After a hard winter, Montrealers celebrate the arrival of spring by throwing the largest 'Bike Fest' in the world. Ross Velton was there

Cyclists the world over have long considered Holland their spiritual home and Amsterdam the city of the bicycle par excellence. For one week at the end of May, however, the attention of the pedalling world switches to the Canadian province of Quebec, and in particular its main city, Montreal.

Cyclists the world over have long considered Holland their spiritual home and Amsterdam the city of the bicycle par excellence. For one week at the end of May, however, the attention of the pedalling world switches to the Canadian province of Quebec, and in particular its main city, Montreal.

The Montreal Bike Fest marks the beginning of the summer festival season in Quebec. It's also a celebration of cycling in a city better known for its freezing winters and vast complex of underground shopping malls. At the first sign of spring the parks, café terraces and bicycle lanes come to life. This is the most bike-friendly and cycling-mad metropolis in North America. The Bike Fest is to Montreal what beer is to Munich and films are to Cannes.

At least this was my first impression after a taxi-ride from the airport with the constant rattling of a bicycle rack fixed to the back of the car in my ears and the surprising rhetoric of my driver, Ken.

"I've got to admit there's too many cars in this city," he said, when I raised the subject of the Bike Fest. "It'll probably be no good for business, but I guess it's important to keep promoting healthy and eco-friendly alternatives to this thing," he continued, slapping his hands on the furry, pink steering wheel of his Volvo. "That's why I'll be out there on Friday night with you, my friend."

Such comments – the like of which it was hard to imagine flowing from the lips of a New York cabby – summed up perfectly the philosophy behind the Bike Fest, and we agreed to ride together on Friday's Tour la Nuit, a highlight of the festival.

More than 80,000 people from Montreal and beyond participate in the Bike Fest in some way or another. Events include a bicycle-awareness day, cycling lectures and numerous concerts, picnics and parties. But the main attractions are three organised bike rides along routes closed to traffic. The 20km Tour la Nuit takes place after dark and passes through the Botanical Garden; another ride, the Tour des Enfants, unites 10,000 six-to-12-year-old children for a 21km jaunt across the northern part of the city; and for the climax of the festival, the Tour de l'Ile, up to 45,000 bikes take over 65km of roads in Greater Montreal.

"These rides aren't races," explains Suzanne Lareau, president of Velo Quebec, the organisers of the Bike Fest. "Nor are they presented solely as campaigns to promote cycling in Montreal. They are, above all else, parties on wheels."

The atmosphere in the Old Town at the start of the Tour la Nuit was more Disneyland Paris than Tour de France. I found Ken at the appointed meeting place with an empty beer bottle strapped to his helmet and – I kid you not – a bike with furry, pink handlebars. Others in the 5,000-strong crowd were in a similarly festive mood. Some wore luminous, multicoloured necklaces – not always round their necks – while others had decorated their bikes with balloons, ribbons, tinsel and anything else that would show up in the thousands of yellow and red lights that now lined the left bank of the St Lawrence River.

A horn sounded and the procession slowly started to move, winding its way through the cobbled streets of the Old Town before arriving at Montreal's main shopping street.

As we turned on to Rue Sainte-Catherine, Ken bolted, picking up speed on an empty patch of road, whizzing past traffic lights stuck on red, and disappearing into the crowd. Payback time, I thought, for the countless times he'd been stuck in traffic jams on this very same road.

We rode through the seedy section of Saint-Catherine, then through the testosterone corridor of The Village, the city's gay district, where hundreds of muscle-bound revellers had spilled out of the bars to cheer on anyone with a half-decent pair of legs. Turning our handlebars north we headed for the Olympic Park and rounded the stadium, its inclined tower looming over us.

Then, as we entered the Botanical Garden, the atmosphere changed. On the open roads there had been much shouting and whistling, but here on the narrow, tree-lined paths it was calm. Few people now raised their voices, gliding past the sleeping shadows of maples, chestnuts and apple blossoms in church-like silence, lights twinkling in the darkness.

The Tour de l'Ile, a London Marathon-style romp across Montreal and its suburbs, proved a fitting climax to the festival. The serious riders were already well clear of Jeanne-Mance Park at the foot of Mount Royal before I was on my way, and spurred on by cheering crowds and live music they would complete the 65km course in less than two hours. By about this time I had ridden through Verdun, La Salle and Lachine via the banks of the Saint Lawrence River and was attacking the highway section of the course around the airport town of Dorval.

Although one side of the freeway had been closed to motorised vehicles, the traffic was as diverse as ever. In the fast lane racing bikes and "boy racers" on beat-up BMXs sped past saloon bicycles with baby trailers, tandem limousines and senior citizens on vintage Peugeots and Raleighs, while a large, black scooter weaved through the traffic, the greasy hair of its rider blowing in the breeze and his tattooed arms glistening with sweat as he pushed. It was really no different to any other busy stretch of road, except that today there was no rush, no routine and no rage. This was, after all, a party.

 

The 2002 Montreal Bike Fest takes place from May 26 to June 2. For more information or to register for one of the three organised rides, visit La Maison des Cyclistes, 1251 Rue Rachel Est, Montreal (001 514 521 8356) or www.velo.qc.ca

Comments