July 6, 2016
I was recently invited to speak about bicycle tourism at the AdventureELEVATE conference in Sagenay, Quebec, hosted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association. After contacting my friend and mentor from Vélo Québec, Jean Francois Provonost, I left for Québec a few days early to visit the great city of Montreal, participate in the Go! Montreal Festival, and sit down with the staff of Vélo Québec. Then, I traveled, by car, with Route Verte coordinator, Louis Carpentier, to Sagenay to absorb the latest and greatest trends in adventure travel. This is what I learned.
1. Montreal is a cyclist’s city. This was pretty obvious from the moment I woke up and looked out my hotel window. Granted, I was next door to the headquarters of Vélo Québec, one of the major bicycle thoroughfares and a separated facility that sees thousands of cyclists daily, no matter the weather. This became even more apparent when I ventured out on the BIXI (bike share) for the first of many rides. Cyclists are part of Montreal’s culture, and bike infrastructure is integrated into the normal traffic systems. There are bike lanes, separated facilities, trails, bicycle traffic signals, wayfinding, and a free bicycle map showing all the BIXI stations.
2. The secret to successful bike share is plentiful stations and a good network. I know this because I rode BIXI almost every day I was in Montreal. The stations were plentiful and in key strategic locations such as the library, transit centers, downtown, tourist destinations, and parks. I could follow signs to where I needed to go and I always had a bike route to get there. I noticed many American tourists using BIXI, perhaps for their first bike share experience, because the city made it convenient, easy, and comfortable.
3. Bike rides through a big city are fun. Close down the streets and the people will come. The idea started with that premise. The Vélo Québec founders of the Go! Montreal Festival believed they could build a bicycling community by giving people a day on the streets without motorized vehicles and the Tour de L’ile de Montreal was born. Today, they offer two events in the first weekend of June: a Friday night ride, Tour la Nuit, and a Sunday ride, Tour de L'ile. For the Tour la Nuit, what an amazing experience to bicycle through a huge city at night with 15,000 other people, ending in the city park for a night festival of music, rides, and food. Then the big event on Sunday, it was glorious to bicycle with 25,000 others across the Jacques Cartier Bridge and through the streets of Montreal. Despite the rain, it was fantastic. Those numbers are a testament to the organization that coordinates the events, the city that supports the entire festival, and the bicycle culture Vélo Québec has built over their 50-year history.
4. Paris on track to be a cyclist’s city. Part of the Go! Montreal Festival is education. This year, Vélo Québec brought Christophe Najdovski, the deputy Mayor of Paris and government official in charge of transportation, to speak at a forum and meet with city administrators and political leaders. Paris is embarking on a nine-step plan to triple the number of bicycle trips by 2020, and they are investing 150 million Euros to make it happen. Attending the forum and later bicycling with Christophe, I was struck by how approachable and watchful he was. He was learning as he was teaching and at one point during the night ride said to me, “Paris must do this! We can shut down the streets and host bicycle tours like these.” Wouldn’t that be worth the price of a plane ticket to Paris?
5. Vélo Québec does it all (almost). Tours, events, magazines: Yes, they do all these things. My host, Jean Francois, even showed me how to haul a suitcase by bicycle. Vélo Québec is a hub of activity with many moving parts. I love headquarters. It’s a hub for cyclists with a café, a small bicycle shop, and a travel agency. They provide tours, both in and outside of Quebec. I was there to learn about La Route Verte and their planning and consulting work. Lucky for me, Louis Carpentier, the Route Verte coordinator, was curious to learn about our efforts to develop the U.S. Bicycle Route System, our successful mapping products for the Adventure Cycling Route Network, and successful bicycle tourism initiatives that Vélo Québec could model. We spent hours comparing notes and developing ideas of how we could collaborate more.
6. La Route Verte is a model for the U.S. Bicycle Route System. This bicycle tourism network provides stress-free cycling through Quebec cities and rural, scenic areas of the province. It is a 5,000 km network with 40% on-road and 60% off-road facilities. The province of Quebec contracts with Vélo Québec to develop the network and work with local governments to build and maintain top-notch facilities. These local governments manage the signs as well as issues, such as flooding or fires, that periodically come up and impact the routes.
7. Bienvenue cyclists! does indeed welcome cyclists. This is the hospitality program that Vélo Québec coordinates for the Route Verte. About 500 hotels and campgrounds are now certified to offer services to traveling cyclists, such as secure bike parking and breakfast. I stayed in one, a small, locally-owned establishment that offered friendly service and a healthy breakfast.
8. Market research isn’t difficult or expensive. It’s all about defining the problem and asking the right question. I learned this at a session at AdventureELEVATE. A master market researcher and educator explained in easy to understand terms why and how to do market research by involving the audience in a quick experiment. By the end of the session, I was convinced that there are no excuses for not doing the homework. For anyone doing business in the adventure travel market, I highly recommend this conference.
9. Poutine rules. Food is hip, hot, and fattening in Quebec. No need to say any more about this. The man’s face in the car (above) says it all.
10. Quebec is French. I wish I knew French. If you’ve ever been to Quebec, you know what I mean. Still, two of my favorite people, both named Jean Francois, and their families charmed me with stories, laughter, and pasta. I left Quebec yearning to return with lots of time to explore the city and province by bike.
Story and photos by Ginny Sullivan.
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