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With the last traces of daylight fading away, 6,000 cyclists gathered last June at Montreal's Parc de Lafontaine, a couple of blocks from the tony boutiques of rue St-Denis. In typical Montreal fashion, there was plenty of laughter among perfect strangers. Summer salsa oozed from loudspeakers. And finally, just after 9 p.m., the starter's countdown rang out, and we were off.

This was my initiation into the Féria du vélo, an annual bike festival that starts today and runs until June 6, and ignites the urban island with activities for cyclists of all ages and abilities. And the dozens of participants I met -- from all over Quebec, from New York and even from Milan -- confirmed that Montreal is their favourite biking city in North America.

The appetizer of my Féria weekend was an event called Un Tour la Nuit, a 20-kilometre nocturnal course through closed-off streets in residential and commercial neighbourhoods in the east end.

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It's a ride, not a race, so after the initial burst, everyone settled into his or her own rhythm. The course was impeccably organized, with clearly marked routes and loads of friendly volunteers. En route, children clutching ice-cream cones ran along the sidewalks and cheered. Grandparents watched from Montreal's trademark outdoor staircases, calling out encouragement: Vas-y! Lâchez pas! (Come on! Don't give up!). Firefighters on rue St-Catherine had set up an invigorating spray station. And there were no impatient drivers anywhere.

The highlight for me was crossing from the decrepit grandiosity of Olympic Stadium into the Botanical Gardens and their darkened grounds. We swept through the lush, sweet-scented foliage like fireflies, the route illuminated only by fluorescent twist-ties riders had used to decorate their spokes and handlebars, and by the thousands of flickering red helmet-lights given to each participant.

I'm not much more than a leisure cyclist, so the next morning my body was telling me that the ride was a shade more than what it was used to. It was so tempting to retreat under the duvet in my room at the Gîte Boulanger bassin, the bed and breakfast where I was staying, just minutes from the Parc de Lafontaine.

But the smell of fresh-baked pain au chocolat wafting up from the kitchen snapped me out of sleeping-in mode. Innkeeper Ken Ilasz, a former Toronto filmmaker, had also trained as a pastry chef and his breakfast spreads would be right at home in Gourmet magazine: homemade Belgian waffles under a Cézanne-like display of fresh fruit; croque-monsieur dripping with three cheeses; chewy St-Viateur bagels that Ilasz picked up at 6 a.m. (by bike, of course) topped with his own gravlax. And as many cups of steaming espresso as you can take. In short, perfect fuel for another day of cycling.

The B & B was located, right on one of the city's main bike paths, an enviable urban network that crisscrosses the city with two-way lanes separated from road traffic by a raised curb. Imagine cycling through the heart of a metropolis with no worry of car doors flattening you like a bug on a windshield.

Knowing that the next day I would tackle the Féria's pièce de resistance -- a 45-kilometre tour of the island that brings together 30,000 cyclists on a different course each year -- I decided to spend a relaxing day exploring the bike paths along the Lachine Canal. In fact, this is where the 2004 edition of the Tour de l'Île - celebrating its 20th anniversary -- takes place on June 6. Within 15 minutes (and following a pit stop for picnic fare at Olive & Gourmando, a favourite bakery-café in Old Montreal), I was rolling along the canal. This once run-down industrial neighbourhood has undergone a remarkable renaissance, with modern lofts and studios now overlooking the tranquil waterway.

Behind me, I could see Montreal's skyline. But bearing straight ahead, passing through two rows of poplars, I was transported to rural France. It was like cycling into the beloved Elliot Erwitt photograph of the bereted father cycling down a lane with a little boy riding behind, a baguette under his arms.

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Snapping out of this reverie and back into the 21st century, I realized I had already arrived at the Atwater Market, where there was all the triple-cream brie, croissants and picholine olives I could eat. The great thing about getting ready for a 45-kilometre ride is how easy it is to justify the extra calories.

Get packing

The 2004 Féria du vélo starts today and runs until Sunday, June 6. For more information and to register, call (514) 521-8687 or 1-800-567-8356, or visit velo.qc.ca.

The 23-kilometre Un Tour la Nuit will be held June 4. The 45-kilometre Le Tour de l'Île takes place June 6.

BIKE RENTALS AND RESOURCES

Le vélodidacte: 4468 rue Brébeuf; (514) 522-5499.

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La Maison des cyclistes: 1251 rue Rachel Est; (514) 521-8356. Offers cycling information, a boutique and café.

WHERE TO STAY

Gîte Boulanger bassin: 4293 rue Brébeuf; (514) 525-0854; http://www.bbassin.com.

WHERE TO SHOP

Olive & Gourmando: 351 rue Saint-Paul Ouest; (514) 350-1083;

http://www.oliveetgourmando.com.

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