QUEBEC CITY TO SAINT-JEAN-PORT-JOLI (part of Route Verte 1, along the St. Lawrence River): A three-hour drive from Saint-Jerome put me in Levis, with time to visit Quebec City across the river. A $5 ferry provides an efficient and scenic way to reach Old Quebec and its astonishing architecture, murals and shops -- no car necessary.
Levis has a few charms of its own. A paved riverside path looking out on Quebec City provides two lanes for cyclists and one for pedestrians. In the testy world of biker-walker relations, this is the height of civilization. And Les Chocolats Favoris is the pulse of Levis, single-handedly transforming the town center into a swarm of chocolate-seeking socializers into the night.
From Levis east, Route Verte puts cyclists on Route 132, an intermittently busy road with good shoulders that parallels the Trans-Canada Highway, which soaks up most traffic. Route 132 is not particularly joyful to bike in this area, though it feels safe enough. It has some saving graces, however.
For one, it connects cyclists with a succession of quietly stunning villages hard by the river (look closely for the Route Verte signs taking you off 132 or you might miss them).
In places like Saint-Michel, Saint-Vallier and Berthier-sur-Mer, you are cycling on shady lanes past delightful homes in bright colors, not a scrap of litter anywhere. The pride of place and culture is powerful in Quebec. The ever-widening river -- 12 or so miles across in these parts -- opens up a vast horizon rimmed by shadowed mountains on the distant shore.
The other appeal of this route is its close proximity to a network of back roads in the high country farther from the river but still within sight of it. Here, you look out over meadows and farmland, with almost no cars, cycling past barns that are a form of folk art.
On a stretch outside Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, a lively town that is the heart of Quebec's wood-carving tradition 60 miles from Levis, the vistas are so arresting it can be hard to make progress on a bike. Every stretch seems to have something worth stopping for and savoring.
My ride ended at Joli. But Route Verte 1 goes on and on, into ever-wilder lands of Quebec's Gaspé region, where the river becomes impossibly wide, saltier, progressively more like the sea -- until it becomes the sea.
So is Quebec worthy of the world's best biking destination?
The Little Train of the North pulls its weight as an enticing bike trail, probably better than the St. Lawrence for families and anyone who doesn't want to mess with a single car while on the bike. For American cyclists, though, there are equally terrific rail trails that may be closer to home.
Route Verte 1, however, is surely in a league of its own. Its farther reaches will be what draw me back, with a pit stop, of course, for Levis ice cream, if the poutine doesn't put me away first.
Want to go?
LA ROUTE VERTE: 3,000-mile bike network in Quebec; www.routeverte.com/rv/
P'TIT TRAIN du NORD: Route Verte 2, running 100 miles-plus north of Montreal. Take Autobus Le P'tit Train du Nord from Saint-Jerome to the northern end at Mont Laurier (or points in between) and bike back, until mid- or late October, $65, reservations required, 450-569-5596 or 888-893-8356, or http://autobuslepetittraindunord.com/. Bike rentals and luggage delivery to B&Bs along the way available for a fee. Saint-Jerome is reachable from Montreal by public transit, or drive to Saint-Jerome and leave your car at the train station for $6 a day, free on weekends.
QUEBEC CITY TO SAINT-JEAN-PORT-JOLI: Part of Route Verte 1, running along the St. Lawrence River. For families or less-experienced cyclists, consider a series of day trips by driving to various villages from Levis to Kamouraska and biking on quieter roads than Route 132. Long-distance cyclists can start in Quebec City, bike east along the river for days, and get back to the city on buses, which accept bicycles; www.orleansexpress.com/Search.aspx.