Le Tour Detour

We all woke up early, around 6am, and packed everything we’d need: the meat, cheese, bread, and snacks we’d bought the night before, as well as a selection of beer we’d carried with us from Belgium.  The day, Thursday, July 25, was the highlight of our Tour de France trip: the mountain stage.  We’d get to the highlight of the stage, the Col du Galibier, early enough to make our way up and stake out a prime viewing spot where we’d wait for the whole to-do of the Tour to go by. It was only a 30-minute drive from our AirBNB.

The Galibier and surrounding area from our spot.

We had to park about a kilometer away from the start of the mountain, but we eventually made it to a great spot where we could see any oncoming action for quite a while—we were there to get our money’s worth.  On our way up, we switched on and off who carried our cooler full of goodies and stopped occasionally to rest and to cheer on the hordes of amateur cyclists trying to conquer the Galibier. It looked like some of them really needed the extra motivation.

Not a bad view from our parking spot

We set up our camp around 8:30 or 9am and began our long wait in the sun.  The Tour de France caravan wouldn’t arrive until about 2pm, and the riders themselves between 4-4:30pm.

Le Tour

The team buses coming through amazed me at what good drivers these guys were—I would later find out that I’d never be able to take a bus around some of these mountain passes. The caravan was the same thing: it would have terrified me to drive those huge, unwieldy parade floats around some of the curves on the mountain.  But it did give us our last chance to pick up some cheap souvenirs and trinkets and get us excited for the cyclists that would be coming through shortly.

The television helicopter in front of us

Eventually, we heard the television helicopters in the distance and got ready. We had gone for a walk earlier and saw we were very close to the sign that signified 25km to the finish line, so keeping track of where they were on the Tour de France app got us even more excited as we counted down—40km, then 35, then 30. A helicopter appeared, and we could see the breakaway group on the winding road beneath us. We watched it snake its way through the crowd-lined road, and as the four or five riders were on the portion of road right below us, we saw Nairo Quintana put on a burst of speed and leave the others behind. We got into position to wait for the leaders to round a bend.

A poorly-zoomed picture of the breakaway, right before Nairo makes his move

I always thought I would take the opportunity to be one of those guys who ran beside the riders, but Nairo positively flew by us, followed by Romain Bardet and the rest of the leaders.  We cheered them on, and chatted excitedly while waiting for the peloton.  Once the main group was by us, we waited for the grupetto, or the back end of the race.  A car coming up announced that the group behind him contained fan favorite Peter Sagan, and we all cheered him on as he went by.  As someone who cycles (poorly), it still amazed me how fast even the stragglers were going up this mountain.

Nairo on his way to the stage win
Peter Sagan struggles on the Galibier

Rain

As the final riders were going by, the sky began to darken. We put on our rain gear, and there was a light sprinkling rain for part of our descent back to the car.  Nothing too bad, but we could see some intermittent lightning back in the direction of our AirBNB. Taking different routes down, we all met up back at the rental car, where we pulled out and got in line to head back home.

The line of cars barely moved, but it did move.  Every once in a while, an emergency vehicle flew by in the opposite lane, and we figured there had been some fender-benders in the rain and rush to get home. We made it back to La Grave, a small town about halfway between Les Deux Alpes, where we were staying, and the Col du Galibier when we noticed the line of cars only seemed to be moving when a car came back our way.  Then we noticed cars in our line starting to turn around.  Uh oh.

Campers at the Galibier. They were probably fine.

We turned around and pulled into the first open parking lot we saw and headed into a hostel/restaurant called Gite Le Rocher in order to sit down, use the WiFi, and get some food.  They had a prix fixe menu of vegetable soup, goat, and a dessert, but at this point I was getting too nervous to take pictures of my food (a first).  We were originally told by the hippie-looking woman in charge that the roads would be closed for about three hours due to a landslide caused by the rain.  When Beth had her husband back home get online and check (the WiFi turned out to be bunk in the restaurant), he found that the roads being closed for three DAYS was a generous assumption.

We realized, now nearing 9pm, we would have no other option but to take a detour back to our AirBNB. It was starting to get dark, we were all tired from an entire day spent sitting in the sun and drinking, and I was the only one on the car’s insurance, so it would be up to me to take the four-hour detour over the Galibier, over the Col du Glandon, and back to Les Deux Alpes.  Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?  We got ourselves psyched up and walked back to the car, where we realized the building we had parked by had become a temporary shelter for people who had cycled from the area of Les Deux Alpes to the stage and couldn’t get back.  It was a huge inconvenience for us, but at least we had the means to drive over the mountains in the dark—these people were completely stranded.

King of the Mountain

We threw on some podcasts—I wanted something my brain would have to pay attention to, rather than zoning out to music—and headed back the way we’d come.  The line of cars at the base of the Col du Galibier was long and slow-moving, and by this point it was pure nighttime. We eventually made it to the base of the mountain, and my nerves kicked in. If I’d had my own car, which is smaller and something I’m more familiar with, I would have been a lot more relaxed, but I was convinced the SUV we had was going to roll off the edge of the mountain any minute as we climbed higher and higher.

