Just prior to Labour Day weekend, I went on a two-day bike excursion west of Toronto, starting in Guelph, staying in Downtown Kitchener, and finishing my ride in Downtown Hamilton. [Part II, Kitchener to Hamilton is here.]
I find that cycling long distances, especially in the countryside, is valuable “me” time. I go at my own place, which is great, because I do not have the stamina nor the build for keeping up with seasoned road cyclists. In my opinion, well-maintained rail trails are excellent — there are no hills to climb, no traffic to deal with (except where the trail crosses busy country roads), and there is much peace and quiet. Fellow trail users are friendly, a nod, a hello, or a wave are normally exchanged by passing cyclists or pedestrians.
On the first day of this 160-kilometre ride, I rode from Guelph, through West Montrose, Elmira, and St. Jacobs to Downtown Kitchener. I stopped at a covered bridge, rode through several charming small towns, sampled the beers of a craft brewery celebrating its second anniversary, and checked out some interesting cycling infrastructure shared by a very different form of muscle-powered transport.
I don’t have a car, so planning rural rides are little bit more challenging. Happily, for most out-of-town ride I rely on GO Transit’s trains and buses, which provide an opportunity for one-way or “open-jaw” trips without worrying about the logistics of organizing shuttle rides. In the last few years, I’ve used GO Transit to get to/from Uxbridge, Lindsay and Peterborough, Hamilton (and on to Port Dover by bike), Niagara Region, Georgetown and Newmarket, and Barrie (and on to Orillia and Midland), these cities served by GO are all great places to start or finish a ride.
Downtown Guelph. The Basilica Church of Our Lady Immaculate dominates McConnell Street (photo taken earlier this year)
On a pleasant Saturday, I loaded my bike on the rack took a GO bus from the Union Station Bus Terminal to Guelph, a long bus ride that took nearly two hours. GO Transit’s buses are quite comfortable; if you’re planning to bring a bike along, just be sure to arrive early to make sure you get one of the two bike rack spots.
Guelph, in my view, is one of Ontario’s prettiest cities. The downtown skyline is marked by the Basilica Church of Our Lady Immaculate, a Catholic church whose dominating presence reminds me of a cathedral in a smaller European city like Chartres or Cologne. The downtown is also vibrant; there are many restaurants, bars and shops that cater to University of Guelph students and locals alike. Besides the basilica and the old City Hall (pictured below), the stone commercial blocks and institutional buildings give the downtown a lot of charm not present elsewhere.
From Downtown Guelph, I rode north up Silvercreek Parkway, a road with only intermittent bike lanes, outside the city limits, to the start of the Kissing Bridge Trailway, part of an abandoned Canadian Pacific Railway line from Guelph to Goderich. The rail trail is takes its name from the nickname of the historic West Montrose covered bridge, the only vintage covered bridge left in Ontario.
Map of the first day’s ride, a relatively short 53 kilometres.
Trail users are actually required to use the West Montrose Covered Bridge, rather than continue over the Grand River via the former CPR alignment; the rail bridge was removed not long after the tracks were torn up. On the west bank of the river, the detour is quite pleasant, but on the east bank, cyclists must drag their bikes up a long staircase; the bike gutter being the only concession. The covered bridge is stunning; so the detour is well worth it.
The stairway up from the Kissing Bridge Trailway
The West Montrose Covered Bridge, built in 1881 and repaired and restored over the years.
Piers from the abandoned Canadian Pacific Railway bridge over the Grand River
The Kissing Bridge Trailway was in excellent condition between Guelph and Elmira, though its surface consists entirely of crushed stone so road bikes would some have difficulty on the trail. My new touring bike, fitted with more rugged tires than the default road tires, handled it with no difficulty. This section of trail passes by many farms owned by Old Order Mennonites; farmers in traditional clothing were busy tending to their fields as I rode by.
Downtown ElmiraOnce I arrived in Elmira, I headed south towards Waterloo and Kitchener along Arthur Street and Highway 85 to St. Jacobs. Highway 85, maintained by Waterloo Region, was actually quite pleasant to ride. Wide paved shoulders accommodate bikes as well as horse-drawn carriages still commonly used by the local Mennonite community. Just north of St. Jacobs, ramps and a wide culvert direct bicycles and carriages off the highway.
Wide paved shoulders accommodate various modes of muscle-powered transportation. Watch for the road apples!
Culvert under Highway 85 allows for safe travel between Elmira and St. Jacobs
In St. Jacobs, I stopped at Block Three Brewing by chance; I was looking for a short rest, and happened upon the craft brewer’s second anniversary party. They have some interesting beers on tap; if that’s your thing, I recommend a visit.
Once in Waterloo, I made my way towards the University of Waterloo and the Iron Horse Trail to Downtown Kitchener, following the route of the Ion LRT now under construction. Opening in 2017, it will connect two universities, two large shopping centres, Downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo;. I think that it’s impressive that a city-region of fewer than 500,000 can support such a project; it’s one of several transit projects in Ontario either proposed or under construction that I look forward to riding one day.
The City of Waterloo has excellent cycling infrastructure; the wayfinding signs along the trails are excellent. The Iron Horse Trail, itself a former electric railway line, connects Kitchener and Waterloo nicely, but is due for improvements. Another trail, following a different rail corridor, is also slated for upgrades.
Upon arrival in Downtown Kitchener, I checked into a local hotel and had a late dinner. The next day, Sunday, I biked over 105 kilometres to Downtown Hamilton.