Newsletter - 2004 Archive

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Karen, Kevin, Wim, & Jaye - more photos in gallery

A Bit of Everything: a new route for the Island 600
by Kevin Bruce

The Island 600 for 2004 was re-routed from its original Tofino destination to Port Renfrew instead. Stephen Hinde designed the new route and has done an exemplary job. Although I've not done the Tofino ride, my experience on the this new route was such that I feel the routing of Victoria - Port Renfrew - Parksville - Victoria, has so much of what challenges a cyclist that it deserves its own name. Thus, I hereby christen this route the "VPPV". (Just for kicks, try saying "VPPV" aloud, quickly, six times in a row. Go ahead and do that now.)

Although the record shows that eight riders started, in reality it was seven plus Ken Bonner. After a about eight or ten kilometers of friendly, amiable chatting with us commoners, Ken said, "Well, I'm going to get going now", and then vanished into thin air like Samantha on 'Bewitched'. At this writing, the final results have not been posted on the website but I believe Ken finished the 600 km in something like an hour and quarter.

The first 40 km of the route are typical enough: highway riding with the usual light motor vehicle traffic one would expect at that hour of the morning. Once past Sooke, however, things get a bit magical. The road is nicely paved, meanders through various editions of second-growth forest, and there is virtually no traffic. It's almost as if this road were built just for cyclists who, being the generous types that we are, grant the occasional motor vehicle permission to use our private highway.

All this is not to say that the ride out to Port Renfrew is an easy one nor without challenges. Most of it is quite lovely with gentle, rolling grades and bends that keep the scenery fresh and the legs never bored. Two things, however, repeatedly test both the strength and agility of the riders: steep hills and slugs.

As the route progresses toward Port Renfrew, the terrain becomes hillier and hillier. At this point, the riders began to string out, Karen Smith and Stephen Hinde riding together at an easy pace; steady Jim Fidler displaying his individuality early by being neither a show-off nor a plodder; and then us yahoos up front. We were four riders together: the young, strong Mike Poplawski; the wise, mature Wim Kok; the lovely and talented Jaye Haworth; and I. Our group set an honest pace for the first 30 km or so, but as the hills became steeper and more challenging, I was caught between a choice of either a relaxed, easy spin up the hills with Wim and Mike or jamming them as hard as I could and trying to stick with Jaye who was the only one of us who seemed to be handling the ascents easily. I tried to stick with Jaye. At one point, I was within about a hundred feet of her back wheel going up a hill, but once I crested she had already disappeared over the next crest as her descending skills are vastly superior to my own. So, I slowed down and waited for Mike and Wim to catch up. When they did, one of them asked, "Decided to let Jaye go, did you?" This, I thought, was an interesting way of putting the question. Did I "let" Jaye go? She had just dropped me as if I had been riding my bike through a pool filled with jell-o, but was my male ego going to succumb to the humiliation of having been shown up by a girl? Or would my open-minded, feminist-sympathizing, egalitarian-professing self admit my apparent inferiority?

"Yeah," I replied, "I let her go."

As if attractive females who are stronger than a team of oxen weren't enough of a challenge (and a mystery) there then is the not inconsequential matter of slugs. When one considers various conceivable answers to the age-old question: "Why did the chicken cross the road?", at least one can imagine the possibility that the chicken actually arrived on the other side. This is not the case with slugs. Wherever it is that these slugs are headed, it does not appear to be the same place that we humans are. That is, they never seem to traverse the road in the same direction that we do, but rather attempt to cross it at a right angle. Possibly, we've built our road across their migration route; maybe there's a slug family reunion they're all going to; perhaps they're on their way to do some shopping at Winner's because someone said, "You should go" - I don't know. What I do know, however, is that as I was riding with Wim and Mike in a loose sort of pace line toward Port Renfrew, Mike nearly lost control of his bike when a slug dashed out of nowhere and tried to upend him. At the last possible split-second, Mike spotted the ill-intentioned, shell-less mollusk and deftly cut his wheel sharply to the side. Not willing to give up without a fight, the slug faked left then right, but Mike proved too smart for the grey gooey miscreant, kicked into a higher gear, and sped away. We men will never understand women, but at least we seem to have the upper hand when it comes to slugs.

The last 20 km or so of the trek to Port Renfrew are the hilliest. Wim's cyclo-computer gives the grade of the ascent and so we were kept informed of the steepness of various hills. One climb in particular stands out. As we slowed, geared down, stood on the pedals, grunted, and wished for instant death, Wim called out, "Twelve per cent.... fourteen per cent... sixteen per cent.... (pause... grunt... breathe...).... twenty-one per cent..." Yes, that's right: twenty-one per cent. For anyone reading this who thinks they might like to cycle out to Port Renfrew, please bear in mind that a short part of the route traverses the landscape in the same way that good scotch should be drunk: straight up. Normally, I relish a good climb, but this hill was such that the only way I could get up it was to serpentine from one side of the road to the other. Fortunately, there were lots of slugs to draft behind.

