I’m always looking for something a little different to add flavour to my list of travel experiences. Why just explore a new area on a bike when I can be part of a bigger experience and share that ride with 850 other cyclists? Sign me up.
With that in mind, Dennis and I found ourselves at the starting line of the Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie starting in Saulnierville, Clare, Nova Scotia, a little hamlet along the Acadian coast overlooking the Bay of Fundy.
For those not familiar with the term Gran Fondo, it is easiest to think of them as the cycling equivalent of a marathon. Originating in Italy in the 1970’s, they give road cyclists the opportunity to race on closed routes, with little if any traffic, usually over distances in excess of 100 kilometres. (Gran Fondo translates to “Big Ride”). While they originated as serious road races, they have evolved over time to include shorter distance rides or to offer a more leisurely riding pace for people still interested in doing a longer distance. Some of them are big events. The Gran Fondo Whistler this summer boasted 4500 riders.
Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie is in its second year and is the only Gran Fondo in Nova Scotia. (Prince Edward Island hosts a Gran Fondo in August, being the first in the Maritimes). In its first year, Baie Sainte-Marie attracted 450 riders. This year it nearly doubled in size to over 850. Most people rode the longest route at 117 kilometers, as we did. Others favour the 67 kilometer Medio Fondo or the 35 kilometer Piccolo Fondo.
It is a great boon for the local tourist industry attracting riders from across Nova Scotia, almost 100 people from other parts of Canada and a dozen Americans. A New Zealander and a German fill out the field. Dennis and I were the lone Manitobans.
The ride started in Saulnierville, heading north along the coast overlooking the Bay of Fundy and the Digby Neck, a 60 kilometer peninsula that juts out into the bay. In spite of the 8 degree Celsius morning chill and bracing winds, locals lined the roads, cheering us along, often in French, waving the Acadian flag. I recall in particular four enthusiastic young children, jumping up and down in excitement, yelling “Allez! Allez!” (Go! Go!)
The highlight of the first leg was Pointe-de-l’Église (Churchpoint) and the Église Sainte-Marie (St. Marie Church). The church is the largest wooden structure in North America and with its tall spires, strongly resembles the castle of Snow White. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the church was designed to resemble the church in Bains-sur-Oust in the Loire region of France, which was the home village of the priest in Churchpoint at the time of its construction. It is interesting to compare my photo and the photo of the the Bains-sur-Oust church and note their similarities.
As we lingered near the church, we chanced to meet a reporter from the Vanguard newspaper from Yarmouth, which is the largest community in the area. Check out our small moment of celebrity. Dennis and I appear at the 2:00 mark.
Heading inland, the ride passed by small farms, through virgin forest, up and down many hills, passing the ubiquitous country churches, and the Bangor Sawmill, a 19th century water-powered sawmill along the Meteghan River.
By chance we met Colleen Jones, of Canadian and international curling fame who was at the first rest stop at the same time as we were. Coincidentally, just the day before, I was reading about her. We were queuing for the Digby ferry at the Port of St. John and there was a Dalhousie University bus in the queue. Curious about the university and trying to occupy myself while I waited, I read about famous Dalhousie graduates of which Colleen Jones is one.
When I saw her at the rest stop, I immediately recognized her. “Are you Jennifer Jones,” I ask, Jennifer Jones being Winnipeg’s (and my hometown) famous world champion and Olympic gold medal curler. Duh! “No, I’m Colleen Jones,” was her reply. I wonder how often she suffers this frustration? Not often around here, I expect. As a Maritimer, she is a big and deserving celebrity in these parts.
Now a journalist with the CBC, Jones reported on the Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie. Share in her perspective, here. I have to say that her photo in front of the Église Sainte-Marie is much better than mine. I think, perhaps, her budget is bigger or perhaps her support crew is more impressive, though she did appear to have ridden alone. I wonder how much the CBC paid her for that story? Maybe I’m missing an opportunity to make some cash to support my cycling wanderlust.
Dennis and I made her Twitter feed, as we sampled some local food delicacies at the rest stop – dulse, which is dried seaweed, and dried haddock. I have to say dried haddock on an empty stomach is not unlike having a fish oil pill. Through the balance of the day, every burp brought up the flavour of fish. I felt like a cat having enjoyed a can of juicy cat food. An acquired taste, for sure, but it was a fun addition to the day.
After 90 or so kilometers, we left the forests and returned to the shore, heading north towards the finish line. The wind continued to blow hard into our faces off the Bay of Fundy, making for a difficult finish to difficult, but at the same time, wonderful day. Rising over the crest of the last hill, I felt enormous relief seeing the finish line maker off in the distance.
But the enthusiastic hospitality that we had enjoyed all day continued beyond the end of the ride. All the riders were treated to locally caught lobsters and trimmings. An army of volunteers had been busy preparing the accompaniments the night before when we arrived to pick up our race packages, with Acadian musicians and dancers providing entertainment. The fragrance of cinnamon and apples had filled the hall and our anticipation to savour the homemade apple crisp was well rewarded at the end of our ride.
As I perused the race results the next day, I marvelled at the fact that the first rider crossed the finish line in 3 hours 24 minutes. Looking way, way down the list, I see we finished in 7 hours and something. I consoled myself with the fact that we stopped to savour the sights, snapping pictures as we went, chatting with local people and enjoying a coffee at a nearby restaurant. I like to think that I was the first Manitoban across the line!
It was another wonderful day courtesy of my bike. In spite of the cold weather and the unrelenting wind, the hospitality of our hosts and the beautiful setting, made for a wonderful day. I enthusiastically recommend the Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie as a way to experience the uniqueness of the Acadian Coast.