Cycling Spud Isle – Susan Weaver – Adventure Cycling

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Adventure Cycling writer Susan Weaver has written many articles for the magazine. This article discussing the variety of tours available tells of her experiences on Atlantic Canada Cycling’s Prince Edward Island Bicycle Tour.

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Cycling Spud Isle – Susan Weaver
One thing you knew you could count on in Y2K is the yearly guide to mass rides that Adventure Cyclist compiles as a service to you.  And here it is! Dive into the listings and start planning. If you believe that it’s “the more the merrier” when it comes to your favorite sport, then in these rides are for you. “I like multi-day rides and being with lots of people,” says Janet Ferguson, of Ellicott City, Maryland, about big rides like Cycle Across Maryland and The Peanut Tour in Virginia and North Carolina. Both rides attract about a thousand riders each. “We meet so many nice people! There’s an energy and an excitement. And now we’re seeing more family involvement, especially on The Peanut Tour. I like the kids,” adds Ferguson, who rides these events with her husband Bob.

“It’s fun to go into a town with lots of cyclists and sort of take over the place.” says Bill Hauda, a former marathon runner who still relishes a mass start, His organization. Bike Wisconsin. runs two events, GRABAWR and SAG-BRAW, which attract 1100 and 750 riders, respectively, So how do you pick the best ride for you? Start with an appealing destination and consider the daily distances. “Do the cycling mileages and terrain match your abilities?” asks Greg Walsh, owner of Cycle America, which runs close to 20 different rides, including Pedal the Peaks. On these trips, he’s observed that a lot of people exceed their own expectations as the energy of the group carries them along. On the other hand, Walsh cautions against trying to ride 85 miles a day in the mountains if your biggest ride to date is 30 miles on the flat.

Don’t make your choice based on price alone. Walsh believes that you get what you pay for. If meals aren’t included for example, you may spend more out of pocket for a cheaper tour where you buy your own meals,” he points out. Seek recommendations. So a handful of rides in the listing look promising? To evaluate the tour’s scenic beauty, the event’s organization, and the tastiness of the chow, ask for references to folks who’ve done the ride, suggests Bill Hauda of Bike Wisconsin.

Consider the organization’s experience. “You want to know the operator’s going to be there. If they’ve been doing it for several years, they have the kinks worked out,” figures Walsh. Paying by credit card helps protect your investment, he says, if a ride should be cancelled. Cycling for charity? “Pick a cause you believe in,” urges Chris Gagne, of the American Lung Association’s Trek Across Maine. “That makes raising money a lot easier.” Once you’ve signed on, maximize your enjoyment with preparation and the right attitude. Read the operator’s tips on getting prepared, says Gagne. Most organizers advise on training and what to take along. If you don’t own the suggested camping gear, maybe you can borrow it from a friend if you don’t want to invest in it. On the road use hand signals and be alert to riders around you. “Most of our crashes are among hikes, no cars involved,” Hauda says. Warn when you are about to pass. Don’t follow too closely or overlap wheels — other cyclists may not be as experienced as you are. Make plenty of stops during the day’s ride. Allow for serendipity and discovery, check out the towns and villages along your route. Besides, Hauda reminds us, it’s an easier time if you take breaks and flex other muscles. Be ready for rain. “I’ll guarantee everybody weather!” jokes Walsh. Pack everything in plastic. Bring rainwear. There’s a good chance you’ll get rained on. Expect to wait in a few lines, and bring your sense of humor, adds Hauda.

Imagine a crescent of rural island, 139 miles long and, at its widest, 40 miles across. A panorama of brilliant green fields, dark-bordered with firs or dotted with rounds of newly baled hay, cedar-shake barns and small white churches. The island’s periphery of red-cliffed headlands, grassy dunes, endless beaches. Tidal marshes with stilt-legged herons. Boats at mooring in tiny coves, and water azure to the horizon. Through all, a ribbon of clean road and drivers who pull over to pass. That’s Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. Too good to be true? Not in my experience. Last August, my husband Joe and cycled the roads of P.E.I. with Atlantic Canada cycling. We’d located the tour through last year’s Bicycle Events Guide in this magazine. Eager to escape a hot summer and Pennsylvania’s worst drought in 30 years, Joe and I scoured the listings for points north. Canada’s Maritime Provinces beckoned. “Never been there,” we said. “Always wanted to go.”

Big Ride vs. Commercial Tour We knew of commercial bike operators with appealing trips in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — Easy Rider, Vermont Bicycle Touring, and Backroads, among others. But the idea of a “big ride” intrigued us: More people to share the fun, Camping in scenic parks. Freedom to eat out or cook in. And, typical of the “big rides,” a bargain price, plus inexpensive shuttles for anyone flying into Halifax, Nova Scotia. We had but to choose among Atlantic Canada Cycling‘s live destinations: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton Island. As it turned out, a week-long event on P.E.I. suited our summer schedule and our ambitions: about 40 miles a day, with plenty of rolling hills. It was, we discovered, a little “big ride.” There were three leaders and 45 cyclists — from as far away as Australia, New Mexico, Georgia, Maryland and Alberta, and as close as New England and Ontario. How did it all stack up?