Our original route home.
The detour (without traffic)

I didn’t care about the people behind me who probably wanted to drive faster, and I only moved from the center of the lane when there was oncoming traffic (and once almost not quickly enough, as we were almost hit head-on by someone coming around a sharp bend). Beth and Kelly, both manning phones for directions, kept me braced on when a particularly sharp bend was coming up and what I had to expect, while Ray fell asleep in the back seat—after he made sure to point out how steep one of the climbs we were coming up to was.

Luckily, the Galibier has a tunnel cut through about three quarters of the way up, so we were able to skip going over the peak of the mountain.  This, and the fact that it was so dark we couldn’t see the drop-offs next to us, are probably the only things that kept me from a full-on nervous breakdown on the ride. After the tunnel was a downhill portion leading into the town of Valloire, which gave us an up-close view of the Tour route that we wouldn’t have otherwise received. I could have done without it.

When we explored more of the Galibier, I didn’t realize I would eventually be driving these roads

Whenever there was room, I moved over and let all the antsy drivers behind us pass me, but if we were going up or downhill, I didn’t care how mad they got, I wasn’t getting close to the edges.  If one of you was behind me, sorry not sorry.

After two climbs and two descents, we were back on the highway for a portion, and then once again ascending to Les Deux Alpes. We rolled into the area of our AirBNB and found the last parking spot around 2:30 in the morning, almost immediately before a car behind us pulled in, no doubt in the same situation.

If the buses could do it, I could do it.

It took a while to get to sleep, because my adrenaline was going full blast and my nerves were on edge.  On our way back to La Grave, sitting in traffic, I had nodded off once or twice due to being so exhausted, but on the haul back I’m not sure I closed my eyes once—I knew it was up to me to get everyone home safe, and I knew I had to stay awake and stay calm.  As much as I wanted to panic (and, at some points, full on cry), panic wasn’t an option. We got back into our room, cracked a beer, and calmed down.  What had been a memorable day of watching the Tour de France became one of those unforgettable days of a trip where things go just wrong enough to make it exciting, but not so wrong as to ruin everything.  Had we ridden bikes from our room to the Galibier, I may be singing a different tune, but as it stood we had the ability to get back safely. And the day went a long way to reinforce one of my favorite sayings: it’s always an adventure.

Beth and I, before the dread of driving sets in, but not before the sunburn does.

Cycling the Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail, as I have made no secret of saying, is one of my favorite places in the world.  Between the friendly people, the great food, and the stunning scenery, the 300km (186mi) road around the top of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia cannot be beat. The Trail (and the area around it) boasts over 200km (125mi) of hiking trails, as well as a plethora of activities, scenic overlooks, and fresh local food. The Trail can conceivably be driven in a single day, but even in a car 2-3 days minimum should be required.

The accessibility of the Cabot Trail, the fact that the entire thing is paved, and the abundance of food and shops along the way all contribute to this being a great first-time bikepacking adventure—that I love the area so much also didn’t hurt.  It truly is a beginner’s bikepacking trip, but that is exactly what we wanted.  You’re never too far away from civilization, and someone on Cape Breton Island is always willing to help you out if you need it.

Despite the ease of use of the trail, we did do quite a bit of planning and preparation (as anyone should).  Hopefully some of our preparation ideas can help you out as well.

The entirety of the Cabot Trail
Gear

We had a lot of gear to bring, despite trying to pack as lightly as possible. To accomplish this, I had a large Ortleib 16.5L seat-pack saddle bag, a Revelate handlebar harness (changed from the Ortleib handlebar pack, which was too wide for my handlebars but also not round enough for my sleeping bag), and a Topeak Tribag frame bag. Kaitie used a Revelate Terrapin 14L saddle bag and a system of Revelate washboard straps to hold thing together, and we both had custom-made frame bags (my mom is a seamstress).

Inside these bags was everything we would need for five days (minus food): a Big Agnes Fly Creek Ultralight 2-person tent, a Big Agnes Lulu 15 sleeping bag for Kaitie and a Big Agnes Encamptment 15 for myself, two Sea To Summit Aeros Ultralight pillows, a Klymit insulated Static V all season sleeping pad for myself, and one for Kaitie. My sleeping bag was strapped to my handlebars in a Sea To Summit eVent 14L compression sack, and Kaitie kept the tent and her sleeping pad strapped to her handlebars in a Sea To Summit 13L Evac Dry Sack.

In addition to all of this, we had a pair of clothes to sleep in, a pair of “town clothes” if we needed, raincoats, a first aid travel kit, a pair of Toms for myself, and extra bike gear (mini tire pump, a multitool, and spare tubes). It was a lot of gear to amass (especially the bike-specific stuff), but REI was a great help between their online Outlet sales, coupons, and garage sales. If you are able to take your time in collecting the necessary gear, you will be able to find plenty of deals.

