MONTREAL – Not everyone coming to Montreal is jumping aboard the city’s famed horse-drawn carriages to see the sights. A lot of people are taking a spin at seeing Canada’s second-largest city from behind the handlebars of a bike.
“I see a real demand and growth in bicycle tourism for sure,” says Shea Mayer, owner of Fitz & Follwell, one of the city’s bike tour operators. “We’re doubling up our business every single year.”
Mayer started his business in 2009. His is one of several such outfits in Montreal and offers guided bicycle and walking tours as well as bike sales and repairs.
Bicycle tourism has long been popular in Europe in cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin where there has been a solid infrastructure for bikes and a burgeoning cycling culture for years.
Montreal’s reputation as a destination of choice for bicycle tourism has been growing for the last five years.
Its 600 kilometres of bike paths and the arrival of the Bixi rent-a-bike system put Montreal in first place for bike-friendly cities in North America, according to rankings by the Copenhagenize consulting firm.
It’s in 11th place worldwide behind such places as Munich, Tokyo and Berlin, the firm adds.
Hugo Leclerc, a spokesman for Tourism Montreal, adds that more and more tour operators around the world are looking at the city’s bike-tourism options.
“The city’s reputation means that sometimes when people approach us, they are already talking about it,” he said.
Bruno Lajeunesse, head of the bike section of Montreal’s professional tourist guide association, says more than 450 bike tours were conducted by certified guides in Montreal in 2012, compared with 386 in 2011 and 190 in 2010.
The demand is so strong that it has resulted in a shortage of personnel.
“This year we were sorely lacking in guides,” said Lajeunesse.
“The course wasn’t even finished . . . and the agencies were coming to recruit, to meet the graduates.”
Training is done at the Quebec hotel and tourism institute in Montreal.
“If the trend continues — and Mother Nature co-operates — we should break a record this year,” Lajeunesse predicted.
Business has already started rolling along at Fitz & Follwell, which charges $75 or $89 for a four-hour tour and $65 or $75 for a three-hour tour.
“The bike tours are a brilliant idea,” said Amanda Lawrence, who hails from Leeds in England.
“Everywhere I went in the past, I used to do bus tours or go on foot. But cycling is a great way to discover and understand the city.
The popularity is no surprise to Mayer, who got turned on to bike tourism while visiting Europe several years ago.
“When you’re on a guided tour, especially a bike tour, you can cover so much ground in one day,” said Mayer, explaining that the four-hour tours offered by his company cover a wide variety of neighbourhoods and sights.
“You’re so much more involved in all the senses around you when you’re on a bike and not on a bus.”
While many British residents like Lawrence opt for the tours when they visit, along with Australians and German, the cycling tours are especially popular with North Americans, says Tourism Montreal’s Leclerc.
“There is a little higher demand with Canadians and Americans because they are familiar with the city and they’re looking for new ways to visit it,” Leclerc said.
“For someone from Toronto who comes once a year and who knows the city, for example, this is the type of thing that can make for an attractive change.”
Mayer said expansions to the scenic Route verte, comprised of 5,000 kilometres of bike paths criss-crossing Quebec, are also getting attention and that many people come to Montreal as the starting point to a bicycle tour of the province.
All the possibilities clearly have Mayer thinking of exporting the bike-tourism concept to other cities in Canada and beyond.
For example, he said many customers visit Montreal and Quebec City on the same trip and ask if the provincial capital has similar tours. As well, he said certain areas of Toronto could prove amenable to the service although downtown is unlikely. Vancouver is a market that clearly has his interest.
“We have better climate, longer seasons,” he said of the coast city. “That’s the only challenge in Montreal, that your season is shortened.”
If you go:
Fitz & Follwell offers tours upon demand seven days a week from April to october.
Telephone: 514 840-0739