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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Niagara's best kept cycling secrets

CANADA - Discovering a great bike path changes everything. Stunning scenery, history and nostalgia, silky smooth road surfaces, perfect turns and multiple gradients and even less traffic transform everyday rides into cycling bliss.

Finding a great bike path just seems to take the effort out of it.

According to my sources the undeniably best cycling road in Niagara is Ridge Road between Highway 3 and Bowen Road. It's a gentle, undulating five-kilometre downhill with an unbroken surface that flows effortlessly from turn to turn and rises and dips like a roller-coaster.

Ignoring the old farms and limestone buildings, fields of flowers, stables and split-rail fences will be difficult, but if you keep your feet focused you can try and enjoy both the scenery and the pure pleasure of the road.

Spring Creek Road west from Regional 24 through Tintern is enjoyable at any pace. It's a mix of century homesteads on working soy and corn farms, interposed with large suburban-style homes. You will be cycling among beautiful restorations and collapsing old relics, seeing charmless plastic barns replace classic gambrel beauties, creates time to reflect on authenticity versus efficiency and the lifestyle and values each embody.

DeCew Road, ridden westward from Merrittville Highway, will have you anticipating the sweetest downhill ride in Niagara and dreading its unavoidable uphill. Board-track smoothness edged with paved ditches ensure there's seldom hazardous gravel, a 10 per cent grade demands precise braking as the road twists and undulates into the final tight curve. Watch out as your eyes mist from the wind, descending quicker than the car behind would dare,and be careful not to cross the centre line.

For a ramble rather than a blitz, it's Four Mile Creek Road between East-West Line and Lakeshore Road, with a side trip on Hunter. This short section of Creek Road, as the locals call it, is off the tourist path and Hunter Road hurries to arrive nowhere, reflecting Niagara-on-the-Lake of 30 years ago. Small orchards, greenhouses and tiny vineyards envelop immaculate, modest bungalows from the 1950s and the evening traffic is primarily farm workers cycling about.

Locals tend to identify Niagara-on-the-Lake with weekend congestion and forget how beautiful and interesting it is. Meandering along Gage, Johnson, and Prideaux streets on a sultry summer evening is cycling at its best.

Then go west to Lowbanks. With the wind propelling you along treeless, arrow straight Feeder Road, where the soft tar has pooled smooth as ice from the hot summer sun, the riding is effortless. You'll register an average speed to brag about for years.

Fortunately, few out-of-Niagara cyclists have discovered the tranquil touring and training roads surrounding Shorthills. As a training exercise, blast north out of Fonthill down Pelham Street onto Hollow Road and try to hold your pace all the way to the old St. John's one-room schoolhouse. As a gentle tour, coast down the same road, then twist and turn past homes in gorgeous settings where daffodils and trilliums abound. Roland, Sulphur Springs, Hansler and Metler roads all offer more of the same. Taken slowly, they're perfect for peaceful exploration. Shift up a chain ring and hammer, and these quiet routes will burn your legs and scorch your lungs.

A toonie will get you the Niagara Region Bicycling Map at any bicycle dealer and the roads I've mentioned are easy to locate. There's also Nineteenth Street into Jordan, Regional Road 45 along the Welland River, Pelham Road through Rockway, Lakeshore Road west of Port Colborne.... So many roads, so little time.

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