Ottawa on two wheels

By Susan Huebert   Trail Canada

What is the best way to see Ottawa—on a tour bus, in a car, or perhaps in a slightly less traditional way? Visitors to Canada’s capital city may want to consider a combination of methods, but one way to see the sights in a unique way is to tour Ottawa by bicycle. Whether on an organized tour or on individual excursions, travelling by bicycle can be a good option for anyone interested in seeing the sights slowly, from the ground level.

Cycling in any city requires thoughtful preparation and a willingness to be flexible. Except for expert cyclists, travelling by bicycle tends to be quite slow, and a large number of hills or bumpy patches can challenge even the best riders. While Ottawa’s terrain is scarcely mountainous, visitors should still be prepared for some tough rides at times, but a small amount of training beforehand may help to ease the pain. Most cyclists will need a minimum of special equipment; a good bicycle, a helmet, a bicycle lock, a small backpack or carrier for maps and snacks, and a jacket in case of rain will be enough for most day trips. Bicycle rental shops are good places to get any equipment cyclists have not brought with them, and parents with young children or riders with pets may also want to see if trailers are available. Shopping around is a good idea since some rental shops can be quite expensive, but a good deal on a bicycle rental can make a day’s excursion quite affordable.

One of the first questions riders will face on planning a bicycle tour of Ottawa or any other city is whether to use organized tours or to travel as their whims take them. The Ottawa Bicycle Club may be the first place to look for help. Tours with the club are for members only, but maps and information about paths and roads are available on the website and at the club’s office. Some bicycle rental companies such as Rent-a-Bike offer tours in varying lengths and degrees of difficulty, most tours being an hour and a half to two hours and between eight and twelve kilometres long. Some popular tours include rides along the Rideau Canal to see the oldest North American canal in continuous use, through the streets of Ottawa to see the many imposing embassies, along Confederation Boulevard to see the route taken for ceremonial visits to Canada’s capital, or outside Ottawa to enjoy the flora and fauna of Gatineau Park. Ambitious cyclists may even want to check into week-long tours going from Ottawa to Quebec City, through the Ottawa Valley, and beyond.

Some visitors may not want to participate in the tours normally offered, whether because of scheduling problems, inability to keep up with faster cyclists, or other reasons. One option is to have a private tour, and companies such as Spin City Bike Tours will take pre-arranged groups to places not in the usual routes. Each company has criteria regarding the minimum size of group, and it is a good idea to check on the details before planning an excursion.

Cycling in a city offers many opportunities to see the sights in a relaxed way. Networks of bicycle paths along rivers and through parks are part of the fun of an excursion, with chances to see wildlife, trees, and flowers. In the Hog’s Back area, for example, cyclists can connect at Harwell’s Locks to the Central Experimental Farm and Arboretum or just enjoy the extensive network of paths along the way. Brewery Creek’s paths mostly hug the shoreline and later connect to the Ottawa River system, where cyclists can enjoy nature as they pass through a forested wetland area. The paths also pass the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive, the French Embassy, and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge, where riders can take a break from cycling to see the sights. Here a good lock is useful, since bicycles are not allowed indoors, or even into some parks. Travelling lightly and using backpacks or waist packs to carry wallets and other valuables can facilitate the move from outside to indoors. One of the advantages of cycling over driving becomes evident in this situation; instead of looking for parking spots on busy streets, cyclists can look for the nearest tree or street sign to park their machines.

Touring Ottawa by bicycle may not be everyone’s choice, and the mode of transportation has both advantages and disadvantages. Cyclists are very vulnerable to the weather, and even a small amount of rain can make the ride uncomfortable; determined riders may want to have rain gear for wet days. Riding on main streets can be very dangerous, but the bicycle paths throughout Ottawa allow cyclists to travel long distances without encountering any motorized traffic. Cycling is a relaxing way to get out of the rush of the city, even while remaining within it. Going by bicycle is not a quick way to see the sights, however; depending on each person’s speed and endurance, it may not be an efficient way to see the city. For a day or more, however, it can provide a break from the rush and smell of traffic, giving tourists a taste of Ottawa’s quiet side. If riding a bicycle is part of the fun, it can be a relaxing and enjoyable way of seeing Canada’s capital city.

Whether tourists go with an organized tour or explore the capital on their own, seeing Ottawa by bicycle can be a good alternative to other methods of travel. From the Rideau Canal to 24 Sussex Drive, from quiet paths and wetlands to grand, ornate embassies, the sights of Ottawa are available to visitors who choose to see the city on two wheels.

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