To be honest, I had never heard of cycling in Alma. Not even of Alma. But we stumbled upon it when we were looking for a bit of cycling along Lac St. Jean.
To make a long story short, we rented a campervan this year and visited Quebec. The original plan was to go to see my parents in the Netherlands and visit my cousin in Spain. But Air Canada cancelled our flights due to COVID-19 in March, so that was the end of our European adventure.
Instead, we rented a small RV (#vanlife!) and went hiking in several of the National Parks in Quebec. ‘National’ as in ‘provincial’, but only Canadians understand that distinction, run by SEPAQ. We decided to visit the Saguenay Fjord, which had been on our list for as long as I am in Canada. We made it to Tadoussac when I visited Karen in 1995 for the first time, 25 years ago! But we didn’t go further north.
This time, we did go further. From Saguenay Fjord, Baie Éternité to be precise, it is just a short drive to Lac St Jean, so we seized the opportunity to visit this area too. Taking into account the shorter and colder days, we figured it would be wise to book a site close to a somewhat bigger town, so that in case of rain, there is a bit of diversion.
So Alma it was. I have a weak spot for northern towns such as Sudbury, Saguenay, La Tuque and Alma, as it is so different from what I grew up with in the Netherlands. It always amazes me that after driving for hours, there is this whole community of people happily living there, or so it appears.
Veloroute des Bleuets
Lac St Jean, with its very successfully marketed ‘Veloroute des Bleuets‘, attracts apparently over 250,000 cyclists to the region in probably less than four months. The organisation behind ‘Veloroute des Bleuets’ developed a loop of around 250 km around the lake, consisting of separate bike infrastructure and on-road cycling. They have poured a lot of money in developing a very helpful booklet (look for map 3 -Alma- in this e-version), heavily supported by sponsors: a whole local industry of B&B’s and luggage transfers between B&B’s and camp sites is supporting the cycling visitors.
We decided to stay for two days as the weather wasn’t great as you can see in the pictures. The campsite was already abandoned (this was September 8), save for the seasonal campers, whose trailers often look more like small homes, with decks, garden gnomes and plastic fencing. It appears everything goes in winter mode right after the September long weekend. Some campsites are not even open anymore.
Bike rental in Alma
Alma itself appears to be somewhat of a regional centre for the area, and the city put considerable effort into building safe cycling infrastructure. We rented bicycles for two days (25 dollars per bike per day) at a place called Equinox. Initially they didn’t want to rent bikes to us, as one can only reserve on line. Well, that doesn’t really work when you are out in a National Park without reception. After a bit of back and forth talking, we were able to rent bicycles after all. I mean, why as a retailer would you say no to 100 dollars on an otherwise pretty dead day in September?
Cycling in Alma: to St Gédéon and back
We followed a 26 km route to St Gédéon, via a mix of multi use pathways, quiet rural roads, along a hydro corridor and through a sliver of a National Park. (Note this area has a brand new MUP going through the park and from what we saw, a new campsite too). It is a very nice route, that resembles parts of Ottawa’s bike landscape: a rural road, a MUP similar to Carlington Woods MUP, a bit of Ottawa Hydro corridor. You get the picture.
A longer stretch we cycled was unfortunately on a 80-90 km/h road with 2 feet wide shoulders in not great shape. The traffic is fairly heavy including sand and dump trucks passing us. Not great. Along the route, we tried to catch a glimpse of the lake which is actually quite hard along this stretch as there is mostly private property along the shores.
More backroads leading to lake
We did eventually cycle into a commercial campground to see the lake. I think if I had done more home work on Google Earth, I could have figured out a few more backroads off the ‘Veloroute’ towards the lake to enjoy the lake though. They’d be in and out though, not substituting the route.
There were not too many people cycling, I am guessing partly because it was very windy and there was a threat of rain. Still we probably saw two dozen cyclists, mostly lone men in lycra and retirees on e-bikes. The e-bike appears big here.
There is a microbrewery just off the main street in St Gédéon but we didn’t really feel like beer on that afternoon.
Urban Cycling in Alma
The next day we did a bit of an urban tour from the campsite. There is a beautiful MUP going towards town. The route runs eventually through several residential streets and then follows the river on another MUP. The river ran wild (no sighting of Meryl Streep): we understood from a local guide there was much more water than usual. The boulevard along the river has a long MUP running along it, which is well taken care off, has benches, flower and grassy patches and info panels.
Another MUP runs through an older residential area, connecting homes with a sports area (Plaines Vertes). It continues on Rue Notre Dame (new: the green line is not even on Google Maps yet) passing more residential areas. That’s the way to build urban cycling infrastructure. I should mention that the roads are unbelievably wide, about 50 ft I am guessing and those roads can definitely donate a few meters to cycling. What I really liked is that the planners here understand you have to connect your bike infrastructure.
Merci La Mie Boulangerie
We stopped for fresh bread at lovely artisan “Merci La Mie Boulangerie” (read the story in French here) and we found a really nice coffee place called “Coconut Cafe Bistro”, on 580 Rue Sacre Coeur Ouest to hang out for a bit and have lunch. And for good internet for the #vanlife folks.
Just before the rain, we dropped off the bikes and holed up in our cozy camper for the night. We felt far away at the end of the world really, but looking on the map, Alma is about as far from Ottawa as Windsor, ON is from Ottawa. In fact Alma, QC is closer.
For the record, we stayed two nights at a campground called ‘Centre de villégiature Dam-En-Terre’, a two km bike ride from Alma on a multi use pathway. I should mention that the season is pretty much over after Labour Day: Alma felt abandoned in the evening and several restaurants were closed. We ended up pretty much being the only guests at brewery Lion Blue which had some nice beers on tap.
I think with somewhat warmer weather it is likely a lovely area to spend some time. Our pictures don’t really do justice. An outfitter told us that there are house boats on the lake that you can rent and you can only get to them by canoe. That sounds like fun.
Your paragraph headed Veloroute des Bluets is most interesting since I seldom see cycling advocates get into the “business case” for spending on cycling facilities. I would love to see someone document the costs and returns of the Alma project spending, which could then serve as a template with real world data for other towns to consider. I think too much of current cycling advocacy is locked into envirodoom, climatedoom, and oppositional politics. If cycling is so good, make the case in terms that appeal to the decision makers, not just to the converted.