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Nine Tips For Cycling The Cabot Trail

Posted August 30th, 2013

The Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia must be one of the most scenic bicycle rides in all of Canada, if not the world.

For a taste of the experiences that await you on this 300 kilometer road, set your mind on breathtaking sea vistas, framed by dramatic cliffs; curvy roads through timeless fishing villages; old-growth forests in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and some truly epic climbs.

DSC_7317

On a recent trip around the Cabot Trail, we picked up a few tips that may be helpful to anyone planning to ride this classic route.

#1. Prepare For Wind

We camped for a week in mid-August and experienced stiff winds every day, blowing clockwise around the trail. It’s true that the views are better if you travel anti-clockwise (with the sea on your right) but on balance we would recommend going with the wind. This was also the choice of most cyclists we saw during our visit.

The strong winds also meant that our camp stove quickly burnt through fuel, even though we used firewood and stones to build a wind break around our stove. Keep your fuel bottles topped up, and preferably take a stove that uses either white gas or fuel from gas stations. We could not find gas canisters anywhere on the trail.

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Our stove surrounded by a make-shift windbreak.

#2. Pack Lightly

It almost goes without saying that when the hills are steep, it pays to travel as lightly as possible. We wouldn’t normally recommend dehydrated campers meals as they’re fairly expensive but it might be worth carrying a few on the Cabot Trail to save weight. Remember, sustained climbs at grades above 10% are common. Some grades even reach 15%. Ideally, you’ll get a bike with thin tires and a couple back bags. The exception is Meat Cove (see tip #7). In that case, you’ll want more robust tires for the dirt roads.

Rest Stop on French Mountain Climb

Rest stop on French Mountain. Photo by Bobcatnorth (flickr).

#3. Not All Campsites Have Water

There are campsites dotted regularly around the trail, including several in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Of the six main campsites in the national park, however, only those at Cheticamp, Broad Cove and Ingonish have water. The private campsites around the trail have all the services you’d expect (eg. wi-fi, water, showers). Expect to pay $25-30 Canadian a night for camping. Firewood and ice is usually available at campsites, for an extra charge.

#4. Reserve If You Plan To Stay In Hotels

Nearly every B&B, hotel and hostel we passed had a ‘no vacancy’ sign outside. If you don’t plan to bring a tent, you’d better reserve a room.

#5. There’s A Bike Shop In Cheticamp

We saw one good bike shop along the trail: Velo Max in Cheticamp. The owner does plenty of work preparing bikes for tour groups and should be able to help with any mechanical problems.

#6. Take Hiking Boots 

Most cyclists breeze around the Cabot Trail in 3-4 days but there are so many world-class hiking tracks on the Cabot Trail it almost seems criminal to pass them by. If you can, lengthen your stay by a few days and stop to explore on foot. You’ll see a side of Cape Breton that isn’t revealed until you walk away from the road. You could easily spend 10-14 days doing a mixture of cycling and hiking on the trail.

We do realize that hiking boots are a heavy addition to your panniers. If the weather isn’t too hot, you might consider using your boots both for cycling and walking. We personally find hiking boots very comfortable for both activities.

DSC_7396Ready to walk the trails of Cape Breton.

#7. Meat Cove Makes An Amazing Side Trip

The most northerly community in Cape Breton is Meat Cove. It’s literally perched on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a sheltered bay.

Meat Cove
Meat Cove view. Photo by Kaymoshusband (flickr).

Don’t kid yourself: this is a tough side trip. You’ll travel 30km off the Cabot Trail. The hills in the 15km leading up to Meat Cove are steep and relentless and the final 8km are on a rough dirt road. Still, your hard work will be rewarded by the stunning views and you can treat yourself to a bowl of chowder and a cold beer at the campground restaurant. There are also several hiking trails that lead up the hills and to hidden bays.

DSC_7323Chowder at Meat Cove

For an easier option, cycle the relatively easy (and entirely paved) 18km to the picturesque fishing community of Bay St. Lawrence. There you’ll find a campground, grocery store and delicious fish ‘n’ chips at the harbour.

#8. Be Aware of Bears And Coyotes

This is wild country, particularly in the national park. Bears and coyotes call the forests home, so if you are hiking or plan to wild camp, take appropriate precautions. Don’t eat near your tent or keep any food inside. More information is available on the national park website.

