VanIsle Vagabond

Riding the VanIsle

July 5th-8th, 2006

a ride report by Kent Peterson

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

Vancouver Island is one of the most beautiful places on earth and from what I've seen it is populated by kind and gentle people. On July 3rd 2006 while waiting to load my bike on the ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria, a fellow cyclist started chatting with me about my Kogswell. Harold  Rusk and his wife Anita have been cycling with friends on the Olympic Peninsula and now they are returning to their home in Victoria. "And what brings you up here?" Harold asks. When I tell him about the VanIsle 1200K, he nods. He's heard a bit about randonneuring. "Where are you staying in Victoria?" he queries. I inform him that I have a bivy sack and a sleeping bag and some intentionally vague plans. "Stick with us," Harold insists, "we've got a back yard if you're intent on camping or a spare room and a shower if you want something a bit more civilized."

Harold and Anita are wonderful hosts. Harold shows me his basement full of old French bikes (he's got a really nice collection of Peugeots and Gitanes) and I tell him stories of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race. Harold is very excited by a lovely book he's recently purchased, The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, and he's pleased that I not only know the book but that I'm also friends with Jan Heine, the book's author.

Harold and Anita make sure that I'm fed, housed and orientated. Harold digs out bike maps and goes over my list of the places I need to find -- the pre-ride bike check, the brevet start and end points and the location of the pre-ride dinner. Harold supplements the maps with a quick tour of the city, pointing out each place I need to go while filling me in on various interesting bits of local history. In addition to Harold and Anita, I meet their son Graham (a world-class rower) and their niece and her friend who are in Victoria for the summer to go to school. Everyone is very friendly and completely understanding of my odd schedule and unusual sport. "Oh, so you're taking off at 3:00 AM Wednesday morning? Well, why don't you come back here to sleep for a bit tomorrow night?"

I spend Tuesday wandering around Victoria, a lovely city that would probably be lovelier without all the tourist shops. The city also features a whole bunch of native totem poles, which are rather neat, and a large number of decorated bear statues, which are quite bizarre. I ride about 40 kilometers exploring the city and riding over to the bike check-in and the pre-ride dinner.

Jaye Haworth recognizes me as I roll up to the bike check-in. Jaye was half of the record-setting tandem team in the last Paris-Brest-Paris and I've known Jaye for a couple of years. Jaye continues the tradition of Canadian hospitality by offering me a place to stay tonight but I explain that I've already been kind of adopted by the Rusks.

At the bike check-in everybody is comparing gear. Ken Bonner chides me for running more than a single gear and expresses concern for the reliability of my old Sturmey-Archer hub. It seems Ken destroyed such a hub in the past and is wary, but I know Ken is something of a power rider and power shifter. I tend to be more of a twiddler and know that Sturmey-Archers can pretty much last forever if you only shift them while coasting.

Manfred Kuchenmuller is a guy who apparently likes small, elegantly engineered vehicles. His bike is a red Bike Friday Pocket Rocket and his car is a nifty little Smart Car. I'm not a big fan of motor vehicles myself, but the Smart Car is pretty cool. I've seen one of these on the streets of Seattle but up on Vancouver Island, I've seen dozens of them zipping around. I've also seen a bunch of utility bikes and a cool little electric bike parked outside a restaurant.

Dean Zimmer is the only VanIsle rider with a recumbent, so I know for the rest of the ride I'll be thinking of him as the recumbent guy. That's how my mind works on these rides: I latch onto one aspect of a rider that I can use as a mental tag. I may get so tired I can't remember my own name but I'll still be able to think of "the recumbent guy", "the Bike Friday guy" or "the Colnago guy" or whatever. Ron Penner has a Kogswell so in my mind he's the Kogswell guy. Even though I'm also on a Kogswell, I figure most of the other riders are probably labeling me as "the three-speed guy" or "the guy with all the stuff."

"The guy with all the stuff" label comes from my panniers, mattress pad and bivy sack. While many of my fellow riders have drop bags and motel reservations, I prefer the flexibility I get by traveling entirely self-contained. If I think I'll need something at some point on the ride, I bring it with me. Over the years I've honed my gear down and while I travel light by touring standards, I carry more stuff than most randonneurs.

We all have a bit more stuff after the check-in. In a somewhat optimistic move, Ken has given us all finisher's t-shirts. We also got extra reflective tape and one of the longest set of route cue-sheets I've ever seen. Nine pages of turn-by-turn instructions, broken down into quarter page chunks. A grand total of 32 control points spread out over the next 1205.7 kilometers. This is quite a contrast to my previous Canadian 1200K, the Rocky Mountain 1200, where the entire set of cues fit on single page. I stuff the t-shirt in my pannier and fold the cue-sheets so they fit into a plastic bag that gets clipped to the top of my Kogswell's headlight.

