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Photo: Lindsay Martin

The Hills are Alive
by Louis Bernhardt

But not with the Sound of Music. More like the hills are alive, their fangs dripping as they lie in wait to devour you and suck out your brains like those insect monsters in Starship Troopers. If you wanted to pack all of the stiff climbs of southern Vancouver Island into one 300-km ride, you couldn’t do much better than this. I figure there are only two climbs they left out, and one was on a parallel route. And the two climbs do not include Finlayson Arm Road in the easterly direction; that one is beyond crazy steep! I’ve gone down that hill once, and it’s one of those descents where you don’t want to touch the front brake because the bike’s on its nose already.

The ride took place on the Saturday of the four-day Easter weekend, so I decided to include the Anacortes loop. Friday I rode from my house to the Tsawwassen ferry, then from Swartz Bay to my motel in Victoria. Saturday I did the 300km ride, staying at the same motel. I didn’t think I would feel like riding to a new location right after doing 300km. Sunday morning would be a ride to Sidney to catch the one daily ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, followed by a ride around the island. Monday I would catch the Anacortes ferry from Friday Harbor, then ride the final 150 km back home.

They changed the start point for this ride, fortunately closer to the motel where I was staying, but the 6 am start meant that nothing was open, so I skipped breakfast, figuring I could wait until I hit Sidney at around 8 am at the first control. I set off at my own pace, expecting guys to catch me, but sadly that never happened; I ended up riding the entire thing alone. There was a group behind me, but they were riding at a very comfortable pace. Although you get an easier ride, a group tends to waste a lot of time standing around waiting for each other at the controls. Although you might get pulled along while you’re moving, a group is only as fast as its slowest member when stopped. I like to minimize my time at controls; I think this is the main factor in doing a fast time. I have a “two-minute rule:” every two minutes spent at a control decreases your average speed by 1 kmh. Spend 10 minutes at a control, and your average goes from 30 kmh to 25. Or 25 kmh to 20.

The most efficient way to handle a control is to pull out both the control card and route sheet when you arrive. As you wait for the card to be signed, you change the route sheet so that the next section is on top, and you note the general lay and any special considerations. When you get back the card, you fill your bottle, then grab some food (if there is any), and get back on the bike, eating as you go. If you’re with others, you can ease back into your tempo as the others catch up. This way you’re not standing around waiting for everybody else in your group, getting cold, wasting time. If the first riders start rolling as soon as their cards are signed, there is a strong incentive for the others in the group to get going asap!

The first part of this ride is the circumnavigation of the Saanich Peninsula. The hills here are short, and if not, they are shallow. The first problem comes after you’ve done the peninsula; you’re routed thru the Highlands on Prospect Lake Road, which is the warmup to Munn Road. Munn and Millstream Lake Roads make for an interesting route if you want to do serious climb training. The westward direction on Munn is somewhat easier than the eastward, but it still gets quite steep near the ridge. I still had the light rain jacket on because it was a cold morning, so sweat was dripping into my eyes as I neared the top. I was using the double-sided hub, so climbing in the 44x16, but with a freewheel for the descents. I figured if it got really difficult, I’d just flip the wheel around to the 17-tooth fixed cog side. No freewheeling, but the climbing would be a bit easier.

Here’s something you’d never even think about unless you rode a fixie pretty consistently: a fixed cog is in some ways much easier to pedal than a freewheel. For one thing, it carries your speed better at the transition between flat and uphill. If you’re riding with someone with gears, you’ll actually appear to surge ahead a little as the road steepens. But then you’ll bog down when it gets steep, and the lower gear will have the advantage.

But the biggest advantage is that the constant movement of the chain pushes the crank over top dead center; you don’t have to worry about that one weak point in the pedal stroke where pedal pressure is most difficult to maintain. I think this saves your knees. Having to push over TDC involves a kind of kicking motion that uses that muscle just under the knee. When that muscle starts to get sore, switching to the fixed gear lets you rest that muscle. Of course, this could lead to bad habits if you’re not careful, but I think riding fixed forces you to adopt many more good habits, habits that make you much more efficient, so it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

I took off my rain jacket at the Langford control in anticipation of the long climb up the Malahat. This is actually an easy climb with fabulous views of the inlet below. The problems are the heavy, fast-moving traffic to the left, the sections of rumble-strip that start and stop indiscriminately, and the gravel left over from the winter that hadn’t yet been cleaned. The northerly direction is more gentle than the reverse, judging by how fast I was descending into Mill Bay.

The section thru Mill Bay and Cowichan Bay was about the easiest part of the ride, aided by a gentle tailwind. I thought this would continue into North Duncan, but Lakes Road suddenly kicks up into a dead-straight climb of about 300 meters to a plateau. But the left turn at Herd Rd signifies the northern-most part of the course, and it’s largely downhill back to Highway 1 and into busy Duncan, multi-lane with no shoulder.

The Duncan control was an unmanned Tim Horton’s. Tims are the worst self-serve controls because there is always a lineup, usually long. I happened to get there at 12h55, so the lunchtime rush was on. I wasted about ten minutes waiting in line, grabbing a smoothie and a turkey bagel. The smoothie I sucked on as I rode thru Duncan, the turkey bagel I meant to eat on the road, but I never really felt like eating it. Sometimes you can avoid the dreaded Bonk just by knowing you have something substantial to eat in your back pocket. I just felt like drinking stuff, and I didn’t eat the bagel until that evening back at the hotel.

