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Island 200-April 1: Tour of the Cowichan Valley

Mike Poplawski


Below is a brief account of a ride my partner, Joanne Metz and I did to introduce ourselves to the world of Randonneur riding. We rode the 200 km ride starting in Chemainus on April 1. It was the first ride of that distance for either of us, but not the first time we had ridden on a ride with cue sheets and controls. We prepared ourselves by riding a 150 km route four weeks earlier around our home in Victoria.

The Ride Itinerary:

Maple Bay
Cowichan Bay
Mill Bay
Shawnigan Lake
Cobble Hill
Lake Cowichan

We arrived in good time in Chemainus after having a McMuffin/hash brown/orange juice breakfast-we had plenty of time to fill out the forms, check our bikes (and gawk at everyone else's) and get settled in to the pre-ride atmosphere.

Stephen Hinde, the ride organizer, was in fine form before the ride, making sure everyone's mount was up to code, explaining the origins and pronunciation of Youbou, and warning us of the 60 km gravel road detour around Youbou*. Carol Hinde was there as well, doing much of the paperwork.

The ride was fairly well attended with no fewer than 23 riders, most certainly due to the anticipated good weather and with a contingent of no less than 14 riders from the Lower Mainland!

We started out at 7:09 AM and wisely let most of the field get ahead of us. A group of eight of us or so would stay together until Crofton as we warmed up.

(What would a randonneur ride be without one wrong turn? Joanne and I missed the turn on to York in Crofton, putting us well behind the pack which we would not ride with again. I was feeling confident that it would be our last navigational error, and losing a minute was not so bad at all. I also managed to drop my cue sheet while riding on York, another tradition of mine.)

The route from Crofton to Maple Bay and then on to Mill Bay is quite attractive, save for the climb coming out of Cowichan Bay. Stephen and Carol greeted us at the top as they were waiting for a rider who was riding 150 km that day; their explaining that the Cowichan Bay climb was the worst we'd see was encouraging. They pointed us in the direction of Cherry Point and we got to ride a pair of steep descents (and another climb, which I think was steeper than Cowichan Bay, although nowhere near as long).

We found our way on to Telegraph Road. The Dire Straits tune (a favourite of mine) of the same name popped into my head as we enjoyed riding this road the opposite way (I have ridden from Mill Bay to Crofton several times before). We were soon in Mill Bay and on our way to Shawnigan Lake.

The father of Joanne's kids lives in the area and they visit him, so we have had the chance to ride around Mill Bay. It was a treat to ride Shawnigan-Mill Bay Road on bikes, rather than in a car, to gather in some of the sights, sounds and smells of this country.

The first checkpoint in Shawnigan Lake gave us a little break. Thank you Sharon (hope I have your name right) for the banana bread and cookies! We refilled our water at the General Store and rode on clockwise around the lake.

The west side of Shawnigan has plenty of rollers on rough roads and I'm sure it's a popular training ride as we were passed by a trio who I don't doubt rode up from Victoria that morning.

We meandered along Cobble Hill Road until we hit the highway near Cowichan Bay and ran into Stephen once again. He warned us about a missing street sign up ahead. Thank you, Stephen! The roads were not too hard to ride or navigate and we found ourselves in Glenora in good time to meet up with the checkpoint folks and fill up with water. Thanks again, Stephen!

We were told that we were just behind another group but I didn't think we'd see them. Our pace was steady, but not fast as we made our way out of Duncan and towards Lake Cowichan, a stretch which we found to be quite attractive, with some nice side roads and a bit through the woods.

We felt good coming in to Youbou, and after we doubled back on the road we would find out why. We arrived too late to meet the staffed checkpoint (and the edible goodies) but a cheerful gas station attendant signed our cards and wished us luck.

The highway back towards Duncan, the Cowichan Valley Highway, was, to be blunt, grim. Most of it was perfectly straight with some longer climbs and a relentless headwind that made me believe that there was something physically wrong with my bike. We were not encouraged by drivers passing us at 100 km/h on a 2-lane road, either. Joanne and I basically sucked wheel for almost 2 hours along this stretch (could somebody get us a tandem, please?) and when we finally reached the Tansor turnoff near Somenos I gladly said goodbye to the highway. There was a brisk descent shortly before Tansor, but not enough to win my heart!

As we rode through Somenos, we saw plenty of graveyards. Fortunately, they were merely scenic, not symbolic.

After turning on to the highway, Joanne and I found ourselves with a brisk tailwind as we flew through a construction zone. I was relieved that my bicycle was all okay as I was now cruising uphill at around 30 km/h after struggling to hit 20 for almost two hours on the Cowichan highway!

This stretch of tailwind was all too short but the turn towards Chemainus was still welcome as it meant our ride was drawing to a close. We rode the hills and over more railroad tracks than I remembered from that morning and finished the ride with a little sprint towards the finish in Chemainus in a time of 10:45, which represented an average speed of over 20 km/h and about an hour off our bikes.

We earned our pins! We were also lucky to have the company of several of the other riders at Wing's restaurant before many of them headed back to the mainland, and in one case, Terry from up island in Courtenay. Chinese food combinations and milkshakes never tasted so good!

The main physical challenges I had during the ride were tightness between my shoulder blades, fatigue in my triceps (it took all I had to give a "thumbs up") and a weakness in my left leg. I have a problem with my left knee which makes it weak laterally, and I had a hard time unclipping my SPD pedal. The good news is that it was not that long ago that I would have felt the same way after riding 50 km (our bodies and brains are amazing things!). Further on the plus side, I believe I ate enough and Joanne and I both drank enough, judging by the number of times we got off our bikes to "dehydrate". There was no serious heat or cold to give us any problems, either.

To sum up, this is an amazing ride and one that any road rider could look forward to doing. You see a lot, there's no shortage of people out and about to say "hello" to, and it can be done easily in a day. I imagine it's one of the more pleasant randonneur routes; I'm keen on riding the longer distances, but I think it's going to be lonelier on the highways, instead of the byways...

*April Fool's! Thanks, Stephen...