Every summer I rise to the challenge two, maybe three, times: I take a ride up Mont-Mégantic. Another summit, Mont-St-Joseph can be thrown in, and – in for a penny, in for a pound – I usually knock myself out with that as well.
To get to the entrance of Mont-Mégantic park requires a 32km ride. There is a ‘road’ option: I could ride to the foot of Mont-Mégantic along route 257 to La Patrie, then to Notre-Dame-Des-Bois … but the roads are so bad (particularly the 257) that I prefer the gravel option. This option involves riding a gravel path for the first 9km, and then transferring to a gravel road for the next 15km or so. At Val-Racine, the road becomes asphalt, so the next 13km to the top of Mont-Mégantic are on a smooth(ish) surface.
The ride looks like this (some of the altitudes are not quite right, but you get the idea):
As you can see, there is a slow but fairly steady rise until the 32km mark, and then the suffering begins. The first 2.2km of the climb consist of three ‘walls’. The first, just after entering the park, is the longest – maybe 1.2km at 13 to 16% steepness: rather agonising. The road then levels out for 250m or so, leading to the second ‘wall’ – shorter (400m?) but steeper. The sign says 18%, and I believe it: this is not just 18% around a hairpin bend, but 18% for most of the aforementioned 400m. The road levels out again for about 200m, leading into the last ‘wall’ – shorter (250m?) and less steep (15% is announced).
This levels out, and one can either turn right up Mont-St-Joseph (1.6km to the summit – I’ll come to that), or left up Mont-Mégantic (2.8km to the summit).
Turning left, there is a short descent (!), then a shallow climb for about 500m. Things start getting steep again, but nothing like the first 2km. The road climbs fairly steadily, oscillating between 8 and 12% up to the observatory. The road’s only hairpin is about 600m after the climbing starts again in earnest : if you have the energy to look up, there is a beautiful view across the region.
As one rounds the hairpin, there are also views of the forested sides of the mountains that make up Mont-Mégantic park. The road weaves a little, and soon one catches sight of the observatory dome: but the first sighting can lead to false hopes, because there remains at least 800m of climbing, and one steepish pitch as one cycles past the observatory residences, before finally seeing the observatory straight ahead.
After a 5 minute stop to admire the view, drink, and generally catch my breath, the exhilaration of descent! I try to keep the speed under control, but the long swooping road down to the hairpin is wonderful and fast. However much I question the wisdom of climbing the mountain on a gravel bike (at 11.5kg with knobbly 50psi tires, not exactly a light-weight), having a steady bike with low pressure tires is great for the descent. Yesterday evening I slightly misjudged my speed and had to brake hard coming into the hairpin: although I had slowed from 75km/h to 30 (and 30 felt slow), clearly the latter remains too fast for a hairpin!
After picking up speed again, I almost free-wheeled up the slight incline to the Mont-St-Joseph fork.
This is where the mystery begins. There is little or nothing that I can find on-line about climbing Mont-St-Joseph on a bike. In lists of tough climbs in Québec it features nowhere – presumably overshadowed by the (easier) Mont-Mégantic. I guess that is because the tour de Beauce, an annual cycle race, races up the slightly higher (1102m) Mont-Mégantic, ignoring the 1065m Mont-Saint-Joseph summit. Yet the road forks at 860m altitude: the 242m gain up to the Mont-Mégantic summit, over 2.8km of road, is equivalent to an average incline of 9%. The 205m gain up to Mont-Saint-Joseph, over 1.6km, is equivalent to 13% average.
Indeed, it is a brutal climb, far worse than Mont-Mégantic (remember, the hard part of Mont-Mégantic is getting to the Mont-St-Joseph fork, i.e. the gruelling first 2.2km are shared). I have never yet attempted a ride straight up Mont-Saint-Joseph: I always first summit Mont-Mégantic (the last 2.8km are restful, at 9% average), descend to the fork, then climb Mont-Saint-Joseph…
The ride up Mont-St-Joseph starts with a hairpin bend, 50m or so at about 20%. The road then ‘levels’ out for about 600m – by ‘level’ I mean 9 or 10%. Then, another hairpin and the fun begins, first at about 11 to 13%, and then a brutal 300 or 400m at 20% or more: it’s definitely steeper than the steepist parts of the first 2.2km. After that brutal stretch, the road ‘levels’ again (probably 12% or so), to end in one final leg-breaking hairpin that swoops up to the summit, again at pitches of 15 to 18%.
There were (and are) magnificent views from the top… I did the ride in the evening, leaving Scotstown at 5.30pm and getting back after sundown, at about 9.15pm. The light of the setting sun was beautiful. When I was at the summits (at around 7.30 to 7.45pm), the sun was still up, shining through the haze above the trees and farmland below.
The sun set at 8.30pm, and by 9.00pm it was getting dark. I was fully equipped with lights, so that was no problem. The most wonderful thing about the ride were the last few miles along the gravel track: the fireflies were out, sparkling their fluoresent green as I made it home.
Note about gearing: it’s critical, when cycling in hilly places, to make sure you have a bike with the correct gears. My gravel bike has two front chain rings (50 and 34 teeth) and a rear cassette that stretches from 11 to 34 teeth. This means that my easiest gear is 34:34 (i.e. 1 to 1) ratio. I cycled up Mont-Mégantic using my 30 tooth rear gear (34:30 ratio: 1 turn of the pedals = 1.13 turns of my wheels, which are 700mm wheels with 38mm tires), but used the 34 rear gear (34:34 ratio: 1 turn of the pedals = 1 turn of the wheels) for Mont St.Joseph. Needless to say, on the descents I used my 50:11 ratio (1 turn of the pedals = 4.54 turns of the wheel), as well as making good use of the brakes to shave off excess speed. It’s easy to get up to 90km/h or more, but rather dangerous, so I kept things around 70. When descending one needs to be mindful of brakes overheating, so it’s better to brake hard, gather speed, brake hard again etc… than to continuously use the brakes (but be careful of other traffic or cyclists behind you). This allows the brakes to cool off a little. Going down hills without braking is also good for the brakes, but not so good for you or for anything you crash into.
If in doubt, choose lower gear ratios : you can climb virtually anything with a 1:1 ratio, but you’ll also need higher gears for normal riding unless you enjoy spinning your legs like crazy whilst cycling at 10km/h!