Montreal bike


David Whitley takes to two wheels in Montreal, and finds one major flaw in the plan.



In theory, Montreal is a pretty ideal place for a cycling tour. The hills aren’t too steep, and there’s an excellent network of cycle paths around the city. Most of them probably annoy drivers, as they’ve taken up road space, but the cycling-friendly message is pretty clear. Two wheels are welcome here. Montreal is also a city – as I may have mentioned before - with loads to see and plenty of intriguing culture and history. So why, then, did a three hour cycling tour leave me a little cold?



I’ve done a similar city cycling tour before, in Washington DC, and it was brilliant. But that tour was largely through the open space of the National Mall, and it was a non-stop highlights reel of monuments and memorials. Each time we stopped cycling and got off the bikes, it was at something that was unquestionably worth seeing. We had barely any roads to cross and using the bikes was essentially just a quicker way of getting between places.


In Montreal, it didn’t quite work out that way. This is partly due to Montreal’s nature. Old Montreal has most of the lovely old buildings, but aside from the Notre Dame Basilica, none of them is a real must-see. The area’s charm is in ambling around, soaking it up, and learning the stories behind said buildings.


Much the same applies to Plateau Mont-Royal. It’s one of the areas that gives Montreal its buzz, indie shops, cafés, bars and restaurants intertwining with pretty residential streets. We pull up round the back of one, and the guide shows us the outdoor staircases winding up to most of the houses. He asks why on earth people would do this when temperatures regularly hit minus 15 or 20 degrees Celsius in winter. Understandably, we all look a little puzzled. It does seem a rather insane thing to do.


The answer is family sizes – when the homes were built, you’d have at least six or seven people living in each house, and often a lot more. The staircases had to go outside to create the necessary room – and if that meant getting cold, then so be it. Little asides like this, however, are more an indication of what’s missing than what’s packed in. Most of the three hour jaunt consists of cycling past things as the guide points his arm towards them in a laborious approximation of the YMCA dance.


Herein lies the problem. When you’re cycling, you can’t do much else at the same time. You have to concentrate on where you’re going, and you can’t really take anything in properly until you stop, because you’re going past too fast. It’s also impossible to talk, listen to commentary or ask questions. The cycling part becomes about getting from A to B more quickly, and in Montreal, you want to wrap yourself up in what’s between A and B. Walking and talking would, in hindsight, be a far more illuminating way of tackling things.



Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourisme Montreal ( He stayed at the classy-but-cute Hotel Nelligan ( and went cycling with Ca Roule (