More is More People who go on group bike tours are my kind of people — good sports, friendly, and fairly self-sufficient. Plus they like bikes and bike travel and talking about it. What’s great about a “big ride” compared to an inn-to-inn tour is that you meet more of these people, and have more opportunities to get to know each other. Some of these chances to socialize arc planned, like campfire sings and group picnics. I was delighted the first day to see a guitar in the luggage truck. It belonged to one of our leaders, Dan Dolen, who could play. just about any song. In the warmth of firelight and new friendships, he taught us wonderful Nova Scotia sea ballads.

And the group food at camp one night: Kettles of Island Blue mussels and sweet corn, all we could eat: talk about fresh, we had seen the buoys of the “mussel farm” in St. Peters Bay as we approached the camp-ground. Some of our group helped cook, including the entire Baron family with three boys. I got a big kick out of the trio of bud-ding chefs, enthusiastically adding jalapenos to the mussel water, to see what taste sensation they might create.

Then you have the daily moments of camp life. For example, how boring is it to take a shower and dress in your private room at one of those quaint inns, versus waiting in line for a shower at a public campground, where you can chat up your fellow riders and share highlights of the day’s ride?

I’m serious. On the walk back up the hill from the washroom one morning I found a kindred spirit in Naomi Stevens, a pretty, vivacious schoolteacher from Maine. She told me how she started cycling six years ago to cope with the pain of divorce.

“I decided to get a life of my own,” she said, adding how she and three other women take weekend bike trips together, and how much fun they have. She laughed. “Now when we see somebody who seems unhappy, we say ‘Get a bike!”, Amen to that.

Pedaling To PEI
To start the tour, we’d all converged on downtown Charlottetown, the provincial capital and P.E.I’s biggest city (population: 32,500). There on a drippy Sunday morning we met our leader, Gary Conrod, who is Atlantic Canada Cycling, and his two assistants. After stowing our luggage in a rental truck, we each received the day’s map and route directions and, free to ride at our own pace, we were off.

Our route took us on lightly traveled roads counterclockwise through Queens and Kings counties as we played connect-the-dots with campgrounds where we would spend our nights: Brudenell River Provincial Park, Red Point Provincial Park. St. Peters Park, P.E.I. National Park, and Strathgartney Provincial Park.

Despite the rainy beginning, through the week P.E.I. really grew on me. It has a quiet beauty, enhanced for cyclists by a provincial ban on billboards. Much of the other commercialism I’m used to at home is also lacking. Cycling past farms, pastureland, meadows and pine forests in eastern and central P.E.I., I felt I was traveling through time to a much-less-developed Pennsylvania — if only Pennsylvania were bounded by water, with lighthouses, small harbors, and white clapboard churches that host lobster suppers daily. Roads don’t hug the irregular coast-line, but on most days we weren’t far from it.

Admittedly, the island’s scenery offers less drama than some of the other Maritimes, since elevation never exceeds 499 feet. There are no fjords as in Newfoundland, or mountain roads like Cape Breton Island’s switchbacked Cabot Trail. And the traditional cedar shake barns and houses and restored Victorian dwellings have been joined by newer structures we might see in Anywhere, U.S.A. or Canada. So the province isn’t quite as quaint as Tourism PEI might want you to believe.

That said, after a summer of drought at home, the island’s rural ambience and lush green potato fields appealed to the country girl in me. Called “The Garden of the Gulf,” little P.E.I. grows grain, hay, turnips and lots of potatoes — almost a third of the country’s spuds.

In general, on P.E.I. nature seems much closer than in the urban/suburban northeastern United States. And the province’s extensive system of scenic parks invites everyone to spend time outdoors. Each of our well-chosen campgrounds provided the modern amenities — showers, laundry facilities, and washrooms with flush toilets — that make life more pleasant for tent campers. As for Atlantic Canada Cycling, each day our affable leader, Alison McCabe, drove the support van along the cycling route, tooting hello; we gave her the familiar “thumbs up” if all was well, “thumbs down” to ask her to stop. She also managed food pickups, a very workable system that let us shop at a designated grocery store on each day’s route and leave purchases in marked bins to be taken to camp in the van,

In the evenings, Gary Conrod walked through camp, asking folks about their rides and handing out the next day’s clearly marked maps and route directions. Usually he’d suggest a few restaurant options or a point of interest. A number of us in the wash-room queue remarked, however, that we wished for more detailed tips on possible stops and attractions along the route that warrant discovery. If I take another tour with Atlantic Canada Cycling (and I’m considering it), I’ll study in advance the informative provincial Visitor’s Guide.

