replacement surgery a few years ago. At age 60, he now bikes at least 50 miles a week in good weather and completes two or three century (100-mile) rides each summer.

"People love the VerMontréal tour," Spencer adds, "because it's got the right amount of socializing, riding and scenic-cultural attractions."

Bikers typically ride in small groups, chatting as they pedal along at an undemanding pace of about 10 miles an hour. "I rode with a few people for a while, then maybe by myself for a couple of miles, then with another group of people," recounts Greg Gerdel, research chief for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.

Despite the generational uniformity, Gerdel, 60, views the tour as "quite a mélange." Riders who aren't retired hold a variety of jobs - mostly as professionals - and exhibit "a variety of body types," he remarks.

Other riders describe the VerMontréal tour in terms of what it is not.

To Sorrell, the "very eclectic crowd isn't a bunch of hippies out on their bikes." A few moments later, he says of the tour, "It's not just an elitist thing with people in Lycra riding $3000 bikes."

Pat Murtagh, Chittenden Bank's South Burlington branch manager, offers yet another perspective, saying the 100-mile ride shows "there's a lot more to this sport than the Mary Poppins thing, with a basket on the front of your bike."

The Tour de l'Ile completed, the Vermonters pedaled from the Parc Maisonneuve finishing point back to their hotel roughly 3 miles to the west. Those who had looped the loop in three or four hours had time to shower before boarding buses (biodiesel, of course) for the return journey to South Hero.

Back home, most of the riders will probably act as unofficial public-relations agents for Local Motion, the VerMontréal tour and biking as a form of transportation. Which is just what Spencer intends.

"The more Vermonters take part in long-distance biking, the more we'll be able to build a network of trails in the northwestern part of the state," he says. The area's existing network includes the Champlain Bikeway, a 360-mile on-road loop around the lake; the 93-mile Lamoille Valley Rail-Trail; and the Burlington bikeway now extending through Colchester and onward by ferry to the Champlain Islands. These trails "all show what has been done and what can be done," Spencer declares. "What we've got here for biking is a diamond in the rough that's about to glisten."