Montreal is an unlikely candidate for a strong bicycling culture. Its long, harsh winters blow icy winds that threaten to knock you off your bike, and the sub-zero temperatures don’t exactly invite residents outdoors. The sustained frost cracks and splinters the roads at a much faster rate than city workers can scramble to fix them, and the streets climb gradually – or occasionally quite steeply – from the banks of the Saint-Laurent to the peak of Mont-Royal.
And yet for years, Montreal has stood tall and proud as the urban cycling capital of North America. Hit the streets on any sunny day in the French-Canadian city, and you’ll see scores of bicyclists in all manner of dress, riding everything from fixies to commuters to vintage cruisers, mostly just getting from point A to point B. Bicycling isn’t unusual in Montreal in the way it is in many other North American cities. It doesn’t carve out a special identity for its partakers, nor draw the concern of family members. This isn’t to say that Montreal isn’t largely still dominated by cars, it is. But the city does have a decidedly European feel when it comes to attitudes towards biking. For many, it’s just the best way to get around.
It wasn’t always this way though. In the 1970s, an eccentric group of artists and activists styling themselves La Monde à Bicyclette began staging die-ins and elaborate public theatrics to draw attention to the perils people on bikes faced navigating the car-centric city. The media loved them for their flamboyance, and local politicians couldn’t help but take note. At the same time, and more quietly, local bike touring agency Vélo Québec was branching into campaigning and allying themselves with La Monde à Bicyclette. In 1985, the year the first bike lanes were installed in the city, Vélo Québec launched La Tour de l’Île, one part political statement and one part public celebration of cycling that would take residents and visitors around the island of Montreal on two wheels. The first, held in Autumn, was poorly attended. But the second one the following spring had 10,000 people in attendance, and the momentum has been growing exponentially ever since.
Just over 20 years later, La Tour de l’Île is going strong as one of the most well-attended urban cycling events in North America, with over 25,000 people in attendance last year. La Tour de l’Île is now only one part of a larger festival put on by Vélo Québec – Go Bike Montreal – which aims to bring all walks of life out into the streets in celebration of all things two wheels.
Riders at last year’s Tour La Nuit. Photo courtesy of Vélo Québec.
Go Bike Montreal will be taking place from May 29 to June 5 this year. It features three other events which invite people in all styles of riding to come out on their bikes. Kicking off the festival (and the local bike touring season) is the Metropolitan Challenge, taking cyclists out of the city and right off the island to explore the scenic Laurentian countryside north of Montreal. The Bike to Work Week, from May 30 to June 03, encourages new riders and current cyclists alike to challenge their coworkers – and themselves – to try a week of commuting by bike. La Tour la Nuit, on Friday, June 3 encourages festival-goers to don their brightest lights and experience the beauty of riding en masse through the city at night. And finally the Tour de l’Île, on June 5, which allows riders to choose between 25km, 50km, 60km, or 100km rides on various routes around the island, with a full 50km of carfree streets.
Vélo Québec expects 50,000 people to attend this year’s festival. As the spring settles into summer in the celebratory city, the festival is the perfect opportunity to explore all Montreal has to offer. Bike through the cobbled streets of the Old Port, past the winding iron staircases, Portuguese rotisseries, and Jewish delis of the trendy Plateau up to the old-industrial-turned-burgeoning-arts-district of Park-Ex, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Canada. Visit Montreal’s many – and well-used – urban parks, or head off to cycle around the smaller islands peppering the old Fleuve Saint-Laurent to the south of the city. Head down to Griffintown – the early home of Montreal’s many working-class Irish immigrants – then pedal out along the historic Lachine Canal to the see the boats in the water in LaSalle.
If you’ve never biked around Montreal, you have much to discover, and Go Bike Montreal is a wonderful introduction to this unique city. Registration for the festival is available online, or by by phone at 514-521-8356, ext 504, or 1-800-567-8356. For Montrealers, you can register in person at the Maison des cyclistes. Kids under 12 are admitted free to the Tour La Nuit and Tour de l’Île, although registration is mandatory, and anyone can save up to 25% off of their registration fees by reserving before April 25.