Cycling: Niagara’s Lush Splendour

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 1,700 riders roll through verdant

countryside in 21st Grand Tour

The hill leading into the pretty Niagara Peninsula town of Waterford is not long, but it is steep

and cyclists are climbing it slowly.

About half way up, a woman in front of me is having trouble gearing down and she stalls.

She can’t clip out of her pedals and topples over. The guy in front of me stops and helps her to get back on the bike. And off they go – she in the right gear now.

A friendly helping hand – cyclists coming to the rescue of other riders – is all part of the protocol on the Grand Tour run by Vélo-Québec, the big and well-oiled cycling group that has brought a popular cycling ethic to Quebec, organized a cycling network spanning 5,000 kilometers and organizes trips in many parts of the world.

This is the 21st Grand Tour – the third for some of us in our group including me – and for past several years it has had the high-powered sponsorship of the Desjardins credit union movement, the biggest in Canada.

This year’s edition of the Grand Tour has mapped out a six-day circuit of the Niagara Peninsula covering 600 kms taking us past farms lush with vegetables and fruits – including corn and peaches – just coming into full ripeness.

We also pedal along the north shore of Lake Erie on a newly inaugurated cycling route that has been a big boost for cycling in Ontario.

Our first day takes us from Hamilton through the Six Nations Reserve, the largest aboriginal community in Canada, with the police force and fire department out in force to provide safe crossings at intersections.

We end our first day at the Norfolk County Fairgrounds in Simcoe where Vélo-Québec establishes the village to serve the cyclists. It consists of a beer tent (very popular), a cycle repair shop (very important) and a Keurig coffee shop serving espresso and lattes etc. (absolute necessity). They are in close proximity to the arena where meals are served to the 1,700 cyclists and the community pool, named after Annaleise Carr, youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario at age 14 when she did it in 2012.

Beyond the village are several acres of fields where participants set up their tents for the night. Gear including tents, clothing bags and even folding chairs (as in the case of my five friends and me) are packed in duffle bags which are transported from village to village each day by large transport trucks.

I find my bag and then a volunteer to drive it in his pickup truck to the spot where my friends have their tents. After setting up, I head for a shower and we meet in the beer tent for a well deserved libation. Strangely, everyone else seems to have the same idea and the beer tent is overflowing.

Later, we move over to the arena where dinner is served cafeteria style, quite a production considering the number of hungry people. On this night the menu consists of gazpacho soup and baked salmon.

Considering that the tour is a moveable feast, the meals are good with a rotation for breakfast of omelets, quiches and pancakes served with bacon and sausages, fruit and coffee (I opt for a capuccino as do my friends). Lunch is a sandwich or wrap with crudités, fruit  and juice at the halfway point each day.

Day 2 is a circuit through Norfolk County (and back to Simcoe) where we see fields covered in mesh indicating a ginseng crop is maturing. At one time, this was an important growing area for tobacco drawing seasonal workers from all over Quebec and Ontario.

We see some fields of Norfolk leaf, but the tobacco has been replaced by other crops including vineyards. As we cycle beside Lake Erie, we pass two and one has a big sign saying “Bienvenue Vélo-Québec.”

At the end of the hot day, I head directly to the beer tent for a cold one. Despite drinking a lot of water, I am very thirsty.

On Day 3, I get up before 6 a.m. (when the cafeteria opens) and head for the shower. This is the longest day and we cover 122 kms on the way to Welland – doing much of it on the Waterfront Trail inaugurated last year on the north shore of Lake Erie.

Day 4 takes us past Niagara Falls and I cannot overstate the grandeur of this phenomenon. The falls are spectacular.

We end up at Firemen’s Park with its beautiful grounds and many trees. The volunteer who drives my bag to our tent site mentions he’ll be doing a beer run shortly. “Count me in,” I say.

Early in the tour, I renewed acquaintance with Benoit Portelance, whom we first met during a Vélo-Québec tour in Cuba a few years ago. He’s an encadreur on the trip – meaning he is a volunteer helping cyclists through intersections and fixing flats, among other duties.

Now I meet Daniel Desroches another veteran from the Cuba trip He’s camping beside us.

Daniel came to my aid in Havana when I stopped to fix my handlebars. In doing so, our group sped ahead of us and we had to navigate through Havana without the benefit of a guide. He did all the communicating, landing us a temporary guide and we followed his car for about 15 kms until we turned off to our destination about 5 kms further on.

I ask him whether he wants to take part in the beer run and he answers in the affirmative. It’s a little bit of payback for helping me in Havana.

Numerous wineries

The village is 2.5 kms away and V-Q has set up a shuttle service so it’s easy to get back and forth.

We spend two nights here with Day 5 being a rest day meaning we pedal only 50 kms to Niagara-on-the-Lake and back, passing numerous wineries.

We stop at a vineyard and a couple of guys order several bottles of wine to be shipped to a supermarket in Ottawa. I peruse the offerings and notice a Sauvignon Blanc costing $19. I consider it briefly and choose not to make an order.

Instead, three of us stop at an LCBO store in Kingston the day after the tour ends and I buy the same bottle for $14 along with several other bottles.

Day 6 starts with a long glide down the Niagara escarpment and we cycle to Grimsby for lunch. Then we have to climb up the escarpment for the final leg of the trip to Mohawk College in Hamilton where we started.

I click into low gear at the bottom and go as slowly as possible, making it to the top of the hill of 1.2 kms without burning out or getting off my bike, although others are doing it (including one in our group, I find out later). It’s my usual strategy for climbing slopes and it has served me well.

It’s a strategy I developed on my first Grand Tour 10 years ago after failing to get all the way up a hill on the way to Rimouski.

I vowed never to get off my bike again on a hill. The promise has been kept except for a steep mountain bike track in the Lower St. Lawrence.

It costs me a beer, which I pay myself, every time I complete a climb up a hill, but I figure the price is worth it.

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