July Tour Retrospective

It all kicked off with an early overcast morning in Corner Brook. Four days of incredible bicycle riding on the west coast of Newfoundland and Labrador started off with light misty drizzle. Bad omen? No. It’s wise to plan for everything in Newfoundland and Labrador weather. It soaked us ever so slightly on this July morning as we loaded up our bikes on the back of Cycle Solutions’ vehicle, made introductions (Bryan,  Clemence, Peter, Dru) and put our bags in the overhead bin.

On the long drive to Port Au Port, in classic form, we were proven wrong. The rain started to fade away leaving a gorgeous wet sheen on the foliage as we arrived at our AirBnB in Port Au Port — a gorgeous home on the waterfront next to a causeway connecting the peninsula with the rest of the island. In the backyard were views for days of the Atlantic ocean and West Coast Newfoundland coastline. This would be just the start of our good luck this trip, as we met up with the rest of our group (meet Terry, Lorenzo, Anthony) and loaded our things — along with a considerable number of beer cans and wine bottles — into the house.

The overcast weather was fine, but quickly gave way to blue skies as we set out on the ride itself. The Port Au Port loop is a 120 km spin around one of Newfoundland’s premier coastal highways. Mainly supported by mining and fishing industries, Port Au Port is also one of Newfoundland’s only continuing Franco-terreneuvien settlements, having largely survived the anglicization which took place across the rest of the province. It is defined by rolling terrain with the ocean at your side, except for a few small sections of wicked climbs at the cape’s edge. Each year a granfondo convenes here, organized by Cycle Solutions, and it continues as one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s oldest cycling events. We decided to take a different approach, though, and instead took the counter-clockwise direction around the loop.

Sticking together, we enjoyed the first few kilometres chatting away and catching up. I had lived in Halifax for a while and ridden with the folks from Nova Scotia — Terry and Lorenzo. Visiting from as far away as Montreal was Anthony, a friend of Terry’s, and we also had Bryan joining us from New Brunswick. This was a test trip, with Cycle Solutions bringing in some seasoned adventurers to tryout their new tour products. Supporting us was Clemence and Peter, owner and operator of Cycle Solutions. Supporting and also taking lovely photos was Dru Kennedy, who joined for some portions of the ride.

We had a headwind to start, but the small climbs were still leisurely and relaxed. It was great to keep up with these guys, who have been biking roughly as long as I’ve been alive. Eventually we had full on sunshine while rolling through the community of Mainland on the peninsula’s North-West shore, just before the biggest climb of the ride. By the time we reached Boutte-Du-Cap Park for a delicious snack of smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers and smoked salmon, we were shedding layers for a full-on summer’s day. With a spectacular view of the ocean we commisserated about the prior climb before heading out again, this time with a tailwind at our backs… for most of the way. Funny thing about Newfoundland is you’ll usually come across a headwind.

We reached Secret Cove Brewing as a sweaty bunch, maybe a little sunburnt, but elated after a beautiful day of extraordinary conditions. The beer was nothing short of a stellar reward for our efforts.

Then, came the meal. Provided by David Vatcher, the local owner and operator of Corner Brook cafe Best Coast Cafe, we dig into the evenings fine dining of grilled steak and scallops with asparagus. Sumptuous, to put it mildly. Local ingredients on our table, the stories of rides and races from years past flew around the table between old friends. As the wine and beer disappeared from bottles and glasses, the stories escalated in volume and enthusiasm until time for bed was called.

We woke up to a sunny morning, poached eggs and fresh Brewed Awakening coffee the following morning. A sister company to Cycle Solutions, Brewed roasts their own beans for retail and wholesale, so access to solid java was never an issue throughout the trip. After the van was loaded up and ready, the boys set off — admittedly, without me. The terrain would be tough and technical for some sections, so I stayed with Dru and Clemence to drive the van back, then Dru and I would meet up with them in his truck at a crossroads with supplies and also to take some pictures.

The stories they brought with them were extraordinary. The terrain they were riding was Newfoundland backcountry, carved by woods roads from the days of Corner Brook’s booming paper production at the mill. This industry is why Corner Brook exists, and the forest roads stretch for miles with many options for epic routes. The one Peter had chosen was an effort to really challenge our visitors, and it sounded like he succeeded. As Dru and I served some tasty refreshments, they talked enthusiastically about rolling hills with punchy climbs as well as a fun hike-a-bike traverse along (and through) a lengthy bog section.

That’s fun, right!?

