Rural roads

First, let’s be clear: cycling outside of cities is enjoyable and safe. The most aggressive drivers I’ve come across are on the roads just north and east of St.Eustache – i.e. in suburban areas where roads are narrow and drivers in a hurry. Further out in the suburbs (e.g. Chambly, St.Rémi, Hemmingford…) – basically as soon as traffic gets a little less dense – things are fine, as they are most of the time in central Montréal (I’ll return to this…).

In the eastern townships, and especially around Cookshire and Mont-Mégantic where I cycle a lot, cars and trucks give cyclists a wide berth. Roads are usually long and straight, so we can be seen from a long way off, and – generally – people are just more relaxed.

Having said this, I still prefer cycling on gravel roads. There are very few vehicles, and the vehicles that are there are travelling more slowly and cautiously.

Route 257, looking towards Mont-Mégantic. Photo: R.Shearmur

The surface of gravel roads is very variable. Variable with the seasons – sheer ice in winter, mud in spring, often hardpacked in summer. Variable with type of road – fast riding on wider graded roads, stony and bumpy on narrower less maintained ones, sometimes pot-holed, sometimes uncomfortably bumpy (when the surface is like a wash-board, caused by heavy farm or grading equipment rolling over damp gravel roads). Variable with weather – dusty in hot dry weather, a veritable mud-bath in the rain, and just perfect when slightly damp. And variable with maintenance – a few have just been ‘re-graveled’, so riding along them is like riding across a pebble beach (the gravel will eventually get pressed into the road by traffic, improving it…. but in the meantime, a bugger to cycle over).

BUT – the worst riding is along main roads. Not because of traffic, but because of road quality. Where do you cycle on a road surface like this?

Route 108, near Gould. photo R.Shearmur

On the shoulder? With cracks almost exactly the width of my tires – not to mention potholes, the odd dustbin, dead animal, gravel – this is not advisable. And these types of longitudinal cracks (often worse than this) grace miles and miles of road between Mont-Mégantic and Montréal.

On the main roadway? With cars and trucks going by at 100km/h or more, this requires confidence and trust in fellow road users (fortunately such trust has so far been justified – otherwise I wouldn’t be around to write this).

A bit of both? Weaving unpredictably onto and off of the shoulder is the best way to have an accident as vehicles won’t know what to expect.

Of course, grinding up a hill at 10 to 15km/h, the shoulder is fine. But sailing along the flat at 30 km/h, or down a hill at above 50 km/h, these roads surfaces are very dangerous.

Why even use these roads if they are so bad? Well, it is necessary to get to the gravel roads, and also to connect between them. Also, on occasion I actually want to get somewhere – such as to my friend in Bromont the other day: riding 130 km is fine on hard surfaced roads. On gravel it is tough – and, of course, there simply aren’t gravel roads going straight from a to b. A partially gravel route from Scotstown to Bromont (which would still require at least 80km of main road) would be at east 160 km…..

So, one of the main problems with rural cycling is road surface – this sounds a bit like urban (Montréal) cycling, doesn’t it?

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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