The quiet roads surrounding Wolfville, N.S., provide fruitful riding
Gravel of Nova Scotia’s
“H ell, I don’t even stock road bikes anymore,” said Colin Banks, owner of Banks Bikes in downtown Wolfville, N.S. He had a lot to say about the gravel riding around his hometown. “I gave up the road bike and might have gotten two, maybe three, rides on my mountain bike this past season.” It was easy to see why, as he turned the pages of the new book by Adam Barnett, Wheretoc ycleinnovascotia, with hundreds of routes – many involving gravel roads, rail trail and roads that haven’t seen a construction crew in many years. It’s a guidebook aimed at people who like to tread off the beaten path.
As Banks flipped through maps, he goes on about the beautiful lakes and creeks in the area and the stretches of gravel that roll for kilometre after kilometre with not a car in sight. Growing up as an avid road cyclist not far from Wolfville, I never thought much about gravel riding. After I jumped on the Banks Bikes Instagram page and saw it flooded with gravel bikes, bikepacking setups and beach cruiser bikes on rail trails, I knew I was missing out on something.
Less than half a kilometre from the shop, we got onto a rail trail. It quickly led us to the Acadian dykelands. Built more than 300 years ago and still in use today, the dykelands hold back the highest tides in the world, allowing thousands of acres of salt marshes to be used as farmland. The winds were not in our favour as we pushed through the flat farm roads, but we knew that we’d get a push on the return trip. After a few kilometres of warm-up through the dykelands, we passed the unesco Grand Pré interpretive centre, where there’s information about the Acadians and their history in the area. The best part? A stack of bicycle racks and a repair station for your bicycle on-site, just in case you forget to pump your tires before leaving town.
Much of our ride led us along the shore, with glimpses of huge salt marshes and tidal rivers. It wasn’t until we had put almost 30 gravelly, virtually car-free kilometres behind us that we realized it was lunchtime, and we had nothing more than a chocolate bar between us. Thankfully, there were many fruit and vegetable stands, many at the end of the farmers’ driveways relying on the honour system for payment. Others have small storefronts selling baked goods as well. We got lucky and found a bag of homemade energy bars and a pint of fresh plums that all fit nicely in our jersey pockets. It was rare to be more than an hour’s ride from a town or small corner store of sorts – ideal if you’re new to the area.
As we turned uphill onto the South Mountain, a rolling climb of approximately 200 m, we couldn’t believe the number of roads that intersected with the one Banks had recommended for us. We took a few short detours to investigate, some turning into creek beds, others dead-end logging roads, but some that seemed as if they’d go
on. We passed all sorts of blueberry and raspberry patches, and even the odd apple tree from old orchards. We were staggered that we had the whole road to ourselves except for the odd local dog. Eventually, we found our way to an intersection with gravel heading in one direction and pavement another. We could hear Banks’s advice: “If you want the extra miles and climbing, stick to gravel. For a fast downhill back into town, stick to pavement.” Even with our legs gassed and the prospect of beer and food in town, we turned onto the gravel and kept pushing.
It wasn’t long before we were rewarded with some incredible gravel descents, rolling down one big hill and soaring to the next before you realized you were going up it. Once we hit the bottom, it was a fast blast through the dykelands again back into town. We pulled aside only for the occasional tractor and to look at the tide. We had only been gone a few hours, but in that time the tide had come up almost 8 m – fast enough that you can sit by the water and watch it coming in at a rate of roughly 2.5 m every hour.
Banks was grinning as we chatted about our ride. He couldn’t wait until he was able to get out from the shop and explore more roads in the area. Banks rides all year round now, layering up into the fall, switching to fat-tire bikes once the snow hits and continuing to explore this area he calls home.
We could have stayed and talked all day, but we finally had to get something to eat other than roadside fruit. There is no shortage of places to eat or drink in Wolfville. Nova Scotia is bustling with breweries and vineyards, and even distilleries are making a big splash. With more than half of the wineries in Nova Scotia located around Wolfville, you have
“If you want the extra miles and climbing, stick to gravel. For a fast downhill back into town, stick to pavement.”
your choice of a high-class, locally sourced meal or somewhere you could go still wearing your cycling clothes before you’ve taken a shower. Wolfville is a university town and has several more relaxed eating establishments, many with outdoor seating if you want to air out your feet after a long day in cycling shoes.
If you’re after something a bit different than your traditional predinner drink, there is the Annapolis Cider Company, a small cidery that showcases what the Annapolis Valley is so well known for: apples. The company makes everything from ciders blended with peaches and peppercorn to simple blends of with heritage apples.
The stunning riding aside, I’d say what makes Wolfville, and all of Nova Scotia, such a great place to visit are the characters you meet. It doesn’t matter if it’s the people you find walking their dogs along the dykes, the father and son out fourby-fouring or other cyclists, there’s a good chance you’ll get sucked into a conversation in which you’ll learn more about that person in a matter of minutes than you know about the neighbour you’ve lived beside for years. It won’t take long for somebody to warn you about the nor’easter that’s picking up offshore or how the last hurricane “blew the lord thunderen’ Jeezes right through the wall,” and if you ask nicely, they’ll probably point you in the right direction to a favourite swimming hole or invite you to a local tradition called puddin’ – you can slide like otters down mud banks and reap the benefits of a spa mud bath.
If you end up unsure of where to ride the next day, simply turn to another page of Adam Barnett’s book as you enjoy another pint. Or swing by Banks Bikes in the morning. If you want to butter up the folks at the shop before learning all the local secrets, come with java from Tan Coffee. The shop can set you up with a map, a spare tube and whatever else you might need. Just don’t plan to leave in a hurry if Axle, the shop dog, takes a liking to you.
left Riding through the farmland made possible by the Acadian dykes
right When high tide comes in, the boat will float at the top of the wharf