After rolling along the broad and busy sweep of Highway 1, the next substantial climb was Shawnigan Lake Road to its intersection with the Malahat. This is a much quieter way of getting over this hump than Highway 1 despite its potholes and still despite its increasing amount of traffic. There is a new housing development under construction about two-thirds of the way up, which is not promising. But at least the road meets the man highway after the Malahat summit, so it’s a nice long descent to Goldstream Park, followed by a climb back up to the West Shore Parkway.

Judging by the route profile, I had figured that the worst section of the ride would be the climb of Humpback Road. I had ridden over it before on a fixed gear west-to-east, and it had been an easy climb, although the descent did require some heavy braking. Coming from the other direction, it was a crazy steep wall that I encountered in the first 50 meters from the start of the climb to the railroad tracks, with more of the climb disappearing up the hill beyond. I got off and pushed the bike past the tracks, and then flipped the back wheel around to the 17-tooth fixed side.

I have never used a gear lower than 39x28 (except on a tandem). I know there are riders out there who don’t feel comfortable unless they have the absolute lowest gears they can get. But I figure, if you can walk up the hill faster, then why bother? I guess it’s different if you have a fully-loaded bike, or if you are in an actual racing hillclimb, where the rules stipulate that you cannot get off your bike. But you can look at photos and videos of the Belgian spring classics and see professional bike racers running with their bikes up the cobbled climbs of Flanders, often outpacing their competitors who are still struggling in their smallest gears. There’s no shame in walking up crazy steep hills, and the fixed gear is one more excuse to do so!

Having said that, the rest of Humpback was rideable in the 44x17 (a 60” gear is good to about 18 percent as long as it’s not too long). I didn’t bother switching back to the freewheel side as I figured I had wasted enough time flipping the wheel around once. Good thing too, as I would need the smaller gear for what was to come!

After Humpback, you’re on busy Highway 14 to Sooke, and the tour of Sooke. The main feature of this section is the stepped climbing of Otter Point Road, and the search for Kemp Lake Road. I had recalled from the last 200-km brevet I had done in Victoria that you had to actually look for this road. It comes up unexpectedly, with no warning, looking like somebody’s driveway or like some back lane that won’t amount to much. You even have to strain to see the green street sign that announces Kemp Lake Road, because if you miss it, you are Royally Screwed and will wind up wandering in the wilderness until you reach Jordan River either literally or figuratively.

The turn onto Highway 14 means you are finally headed home. Sort of. You still have to stop and get the card signed one last time in Sooke, and then there’s the small matter of the diversion onto Gillespie Road.

If you thought Humpback was bad, Gillespie matches it (or comes darned close after you’ve got 250 km in your legs). Between Highway 14 and East Sooke Road, Gillespie goes over three substantial ridges, each climb pitched at 15% at least. Good thing I still had the 17 cog. Once on East Sooke Road though, it was pretty easy going, winding and scenic. And then after the intersection to the CFB base at Rocky Point, the road becomes Rocky Point Road, and it climbs up the last substantial hill, an extended climb, very steep in places, just before the road swoops into Metchosin. From here it’s gentle rollers, then a final gentle grade into Colwood, a final diversion down the steep pitch to the Lagoon, and an easy climb out of it. This is the easy direction; going the other way, it’s a very stiff climb out of the Lagoon to Metchosin Road, where you just descend again, making the climb seem futile. At around View Royal, the computer had already hit 300 km, so the Lagoon was probably unnecessary. A few more short and irritating climbs along Craigflower, and the ride finally finished at the Starbucks near Bay Street. I was about ten minutes over 13 hours, so I figured that those 10 minutes were lost waiting in line at the Tim’s in Duncan. Remember the 2-minute rule!

I managed to complete the Anacortes loop two days later, the first time I’ve done this circle. It rained on the Monday all the way from the Anacortes ferry terminal to the Lower Mainland, and my right knee was starting to feel sore, but I kept the bike on the 17t fixed cog and rode easily, aided by a gale-force tailwind that blew me all the whillay back to Canada, so I only had to work on the climbs. Just to give you an idea of how little energy it took, over the six and a half hours of the ride I ate a breakfast sandwich just before the one-hour ferry ride, followed by a Clif Bar and a couple of sips of some fruit concoction at about km 100 or so. And that was it; I finished with a water bottle that was still nearly full. I just don’t get that thirsty when it’s raining! So for the entire four days, the computer showed 650 km covered. I just love being on the bike.

Key equipment used on the Rodriguez: I was on the very comfortable San Marco Regal saddle mounted to a no-name carbon fiber seatpost. Bars were Ritchey Pro carbon-wrapped aluminum with Campag Record carbon brake levers with the shifting mechanism removed. Cranks were 165mm Sram/Truvative Omnium track on Sram GXP external bottom bracket. Pedals were original Shimano Ultegra SPD road (they don’t make them anymore). Brakes were Campag Chorus Differential (dual-pivot front, single-pivot rear). Tires were Vredestein Fortezza SE rear and Hutchinson Carbon Comp front. Front wheel was 16-spoke Shimano, rear wheel was Nashbar double-sided track hub laced to a 32-spoke Velocity Deep V rim.

Ride date: April 23
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April 27, 2011