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Great Canadian gravel

Riders from eight regions across the country reveal the best bumpy routes

by Dean Campbell

Canadians looking to get off the paved path have no shortage of gravel options. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice. The challenge isn’t so much finding an unpaved route, but to pick a great one. Not only must it have a mix of good surfaces and challenging conditions, but great views as well. You’ll need to keep fuelled, so cafés, bakeries, general stores and breweries factor into the making of a great gravel route. And shouldn’t the degree of adventure also be a consideration? Yes. Yes, it should.

Here, experts from across the country give you the skinny on riding not-so-skinny tires in their regions. You’re sure to find just the place to head to this summer for an excellent adventure.

Bring your climbing legs to Newfoundland

If you are heading out to enjoy the mountain views on the west coast of Newfoundland, be prepared. “Newfoundland is pretty sparse when it comes to places to stop for food,” says Peter Ollerhead, owner of Cycle Solutions bike shop and Brewed Awakening coffee shop, both in Corner Brook, N.L. “You’re best to bring food with you.”

The opportunities to stop and enjoy the scenery are just about endless, though, no matter which way you go from town. Ollerhead recommends heading north toward Gros Morne National Park if you’re ready for a tough ride. In 110 km, you climb 2,100 m over two Class 3 and two Class 4 climbs. “You’re either going up or going down,” Ollerhead says.

The route covers a mix of gravel and sand road surfaces, and favours a wider tire. Last year, Ollerhead did the route in late June and had to walk sections in the mountains thanks to as-yet-unmelted snowpack. This isn’t just a gravel ride, but an adventure ride. Have someone pick you up in Gros Morne. If you still have the legs, check out the sights in the park before grabbing a coffee and snack at one of the cafés in Woody Point.

You can also head south from Corner Brook toward Stephenville along the Serpentine Valley. You’ll have plenty of elevation gain as you pass by the Blow-Me-Down Mountains and Lewis Hills. The best times to ride fall between June and late September, but not too late as the rains will start to dominate the weather.

Coffee and crusher stone in Halifax

When Andrew L’Esperance isn’t chasing down the world’s best on the cross country World Cup circuit, the Norco racer often gets in training miles on gravel routes all over Canada. Originally from Halifax, L’Espy is quick to name his favourite gravel ride in the region.
“It’s easy to find a good mix of rail trail and crusher stone, as well as gravel and a bit of pavement. Any ride heading out from Halifax should include a stop at the Bike and Bean,” he says of the popular destination for cyclists in nearby Tantallon. The café, in the historic French Village train station, has been around for more than 10 years.

Once you’ve fuelled up, L’Espy suggests heading farther along the trail leaving town for an out and back. Or you could take gravel roads inland. Consider riding south to Peggy’s Cove, just a little more than 20 km from Tantallon.

Bikes and beer in Fredericton

Fredericton can fly under the radar, but it really shouldn’t. This Maritime town straddles the St. John River. Galleries, bakeries, cafés and breweries pepper the place. The best way to see them is by bike. “I’d recommend starting off a ride on the bike paths in the city,” says Jane McKeown, organizer of Gravel Grind Fredericton. “There’s a lot going on in the city that’s worth checking out.”

Once you head out of the city, there is a mix of gravel and forestry roads, and ATV trails for those up for the most challenging rides. Leaving town means going uphill. It’s easy to stitch together 80 to 120 km of riding before returning to New Brunswick’s capital. The tire of choice for the region would be fast-rolling and tubeless, between 35- to 45-mm wide, ideally with some degree of flat protection.

Save your legs for a bit of an in-town tour by hitting up some of the microbreweries. Graystone is known for west coast IPAs, Grimross Brewing for Belgian-style beer. If you like hay or unfiltered drinks, head to Trailway Brewing. The Maybee Brew Company offers up something for everyone.

If beer’s not your thing, there’s no shortage of cafés and bakeries in town as well, including Chess Piece Pâtisserie and Mill Town Roasters. No matter what you choose, bring your appetite.

Big rides leave from Tremblant’s P’tit Train

Plenty of ink has been spilt celebrating the remarkable P’tit Train du Nord, a rails-to-trails linear route that connects Montreal to the Laurentian Mountains to the north. If you like Quebec cuisine, then consider the P’tit Train your appetizer.

“So many people asked why we would move from Victoria, B.C., to the Laurentians,” says Jeff Ain, the NextGen national mountain bike coach. “You don’t get those hour-long climbs here, but the Laurentians certainly have their own special magic.”

Ain moved to the region at the start of summer 2018, and quickly began exploring the roads of the area on his road bike, using 25-mmwide tires. The broken pavement and gravel of the area led Ain to pick up a 650b gravel bike with 47-mm-wide tubeless tires.

“Tubeless has been key,” Ain says. “I’ve been exploring everywhere and, knock on wood, no flats. This bike has changed how and what I can ride.”

Pretty quickly, Ain found that using the P’tit Train as a jumping off point was a great strategy. He’s keen on looking for minor roads between all the lakes that feature in the region. Snaking up and over hills and down to the next lake has opened up numerous opportunities to choose any adventure. Off the main highways, there are a few cottages and fewer cars, making two-to-three-hour loops easy and fun.

Ain recommends heading north toward Labelle from Mont-Tremblant and checking out La Gare, a great café with excellent sandwiches. He suggests creating a loop around the southwest, tying in Lac Labelle, Lac Cameron and Lac des Trois Montagnes. When returning to Tremblant, Ain typically gets food and coffee at either La Sandwicherie or Au Café, both in the old Tremblant Village just a few metres from the P’tit Train du Nord. Au Café sits inside Cybercycle, making it an ideal preride meeting point in case anyone needs any last-minute supplies.