Training

We knew there would be plenty of climbing on this trip—three significant mountains and a total of over 4,600m (13,800ft) of climbing.  This isn’t extreme for a lot of cyclists, but as relative beginners who live in a pancake-flat city like Philadelphia, there aren’t many hills to train on. Luckily, we found a few and made it our job to tackle them each weekend for weeks leading up to the trip. We also embraced some flatter rides for longer mileage to get used to being in the saddle for hours.

Route Planning

The first major decision to make when traveling the Cabot Trail is clockwise or counterclockwise. Counterclockwise will put you on the cliff’s edge of the island for most of the way around, and is said to be much better visually.  However, we’d also heard there would be strong headwinds on the back end of the trip if we went counterclockwise. Between that and being afraid of heights and not wanting to be on the edge of anything, I pushed for clockwise.

We made up a map and a list of potential stops and hikes for each day

After choosing a starting point and a direction, things get much easier: there are a limited number of places to stay, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t have too much mileage in one day (and that we only tackled one mountain per day). Our original plan looked like this:

Day 1: Margaree Forks to Pleasant Bay (79km; 1,041m of climbing)
Day 2: Pleasant Bay to Meat Cove (58km; 1,040m of climbing)
Day 3: Meat Cove to Ingonish (71km; 985m of climbing)
Day 4: Ingonish to Baddeck (104km; 1,190m of climbing)
Day 5: Baddeck to Margaree Forks (43km; 405m of climbing)

While we could have made day four a little shorter, there isn’t a whole lot going on between Ingonish and Baddeck, and I also wanted to have at least one 100+km day, because why not?  And I’ll get more into it in my full recap, but due to weather we had to cut out day two altogether and change day three to Pleasant Bay to Ingonish Beach, which turned out to be 71km with 1,153m of climbing.

Lodging

Knowing we’d be out and about and getting gross on the trail, I wanted a nice split of camping and inside lodging.  Our home base on night zero was Live Life In Tents in Margaree Forks, where we camped the night before we took off, and then we splurged on the Mountain View Motel & Cottages in Pleasant Bay, mostly because there weren’t really any camping options near the town. This got us a shower after our first day of cycling, as well as let us do some sink laundry to put off our stuff getting gross for an extra day. As it turns out, we had to extend our stay for a day since our proposed day two was nothing but rain—luckily, the Meat Cove Campground we had planned on staying at was first-come first-served, so we hadn’t put down a deposit or paid in advance.

Day three was back outside at the Ingonish Beach campground, which was a great little spot with all the amenities you could possibly want at a campground. Night four was Baddeck Cabot Trail Campground, but we splurged on a glamping cabin (which had no electricity or water), just for the bed.  This gave us at least three days needing our camping gear (minus the tent), so we didn’t feel like we’d brought it in vain. If you wanted to cycle the trail, though, without bringing a ton of shit, you could very easily stay at a motel, cottage, or bed and breakfast every night.

Food

Another thing we didn’t want to do was haul around a week’s worth of food, especially at the beginning of our trip.  We brought along a few of our favorite Clif bars and some Nuun Endurance drink mix, but other than that we relied on the towns and shops along the way to stay fed—which worked out well, as a surprising amount were well stocked with energy bars and Gatorade (something we’d been warned would absolutely not be the case).

Stopping at restaurants and shops to get food also gave us an excuse to spend more time off our bikes, which was a welcome break every once in a while. Especially at nice little coffee shops like the Frog Pond Café in Cheticamp, Danena’s Bakery & Bistro in Dingwall, or the Wreck Cove General Store (which had surprisingly good coffee).  Other great stops included the Dancing Goat in Margaree, which has awesome sandwiches for breakfast and lunch; the Clucking Hen Café & Bakery in Englishtown (which also had great lunch sandwiches); Andrew’s Pizzeria in Ingonish (where we devoured two large pizzas after our second day of cycling); and my personal favorite on the entire island, the Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay.  Get the lobster roll.

I wish we could do it all again.  Not because I would do anything differently, but because it was such a great trip.  Being able to see the Cabot Trail from a different perspective, and with a lot more time to process it all, was a great experience.  Being on the bike for a week, being able to leave it outside while we went into a restaurant and not worry about it being stolen, just spending a week with Kaitie—it all made for a perfect adventure.  And a perfect beginner’s adventure for anyone thinking about giving it a try.  The Cabot Trail should be a must-visit anyway, but to do it on a bike is a special treat that I never thought I would be able to accomplish.

Almost through Day 1, before attacking French Mountain

I would be remiss without thanking my former travel partner LeeAnne for not only providing tips for the trail and where to stop or eat, but also driving it two weeks before we arrived to do some recon (and finding out about some construction on one of the mountains that might be a bit hairy for us). I also used the official live Nova Scotia construction map to keep an eye on things. Cycle Nova Scotia is also an excellent resource.