Words by Brian Szklarczuk, Photos by David Ristau
A cycling adventure through towns steeped in history such as Bruxelle, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, and St.Claude, Manitoba, doesn’t require a transcontinental flight, a Canadian passport, or weeks of holidays. All it takes is a map of Manitoba, an hour’s drive, and a desire to tame some of the best-kept “mountains” in this prairie province’s “La Montagne” region.
Through a partnership with Bonjour Manitoba, a group of nine cyclists of varying abilities, from Tour Divide riders to novice bikepackers, took on the challenge of exploring the francophone communities of the Pembina Valley as an adventure cycling destination. Cyclists gathered at the local community hub in St.Claude, where introductions were made and a final gear check was performed before heading out on bikes as diverse as their riders, including full-bikepacking rigs to simple trailers and everything in between. This is how introductory bikepacking should be; accessible to all.
Our goal was to get on the road by 9:00 AM but sticking to our game plan was challenging. On top of the many curious stares (Who are these strange aliens on bikes and what on earth are they doing HERE?), many onlookers were eager to share their knowledge of the area and its tough hills, and the many secrets that the roads would offer along the way. We left St. Claude and headed off in the direction of Roseisle, best known for Birch Trails, the site of the 1999 Pan Am Games mountain bike race. With vehicles cautiously passing us with a wave and a smile, we soon started riding on Manitoba’s crushed gravel roads. The tour was planned with these safer, but challenging roads in mind.
After the first few hills, the roads, the pasture land, and the peaceful landscape brought me back to a special place in time when I spent a considerable amount of time riding in Belgium. Our Manitoba hills are as challenging, with steep rollers and strong cross winds, but like those in Belgium, they offer powerful tranquility.
Our first stop of the day was Miami, (yes, there is a Miami in Manitoba). Here, we were greeted by a few more curious looker-ons. After a healthy lunch of the freshest sandwich and salad I’ve tasted in a long time, we headed to the “great unknown”, an area famous for its high winds and sprawling wind farms around the communities of Altamount and St. Léon. I had never visited this part of the province before. Fortunately, our GPS-programmed route was tailored to avoid the windiest stretches of the road without having to sacrifice any of the magnificence of the land and the immensity of these clean power generating turbines. Along the route, we discovered an abandoned rail trail, the last trace of a historic train route, which brought prosperity to the region for nearly 100 years. Regardless of tire size (40mm plus), all riders were able to maneuver through it. One of the highlights of the trail was coming upon a hidden trestle bridge, one of Western Canada’s oldest. This engineering marvel provided a breathtaking view of this little-known part of Manitoba.
Facing a typical Manitoba headwind, the cyclists rode at their own pace through the canopied trail back onto the prairie roads. The gravel was easily rideable, but the relentless 40 km/hr headwind was felt by all. A Manitoba headwind is something else! With the wind and the major hills behind us, we slowly rolled into the village of Somerset, relieved to get onto pavement after the grueling gravel roads. Everyone was ready to set up camp, and enjoy an evening of entertainment. Dinner at GeeGee’s didn’t disappoint, nor did the private tour at the local museum. Military memorabilia and local artifacts brought the area’s history alive for us all. Camping arrangements at the Somerset community campground were made before the tour stopped here for the night. After a long day in the saddle, this resting place was a welcome sight with warm showers and ample space to settle in for the night.
After breaking camp in the morning, and another great meal at GeeGee’s, we ventured north, entering the “Pembina Steps”, a series of gravel and progressively elevated one-mile roads. The Pembina Steps offer an incomparable view of Manitoba’s vast agricultural land. After a stop at l’École Cardinal School, one of the few remaining heritage schools in the prairies, where visitors get to sit at period student desks while reciting verbs and doing arithmetic, this hardy group of cyclists moved on to their next destination, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes.
A sudden shift in the wind gave us much welcome relief. With a strong wind in our backs, we rode into the francophone village of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. Here we fueled up on some sizzling poutine at Big Al’s and rested on the outdoor patio. With the riders all in good spirits, we undertook our final push back to St.Claude.
As we cycled though this last stretch of our Pembina Valley excursion, the beauty of the rolling fields of soybeans, sunflowers, wheat, and barley was not lost on us. Once again, it didn’t hurt to have a tailwind pushing us along. More time to lift our heads and admire the scenery, less time spent contemplating the treads on our tires and the rubber on the road. As Manitobans get ready for the change of season and the harsh months ahead, we looked onto these fields with pride and awe at the prosperity they bring and the food they deliver to our tables.
With one last group photo the adventure ended where it started. During the drive home, we all had time to reflect on the great potential for adventure cycling in our own back yard. None of us had experienced the greatness of Manitoba like this before. All of us agree that it needs to be shared. Want to join us?