Biking to Montreal? I’m doing it my way

The theme of this year’s Montreal Bike Fest is “I’ll do my OWN tour”.  I’m joining their group ride from Ottawa to Montreal, but with a twist.   I’ll be riding my 3 speed Vincent VanGogh Dutch bike.  I’ll be doing the tour my way!

My bike. My way.

I bet you’re asking yourself one question – why?  Why would you choose to ride a 40lb steel workhorse 220km?  Why wouldn’t you ride a carbon road bike with clippy shoes?  Don’t you know that road bikes are the only way to go?

Fact: You should ride whatever bike works for you.

I read a lot of articles aimed at new cyclists that exclusively recommend road bikes, cycling jerseys and padded shorts.  But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even for longer distances.  In North America, there’s a general assumption that bike tour = spandex tour.  False!  A bike tour can be for anyone – on any bike.  With more families trying “bike overnights” and using cargo bikes to get around, it’s time to shift the stereotype of what it means to do a bike tour.

Just for fun, let’s compare the Google image search results for “Netherlands bike tour” with “Ontario bike tour”.

Here’s a sample image for “Netherlands bike tour”:

Source: Adventure Finder


And here’s a sample for “Ontario bike tour”:

Source: Spin the lakes

I love my Dutch bike and, to me, it is my most comfortable bike.  Why wouldn’t I ride my most comfortable bike?

And I wouldn’t be the first to attempt this particular tour on an upright bike either!

Recently, I found an image on the McCord Museum website of three women who rode their big heavy bikes from Montreal to Ottawa.  They rode in long skirts, fitted jackets and dainty chapeaus.  In 1916.  1916!!

If they could do it, so could I.

Photograph | The Coles sisters on a bicycle trip from Montreal to Ottawa, QC-ON, 1916 | MP-1976.175.1

I thought it would be fun to recreate their ride (although going in the opposite direction).  I contacted the McCord Museum to find out more about the women.  It turns out, their ride was a real slog.

Here’s an excerpt from an article published in the Montreal Gazette by Edgar Andrew Collard in 1989 called “Bicycle Girls” found freedom with wheels.

Some Bicycle Girls set out on long-distance trips, even between cities. But as late as 1916 it proved to be a rough experience. The two Coles sisters (Phyllis, later Mrs. G. B. Dorey, and Dorothy) set out to ride from Montreal to Ottawa.

Roads were so bad, and bicycles or motorists so few, that people along the way thought they were doing it for a bet or because they were planning to write a book about their adventures. They encountered only two motorists on the way up, only five on the way back. They saw almost no other cyclists.

The road was so deep with ruts that they took, whenever they could, to cow paths along the side. Sandy patches in the road made hard going and loose stones were a threat to tires.

On the way up, the rain came down in torrents. Though wearing waterproofs, they were drenched. They skidded from side to side in the clay. In the end they decided to give up and take the train to Ottawa. The decision was made after they had sheltered for two hours in a woodshed with a pig and some hens for companions.

They stayed in Ottawa for a week, to allow the roads to dry out. Then they set out again for Montreal and home. This time the ruts in the road were like furrows in a plowed field. Even following the cow paths was tedious. To get to the cow paths they had to jump ditches dragging their bicycles behind them.

It was impossible to ride up the hills. They walked up, pushing their bicycles beside them.. At times they made no more than two miles an hour. They were plagued by mosquitoes. Even after a week of drying, the roads were still damp clay in spots. The clay came up over their shoes.

Riding from 9 o’clock in the morning until 7 at night, it took them 3 1/2 days to get home. The nights they spent in villages along the way.

The following quote is my favourite part of the article:

After this inter-city trip the audacious Phyllis Coles remarked:

“Personally, I would go again tomorrow to see the beautiful country – but unless you are unbreakable, or made of cast iron, take my advice and never venture by road from the commercial metropolis of Canada to the capital for some years to come, especially after a heavy rain.”

Well Phyllis, that time has come!  I am that cast iron skillet and I am going to attempt to venture away from my commercial metropolis (possibly in the rain) to reach Montreal.  Unlike this group of ladies, my accommodations and rest stops do not include sheltering in a pig shed.  Instead, we’ll be spending the night in Hawkesbury at a comfortable Best Western.   And our route will not take us on any cow paths (unless I make a wrong turn).

I’ll be tweeting and posting from the road starting on Friday. I hope you’ll follow along.

Ding ding!


  • Thanks to Nora Hague at the McCord Museum of Canadian History who works with the Notman Photographic collection for helping me track down this story.
  • Montreal Gazette:“All Our Yesterdays” by Edgar Andrew Collard 26 Aug 1989
  • Of course, if you love road bikes and carbon and it makes your ride comfortable, have at it.  It’s your tour too.

Update!  Tour complete!  Read all about it.

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Comments: 5

  1. Ha! Good for you. Enjoy the tour and thank you for posting this. May the wind be forever at your back.

  2. Love this bike! And excited to hear about the trip!

  3. Brenda says:

    Yeah! I cycled around BC for a year (on a steel touring bike loaded with my stuff). I started off with bike shorts, and gloves, thinking that these were the things that were supposed to make me comfortable when riding long distances. Nope! I soon realized that both don’t work for me and I much prefer riding in clothes that allow me to stop along the way, go into a restaurant for a bite to eat, and not stand out so much.

    Have a great ride!

  4. Jen says:

    Thanks for sharing the Bicycle Girls article. Good thing no one’s around cuz I’m laughing like a fool. Just love your site – it’s awesome!

  5. Stephanie says:

    Great article! My husband and I did 200km from Amsterdam to Antwerp on single speed old Dutch bikes. We bought them for cheap off Marketplats (Dutch kijiji) and sold them to a bike shop in Antwerp. No training is required as long as you are ok with it being slow going.