Texte par Loïc Olivier
Photos par Loïc Olivier, David Nesbitt, Kelly Gault, Adrian Grant, Rob Hutchison, Sandra Beaubien et Mike McGuire
We’re meeting at AVMO-OMBA HQ on a Friday afternoon.
There are seven of us. We have a Subaru and a pick-up, and both are filled to the brim with peeps and gear.
We’re all bringing “plus” bikes. My Chic-Chocs is fitted with big 4.8″ tires; Mike put 27.5″+ and a suspension fork on his.
We’re going to Charlevoix on a Friday night in September. Obviously, that means Friday night traffic. “Necessary evil”, some would say…
Kelly’s driving our car. Big beats all along the 40.
We arrive in Beaupré at 11pm and we make our way to the Microbrasserie des Beaux Prés to drink a few IPAs before hitting the sack. We obviously go to bed too late and wake up way too early. We hit the Marie Beaupré for a fry-up before heading back on the road.
This weekend’s adventure: to cross Charlevoix by bike. We are talking here about LA Traversée de Charlevoix, one of Québec’s most notorious hiking routes, created by Eudore Fortin more than 40 years ago. The bike version is much newer, so to speak, but it follows roughly the same lines through the Charlevoix backcountry. The bike route is described by the folks in charge of the Traversée as an “extreme activity reserved for elite cyclists due to technical difficulties. For experienced and very fit MTBers, this is a three-day route considered one of the greatest challenges in Quebec. “
The plan is simple: 3 days of biking, 2 nights in log cabins, 105km of riding, 2500m of elevation. The crew of the Traversée takes care of carting our luggage and supplying us with water at each chalet. This is not “real” bikepacking in the orthodox sense of the concept, but it’s still a big backcountry bike trip. Personally, I have no problem with focusing on the ride for those 3 days.
Despite the commodity of having someone cart your heavy stuff, this remains a backcountry trip, so it’s still necessary to bring a minimum of equipment with you on the bike. You never know when you’ll get a mechanical issue, or worse, when you’ll get hurt. Always have a plan B. In the Chic-Chocs’ frame bag, I have a bunch of tools and a few spare parts, two tubes and some food. On the top tube, I’ve packed a camera, my phone, my GPS, a trail map and more food. I have 3L of water on my back and I’ve stuffed my saddle bag with clothes and a toiletry bag.
We drink cold beers before heading out a little before noon. It’s nice and hot; today looks like it’ll be awesome.
The first kilometres go by quickly on the ZEC des Martres’ flat forest roads. It’s going so fast that we are almost thinking of having another beer.
Good thing we don’t. Because a few kilometres later, we hit the mother of all hike-a-bikes. We push and lift our bikes for hours…
Later in the afternoon, we stop under a blown out bridge to filter several liters of water so that we can continue riding. We’ve clearly underestimated the level of difficulty of this first day. It’s getting late and we’re moving at a snail’s pace. There are still ⅔ of the course of the first day to do and only a few hours of daylight left…
We quickly discuss plan B (sleeping in the woods without a shelter, if it comes to that) and we swiftly take off, with no idea of what to expect …
At 5 pm, we finally come out of the woods, mostly in good shape. No major mechanical breakage so far, and no major bodily issues either, except for a busted tubeless setup and a few bloody knees. And perhaps a few bruised egos… On the ZEC’s gravel road, the fastest riders take off. The group splits into small groups. A few kilometres further, at a rather ugly, rocky place that looks eerily moon-like, we see a few caravans parked on the side of the road. About ten people are sitting around a campfire, drinking Buds. Hunters, obviously. The men are dressed in camo and proudly sport prize-winning mullets. I greet them and tell them that their beers look damn tasty. That’s all it takes for three of the guys to get up from their chairs, give me a Bud and for one of the mullets to hop on the Chic-Chocs. That’s the Panorama Cycles effect: Backcountry Speed Bromance.
We laugh for 5 minutes, the hunters try the bike and I take the opportunity to ask for information about the rest of today’s course. Warm beer in hand, I thank them and make my way towards the rest of the group that is waiting for me 200m further. “10 KM OF DOUBLETRACK LEFT!!!” That lukewarm Bud has never tasted so good.
We arrive at the cabin an hour later. We share the dorm with two hikers who are on their second night on the trails. They’re chillin’ and playing a game of hangman.
