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The New VanIsle 1200K:
The Randonneur Spirit On Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada (July 5-9, 2006)
by Lawrence Midura
New York Randonneurs, RUSA #693
This was reprinted by in the Audax UK magazine - Find it

As the popular traveler phrase states: “Getting there is half the fun!” Well, the BC ferry trip from Vancouver to Victoria to the ride-start satisfies that sense of adventure. Before the pumping starts, the randonneur is treated to the spectacle of Canada’s newest national park known as Gulf Islands National Park. It is the experience viewing the marine landscape of rocky headlands, forested hills, shorelines of colorful tidepools, and occasional whale sightings.

Thirty-six randoneurs from Canada, USA and Germany assembled in Victoria’s seaside village of Oak Bay for a 3 AM, Wednesday, July 5, start under mostly clear skies, and temperatures of 57F/13C. Vancouver Island has the most moderate climate in Canada, hence making it an ideal destination for a 1200K randonnee. Usually, maximum daytime temperatures are 71F/22C and lowest temperatures 52F/11C. Furthermore, the sun provides 16 daylight hours for riding without lights – sunrise 5:18 AM, sunset 9:18 PM – with twilight at 4:30 AM and until 10 PM.

Vancouver Island is the largest North American Island in the Pacific Ocean. It is 280 mi/450 km in length, and 62 mi/100km wide, with a mountainous spine that runs its entire length. The mountains become fjords along its west coast. The highest point on the island is Mt. Golden Hinde at 7218 ft/2200 m. which is to the west of the cycling route – not visible to randonneurs during the ride.

The new VanIsle 1200K is a variation of the classic Vancouver Island 1000K route known as the “Hare & Tortoise 1000K” which has existed for years. The two significant differences of the new 1200K route are: (1) The 1200K starts with a counterclockwise loop / and finishes with a clockwise loop 62 mi/100 km around Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula of rolling hills; and (2) the 1200K route at the 87 mi/141 km point diverges off the main inland Highway #1 into the coastal Cowichan region of seaside communities known as Malahat, Mill Bay, Cowichan Bay, numerous Indian Reserves, Maple Bay, Crofton, Chemainus and Ladysmith.

The BC classic Hare & Tortoise 1000K route and the new VanIsle 1200K share the same three major summit climbs of (1) Malahat (1150 ft/350 m) at 70 mi/113 km outbound and 675 mi/1089 km inbound; (2) Roberts Lake (1025 ft/310 m) at 250 mi/400 km outbound and 515 mi/830 km inbound; and (3) the climbing between Sayward Junction and Woss (1400 ft/424 m) at 280 mi/450 km outbound and 455 mi/735 km inbound. Total altitude gain of the VanIsle 1200K is approximately 30,000 ft/9000 m, whereas the Hare & Tortoise 1000K is 27,000 ft/8300 m.

This randonneur chose to cycle the VanIsle 1200K in the following three segments: (1) Oak Bay start to Sayward Junction 277 mi/441km; (2) Sayward Junction to Port Hardy turnaround and back to Woss 170 mi/274 km; and (3) Woss to Oak Bay finish 303 mi/490km.

The actual ride began with a loop into Victoria’s downtown Inner Harbour near the famous Empress Hotel, then beyond Laurel Point, and emerging on the Scenic Marine Drive onto Dallas Road, and eventually Beach Drive for the sounds and sights of the Pacific Ocean. Then into the suburban neighborhoods and country roads of the Saanich Peninsula which led us to the quaint tourist town of Sidney-by-the-Sea. The Saanich area gets its name from the British Columbia First (Indian) Nations word meaning “elevated” or “upraised” land. Currently it includes an area north of Victoria consisting of beaches, farmlands, wetlands, and country lanes juxtaposed against a densely populated suburbia and an international airport.

Upon completion of the 62 mi/100k counterclockwise Saanich start loop, we proceeded onto Highway #1 toward our first major climb up forested Malahat Drive northbound. At the summit viewpoint we were treated with a spectacular view of the Finlayson Arm and the Saanich inlet, as well as glimpses of the Gulf Islands which were seen at sea-level on the ferry ride from Vancouver. A 6.2 mi/10 k descent delivered us to the south Vancouver Island region known the “ Cowichan.”

The name “Cowichan” means land warmed by the sun in the language of the local First (Indian) Nations tongue. Mill Bay was the first community visited in this coastal region of gentle country roads and panoramic ocean views. The Cowichan region is recognized as the heart of Vancouver Island’s growing wine country. About fourteen wineries exist in this valley, along with numerous golf courses, galleries and country boutiques. The feeling here was very similar to that of the artsy, laid-back Mill Valley community of the San Francisco Bay Area of the USA.

Our northward journey brought randonneurs along the streets of Chemainus, still part of the Cowichan region. Many buildings of Chemainus are painted outside with murals depicting the town’s history. After passing through the next Cowichan community of Ladysmith, we arrived at the big harbour city of Nanaimo with a population of about 73,000. Nanaimo is Vancouver Island’s second largest city surrounded by coastal rainforests, oceanviews and mountain ranges, as well as a mild, sunny climate.

