SAINT-JEROME, Quebec -- Cyclists who want to experience Quebec's vibrant autumn have a wealth of choices, maybe too many. Deciding where to go is like standing at the counter at Les Chocolats Favoris in the town of Levis, where you have to pick from a dozen pots of fine melted chocolate for your ice cream dip.
All the offerings look sweet. But you can't have them all.
Quebec's 3,000-mile bicycle network, La Route Verte, has attracted plenty of buzz since National Geographic named it the world's top cycling destination in 2007. But who's got time for 3,000 miles? Most cyclists will want to plan a trip for a few days or a week, and that takes some legwork.
My legwork unfolded over months, scrolling through goofily translated French-to-English web pages in search of useful information. It culminated with rides on two distinct routes in late summer: the P'tit Train du Nord (Little Train of the North) rail trail, running for more than 100 miles north of Montreal; and a staggeringly beautiful stretch along the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City east toward the Gaspé Peninsula. This route is also a compelling trip by car.
Route Verte, or "green way," is a carefully managed network of off-road trails, dedicated bike lanes and quiet country roads, sometimes linked by moderately busy roadways with decent shoulders -- nothing too hair-raising in my experience. Its routes have shuttle services, and accredited establishments are obliged to offer healthy, hearty food, safe storage for bikes and access to repairs and shelter. Inspectors come around to check on that. It's about as close to being coddled as self-supported cycling gets.
The P'tit Train du Nord journey went down smooth and easy -- call it the milk chocolate dip. About half is paved, the rest fine-crushed stone. Towns pop up where you need them as you sweep past placid lakes, rushing waters and mixed stands of hardwood and softwood forest.
The St. Lawrence is more intense, an explosion of garden flowers, wildflowers, dramatic river vistas, commanding churches in storybook villages and gastronomic adventures. Call it the Classique Noir dip of the ice cream shop.
In both areas, it's hit and miss trying to converse in English in small towns or rural areas, though easier in cities and at tourist attractions. But efforts by visitors to try even a bit of tortured French are welcomed. A look at the two routes:
P'TIT TRAIN DU NORD (designated Route Verte 2): Organic produce and gourmet cheese are a mission in Quebec, bordering on obsession in some parts. This may be a form of atonement for the ubiquitous French-Canadian dish poutine, consisting of fries, gravy and cheese curd, sometimes cooked in lard and altogether known as a heart attack in a bowl -- though I survived my taste of it on the eve of my departure from Saint-Jerome, outside Montreal at the southern end of the trail.
The typical way to cycle the entire P'tit Train du Nord is to take a three-hour shuttle from Saint-Jerome on the southern end to Mont Laurier at the northern end and bike back over three days. I got off the shuttle at Lac-Saguay, 20 miles short of Mont Laurier, so I could do the trail in two days.
A gentle downhill slope, pavement and well-spaced amenities -- notably cafes and craft shops in restored former railway stations -- made for an easy 40-plus miles on the first day. The route is lined with pristine wooden outhouses.
That's right, I said pristine outhouses. Fresh as a daisy.
I stopped at a B&B in La Conception, called L'Achillée Millefeuille, where for $5 each the proprietor will drive cycling guests to the nearby resort town of Mont Tremblant, drop them by some fine restaurants and retrieve them a few hours later. Guests who want to remain on the charming grounds of the B&B can purchase a locally made meat or vegetable pie and heat it up onsite. The B&B also serves a spectacular breakfast.
Day Two called for 60 miles of cycling, with asphalt giving way to dirt, and an unexpected climb spanning 10 miles, mild but persistent. Once over that hump, it was all pretty much downhill to the colorful arch marking the trail's terminus at the Saint-Jerome train station.