By this point they were only halfway, and decided to cut some of the day’s planned itinerary by rolling back to Corner Brook via the old railbed and Mount Moriah. Then, after passing through Corner Brook it would be onwards to Cox’s Cove through even more forest terrain. Luckily, now, the railbed would be mostly downhill for 20 km followed by some smooth road riding before the final gravel push. One of the region’s great advantages for gravel grinding is how easily a rider can move between different corridors through paved road access. Now, with the paper and forestry industries somewhat reduced to a more moderate level, these roads continue to exist as ATV trails during the summer and snowmobile paths during the winter. What these guys were riding is usually accessed by people with motors rather than just heir two legs, and they certainly attracted odd looks from daytrippers. They set off again and we followed behind for a while. Peter, Loreonzo and Bryan took the lead. As Dru and I moved up and down the road taking photos and video, Terry and Anthony began to slow down, then stop. Terry had a flat. We pulled up to offer support but witnessed some old-school ingenuity when he opted to patch it with a twig plugging the hole rather than hitch a ride with us. Then, it was off again. They soon caught up to the rest and were long gone on the pavement. After Mount Moriah I joined Clemence in the support van and we headed straight to Cox’s Cove to wait for the day’s big finish while Dru got his truck.

Corner Brook is located on the south shore of the west coast’s Bay Of Islands, aptly named for all of the pockets of islands located in and around the mouth of the bay. It is a regional hub nestled right next to the mouth of the Humber River, which was once used to float lumber down to the mill in the early days of its operation. Cox’s Cove is located about 45 km away on the northern tip of a little peninsula in the bay leading to a few different arms: North Arm, Penguin Arm and Goose Arm. Inside these tiny inlets and arms are old settlements, remnants of a booming fishery and days when communities were accessed by dories rather than any paved highways. A few of the homes are still used seasonally as cabins, but many more remain simply as time capsules of Newfoundland’s seafaring heritage.

Others are used as tourist destinations by people like Darren Park, who runs his own tour company in and around Cox’s Cove and with whom Peter was working to provide a truly unique experience for the guests.

Clemence and I checked in with Darren, then waited for their arrival. They rolled in one by one with Lorenzo at the top, getting first access to showers at Lynn’s Takeout and Convenience, the community’s only convenience store. As they finished their ride, organized bags for the night and took turns showering, the day was winding down at the local fish plant’s workers headed home for the night. “Where’d you come from today!?” a few asked. “Port Au Port!” one of the guys would respond, to which their eyes would widen in disbelief. For anyone driving between Cox’s Cove and Port Au Port it would be two hours and 136 km. These guys had just done roughly the same at 138 km but under their own power with 2427m of elevation and way nicer views.

Once everyone was freshened up, and Dru joined us again, it was on to the traditional Newfoundland and Labrador dories for our commute to the cabins. Located directly across the bay from Cox’s Cove, this was one of a few accommodations around the bay owned by Darren and used as part of his adventure tourism offerings in the region. Located in Woman’s Cove, we had the beach to ourselves with Darren’s neighbors all gone for the night. Along this stretch of waterfront were three other cabins hooked up to solar panels for power and, in the case of our little chalet, gas-powered stoves for cooking.

Once we were loaded out, Darren got to work boiling up mussels with a beachfire. We cooled our growlers and beers in the ocean, with each of us taking shifts heading out into the surf to move them closer as the water rose. Peter cooked up a meal of chicken and vegetable curry on rice while Terry powered up his bluetooth speaker and blasted a mix of everything from The National and AC/DC. Some Taylor Swift might have made an appearance somewhere in there.

Eventually it was time to build a fire, which grew as the night-time got darker. We set an early alarm clock for our next boat transfer, and then traded more stories and ideas as the pints were poured and flankers from the fire illuminated the night.

We were awake again at the crack of dawn to suit up for our next leg. At 6 on the dot, with the sun just beginning to crest the mountains and coastline cliffs around us, we once again loaded up our bikes and jetted off through Goose Arm. Over the din of the outboard motor, Darren told us about the region’s fishing history. We roared past old abandoned communities with ramshackle homes, learning about how the old resettlement program moved families from these villages to more central locations as roads started to be built and used. An eagle followed close behind us, maybe hoping we were out to fish and also feeling generous.

It was crisp, on arrival. We warmed up fast though. From here it was a long road up into the mountains of Gros Morne National Park. One of Canada’s premier wilderness park destinations, Gros Morne is a gem of Newfoundland and Labrador and the pride of its west coast region. Our route for the day was truly special, through the mountains before coming down into the lovely community of Woody Point. The roads were meticulously maintained, abandoned as woods roads but still used for snowmobiling during our long winters. In fact, Terry was so elated to find some snow in July he had to stop and take a selfie.

