In 2013, during a whiteout, 22 athletes struck out from Péribonka, Que., headed across Lac-Saint-Jean to Roberval in February with the temperature around -25 C. Every year since 1955 there has been a swimming race across the lake located more than 200 km north of the Saint Lawrence River but there had never been a bike race. “I knew there was a swimming race that was 32-km long,” explained David Lecointre, the founder and director of the Traversée du Lac-Saint-Jean on bicycle. “I thought it was a good idea to try it on my bike.”
Crossing a frozen lake by bicycle during a snowstorm may not seem very wise but that didn’t stop Lecointre and the intrepid pioneers of the event. While only five finished in a time of more than seven hours and 45 minutes of the original group of 22 with most turning back 8 km into the ride, the event returned the next year. The prospect of the ultimate winter cycling adventure attracted some while the physical and mental challenge of the unique event lured others.
More athletes lined up the next year and paths were stamped into the snow making the crossing faster and less treacherous. In subsequent years, riders faced a range of conditions from strong headwinds, relatively mild -10 C temperatures and even a tailwind which saw the winners make the crossing in less than two hours. In 2018, the event continues to grow as 300 cyclist and 100 runners are expected on the snow-covered start line to cross the frozen lake.
Participants from all over the world gather to take part in the event. In previous years, riders from Monaco, Belgium, Brazil, France, Italy. Chili, Bahrain, Switzerland and the United States have joined Canadians from across the country to ride across the lake. Participants can choose from the competitive field that attracts experienced mountain bikers and road racers. An adventure category gives anyone the opportunity to make the crossing without pressure.
Lecointre said to best enjoy the event you have to be mentally prepared. “You must accept the temperature and tell yourself, ‘Today I will cross the lake.’ If it’s nice it will be super. If it’s not, you must let go, not be nervous because something will happen and you will be prepared to handle it.”
Organizers set out shelters every 5 km on the lake for riders to warm up and refuel. More than 100 volunteers are also on-hand to help out. The course is meticulously marked to ensure riders don’t stray off the path.
It’s the ultimate Canadian cycling adventure.
How to prepare for the Traversée du Lac-Saint-Jean
While cyclist who participate in mountain biking, road or cyclocross races will have the fitness to complete the event, preparing for an outing in the winter requires some important planning. Lecointre suggests in the weeks leading up to the crossing that riders head out for a couple of outdoor rides of an hour or an hour and a half. Regardless of whether the conditions are as cold as they will be during the crossing, it’s important to acclimatize the body and its muscles to riding in colder conditions. Before travelling to Lac-Saint-Jean, Lecointre suggests heading out for a longer ride of three or four hours to have a long day in the legs and to prepare mentally for the event. These are also the perfect opportunities to test any new cold-weather riding equipment.
Three key tips for riding your best Traversée du Lac-Saint-Jean
1) Dress in as many layers as possible
With wind, cold, snow and exposure to the weather from all sides, dressing properly for the Traversée is essential. Lecointre said experienced racers use special shoes with coyote fur, warming socks, handlebar protectors to keep your hands warm, protection for the nose and any exposed skin. He suggests using many layers of breathable materials like merino wool that can be adjusted depending on the temperature. While you don’t want to be dressed as warmly as you would be if you were going downhill skiing, you need more layers than for cross country skiing Lecointre says.
2) Ride the fattest tires your bike will accommodate
Traction in the snow is more important than speed. Lecointre suggests riding tires wider than 4“ with some choosing to go as wide as 5.5“. Dialing in your pressure is also important. In soft conditions, tire pressure as low as 3 p.s.i. is good, while in hard conditions 10 p.s.i. will do.
3) Fuel up in the days leading up to the event and during the ride itself
Indulge yourself with poutine, maple treats and all the other local delicacies in the days leading up to the event. On the day of, drink warm fluids, stay hydrated and eat frequently at the stops to have the best experience.
A winter visit to Lac-Saint-Jean is well worth a trip. Winter activities in the area are second to none with cross-country and downhill skiing, dogsledding, snowmobiling and four maintained fat bike networks in the area. There’s no shortage of Canadian winter fun to be had in this region of Quebec.
For those travelling from abroad, riders can rent fat bikes at one of the nearby bike shops such as Vélo-Cité Concept. Accommodations include the official race hotel the Hôtel Château Roberval, the relaxing Chalets and Spa Lac Saint-Jean or the Hôtel de la Boréalie. While in the region make sure to enjoy a local brew at Microbrasserie La Chouape, Microbrasserie du Lac St-Jean or Microbrasserie Le Coureur Des Bois.
The ride takes place Feb. 17, 2018. Head to the Traversée du Lac-Saint-Jean’s site to register.