Many cyclists have already hopped aboard the Bike Train for easy access to cycling routes in the Niagara Region. This year, new "pilot" routes will bring riders to more areas across Southwestern and Northern Ontario.
The Bike Train -- developed by Toronto cyclist Justin Lafontaine and launched in partnership with VIA Rail between Toronto and Niagara two years ago -- is a fun, economic and environmentally friendly way to enjoy a cycling getaway.
"Getting to the destination is made easy as passengers travel in comfort while their bicycles are safely secured in a baggage car with bike racks," explains Bike Train Initiative marketing manager Peter Lipscombe.
On the train, Bike Train staff members provide cycling maps and other information.
This summer, the initiative connects Toronto with destinations across Ontario, providing cyclists of all abilities easy access to the Greenbelt, wine and culinary regions, and northern lakes and forests. As well, there are off-the-beaten-path villages, world-renowned natural and historical sites, and thousands of kilometres of recreational trails and on-road cycling routes.
The Toronto-Niagara Greenbelt Express, offered on eight weekends starting June 26 through to October, includes stops in Toronto, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls train station is just a block from the Niagara River Recreation Trail, a mainly off-road 56-km paved path. Cycle north on a scenic 20-km ride to the Niagara Gorge, wineries and Niagara-on-the-Lake. To the south, the trail passes the Falls and Fort Erie.
St. Catharines is the starting point to explore Port Dalhousie, the Welland Canal, 20 Valley wine routes and mountain biking trails around the Niagara Escarpment.
The Greater Niagara Circle Route covers 140 km and includes the Niagara River Recreational Trail. The Waterfront Trail runs 900 km from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Quebec border.
Cyclists can take a few days to explore with Cycle and Stay Niagara, which has a network of "cycle-friendly" B&Bs on the Greater Niagara Circle Route, which offer secure bike lockups and luggage transfers.
There are also hotels offering bike storage for cyclists and some giving Bike Train special rates. These include Best Western Fallsview Hotel, Lodge Inn and Suites, and Quality Fireside Hotel, all in Niagara Falls. Brock University in St. Catharines has rooms at "affordable" rates in a park-like setting through the summer.
New this year is the Ontario North Bike Train, a pilot project with Ontario Northland Railway from Toronto to North Bay on Aug. 7-10. These trails and roads take riders past lakes, bogs and Northen communities.
"As for new routes, we have proposed to VIA Rail to organize a Southwestern Ontario Bike Train pilot to Windsor," Lipscombe says. This test project would allow Bike Train passengers to get on the train in Toronto and get off in Windsor to explore Essex County, Point Pelee, Pelee Island and Windsor.
"In future years, we hope to be able to have passengers embark and disembark at any of the intermediate stations including London," he added.
"People are cycling more in all aspects of their lives and vacations are no exception," Lafontaine said.
A cycle tour from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Grimsby in 2006 left him impressed by the many trails, diverse landscapes, towns, cities and attractions. He began exploring opportunities for cycle tourism, which led to discussions with VIA Rail and other partners, and resulted in a pilot project by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism in 2007.
Now it has become a project of Transportation Options, a non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating sustainable systems of transportation. Funding comes from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Ontario Government and Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, with support by more than 30 organizations and businesses. To date, 1,000 passengers have climbed on board.
"The Bike Train is helping both cyclists and drivers alike, getting cars off the roads and giving more options for vacations and staycations," Lipscombe said.
For more on Bike Train schedules, tickets and updates, contact biketrain.ca or 1-866-333-4491. Tickets for the Toronto-Niagara Greenbelt Express are $62 return or $31 one-way with no charge for children to age 11. The Ontario North Bike Train weekend, Toronto-North Bay, is $153 return and has a capacity of 56 passengers.