Snow geese pierce the sky in a long, swaying line, flying south for the winter. I've arrived in Quebec at the turn of the season; the colours are at their richest as I drive into the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal.
The busy biking season is over, so the popular P'tit Train du Nord (Little Train of the North) cycle path I've come to Canada to ride should be quiet. The 200-kilometre trail, from Mont-Laurier to Saint-Jerome, just outside Montreal, is one small section of La Route Verte (Green Road), a 5,000-kilometre network of connected routes across Quebec, the longest network of cycle paths in North America. National Geographic recently named La Route Verte the No1 cycling trail in the world.
I fly into Montreal, staying at the historic hotel La Maison Pierre du Calvet on the edge of the attractive historic centre. Quebec's French culture is visible in the gastronomy and the arts. There are cobbled streets of Vieux (Old) Montreal to explore, museums and galleries, bistros and late-night jazz to listen to at Upstairs before travelling north to Mont-Laurier.
It's not a promising start. I'm dropped off at a service station on an intersection with no name. A bridge near the start of the route is closed, so I work my bike around and pick up the trail again. But it doesn't take long to see why the P'tit Train Du Nord is so popular. Once I make it past the timber yard on the edge of the town, the landscape opens up. I see the hind legs of a deer disappearing into the trees. There is a sense of freedom and nature, riding past fields of horses in the bright sun.
Built in the 1890s, le P'tit Train du Nord used to be an active railway for trains carrying freight, timber and, later, tourists to and from the mountains, although word is that it operated at a constant loss until it was dismantled in the 1990s.
The cycle path is fast, mostly smooth and, because it's on an old railway, flat. I ride through a long straight corridor of just-browning pine trees, past big, weathered barns and fields of rolled hay bales, then skirt the edge of one of the many peaceful lakes in the Laurentians.
In the afternoon, I brush off my French to ask directions in the quiet village of Nominingue and find my stop for the night. Another draw of the P'tit Train du Nord is the abundance of great bed-and-breakfasts along the route. Guy, one of the owners of Le Provincialart B&B, suggests a walk. I follow the path at the back of the house through the trees to the edge of Lac-Saint-Joseph, where the sun sets over the gently rippling water.
In the morning, freshly baked cranberry scones, toast, eggs, a herbaceous potato rosti and tea provide fuel for the day's ride.
The trail leads around the edge of Lac Nominingue. There are marshy areas of flooded forest. It's said that the region's bears stay deeper in the forest, but I still keep an eye out.
I pass through small villages and towns, then along a wide rushing river. From a high wooden bridge, a mighty river can be seen crashing over rocks. Some of the trees on the banks are scarlet and burgundy. The tarmac trail gives way to packed crushed gravel after the village of Labelle; the landscape feels less tame and more remote. There are horses and even a few llamas in the fields along the track. Majestic condors pass across the sun.
My night stop is just beyond the lakeside village of Mont-Tremblant. This region is popular for winter sports, and the P'tit Train route doubles in winter as a course for cross-country skiing and snowmobiles. I explore downtown Mont-Tremblant and, in the evening, share a tasty locally brewed beer next to a roaring fire with Serge, the friendly B&B owner at Au Petit Marigot. "The section of the trail from here to Saint-Jerome is the most beautiful part of Le P'tit Train. I rode it last week," he says.
The third day turns out to be one of the most enjoyable rides I've had. The scenery becomes more open and more diverse. Louis Carpentier of Velo Quebec, the organisation that oversees cycling in the region and came up with La Route Verte, joins me for this section. "A lot of the inspiration for La Route Verte came from Europe," he says as we pause on a bridge over a fast-flowing river. "Before, this whole province had more of a car culture. But we saw all the things going on with cycling in Europe and wanted something like they had there."
The project started in 1995. It recently celebrated reaching 5,000 kilometres. The ultimate goal is 5,300, which it will hit in the near future. Forty per cent of the trails are off-road and car-free.
Le P'tit Train is one of the best known sections, for the scenery, the B&Bs and the ease of riding. "It's for everyone. You don't need to be a specialist or an adventure cyclist," says Carpentier. "This is where you learn about yourself, meet people and see fantastic landscapes. Like here," he gestures to the river. "If you didn't come down this trail, you wouldn't get to see this great river."
The benefit of riding it from the north down is a long, smooth downhill section. Cyclists ride past in the opposite direction, puffing up the slow hill. For me, it is easy riding all afternoon, down to Sainte-Adele, for a last overnight break before cycling to kilometre zero at Saint-Jerome the next day and onto the farmland and suburbs of Montreal.
The whole ride is relaxing, 50 to 60 kilometres each day, never too testing and plenty of time to take in the scenery. I see families and senior riders on the trail. It might even be too mild for some cyclists' tastes, but there are plenty of wilder, more dramatic and challenging sections of La Route Verte's trails in Quebec's north, along the St Lawrence River or the Gaspesie coast. I hope to see more next year, once the winter's over and the geese have returned.