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Unexpected Gifts – Biking French Mountain, Cape Breton

“Did you see the moose?”

No!  We met a dozen people who saw the moose, but all we saw was a bunny.  A cute bunny.  But a bunny is not as cool as a moose.

We are hiking the Skyline trail just north of Cheticamp on Cape Breton on the Cabot Trail.  It’s the day off before our big riding days into the Highlands of Cape Breton National Park.  Andre – the local bike shop owner of VeloMax Cycles, has time on his hands with the end of tourist season.  He has agreed to drive us up to the top of French Mountain to this trail and come pick us up a few hours later.

The drive to the trailhead also happens to be the first big climb of the Cabot trail in the Highlands.  This is useful, because the reactions of people when we tell them we plan to bike this route ranges from incredulity to sheer amazement.  Reconnaissance seems prudent.  Plus this area is known for its gorgeous hiking and we want a taste of the trails.

The Cabot Trail is a famous road that loops the very tip of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  This peninsula is known for stunning mountains plunging into oceans scenery, magazine-cover wildlife including moose and whales, and the cultural depth of the French, Acadian and Scottish heritage that is still very prevalent and preserved here and reflected in the music and food and daily living.


Cyclists know this route as challenging and infinitely rewarding with three big climbs that are steep – up to 15% grade – and weather that can be unpredictable.  We have broken the climbing into three days – a manageable distance for some steep climbs that should still give plenty of time to enjoy the park while not killing ourselves and coming in exhausted.

Yesterday we biked 90 km to get to Cheticamp from Baddeck on the first leg of the journey around the Cabot trail.  Our first day led across the south of the peninsula through forest and finally opened up into the Margaree Valley which was lovely with wildflowers and green pastures that led to the mountains.  We reached the coast on the west side to blue skies and incredible views of blue sea and cliffs and harbors.  The next 20 kilometers north to Cheticamp – a French speaking Acadian village at the entrance to the national park – was jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Today we enjoyed the village and learning about the Acadian history and crafts, and heading out on a hike.

Andre basically closed up his bike shop to come pick us up off the trail.  On the way home he asks if we would like to go the Cheticamp island across the harbor from town to see the lighthouse.  Next thing we know we are off in the minivan (he has a new baby) and getting a full on tour up gravel roads for the views and all around town.

Julie has very reasonably decided not to do the climb tomorrow and asked Andre if he would drive her and her bike to Pleasant Bay 25 miles away.  I, of course, am unreasonable and want to do the climb, though a nasty weather front blowing in tonight may delay it a day.  Andre as taken it upon himself to not only get Julie over the mountain, he’s also taking my panniers and timing when he leaves for about the time I should reach the top of the mountain.  He’s worried the decent on the curvy roads might be dangerous in marginal weather, so he is looking after me.

And I appreciate it.  Because he knows these mountains well, and he is right about the dangers in the weather.   And while I will do the climb – either tomorrow or – if the weather is bad – the next day, I’m not stupid enough to turn down knowledgeable help when it’s offered.  And having support of hauling bags, and more importantly a bail-out plan in case my lymphedema starts to be come a concern, is smart safety net.

Of course Andre doesn’t know about the cancer or lymphedema or anything about my biking history.  All he knows is he has the time and he’s helping two people he’s never met before.  A lot of it is empathy for one cyclist to another.  A lot is because that is the way people are here in Cape Breton, where hospitality is legendary and the community has long traditions of looking out for each other.

So if the weather is safe tomorrow, I’ll be climbing a mountain with the support of a kind stranger – and my riding friend Julie – who have my back.  

And while I love to do these hard, beautiful rides, there is something more special about doing it with others.  

Because maybe I’ve finally learned that it’s not just about accomplishing the goal, it’s how you achieve it and who you bring along with you that matters most.





Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate lives in Seattle, WA. She is a two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate, a communications specialist and writer, a nature lover and fan of beaches, mountains and big trees in the Pacific Northwest.