Beyond Nanaimo, was another seaside region known as the Oceanside communities of Nanoose Bay, Parksville and Qualicum Beach. From Qualicum Beach it was possible to see the snow-capped peaks of the mainland Coastal Mountains which are the home of the Whistler/Blackcomb Ski Areas - a future 2010 Winter Olympics venue. In fact, the small community known as Qualicum Bay was probably my favorite scenic area passed both outbound and inbound along the entire VanIsle 1200K route. Quaint seaside restaurants and quiet beaches were reminiscent of coastal Maine of the USA.

An interesting side-note has to do with the name “Arbutus” encountered along the entire route in various communities. There seemed to be a street name or business name or other public use name using the word “Arbutus.” Apparently, the usage is attributed to the Arbutus Tree. It is only found on the West Coast of North America, and is Canada’s only evergreen hardwood. The environmentalists say its growth is concentrated on the east coast and southern tip of Vancouver Island, as well as the Gulf Islands and a few mainland locations.

Campbell River, a city with a population of about 29,000, was reached by most randonneurs by 9 – 10 PM, Wednesday. Beyond Campbell River was the second major climb towards Roberts Lake. It was a very gradual uphill similar to the moderate climb up Luther Pass from Markeleville, California, to South Lake Tahoe experienced by this rider during California’s Markleville Death Ride many years ago. During the climb out of Campbell River, the movement of wildlife could be heard in the darkness in the dense rainforest. My 1 AM arrival to my first sleep/rest stop at Sayward Junction was accomplish without feeling a drop of rain! However, the absence of liquid precipitation was not to be the weather situation in several hours – remember, our randonneur route is exclusively though a rainforest north of Campbell River.

The second day riding segment began with a group of six riders at 6 AM from Sayward Junction on Highway #19. Immediately a steep climb was encountered amidst light rain, but the drizzle made the climb comfortable. Unfortunately, the nearby peak to the west known as Mt. Cain (5953 ft/1804 m) within Schoen Lake Provincial Park was not visible due to low cloud cover. It seemed that the climbing from Sayward Junction toward Woss continued for about 21 mi/35 km. This was probably the most difficult climbing segment of the entire ride, both outbound and inbound. By the time the Woss Control at 317 mi/512 km was reached, the light rain has ceased.

However, within 31mi/50 km of the outbound turn-around control at Point Hardy, a steady rain re-appeared. It rained outbound to Port Hardy, and inbound also the same distance of about 31 mi/50 km south from Point Hardy. The feeling of the environment in Port Hardy was very similar to what this randonneur experienced in south-east Alaska communities many years ago. Ironically, Port Hardy, with a population of 5000, is British Columbia’s gateway to Alaska’s Inside Passage, as well as the northern terminus of the Vancouver Island (inland) Highway #19.

Inbound about 46 mi/75 km south of Port Hardy, skies were clear while passing Nimpkish Lake Provincial Park. The west side of Nimpkish Lake is surrounded by the Karmutzen Mountain Range. And the snow-covered peaks of Mt. Tlakw (4779 ft/2963 m) glistened in the late afternoon sun. It was a quite majestic! The pristine, alpine views made the memory of the recent Port Hardy rain disappear.

My second night sleep/rest stop began with a 9:30 PM, Thursday, arrival at the Woss inbound control. I departed solo at 2 AM southbound on Highway 19. Riding the most difficult climbing sections of the route in cool, dry, moonlighted night skies proved to be quite delightful. This third day riding segment was the beginning of my final 303 mi/490 km to the finish.

It is worth noting that the return route became remarkably different just south of the Oceanside region known as Parksville and then Nanaimo. The route entered the highway network of Highway #1, and cycling was mostly along the shoulder of that highway. This was essentially re-joining the classic route of the Hare & Tortoise 1000K into Victoria. I was hoping my midnight descent from the Malahat Drive summit would be traffic free, but not so. Light motor vehicle traffic continued during the early morning hours en route to downtown Victoria on Highway #1.

It was a great feeling to return to the environs of Victoria to begin the final 62 mi/100 km clockwise loop around the Saanich Peninsula. From downtown Victoria, the route headed virtually due north on West Saanich Road, passing the entrance road to the world famous Butchart Gardens. West Saanich Road was followed to its northern edge of the Saanich Peninsula where it met Land Ends Road and the ocean. Then it was south again from the forests and fields, to the suburban neighborhoods, and finally the grand homes and estates surrounding the University of Victoria with spectacular views of Cadboro Bay and Oak Bay where our randonnee had commenced.

My arrival at the Oak Bay finish at 8:39 AM on Saturday, July 8, gave me not only the daytime ocean views of the Victoria Inner Harbour and coastline, but also the spectacular towering views of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State across the Juan de Fuca Strait. When I returned to the parking lot at the Oak Bay Marina, a Japanese tourist approached me and pointed to the clear view of snow-covered Mt. Baker near Seattle – it was simply unbelievable! How can so much natural beauty exist where the ocean meets the sky in just one place on planet Earth?

The endurance sport of randonnee long-distance road-bike cycling gets no better than the VanIsle 1200K. Any qualified randonneur of the world should add this event to his or her wish list for future grand randonnees. With Victoria heralded as the most fit city in all Canada by the Canadian Government, there could be no better venue to host such a cycling event. And of course, special thanks to British Columbia Randonneur President, Danelle Laidlaw, and the local Vancouver Island BC Randonneur Chapter for hosting the inaugural VanIsle 1200K. Thank You Ken Bonner – the event organizer extraordinaire – for a task well done!!


Sept 2006