Ain also recommends finding your way into the 4×4 trails in Tremblant National Park. You’ll be rewarded with riverside routes that may be rough in places, but easily navigated on a gravel bike.

The Headwaters and Valleys of Ontario

Matthew Kadey knows Ontario gravel. He designed the Butter Tart 700, a tasty and tiring tour of the province’s south that touches Lake Huron at Georgean Bay and the Great Lake proper. Kadey has a few options for riders looking to head out for day trips northwest of the Greater Toronto Area. “The area I enjoy the most is probably the Headwaters region, between Creemore and Mono Mills,” Kadey says. “There are good roads, unmaintained roads and plenty to see and do.” He especially enjoys 2 Line EHS, which has some large rollers and excellent views as it leads toward Mono Cliffs Provincial Park.

The Butter Tart 700 creator has a good line on bakeries in the Headwaters region. Kadey’s favourite rides include stops at Giffen’s Country Market in Glen Huron. “It’s not pretentious, and they make a ton of awesome food,” he says. There’s a new general store in Horning Mills, while the Hockley Valley General Store is a great source of food and drink. Check out Kadey’s route to find a hidden gem of a road at the 593-km mark of the BT 700. You won’t find this relaxing road on Google Maps, but riding there means being surrounded by verdant forests, on a smooth surface.

For those already familiar with the Headwaters, Kadey suggests heading farther north to the Beaver Valley, west of Collingwood. Lower Valley Road is a must-ride for its treed canopy. With little car traffic, it’s a relaxing way to get to Hogg’s Falls. No spin in the region would be complete without a stop at the Kimberly General Store.

Randonneur routes in Winnipeg

Gravel grinding has put a fresh face on randonneur riding. Long-distance routes that run on back roads in the scenic countryside are staples to both. In Manitoba, you can check out the Gravel Parkway 200 route by the Manitoba Randonneurs.

“Gravel riding is pretty new in Manitoba,” says Adrian Alphonso, founder of Clear Paths, where he leads bicycle rides from an Indigenous perspective. “But we certainly have a lot of gravel. Our province has a bunch of options to choose from, and people are creating new routes to ride all the time.” The Parkway route qualifies as a 200-km brevet ride, and is largely gravel. This ride is tough. Although the route has been attempted 18 times, it’s only been finished on four occasions.

Riders looking for a rail-trail experience can explore the 193-km Crow Wing Trail. Part of the The Great Trail, Crow Wing leads from Winnipeg to the U.S. border. It passes through a number of communities and features historical information about the first settler communities that moved into the region.

Northern adventure in the Yukon

The South Canol Road, located about a two-hour drive southeast of Whitehorse, is perfect for a great multi-day bikepacking option or a mammoth single-day ride. Unlike options farther south, there’s not much on the South Canol Road beyond two campsites and a highway maintenance work camp. The road was built in the 1940s to develop a pipeline. It’s twisty, not particularly well maintained and, as a result, largely car-free.

“The South Canol Road is remote, even by Yukon standards,” says Anthony DeLorenzo, who lives in Whitehorse and is heavily involved in the cycling community. “You’ll see plenty of wildlife, and you’ll want to bring bear spray.”

While the 230-km road could be done in a single day with vehicle support, DeLorenzo notes that there are many mining roads that connect with South Canol, opening up even more opportunities. “The camping spots are endless,” he says.

For a bigger adventure, you can create a loop using the South Canol Road, Robert Campbell Highway, Klondike Highway and Alaska Highway to hit a four-figure trip distance. Do check in with the Yukon Tourism office for greater detail on the South Canol Road when planning your trek. Depending on snow melt, the road is open from May to September.

Beauty rides in B.C.

Salt Spring Island is a short ferry ride from both Vancouver Island and the mainland. Any gravel route here should tie in Mount Tuam and Mount Maxwell. Both offer long climbs and beautiful vistas. And that’s just the start.

“Salt Spring Island really has that bucolic island setting, with terrain that includes lush rainforest, arbutus grove and rolling farmland,” says Parker Bloom, who’s part of the Shimano Gravel Alliance. “There’s also countless singletrack cut-throughs, fern-laden walking paths, definitely-shouldn’t-ride-here routes and all kinds of secret connectors.”

If you can’t tell, Bloom’s a fan of the adventurous, unexpected finds that can make a gravel ride one to remember. He has some stops you won’t want to miss. Moonshine Mama’s Elixirs and Tonics offers up organic juices of all kinds. Get some bread from Francis Bread to munch on as you wander the sculpture garden at the Duthie Gallery. Fuel up some more at the Rock Salt Cafe at the ferry terminal as you wait for your lift back.

If the coast is too wet, head to the interior to ride from the town of Lillooet. It’s a typical winter-training location for Vancouver’s Mighty Riders team. The roads are chip seal and quickly break down to some version of gravel. While Bloom says a 28-mm-wide tire is workable, 38 mm is wonderful. North from town toward Seton Dam on the Bridge River Road is a standout route. Ride cliffside above the river and then cut down through four picture-perfect switchbacks into a slot canyon to the base of the dam. Food, snacks and drinks are best at the Lightfoot Gas station and Abundance Bakery. To make the most of a weekend, book into the Four Pines Motel. “It’s rough in all the right ways,” Bloom says. “The carpets are as thin as the walls, but it makes for a good home base, and the laundry machine hasn’t given in yet to the countless washes of gritty shoe covers.”