The ups and downs were gradual throughout the day and never seriously challenging after the first climb. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and not often seen by anyone apart from those on a ski-doo or ATV. We enjoyed a fun descent from our alpine adventures down onto the highway, where we experienced just a little bit of rain and smooth paved rolling for a bit. Eventually, we came to Bonne Bay, around which the protected area of Gros Morne is wrapped. Rolling coastal hills along the bay took us to a crossroads, where Lorenzo and Bryan decided to branch off. The day was still young, and we were on the doorstep of the Tablelands, a geologically important site where the earth’s crust had been exposed. With lush boreal forest on one side of the road and the Tablelands opposite, it’s like they left us to go riding on a border between The Earth and Mars.

We opted to lunch at the Merchant Warehouse, enjoying some simple pub-grub as a guilty pleasure on a ride filled with healthy curated meals. Here we were met by Dru and Clemence. Dru had taken up his truck, and Anthony’s shoes. Between Corner Brook and Cox’s Cove the day before, Anthony had decided to rest and take a ride with Dru. Once when they stopped for photos along the way, Anthony had accidentally left his MTB shoes on the side of a road. Dru, ever selfless, had ridden the boat back to shore that morning and driven his truck in to find them before meeting us in Gros Morne. Here, though, we unfortunately parted ways with our photographer as he had another commitment to attend.

After lunch and goodbyes we unloaded the van into our Woody Point home. It was a relaxed afternoon, occasionally punctuated by some mist. Out our window was a clear view of Bonne Bay and Gros Morne Mountain located on the other side — one of Newfoundland’s highest peaks at 807m, seconded only by the Cabox which everyone had ridden past the day before (but not climbed — that would have been quite the hike-a-bike). With some relaxing tunes playing, some of the guys followed a shower with a nap. Clemence and I opted to take a hike up the Lookout Hills trail, with a stunning view of the Tablelands, Bonne Bay, Gros Morne Mountain, Woody point and the community of Norris Point all in one panorama.

For supper that evening we sat down to another simple but delicious meal prepared by Jason Whittle. A local chef, he had sourced every single ingredient from suppliers in the region. Fresh cod caught that day garnished by herbs picked in the Newfoundland wilds and vegetables from farmers in the region. Compliments flew around the table as our chef graciously accepted them and puttered around with dessert. Peter had put in special effort to work with these Newfoundland chefs with a focus on quality and fiercely local cuisine, and it absolutely showed.

That night we enjoyed some more brews and wine, eventually making our way back into the “downtown” for some drinks and Newfoundland tunes at the Merchant Warehouse.

For the final day, we were again blessed with lovely sunshine and an even lovelier tailwind to push us north through Gros Morne. We loaded up the van — I opted not to ride again, for a bit — and the boys started their journey with a ride on the Bontours ferry from Woody Point to Norris Point. After this, breakfast was served at the Old Store Cafe, which as the name suggests was an old general store turned into a lovely coffee stop. From here they turned north, riding the tailwind into Rocky Harbour with a stop at the Lobster Cove lighthouse, one of the many old vanguards keeping fishermen safe on Newfoundland’s coastline. This one no longer operates, but does still stand as a Parks Canada interpretation centre where people can learn about the region’s fishing history.

From here, it was a left turn and fast ride along the flattest continuing portion of the week’s adventures — a great way to finish. The scenery along this stretch of highway is always a treat. Dubbed the “Viking Trail ” because it leads to L’Anse Aux Meadows, an ancient viking settlement, the Route 430 highway is full of history both man-made and natural. Fishing shacks line the beaches, an old shipwreck of the S.S. Ethie sits offshore, and you pass Western Brook Pond, a UNESCO World Heritage site; carved and whittled by a glacier tens of thousands of years ago. Here, Clemence and I met with the guys. They had been rocking a cool 35-45 kph, alternating between roadside gravel and dirt path with occasional stretches of road. From here it was a simple 25 km to finish, so after taking the pond in they sped off for Cow Head, the final destination.

At our oceanside home we quickly cracked celebratory beers. As the bikes laid on the back deck, dusty and muddy after four days of a job well done, the humans freshened up and relaxed. Peter prepared a tasty pasta meal for our final supper as the light faded outside. One of Cow Head’s best features are its sunsets — come for the theatre festival, stay for the reds, oranges, blues, and purples on the horizon — and as the final rays disappeared, everyone headed out onto the beach to take it in. We were like kids, running and jumping in the low tide of a crisp Atlantic Ocean. We flicked wet sand with our feet, snapped more than a few pictures and selfies, then headed back inside for some final evening chats.

Photo credits: Dru Kennedy Photography