6-24-2022 Basch-Lac Mégantic

The waterfront has long been a draw to the town of Lac Mégantic in Quebec. (MARTY BASCH PHOTO)

LAC MEGANTIC, Quebec — I’ve been spending time lately with my online friends Paul, Marie, Estelle and their animated Duolingo posse. They are a loquacious bunch and have helped me learn some French. I can now say things like “A cat is eating a pizza” and “A horse is going to the airport.”

I figure I can now order pizza at an airport.

My French is lousy. I knew this even before going to the Eastern Townships in May to pedal, and upon my return home vowed to learn some online. I never studied French, but travel has aided me in picking up many words from wine to bread. Just driving into Quebec, it’s easy to learn some terms from signs like welcome, stop and the four cardinal directions. You’ll learn open and closed before you step into a store. Voila! You have almost 10 words already.

I know many words to the traditional French-Canadian children’s folk song “Alouette” which upon closer inspection seems to be about eviscerating a bird feather by feather. Sacrebleu! I also know the popular refrain from the 1974 disco classic “Lady Marmalade” which I’ve tried many times in French-speaking countries. I’ve never heard a oui back.

Which leads me to a phrase I finally learned and knew I would have to use during a mid-June intermediate-level 33-mile spin around Lac Mégantic, about 50 miles northeast of the Pittsburg border: Where’s the bathroom?

My online entourage also provided me with several possible answers like here, there, to the left and to the right, so I was prepared to look for loos among the woodlands, working farms and rippling mountains.

It didn’t take long for me to try my French as my wife and I wandered into a downtown tourist information office last week to also inquire about parking. Not only could I find the bathroom after the helpful woman pointed to the sign nearly in front of me, but we quickly shifted to English and learned parking was across the street.

The town’s pleasing waterfront has long been its appeal though it wasn’t until an ill-fated night in the summer of 2013 that it became infamous when a runaway freight train carrying 72 cars loaded with crude oil derailed and killed 47 people while razing the town center. Ten years later both visitors and businesses are back.

The ride around the lake has been popularized by the annual Grand Tour of Lac Mégantic. Since 1992, hundreds of cyclists make the annual pilgrimage to the event designed to welcome the summer and highlight the district’s cycling opportunities and communities.

Since its beginning, cycling infrastructure has received funds to enhance safety with such projects as well-widened shoulders and permanent signs making the route fairly easy to follow. Some 17,000 cyclists have ridden in the grand tour since its inception. I bet none of them would have been impressed by my French.

This year, almost 400 riders participated in the June 5 ride which included accoutrements like music and lunch. One addition offered on event day is a shuttle back to the starting part from the endearing village of Piopolis on the west-central side of the lake about two-thirds into the loop that uses Routes 161 south and 263 north plus a couple of local roads and bike paths. How nice it must be to take that shuttle, and avoid a beast of a climb after taking a welcome break on the little marina with smart lighthouse, gazebo, and picnic tables overlooking the blue expanse.

Cyclists can’t miss the areas love affair with the stars. Interpretive displays and sculptures are everywhere in the region highlighted by Mont Mégantic and its observatory.

Those signs pop up in several rest areas along the route, which feature picnic tables and primitive toilets so I didn’t have to ask for the bathrooms there. I did knock though and call out bonjour just in case. No one ever answered.

The eastern side of of the lake was relatively carefree, while that climb north of Piopolis made some muscles scream at me through a melange of curse words from all over the world, including one in French.

By the time we were back in Lac Mégantic and riding along the engaging waterfront, I was ready for a post-ride local beer.

No problem finding it. No problem asking for the bathroom. No problem understanding the answer in English spoken back to me.

C’est la vie.

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