DSC_7397Lobster Supper with all the trimmings in Baddeck.

#9. Celebrate With An All-You-Can-Eat Lobster Supper

When you’ve completed the Cabot Trail, you deserve a treat! We very much enjoyed our meal at the Baddeck Lobster Suppers. With unlimited chowder, mussels, salads and desserts it’s the perfect place to fill up your hungry cyclist’s belly. If you don’t fancy lobster, they also roast salmon on a maple plank. Delicious!

These articles provide further tips and advice:

 

 

Tips & Tricks From 20 Years Of South American Bike Touring

Posted June 2nd, 2013

When it comes to bike touring in Latin America, there are few people who have explored the area more extensively than Gareth Collingwood.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni, by elpedalero.

For over 20 years, he’s cycled independently and unsupported through every country in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

In this interview, Gareth shares his experiences and memories of travelling by bicycle in South America. You’ll find more bike touring tips and tricks on his website,  El Pedalero.

1. You describe Latin America as “the world’s greatest adventure travel destination”. That’s a big claim. Why do you think it’s true?

Good question! It is a big claim, yes, and not one I make lightly.

Let’s start with the geography. Latin America has the planet’s longest mountain range, largest jungle, driest desert, biggest salt flat, widest street, highest waterfall, tallest volcano, and longest road. That’s quite a playground for an adventure cyclist.

And there’s the abundance of animal and plant life. On the list of the countries with the highest biodiversity in the world, Latin America has six in the top ten! Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, and Venezuela, with Brazil at number one (surprise, surprise).

Latin America is also a place of mystery and intrigue. Wherever you travel, you’re never far from the ruins of some lost, ancient culture. Tikal, Palenque, and Machu Picchu are all worth visiting, although I prefer the lesser-known, harder-to-reach sites such as Yaxchilán (Mexico), Kuélap (Peru), and my favourite, Ciudad Perdida (Colombia).

Then there’s everything else: the food, the music, the colonial architecture, the leafy plazas, the hidden beaches, the native traditions, the bustling markets, the crowded streets, and the lonely highways.

But most of all, what makes Latin America great is Latin Americans. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been invited to dinners, put up at people’s houses, given lifts when I’ve been stuck somewhere, and otherwise helped out by friendly, generous, warm-hearted Latinos from all corners of the continent.

I don’t think I’ll ever be finished exploring Latin America.

Making Friends, Oaxaca City, Mexico
Making Friends, Oaxaca City, Mexico by elpedalero.

2. It’s such a huge area and not everyone has years to explore it. If you could recommend just one or two areas to focus on, what would they be?

This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, whichever place you choose, it’s going to be fantastic. On the other hand, you’ll be missing out on a hundred places just as remarkable. Here’s a solution: Get a pad of Post-its. On each square of paper write one place from this list.

  • Argentine Patagonia
  • The Central Andean Altiplano
  • The Chilean Lake District
  • The Mexican Colonial Heartland
  • Central America
  • The Yucatán
  • The Amazon
  • The Gran Sabana
  • Western Cuba
  • The Chaco
  • The River Plate
  • Southern Brazil

Now stick the Post-its all over a wall and throw a dart at it. Whichever Post-it the dart lands on, that’s the area you’ll focus on. The entire continent is amazing and you have to start somewhere, so just start riding.

The Endless Climb, Chilean Andes
The Endless Climb, Chilean Andes by elpedalero.

3. How about a country that’s often overlooked (but shouldn’t be) by most bike tourists?

It’s a tie between Venezuela and Paraguay.

Cyclists skip El Salvador because they think it’s too small to be interesting (not true). And they skip Colombia because they think it’s too dangerous (also not true). But they skip Venezuela and Paraguay for no real reason at all, which is a shame because they contain landscapes unlike any other in the world.

Venezuela has the Gran Sabana, the Llanos, the Orinoco Delta, the world’s highest waterfall, and the Caribbean’s longest coastline. It claims the starting point of the Andes and the headwaters of both of the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers (the Casiquiare Bifurcation).