Vistas & Victoriana
Our “big tide” took us through three regions. In its Visitor’s Guide, Tourism PEI has exuberantly named these regions “Hills & Harbours,” “Bays & Dunes,” and “Anne’s Land,” for the beloved Anne of Green Gables, set on P.E.I. I confess I renamed days 2, 3, and 4 of our tour “Hills & Headwinds.” Put the emphasis on “headwinds,” which turned consistent gentle rollers into a work-out. Thank goodness for drafting. Oddly enough, a drizzly day with the longest hills proved my favorite. On Day 5, which our itinerary termed “most challenging,” I worried we’d be heading into a stiff breeze. But the wind died down and our route turned south into the interior, taking us through farmland that Gary says shows up on calendars all across the country.

We pedaled by shamrock-green pastures that could have been Ireland, with red barns bright dashes of color against overcast sky. Fringes of wildflowers along the road. Patches of woods. The view inched by as I’d twiddle up hills in low gear, then the glorious downhill swoop on the big ring to harness the momentum as the road climbed again.

Stopping only for a few photographs, we made good time to the suggested lunch stop at Hunter River. I was anticipating hot soup and a sandwich, and maybe some butter tarts, a cookie popular in Canada we’d been sampling at the island’s homey little bakeries.

As we parked our bikes at Knead the Dough Bakery and Cafe — surprise! — an immaculate antique “Woodie” station wagon pulled in, a ’39 Packard with matching trailer. “I want one!” Joe blurted out as we greeted the owners. “Sony,” said the driver, “only five left!”

We shared lunch with the Woodie people, Rick and Regina. They told us about the car, which they’d driven all the way from home in British Columbia, and asked about our tour. About my age, Regina looked pretty athletic.

“I wish we could do that,” she said. Something in her voice made my day.

As we continued, climbs and views and downhill rushes were the theme of the ride. In an area locals jokingly call “the P.E.I. Alps,” we chuckled to see a ski lift. Cresting a hill there somewhere we spied the waters of the Northumberland Strait off the island’s south shore and, beyond, the hazy blue outline of New Brunswick.

“Gimme five!” called Joe as I pedaled up beside him. We reached the south shore at tiny Victoria-by-the-Sea. Inviting exploration, the village is aptly named for its cluster of restored turn-of-the-century homes, some of them now boutiques or restaurants. We searched out Mrs. Proles Tea Shop in the old Orient Hotel, which, we’d been told, offers a proper English cream tea. We read the posted menu, found the prices acceptable, and stepped into the small dining room. Cheese and bread with chutney, and scones heaped with preserves and whipped cream, and tea in antique china cups stoked us nicely for the last stretch to camp. The sun was shining through the window as we paid the bill. On a hunch, I asked the owner whether she hosts bike tours at the hotel. “Easy Rider stays two days with us,” she replied. It pleased me no end that we’d sampled a bit of charm and luxury on our “big ride” on a day I call “Vistas & Victoriana.”

Stone Soup
But we were happy to head on to camp for the pleasure of a mac and cheese dinner, cooked up with new friends, Tony Walker and his daughter Suleyken, from Massachusetts. We had met the first day and shared the riding, and from the start we clicked.

That first night it had rained, a sort of Trial by Water, from the moment we pitched our tents and all night long. Seeing little choice, as there was no picnic pavilion, Joe and I had ducked into our tent with the leftover halves of lunchtime hoagies. We ate without saying much. Afterwards, Joe thought there was nothing for it but to go to sleep, so I slipped out of the tent, hoping to salvage the evening.

Nearby, under a tarp he’d strung, Tony — a real zen-of-the-moment guy — was humming and slicing onions for some pasta sauce. I joined him and then two other couples we’d gotten to know showed up under the tarp. Tony said he was making lots of pasta, and one of the couples had some potatoes they’d brought along.

I went and got Joe, and soon we were all diving into the pasta, with a chaser course of boiled potatoes. We laughed and got acquainted much better as the rain drummed on the tarp above our heads. Somebody thought of the old Russian folk tale about a soldier who made stone soup when the villagers claimed there was nothing to eat: in time one contributed a few onions, someone else a carrot, another, some potatoes …

As the week went on, occasionally one of the six of us would laugh and recall the camaraderie on that rainy night and our “stone soup.” And in the days that followed, I came to understand what brought one couple back to this “big ride’ after cycling Cape Breton Island the year before with Atlantic Canada Cycling. I was standing in the washroom (where else?) with Pam Chambers, who was tandeming on this trip with her husband
Warren. “What brought you to the Maritimes again,” I said, “when you could have gone some place different this year?” She smiled. “It was the people. The people were great.” 

To contact Gary Conrod and Atlantic Canada Cycling, call 902-423-2453. See also Events listing for further contact information.

Adventure Cycling member Susan Weaver is an Adventure Cyclist writer and the author of A Woman’s Guide to Cycling.


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