Montreal is notorious for its traffic congestion, but this is surreal. After rolling for a few seconds, my wife and I have come to a dead stop. Hemmed in on all sides, a stream of red taillights stretches ahead as far as we can see. Instead of the rumble of idling cars and irate honking, however, all we can hear are cheerful conversations, a chorus of tinkling bicycle bells and dance music blasting from the balconies and stoops that line the street.
We’re visiting from Ottawa for the annual Go Bike Montreal Festival, and after gladly bidding our van adieu for the weekend at a downtown hotel, we pedalled to nearby Parc La Fontaine for the beginning of Tour la Nuit – a 22-kilometre-long party on wheels that loops through four boroughs on roads that are closed to motorized vehicles.
Surrounded by a sea of bodies and bikes adorned with glow sticks and twinkling decorations a couple hundred metres from the starting line under a peach and crimson Friday sunset, we’re jammed in traffic that can actually lower your blood pressure. More than 18,000 people are doing the night ride this year, including a parade of families with children, and half the fun is hitting the brakes and soaking up the scene.
Beyond the festival, this stop-and-go mindset sums up cycling in Montreal. The city added more than 350 kilometres of bike lanes during the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding its network to nearly 1,000 km, which means there’s a kaleidoscope of routes to explore. Problem is, you’re going to want to hop off and hang out in so many places, you may not get very far.
The Tour la Nuit and another car-free ride, Sunday’s 36-km Tour de l’Île, are a great way to sample the city’s lively neighbourhoods and myriad pedalling possibilities. But really, you can’t go wrong with a copy of the local bikeways map, a water bottle and a sense of adventure. ”You see the city at a human scale when you’re on a bike,” says Jean-François Rheault, the CEO of Vélo Québec, the provincial cycling non-profit that organizes Go Bike Montreal. “That’s why more and more people want to ride when they’re here on vacation. When you’re away from cars, there are people and life on the streets.”
Rheault’s words echoed in my ears as I wheeled around the city all weekend on a mix of on-street bike lanes and multiuse paths. Whether cruising along the Lachine Canal, where picnickers dot the surrounding green space, or sailing down a gentle slope on the new Rue St. Denis bike expressway, tempted to stop at every café and pub I saw, I had a completely different Montreal experience than on dozens of previous trips.
Even the city’s industrial heritage – the mammoth shipping terminals and crumbling graffiti-covered factories that flank the St. Lawrence River – looks enchanting when you can feel the breeze and know that a snack or a drink are just a few dreamy minutes away.
Cycling tours for every age and stage
Family Route: Old Port
Begin on the bike path at the northern end of the Old Port, where a series of piers jut out into the St. Lawrence, and be prepared to stop frequently for kid-friendly activities. Hit Clock Tower Beach, then the playground, maybe the Grande Roue Ferris wheel, and then grab a bite on a patio in nearby Old Montreal. Go early to avoid the throngs of tourists and locals. Public washrooms abound and drivers typically stop to let cyclists cross the street – important considerations when you’re with little riders.
Casual Cyclist Route: Lachine Canal
Start at Atwater Market, near the northeastern terminus of the canal, to stock up on snacks for your panier. Then set out along the waterside paved multiuse path for a 35- to 40-kilometre roundtrip through some of Montreal’s hippest neighbourhoods, including Point Saint Charles, a formerly industrial pocket that’s been transformed since the canal reopened as a recreational hotspot 20 years ago. Take a break at the Messorem brewery or the adjacent aptly named café, Dreamy, and then continue all the way to Parc René-Lévesque on a finger of land that pokes out into the St. Lawrence. Bonus: the prevailing winds come from the west, so your ride back should be smooth.
Intrepid Cyclist Route: The Big Loop
St. Helen’s Island and Île Notre-Dame, which are connected to the Old Port by bike lanes, make a perfect launching point. Circumnavigate both – savour the smooth pavement on the Formula One racetrack on the latter – and then cross the St. Lawrence. Hang a right onto the Petite Voie du Fleuve, a crushed-gravel trail on a narrow strip of land, and then cross back to Montreal on the Estacade du pont Champlain, an even narrower, two-km cyclist and pedestrian bridge. Do an out-and-back along the Lachine Canal, then tackle the steep climb up Mount Royal – and enjoy a fast descent to the Rue St. Denis bike path. It will take you northeast through a pair of bustling neighbourhoods, Mile End and Little Italy, to the Jean Talon Market, where the aromas and your appetite will merge into a blissful finale.
The author was a guest of Vélo Québec, which did not review or approve this article prior to publication. Cycling maps are available at Vélo Québec’s La Maison des cyclistes, a biking boutique/travel agency/café beside Parc la Fontaine.
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