By Ken Knutson
Last summer’s VanIsle 1200k was a lot of fun, and it didn’t seem as physically challenging as other 1200’s I’ve completed (PBP ’03, GRR ’01, Rocky Mountain 1200 ’02 & ’04, and Last Chance ’04.) I’m not sure why—it might have been the weather, the fact I had a support vehicle driven by my wife Lori, or my own health. (I started taking thyroid medication in February and it has made riding a lot easier this year.) Starting in January, I did two complete Super Randonneur series, an Easter Flèches-USA team ride, and another 300k brevet before summer arrived, so I felt ready to tackle another 1200k. At the start of the VanIsle there were 34 other randonneurs from all parts of Canada and the United States, and one fellow came from Germany. In the end, there were 30 finishers for the first running of this ride.
The Course: This course is completely different from all the others I’ve ridden. Bill Bryant had remarked to me earlier this year that it would be tough to create a 1200 km route on the island. He’s right; Vancouver Island is perfect for a 1000k from end to end, and there has been a popular 1000k brevet organized there for many years. But coming up with another 200k required a lot of creativity. It also required a lot of controls. There were 32 of them—about twice as many as most other 1200k events have. The route sheet was 13 pages long. As one rider described it, the course was more like a scavenger hunt instead of a bike ride. Still, it was a pretty ride with a lot of nice scenery.
We met at the Oak Bay Marina in Victoria for check-in at 2 AM and then cycled to the start 2 km away. The ride started at 3 AM, with a loop through downtown Victoria. The early start allowed us to circle through the city without much traffic. After 16 km, we passed by the marina again and headed northward. From there we went up to Sidney, then Schwartz Bay and circled back to Victoria. Our 100 km control was less than 3 miles from the hotel we were staying at and about 5 miles from the start. From there it was mostly north to the far end of the island at Port Hardy, and then back again. The return was slightly different, and we didn’t circle through the city.
The Terrain: The route can be broken into three large parts. The first section to Campbell River (382 km) is mostly flat. There is one climb (Malahat Summit, 350 meters), but I really didn’t notice it until I was on the downhill. The second section from Campbell River to Port Hardy and back (469 km) contains most of the climbing. My Polar monitor recorded 40,000 feet of elevation gain for the entire ride, with 31,000 feet in this section alone. The grades were fairly easy compared to many of the steep climbs we have here in California, but there were a lot of uphills. The last section is basically the same as the first, but without the Victoria stuff we did at the start.
The Weather: The temperatures were about perfect for this ride, especially in the first and last thirds. Daytime highs were about 70 degrees, with the night at least 55. The middle third was a bit cooler and had some rain. Usually, 30% chance of rain means a low chance of rain, but for the mountains and up to Port Hardy I think a better description would be that it rains at least 30% of the time. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but it drizzled for about 12 hours. The group that finished at 72:50 went to a laundromat in Port Hardy and dried their clothes before heading back, a smart use of time.
Scenery and Traffic: Because it is on an island, about 80% of the VanIsle 1200k is within view of a body of water. The ride either hugs the coast or climbs high enough to see water. It is wooded in the country, but it is mostly tourist towns along the highway from Victoria to Campbell River. Being a tourist area, there is a lot of traffic. Fortunately, most of the route has wide, clean, paved shoulders. The traffic and road conditions were not bad because of the wide shoulders. From Campbell River north, the tourist traffic drops off. This is a logging area, so instead of tourists we got logging trucks. The main lumber processing area is between Campbell River and Sayward Junction. I did this area at night going out and back, which minimized my exposure to the trucks.
Finishing Times: Overall finishing times pretty much depended on when people took their first night’s sleep break. Those finishing over 85 hours took their break at Campbell River (382 km). The group that finished under 73 hours stopped at Woss (512 km). I stopped at Sayward Junction (446 km). The two riders ahead of me and the 83-hour folks also stopped at Sayward Junction. Those who went further than Campbell River had less climbing to do after a sleep break, less time in the rain, and less time to share the road with the logging trucks.
