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Island 400-May 13: Thus Rode Zarathustra

Mike Poplawski


The Island 400, starting from Victoria, turned out to be a solo event, although I did have some company at the very start. Ken Bonner, who appears to be riding every randonneur event under the sun (or moon) this season, had my control card ready at the Highway 1 at Tillicum Chevron. The lack of starting line confusion (Ken, a storekeep and myself) allowed us to start on time without any problems.

Within 3 km, Ken was out of sight. (I wouldn't see him until about 11 AM heading in the other direction not far south of Union Bay).

I had learned a lot from the Island 300 km ride, mostly that I needed to keep eating, and that there was no way this ride was going to be as difficult as the 300 km. I'm glad that prophesy came true.

I guess my first scare came near Shawnigan Lake when a young driver stopped their vehicle about 300 m ahead of me. With some trepidation, I passed with some room to spare, exchanged "Hi"s and went on my way. I'm pretty sure it was a relief break in the woods.

Riding over the Malahat at 4 in the morning is quite an experience, and there was a good amount of moonlight to make it even more dramatic. The descent was good, although my hope of encountering no traffic at all didn't come true. I didn't have the whole road to myself and therefore had to check my speed and my line more than I would have liked. The other bad news, albeit minor, was that the descent down Mill Bay Road wasn't part of the route!

I was making good enough time, and the winds were cooperating. However, one thing Ken mentioned to me at the start, and which I ultimately was not prepared for, was how cold the Cowichan Valley is at daybreak. I was wearing regular cycling gloves, and I had to stop on several occasions to get the blood in my fingers flowing again, including taking a seat on the side of the road at Beverly in Duncan for about 5-10 minutes. At least I could keep myself busy by eating and drinking, and I managed to put some duct tape on my fingers as an experiment in wind-shielding. It didn't really work.

The conditions for the ride, save for the temperature in the aforementioned spot, were perfect. I rode with a jacket half the time, and my long-sleeve jersey was perfect during the warmest parts. Again, the winds were agreeable, the roads were dry and clear enough, and visibility was very good, giving me lots to look at. I did have one worry as I passed Chemainus. I felt a little nausea, but a couple of well-considered breaths solved the problem. I wouldn't have any problems like that the rest of the way.

I checked into Nanaimo, having spent very little time off the bike. My average speed was in the 23s, which I thought was pretty good. The 7-Eleven had plenty of randonneur delicacies--I chose some Gatorade and a Snickers to go along with my pre-ride stores of PowerBar gels and Clif Bars and I was on my way again.

I can't remember where I saw the other 400 km riders first pass on other side of the road, but I was glad to see them out there. They had started their trips from either Nanaimo or Ladysmith, I believe, and had started a little later than Ken and I. You all looked good out there!

I kept cruising along the highway, seeing this area for the first time by bike. I especially enjoyed north of Parksville and Qualicum Beach, with their ups and downs, and lots of people out on this beautiful Saturday morning.

The northern part of this route was once the main highway to Courtenay, which was always hectic and packed with cars, trucks and all else. With an inland bypass, the route is now a lot less busy and even more scenic, and I'd call this a great route!

I was a little disappointed that what I thought was Union Bay, and the turnaround, was actually Buckley Bay, which is the terminal for the Denman & Hornby Island ferry. Union Bay was still 6 km to go. Nevertheless, I got off the bike and quickly and made feral work of the Snickers bar before deciding to get myself a Subway footlong sandwich. Unfortunately, despite my intense hunger, my stomach was not accommodating and I had to toss half. This is the downside of being built like a rail--my eyes probably are, in actuality, bigger than my stomach!

I continued on north after exchanging pleasantries with another rider-"Nice color", she said about my bike, a few moments before I spotted that she rode a red Cannondale herself. She and her partner were taking in the sights at the ferry terminal at a more leisurely pace than I was.

At Union Bay, I got to experience an authentic German corner store, complete with all sorts of interesting lawn ornaments--you've got to see them. Anyway, after some more Gatorade and Mentos purchases, I was on my way south and back home. I had ridden fairly quickly between Nanaimo and here--my computer showed an average speed now of 24.3 km/h. I hope I hadn't dug my own grave.

I saw the other Rando folks again around Qualicum Beach, all looking great. I would hope at least a few of them had figured out that I was riding a 400 km, too--who else would you see twice in one day like this?

The Parksville Thrifty Foods was my next destination--I was running low on gels and I needed some batteries for my auxiliary headlight. They had gone dim coming up the Malahat, and darn it, wouldn't you know that the headlight came apart coming up Island through Ladysmith? (Do Carol and Stephen Hinde ride randonneur just to give them an excuse to not have the ride the brutal main road in Ladysmith?) Anyway, I was well-taken care of at Thrifty's, including an escorted bathroom trip with the helpful fellow there being well aware of what I was doing that day. (Don't get me wrong, the business of my pit stop was done solo-I wasn't quite in that bad a condition.)

Refreshed, with new batteries, food and fluids, I was on my way once again. I caught a little bit of a break, and company, near Nanaimo. A rider named Bob pulled alongside--he was out doing a 50 km training ride on his own, and he had heard of the Randonneur series (he knew Stephen Hinde, and Stephen thinks his name is Bob Simpson) and we spoke of rando, Seattle-to-Portland and other fascinating things until he had to turn off. (Curiously enough, we ran into each other at the Wenatchee "Ride the Sunny Side" Century 3 weeks later. Bob has a good memory for faces, or at least some pieces of my equipment. Small world, until you consider that nobody I talked to during that ride was actually from Wenatchee.) At the Nanaimo control, my speed was now over 24.5. I would have been delirious with delight if I wasn't already delirious with fatigue.

My next stop was in Cobble Hill, where I was able to garner my now-traditional late ride Coke and chips (but no bathroom privileges-rats!). My taste buds now satisfied, and darkness setting in, I proceeded through the toughest part of the ride, that being the rough roads and steady climbs through Shawnigan Lake.

I sneaked off the road to do what I couldn't at Cobble Hill, and took it easy enough through the winding climb to give myself enough energy to push it towards the finish. Yes! My average speed had kept increasing throughout the second half of the ride, and I now had a mission: 25.0 km/h average speed or bust!

I managed to keep things going smoothly on the descent towards Goldstream, with the traffic being a little hairier than I would have liked, but the drivers showed their courtesy by not colliding with me. The scene was getting darker, and I couldn't always see my computer clearly, but I could see that I was keeping my speed above 25 most of the time, and I knew I had a chance to meet my newfound goal.

By the time I was at the Colwood underpass, my average speed had already crept up to 25.0. The remainder of the ride in the darkness was along the highway where I commute to work, and I knew, barring collapse, or a turn of the winds, that I could make it.

As I hit the Chevron parking lot, I nearly stumbled to check my computer in the lights. I finished the ride at an average speed of 25.1 km/h, in exactly 16 hours of riding. My overall time was 18:41, finishing at 9:41 PM. A nice full day!

I'm glad I had watched 2001: A Space Odyssey that week--it gave me a little soundtrack to play in my mind as I made my ascent into, well, a rider who had finished his randonneur ambitions for the year. (I'm going to save the multi-day stuff for a while...) I hummed Thus Spake Zarathustra more than a few times that day, and you had better believe that there was plenty of time to whistle The Blue Danube over and over in a 16-hour ride!

Here's to doing this ride again in 2001, maybe with someone else riding this great route for the first time!