From Port Renfrew, we returned to Langford at which point both Mike and Stephen decided to take a 'dnf' and call it a day. Stephen was feeling a bit under the weather, and Mike cited "poor lifestyle choices" as his reason for packing it in. Regardless of the reasons for deciding to not carry on, the ride from Victoria to Port Renfrew and back, with those steep hills and unpredictable slugs, is an accomplishment in its own right. Thus it was that Wim and I carried on as a duo over the Malahat and its treacherous rumble strips.

Of all the inventions Man has ever created (I say 'Man' because I'm sure 'Woman' would have had a better idea), rumble strips must surely rank among the most profoundly stupid. Does anyone out there know why the rumble strip is placed so that it reduces room on the shoulder rather than the car lane? Or why is the rumble strip placed on the right side of the white line and not to the left where it would make more sense since it would prevent cars from ever getting to the white line never mind veering over it? And finally, why do we let idiots make these decisions? Perhaps it's time we all rioted in the streets. How about tomorrow at noon? Who's in? (I digress.)

Beyond the Malahat and its invigorating descent, lies Duncan, and at the north end of the town is the turn-off to Highway 18 and Cowichan Lake. This highway contrasts nicely with the one out to Port Renfrew in that its grades are slight and gradual, and the road is straight and smoothly paved. Not a particularly challenging ride, but given that this part of the route came at the 260 to 310 km part of the route, its gentle contours were most welcome. Also welcome was the heavy mist that kept us cool without getting us wet. By the time we left the control at Lake Cowichan, night was rapidly falling while the mist was dwindling and finally just gave up and stopped.

We returned to the Island Highway and headed north to Nanaimo - a cyclist's version of the classic Kafkaesque nightmare: a bizarre state of being where everything seems outwardly normal but rational explanations for things do not apply. I say this not because Nanaimo is a dangerous place to ride a bike - it isn't. Rather, because it goes on forever and ever past some of the strangest-looking shopping malls ever created, and seems to have more traffic lights per capita than any other Canadian city. As Wim and I approached the town, Stephen and Carol pulled up in their car to check on how we were doing. Wim and I had agreed that we would look for a place to eat when we got to Nanaimo, and so the MGM restaurant was recommended to us. I had been obsessing on Chinese food, but made do with fish and chips while Wim downed a bowl of soup as he catatonically stared out the window. We pushed on to Parksville in a quiet, non-conversational way with the tacit understanding that the best way to get there was to simply get there. Our surreal, sleep-deprived, endorphin-induced state of mind was interrupted briefly by the sight of Ken Bonner charging down the highway in the opposite direction, waving a cheery "Hello" to us while displaying all the eager energy of a sack full of puppies. The man's not human.

Wim and I arrived in Parksville around 1:30 AM, and I recall various small events that ensued, but am unsure of their order as I had now cycled some 400 km and was overdue for a good sleep. These events included: explaining to a nauseatingly enthusiastic overweight twenty-something gas station clerk who the BC Randonneurs are and why he should initial my control card; purchasing two pieces of red licorice and eating them because my sense of reality had been so drastically altered I now believed I was not living my life but watching a movie of it; taking a shower and shaving without the benefit of shave cream; having a long debate with myself as to whether it would make more sense to rinse out my water bottles and refill them now or in the morning; taking out my contact lenses and then having a panic attack when I couldn't remember if I'd put the left one in the right side of the case or the right one in the left side of the case; sniffing my jersey and wondering if I should wear it again tomorrow or the clean one that wasn't as warm; lying in bed and wondering if my son had remembered to let the cat out. Then everything went blank...

The next morning, apparently, I got out of bed, dressed appropriately, packed my drop-bag, and went to the suite where Karen, Jaye, Carol and Stepehn were before I realized that I had woken up. Once this realization had set in, I began to enjoy the novelty of the situation: Stephen lying bed with his shirt off while being remarkably articulate for such an early hour; Carol making oatmeal, hot chocolate, and naming various dried fruits available for consumption; Karen and Jaye folding clothes very slowly and stuffing them into their drop-bags even more slowly; Wim standing behind me hoping that by mimicking my actions he would manage to feed himself. Somehow, I managed to reel off a string of rather bad jokes and one-liners just to make the room interesting for myself and did manage to evoke an occasional, begrudging smile from my involuntary audience. The thought-balloons above their heads, however, all read: "Shut up!"

I shut up.