Paraguay has the Chaco Seco, the Chaco Húmedo, Cerro Memby, Saltos del Monday, Jesuit ruins, and friendly Mennonite communities who are incredibly generous toward travelling cyclists. And the wildlife here will amaze you – Paraguay is the only place I’ve ever seen a wild jaguar while cycling!

Both countries still have all the colonial charm, delicious coffee, unmonitored children, and subtlety-free television programming you’ve come to expect from any self-respecting Latin American nation.

Red Soils And Green Grass On The Gran Sabana
Red Soils And Green Grass On The Gran Sabana by elpedalero.

4. Is there anything in particular that bike tourists should pack for a trip to Latin America that they might not normally have in their bags?

Yes, Spanish! It’s compact, it’s lightweight, and it won’t take up any room in your panniers.

Seriously, a good working knowledge of Spanish will get you out of more jams than your multi-tool, your first aid kit, and that notarized photocopy of your passport combined.

Until you start speaking and understanding Spanish, you’re missing out on the real Latin American experience. And you’re missing out on making lifelong friendships with some of the most generous and warm-hearted people on the planet.

And once you’ve got Spanish, it’s a lot easier to understand and start learning Portuguese for your trip through Brazil.

Bicycle Repairs, Santa Marta, Matanzas, Cuba
Bicycle Repairs, Santa Marta, Matanzas, Cuba by elpedalero.

5. Mental preparation is also important for a bike tour. What are some typical South American challenges that cyclists need to be prepared for?

Garbage! Garbage in the streets, garbage in the rivers, garbage in the forests, the deserts, the beaches. It’s not like this everywhere, obviously, but it’s certainly going to be something you’ll see plenty of on your travels in Latin America.

Noise! Screeching engines, screaming children, blaring loudspeakers mounted atop moving vehicles. And, of course, the music. I love music, but not 120 decibels of pumping reggaetón at 4:00 am from a car stereo parked outside the window of my hotel room!

Dogs! Not all dogs. Just the ones that roam the countryside looking for bikes to chase and ankles to bite.

Bugs! Not the big, ugly ones, but the small, swarming ones: the mosquitoes, the tábanos, the coliguachos, the jejénes, and of course all the microscopic, water-borne invaders.

Unexpected Companion, Bolivia
Unexpected Companion, Bolivia by elpedalero.

6. Where will your next tour in Latin America be, or have you explored it all by now?

I don’t think I’ll ever be finished exploring Latin America. I may have toured through every country, but that doesn’t mean I’ve seen it all. There are so many hidden corners and mysterious landscapes still to see. My next tour will be several years long and will focus on discovering these places for myself. Right now, I’m researching areas within Northern Mexico, south-western Brazil, central Chile, and Colombia’s Pacific lowlands. But as usual, I’ll be winging it once I’m there, making it up as I go.

I’ll also be revisiting some old haunts. It’s been so long since I first travelled in some of these areas it’ll be like visiting them for the first time. For example, many of the horrendously-rough gravel roads I cycled in Patagonia back in the 1990s have now been paved. It’ll be a treat to ride these roads while enjoying the scenery instead of staring at the gravel in front of my wheel, trying to pick the best line!

To learn more about Gareth’s adventures, see his website: El Pedalero.

Our Easter Tour: On Folding Bikes In The Freezing Cold

Posted April 2nd, 2013

Over Easter we went on a short bike tour through the east of the Netherlands with several friends. There were six of us in total, riding four folding bikes and two ‘big wheel’ touring bikes.

Easter cycling Tour

It was unseasonably cold (barely above freezing during the day) but despite the chilly weather we had a super time riding from Arnhem to Roermond. Below you’ll find the short film (in an English and a Dutch version) to tell the story.

Thanks to our friends Stijn, Shane and Marieke & Anthony for the great company, and to the lovely owners of the Landgoed Geijsteren and Raayerhof campgrounds, where we stayed in trekkers huts so that we wouldn’t have to suffer through sub-zero temperatures at night.

Here’s the film in English:

And in Dutch:

One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part V)

Posted March 27th, 2013

Our Bicycling Cuba book assures us that the ride from Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad is one of the most beautiful in Cuba, and it’s not wrong.

