Travel Story 

From far and wide

A French cyclist shares her experiences cycling from Montreal to British Columbia

Nicole Gatignol knew Canada was big, but it wasn?t until she was on the road, cycling from Montreal to Whistler that she could appreciated how big "big" could be. It?s over 3,800 kilometres as the crow flies, but on the ground the route is decidedly less direct.

It bobs and weaves through the Canadian shield, around the Great Lakes and up to where the great plains begin. It straightens out through the prairies, but there?s a steady elevation gain of over 1,000 metres and the wind just happens to blow west to east on any given day. Then it?s the Rockies, the Selkirk and Monashee ranges of the Columbia Mountain Range, the rolling hills and heat of the Interior, and finally the Coast Mountains.

"It?s very big, and I was alone and so I felt very small," says Gatignol, a 47-year-old primary school teacher from France who made the trip to visit her brother Jean-Marc in Whistler. Jean-Marc aided Nicole with the translation. "I?ve done long trips before, but nothing like this."

Those other trips include various tours around Europe, including one from France to Spain that is de rigeur for any serious travelling cyclist on the continent.

Europe, by way of contrast, is a lot more densely populated, the towns are closer together, and the weather is far less extreme. And while Gatignol is far from being the first person to cross Canada by bicycle, she didn?t bump into a lot of other long-distance cyclists to compare notes with.

She arrived at Mirabel airport on July 1, put her bike together, strapped her camping gear to her bike, and hit her first snag ? a five kilometre stretch of highway that wasn?t designed with the cyclist in mind. After a few attempts, a man helped her onto a bus that would take her to a friendlier and less dangerous starting point.

"Every time I got into trouble on the trip, someone would stop to help me," translated Jean-Marc. "People were very friendly, and curious to know where I was from and where I was going."

Despite all the hardships, she managed to complete the trip in 37 days, averaging over 150 km a day when the conditions allowed. On some days, slowed up by mechanical problems or strong headwinds in the prairies, she would be lucky to make 50 km. On one occasion, in the middle of nowhere with a broken bicycle, she had to settle for 35 km.

But people always stopped to help. They helped her fix flat tires, invited her home for dinner, and showed her where to camp. Once, caught between campgrounds on a lonely section of highway with the sun going down, she accepted a ride to the next spot. One man gave her a Canadian flag. Another gave her a stuffed bear to use as a pillow. Yet another counselled her to follow the south shore of Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie rather than the difficult and lengthier north shore route through Thunder Bay ? if you?ve ever driven that stretch of highway, you can appreciate how big a favour this was.

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