Somewhere around six or seven or eight (who knows?) we climbed back on our bikes - Jaye, Karen, Wim, and myself - and headed south. The sun was out and the day looked promising weather-wise. I felt great. I went to the head of the pace line. I pedaled for a while then turned around to make sure the others were with me. They weren't. I slowed down; they caught up. Again, I held the front of the pace line for a bit then turned around to see if the others were with me. They weren't. I slowed down; they caught up. This pattern repeated itself for quite a while until at last I turned around, looked back and had no idea how far back the others were. I heaved a sigh of loneliness because I really didn't want to ride all day alone, but now resigned myself to just that. I bolted for Ladysmith, took my control, then carried on. As I approached Duncan, I kept an eye out for the turn at Somenos but somehow missed it. It's an easy one to miss and what with my not being familiar with the route and operating on four hours' sleep I managed to barrel right past it.. Not until I was about eight or ten km beyond the turn did I convince myself that I was now off-course and had to go back. My heart sank; my spirit sagged. I had unintentionally made things hard for myself and added about an hour to my trip. I turned around and headed slowly back up the highway. Slowly, I proceeded, checking every street sign hoping that the next one would read, "Somenos". After crawling back for about six or seven km, on the opposite of the road, along came Jaye, Karen, and Wim. I waved frantically for them to stop. They stopped, and as the cars whizzed past, through breaks in the traffic, I managed to shout, "WHERE THE F**K ARE WE???!!!", I shouted. "Duncan's just up ahead!" they shouted back. "I know that!" I said, "But where's Somenos Road???!!! I haven't done it!!!" They pointed up the highway, said it was six or seven kilometers back, and that they had almost missed it too. I plodded onward, back whence I came.

Grumpy, grouchy, and grumbling, I gradually ground my way begrudgingly around the 8.5 km diversion with its bumpy roads and two sets of railroad tracks. I spat on the road several times just to humiliate it with my contempt. I enunciated a string of unprintable epithets so that Somenos Road would clearly understand how disappointed I was with its covert behaviour. Although my rational self fully realized that my present state of mind was nothing short of mad, I decided that I would sustain this feeling of self-loathing until it evaporated all on its own, whenever that might be. Such is the mind of the randonneur who has missed a turn and now faces the very real possibility of turning in the slowest finishing time among all riders.

The Somenos diversion now completed, I pressed southward through Duncan toward the Cobble Hill turnoff which leads to Shawnigan Lake Road. Had I not been so thoroughly resolved to no longer enjoy myself after having missed the turn at Somenos, I know I would have loved this part of the ride. As it was, I merely tolerated it's lovely, forested terrain and quiet roads with their constant winding, bending, and eventual climbing, climbing, climbing... and somewhere in the middle of the pastoral setting of Shawnigan Lake Road, I wondered what Nietzsche would have thought of all this. He would have said that the Western ethos, "aims at destroying the strong, at breaking their spirit, at exploiting their moments of weariness and debility, at converting their proud assurance into anxiety and conscience-trouble; that it knows how to poison the noblest instincts and to infect them with disease, until their strength, their will to power, turns inward, against themselves - until the strong perish through their excessive self-contempt and self immolation: that gruesome way of perishing..."

At this point, I decided to not take myself so seriously and picked up my pace a bit.

The road emerged on the Malahat descent and I sniffed contemptuously at the rumble strips as I descended and soon found myself at the turnoff into Langford. As I rolled into the Tim Horton's control, what I saw I assumed must be a mirage: three bikes belonging to Jaye, Karen, and Wim. I walked in and found that they had only just arrived about five minutes ahead of me. Karen seemed surprised to see me so soon and said, "Wow! You must have been motoring!" I had not been and told her so, but did not bother to mention Nietzsche since that would have required a great deal more explanation than I had the energy for. We had a late lunch in the company of our ever-present guardian angels Stephen and Carol, and then departed the control as a group, riding together again for the first time since leaving Parksville eight hours earlier.

North to Sidney then south to Victoria was the plan from here, and somewhere out of Langford we ran across Mike Poplawski who had abandoned the day before. Mike had come out looking for us and his presence was just the tonic we needed to pick up our spirits, especially since we knew that with him along for the ride we couldn't possibly get lost. After fighting some severe crosswinds in North Saanich, we made the Sidney control, and Mike signed our cards so that we wouldn't have to explain to some convenience-store-clerk-with-an-attitude that their initials on a control card would not lead to more spam in their email inbox, terrorist attacks, or a widespread proliferation of country music. We then rode leisurely, but purposefully, toward Victoria and the final control.

After what seemed like an endless series of turns along tree-lined streets, we found ourselves in the final kilometer and there, at the end of the road we could see the silhouette of Stephen with a camera and we knew we were home. Carol greeted us at the closing control as we got off our bikes, and it felt good knowing that we wouldn't have to get back on them anytime soon. We stood around, congratulated each other, and attempted conversation. We asked about the other riders. Jim had finished about an hour or so ahead of us, and Ken had ridden faster than the speed of light thus finishing about twenty minutes before he began. Karen changed into her flannel pajamas (I'm not kidding) and we all went for something to eat.

And that was the inaugural VPPV: a 200 km prelude from Victoria to Port Renfrew and back, followed by a 330 km middle movement that begins and ends with the severe conflict of the Malahat, and finally finishes with a 70 km postlude that gently tours the Saanich Peninsula. A satisfying ride; a well thought out ride; a perfect ride.

'Til next time...

June 3, 2004