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Bicycling The Cabot Trail … What I wish I had known

Bicycling Great Breton, Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail is incredibly beautiful and worth the effort.  One of the world’s most scenic drives makes for one of the world’s most incredible bike rides.

But despite running into several cyclists on the trail during our week in mid-September 2014, there is not a lot of information out there to help plan a safe trip.  So this post includes everything I think is important for planning the trip to be safe.

This is not a beginner ride.  But it’s very manageable with good planning and experience and training to tackle the hills.
We started in Baddeck, rode 90km to Cheticamp, climbed French Mountain and overnighted in Pleasant Bay, climbed North Mountain and stayed in Dingwall, rode the coastal route to Ingonish, and finished our ride in St. Ann.  We had two rear panniers, but stayed in hotels and did not camp.  So if you are camping, sorry – I saw campgrounds and even people stealth camping but I don’t have much information to help.  The photo below is the French Mountain climb. 

My tips for doing this route:
1)  Ride the route clockwise.
Most car tourist drive it counter-clockwise, so there is significantly less traffic on the narrow, shoulder-less roads riding clockwise. You are also on the mountain side of the road rather than the cliff side which is safer.  And, the winds can be ferocious, and they are more likely to be a nice tail wind helping you up and over the mountains.  I’d hate to do those climbs into a headwind.
2)  Build in a couple of extra days for weather


The weather is a big factor here.  The week we rode, we ran into three days where winds gusted over 50km per hour.  The day we did the first big climb over French Mountain the forecast originally called for 40 degrees and raining with 50km winds.  When we woke up it had changed to no rain till the afternoon which left just enough time to get over the mountain and into Pleasant Bay.  I arrived 30 minutes before a big hail storm.  There is no shelter up there on the route.  You do not want to be caught out there.
Today we are holed up in Ingonish waiting out a windstorm with rain.  I just took the photo above – the rain is blowing sideways so hard it’s coming through the seals of the windows of our hotel. Winds are gusting 90km per hour.  We have built-in the time for this, so we aren’t panicking wondering how we will make our flight.  Instead we get to storm watch over coffee and have a nice day off.
Having built-in the time to do the ride around the weather keeps us safer and let’s us ride when the visibility is good so we can actually see the beautiful scenery and be seen by traffic.  There is plenty to do here with extra time if the weather is good. 
3)  This is NOT a Beginner Ride
I’ve ridden across America and through India and in Vietnam all over the Northwest US and Colorado. I’m still relatively new to self-supported riding.  And all the experience cycling and climbing and dealing with bad weather and bike repair has been important here on the Cabot Trail.  Besides the climbing, you should really have good bike handling skills for descents which are steep and full of hairpin turns and made more complicated by wind gusts that literally blow you sideways.  
That also includes knowing how to manage your nutrition – food and adding electrolytes to your water.  There are no services in the park, so you can’t stop at a convenience store if you get hungry.  You need to bring all your food with you on the ride.
You need all the gear.  Bring your winter riding gear.  Highly visible jackets and reflective gear.  Bright flashing tail lights for visibility.   Layers for warmth.  
Which is not to say you can’t just rent a bike and head out on your first bike trip and be fine.  But I really wouldn’t.  The map below is the best ride map I found for the trail.  The source website has more information www.cyclenovascotia.ca

4)  Steep climbs


The North Mountain climb is a 13% grade for 3 km.  If you just read that and your eyebrows didn’t hit your brow line, then you are one incredible climber or you don’t know what that means to pedal up that steep a hill on a bike.  Your bike needs to be properly geared for the climbs.  Again, if you don’t know what that means and whether your gearing is adequate get into a bike shop before you head out.  The bike shop in Cheticamp is good, but they can’t stock everything for a last minute fix.  The good news is if you plan the trip well you can walk these climbs if needed – you have to allow a lot extra time and know the weather will hold.
My ride companion took a look at the hills and decided this was not for her.  We managed to arrange a SAG for her over the Cheticamp to North Cape legs.  I rode and put my bags in the SAG, which made it much easier without the panniers.  I could ride it without the weight.  If I had been hauling panniers I would have joined the other cyclists I saw pushing their loaded bikes up the mountain.  
It was possible for us to arrange support from VeloMax Cycles in Cheticamp because it was at the end of the season and the bike shop was slow, and Andre the owner is incredibly nice.  While I would not count on arranging support last minute in the summer high season when they are busy, Andre is a terrific resource and can help. http://www.velomax.ca/ 
5)  Look for Food
When we booked hotels or B&B’s we learned quickly to choose places to stay with food nearby.  Or ask if they have food, or where the nearest grocery store is to bring food in.  We met cyclists who reserved hotels and learned there was no food up nearby.  Local folks fed them. 
We also found it very helpful to book hotels a day in advance rather than conform to a set itinerary.  That gave us the ability to ride around the weather.  We found local people very accommodating to cyclists and understanding of the need to travel when the weather is good.  Can’t say it would be easy to do this in the high season when places fill up, but I found that local people were incredible at hosting you in a way that accommodated cycling needs.
This is an incredible experience.   Ride the Cabot Trail – it’s worth it.  I hope this post helps you plan and have a great ride.

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