Before long, we’ve cleared the city limits of Sancti Spiritus and we’re cycling on blissfully quiet and wide-open roads. Only a few Cuban cyclists, and the occasional car, keep us company.

Local cyclist in Cuba

The mountains in the distance grow closer, and we’re almost tempted to follow one of them into the foothills. In another time and place (without a baby, and on full-sized touring bikes) we might have done just that. This time, however, we settle for a picture in front of the mountains.

Group shot!

After several shots, this is the closest we get to all of us looking at the camera at the same time. Luke has actually been distracted by a passing motorbike and turns his head at the critical moment. That’s okay. Group pictures are nice to have but this road is even better! Look at those blue skies. Gorgeous.

Cycling to Trinidad from Sancti Spiritus

About halfway down the road, we stop for something to eat in a roadside village. We order the vegetarian pizza, and when we spot this box near the restaurant we’re happy we avoided the meat!

"Meat For Tourists". Eeeewwwww.

Tinned Meat For Tourists? What in the world is that about? We’re not sure that we really want to know. What we are sure about is that we don’t want to try any ‘Fiambre de Cerdo Turista’ – imported from Poland to Cuba.

We finish our pizza instead, and top up with some cookies and a generous drink of water. Luke is now interested in the water bottle, so we spend quite some time teaching him how to drink from it.

Luke learns to drink from a water bottle

Around 4pm we roll into Trinidad, with its colourful houses. For the first time on this trip, the guesthouse of our choice is full, so Andrew has to wait by the curbside with Luke for a few minutes, while Friedel goes in search of accommodation. It’s not a problem. Within 15 minutes we’ve found a nice room, just around the corner.

Waiting....

We get cleaned up and go out for another pizza. It’s rapidly becoming our staple food. While we’re waiting, Luke practices his waving skills with the daughter of the pizza shop owner.

Waiting....

We’re comfortable here, and still taking things easy so we plan to spend a few days in Trinidad and the surrounding area before turning north towards Havana to complete our trip.

*This is the fifth in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. See the first entry, the secondthe third and the fourth. More coming soon!

Cuba’s Bicycle Culture In Photos

Posted March 25th, 2013

One of the great things about touring in Cuba is seeing all the ways bicycles are used in daily life, and how much is done with so little. 

Bicycles are a key method of transport for the average Cuban, whether they’re taking their kids to school or selling produce at a street market. Here are just some of the photos we snapped of Cubans and their bikes…

This carrot seller was spotted in the central city of Cienfuegos.

Carrots For Sale By Bicycle

He wasn’t the only one selling food by bike. We encountered this man near Viñales, taking bok choy and spring onions to market on a bicycle that wouldn’t look out of place back home in the Netherlands.

Bok Choy seller and his delivery bicycle

This man was selling apples in Santa Clara.

Bicycle apple seller in Santa Clara

Even cakes were being transported by bicycle!

Trinidad cake seller

Also in the streets of Santa Clara, we saw this lady taking her daughter across town.

Cyclists in Santa Clara, Cuba

She was using a bike seat like this. We saw thousands of these wooden children’s seats on bikes across Cuba.

Bike with a child's seat (very popular in Cuba)

Wood was also used to create make-do pedals.

Wooden pedals!

Such repairs were probably done by a road-side bike mechanic, like this one in Trinidad.

Bike Mechanic in Trinidad, Cuba

Or possibly by one of these guys, who were selling bike parts at a market.

Bike parts stall at a market in Trinidad, Cuba

They didn’t have anything fancy to sell, but they did have a basic selection of parts including gear cables, bearings and pedals.

Bike parts stall at a market in Trinidad, Cuba

Back to people selling (and carrying) things by bike, we were impressed by this very large box on the back rack of a bike in Santa Clara. We don’t think the bike was actually carrying a washing machine – probably the box was filled with something lighter. We often saw such boxes being used to carry multiple loaves of bread, for example.

Cuban cargo bike

We also took note of this fellow, who had his hands full as he cycled through Trinidad!

Cyclist in Trinidad

And finally, this Bici Taxi driver showed us how hard he worked for his fare in Havana. We hired him for a ride to a local restaurant and marvelled as he propelled all of us – plus his heavy bicycle – through the traffic.

Bici Taxi

Kudos to the cyclists of Cuba!