Some of our riders are toast. They struggle to change and have no appetite. We take it easy, making sure that everyone drinks and feeds properly to regain strength. We still have 75km to cover on two big bike days. The two hikers go to bed at dusk. Our group is still standing, and we shoot the shit for another hour or two. Everyone hits the sack by 10:30pm.
To me, one of the most enjoyable things about camping is the first sip of coffee in the morning. You get up, you’re sore, you’re cold… You take out your stove, your coffee, you boil some water and you wait a few minutes, staring at that blue light intently. And when you finally drink your first swig, you come out of the mist. Blissful.
After coffee, we prepare a collective breakfast while the last ones slowly get up. A proper trucker’s breakfast to have a ton of fuel for the day. No kidding around, we pack our gear quickly and leave the cabin at around 8am. Quite a feat for such a big group!
We quickly leave behind the forest and we gain altitude. Fatbikes are great for these rocky and sandy ZEC fire roads, which are clearly meant for all-terrain vehicles. The road goes up and up, and up again. My legs are burning. On the plus side, breathtaking views follow one after another.
What goes up must come down! Thirty full minutes of descent! My hands are cramping up and my brakes are heating up … You can smell them a mile away!
After lunch, we start climbing up again. The hills are steep, sometimes with gradients hovering over 30%. Impossible for us to ride these hills. We slowly push our bikes with our heads down. After each big hill, we stop to take a breather. Sandra and I take the opportunity to stuff ourselves with wild blueberries, which are absolutely everywhere!!
The trails get more and more rugged.That’s where our MTB skills become useful. I bomb down on a descent and realize that I am alone on the trail. I wait at the bottom of the hill for a few minutes, then decide to retrace my steps … My friends are waiting for me patiently 2km up the hill. In this area, you have to be careful, signage is a little more dispersed. We spend the rest of the afternoon climbing, getting deeper and deeper into the forest.
We arrive at the next cabin at around 4pm. Great timing, really, as my bike chain is covered with sand and I can no longer shift properly. I’ll have to deal with this in the morning, before we hit the road. For the moment, though, it’s time to relax outside, with a bag of chips and a cooler full of beer. Life sucks.
3rd and last day. Morning drizzle. After breakfast, I dunk my Chic-Chocs in the creek next to the cottage to clean the chain as best as I can. Happy that I’ve brought bike lube. Easily one of my best moves. The rest of the group lines up at the creek to do the same.
We take the road a bit before 8am, through the mist.
Up here, everything is in transition. We go from forest roads to narrow singletrack covered in spongy lichen. This singletrack is old school. Rustic, if not primitive.
Charlevoix is a wild mushroom paradise. Amanitas, red, orange and purple mushrooms, and even wilder colors that are unknown to me in the forest. These protruding wonders are everywhere. Up here, amateur mycologists must be in heaven.
Once we’re out of the forest, we enter the final phase of the Traversée. On gravel trails, roles change. Those who were last are now first. We pedal in silence, except for the sound of our fat tires buzzing on the gravel road.
Kelly and I get ahead of the rest of the group. We can see our cars on the horizon. We stop on the side to wait for the rest of our friends. Once they catch up, we tag along and continue on the last stretch together, seven wide on the fire road.
Late lunch in Baie St-Paul. The group takes the opportunity to do a debrief. We all agree that the Traversée de Charlevoix requires a high level of endurance, both physically and mentally. It’s a very big MTB ride.
Although the Traversée can be done on “skinny” mountain bikes, we believe that “plus” bikes and fatbikes are the best setups to venture there.
For those who decide to do the Traversée, make sure you have strong bike mechanic skills and wilderness first aid experience.
If you have these skills, and if you decide to ride the Traversée, you’ll be treated to an incredible mix of trails – from impassable hiking trails that were not meant for bikes to ATV trails, from fire roads to primitive singletrack. From endless hellish climbs to technical descents on unstable gravel that are so intense that your hands cramp up and your brake rotors smoke. You’ll see busted up bridges, way past their prime. You’ll do a few river crossings, you’ll go through countless water holes, and you’ll be covered in mud, sand and dust. And in dust, sand and mud.
But the experience is definitely worth the effort. This is by far the most beautiful bike ride I have ever done.
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