Wildlife: Yes, there were bears out there. There are even bear warning signs posted along the northern section of the island highway. The northernmost 25 miles of the road (Port McNeill to Port Hardy) was recently redone, including landscaping. According to the locals, this is a prime bear area since they like to eat the new grass and clover planted along the roadside. I saw three bears in this area. (No, not mama, papa and baby bear—they were all full-grown and seen in separate places.) Ride organizer Ken Bonner had warned us about animals and for that reason we shouldn’t consider sleeping outside during the ride as we might at other 1200k events. (The islanders have had a lot of problems with mountain lions too.)
Following Ken’s advice brought an unexpected outcome. Looking for a safe spot to take a power-nap, I found a great place to sleep the second night. In Canada there are highway rest stops about every 25 miles. They usually have men’s, women’s, family, and handicapped facilities. The handicapped and family restrooms are big enough to take a bike inside to get it out of the weather (and possible tampering by humans and other animals.) At 12:30 AM I found one where I planned on taking a short power-nap. While most of the rest areas usually have the familiar porta-potties, this particular one had lights, a tile floor, running water, and was almost as big as a hotel room—and it was spotless! So, I lay down on the floor and got a half-hour of sleep. The lights were on a sound detector and went off in a couple minutes. They came on when my timer went off. It was sure cheaper than getting a hotel! What I really enjoy about brevets is that you never know what to expect and learn to improvise as the ride develops. It is the odd things that happen that make them so much fun, and this one was no exception.
My Ride: Overall, the ride went smoothly, with only a few rough spots.
The first one occurred at the 100 km control. The control was at a shopping center. The cement curb driveway was a couple inches higher than the road. As I started making a right turn, a dump truck driver decided to make a left in front of me. This forced me to take the turn at a tight angle, resulting in a crash. Fortunately, Carradice saddlebags are wide and it cushioned my fall. All I got out of it was a slight butt bruise and a little “whiplash”. This may be why I didn’t notice climbing Malahat Summit on the way out, which came shortly after the control. I guess my adrenaline was still up.
With night coming on the second day and after 12 hours in the rain, I decided that enough was enough and elected to put my fenders on the bike. I had them in the van. I didn’t want to ride all night in the rain so at the next control I spent about an hour getting them on and changing into dry clothes. Along with enjoying a hot meal with Lori, I spent two hours there. Of course within an hour of putting on the fenders the rain stopped.
Canada has a law that bicycles can travel on the highway, but can’t go under an overpass. So at each intersection you have to take the exit ramp and rejoin the highway on the other side. At 1117 km, I misunderstood the “veer right” to exit instruction. At that time in the ride the directions were confusing. I didn’t realize I was supposed to get right back on the highway.
Finally, the last hour arrived. No surprise, there was a control at 1200 km. From there it was 5 km to Ken Bonner’s house for the final check-in. I reached the 1200 km control in 80:13. Feeling a great sense of accomplishment, I had a snack and did a leisurely ride to Ken’s house. Although it is clearly marked as a control, I was thinking the last 5 km didn’t count time-wise. Oops. Upon arrival, we chatted, had a beer, and finally got down to the “paperwork” after some time had passed. Ken’s best guess was 80:58 as my time. Checking my Polar afterward, it was actually 80:48. But the overall time didn’t really matter all that much; the best part was that I finished and felt good!
Overall, this was a fun ride. I think the BC Randonneurs plan on offering it again in four years. If you get a chance, check it out. Along with doing the ride, Lori and I had a great time exploring the island as vacationers. While we have only been back home a day, we are already planning on returning.
Benefits of Canadian Brevets: How many times have you heard that you should train the way you plan to ride an event ? Many RUSA members are already starting to talk about the 2007 PBP. For some, going to France may be their first trip out of the United States or at least their first trip with a bike. If this is your situation, doing a brevet next year in Canada is a good way to get your feet wet without jumping into the deep end of the pool. If you go to Canada, you will experience going through customs, using a different currency, and tracking your ride progress by kilometers. You will need to box your bike if you fly and figure out how to get it to your destination. In Canada you will be exposed to a different variation of English, or in some regions, immersed in French. Canadian English is slightly different from American English. Most of the time it isn’t a big deal, but it can get confusing, especially if that difference shows up on a route sheet (and late in a long brevet when you are very tired). Riding in Canada provides an opportunity to see beautiful sights, meet friendly people, and practice many of the basic skills to successfully travel to France for PBP. If interested, you can use the RUSA web site’s international links section to find Canadian brevet calendars: www.rusa.org.