After all the bikes have been inspected and everyone has gotten checked in, almost all the riders and volunteers head over to the Blethering Place Tea Room for the pre-ride dinner. The Tea Room is nice but not really equipped to handle a crowd and we all wind up clumped at various tables. Without the bikes as a handy reference, I have to rely on my poor memory for names. Maybe it's just that women are a minority in the randonneuring world or maybe my memory is tied to my Y chromosome but I seem to have no trouble remembering riders with names like Melissa, Nancy or Karen. I have to work harder to remember the names of the guys. I'd ridden with Larry Midura a years ago on LEL and Larry has his name thoughtfully written on the top tube of his bike. John Kramer similarly has his name on his bike's highly reflective mud-flaps. But as, I mentioned, these helpful mnemonics are all parked outside, so I wind up trying to find way to connect names to people. There are three guys named Dan on this ride and one of them is a friendly guy from Missouri. Dan has ridden every North American 1200K brevet and since the VanIsle is a brand new 1200, he had to come up and ride this brevet. Dan is more of a conversationalist than most randos and seems to be the most vocal of the three Dans, so I mentally dub him "Chatty Dan."

After dinner I ride the few kilometers back to the Rusks' home. I thank my hosts again for their hospitality and settle in for a few hours sleep.

I leave the Rusks' place at 1:40 AM fueled by a slice of Anita's delicious banana bread. I am at home on darkened streets. In the small hours, a city is a quieter, gentler version of its daytime persona. The golden light of day is replaced by shades of deep blue and gray, punctuated with shocking bits of neon. Street lamps cast cones approximating moonlight and it is a good time to ride. I have my layer of wool, my arm and leg warmers, my yellow vest and loads of reflective gear. My lights beam blue-white to the front and red to the rear. I glide quietly down cool and quiet streets and just past 2:00 AM I pull up at the Oak Bay Marina.

Ken is here and over the next forty minutes all the riders gather. Ken gives out the control cards. There are so many check-points on this route that we are each issued two cards, as 32 controls would not fit on a single card. Ken gives the final ride briefing, explaining how we'll ride together to the true start of the ride a kilometer away. Ken suggests that we ride as a group for the first twisty, turny kilometers of the ride and then says "I'll make a grunt or some kind of noise and then we'll really start going." I'm familiar with that noise, it's the sound of Ken making the jump to hyper-space and it'll be the last I of see of Ken until the end. Well, that's strictly not true since this is basically an out and back course. Somewhere in the next couple of days I'll see him returning from Port Hardy.

We roll out into the night, with lights lighting, reflectors reflecting and eyes mostly locked on the set of tail lights just ahead. We follow Ken until the timing of traffic lights breaks our group into smaller groups. Subgroups learn to navigate on their own and somewhere far ahead Ken grunts and the fast folk follow. The rest of us find our own way, settling into a rhythm that we hope will carry us for 1200 kilometers.

The VanIsle 1200K is based on the older, more established Vancouver 1000K brevet. Ken has ridden this route from Victoria to Port Hardy for years and when he designed the VanIsle 1200K, he did so by adding a couple of 100K loops to the beginning and end of the 1000K course. Thus we are spending these early hours winding through the streets of Victoria and up and down the length of the Saanich Peninsula. After looping through Victoria and passing by the Oak Bay Marina once again, we roll quickly up to the first dark check-point, a beach overlook called Ten Mile Point. This is what is known as an informational control and we prove our passage by noting the answer to a question on our control cards before heading back out into the night.

I'm tracking my distance in kilometers once again. For most of my randonneuring life I've had my cycle computer set to read kilometers, but a couple of years ago, in preparation for racing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race, I'd switched my thinking and my computer back over to miles. In my job I help American bicycle commuters map out routes, so again miles make sense. But now I'm riding in a land mapped in kilometers, following cues listed in kilometers and watching numbers that seem oddly large. Even allowing for the 1.6 kilometers equals 1 mile conversion, it seems like we're really hauling. Manfred confirms my perception, "Whoever said 'brevets aren't races' hasn't ridden with this group," he comments.

The randonneuring world is made up of a variety of different riders with different approaches to the events. In every ride there are the fast folks, those gunning for a personal best time, a course record, or some other experience where the goal is to have the elapsed time at the end be as low as possible. There are also riders who are stretching to their limits just to make each check-point within the time windows. At the end we all get the same medals and we all earn the title of "finisher".

For most randonneurs, the event is something toward which they've trained, some kind of peak experience. My approach is a bit different. I'm not really interested in being fast but I have a life so centered on cycling that I have a multi-year base of thousand mile months. A 1200K ride is still something unique, but in a very real sense, it's just another ride. I prepare pretty much every day for rides like this, but I have a hard time thinking of my riding as training or the events as something unusual. This is an interesting ride in an interesting part of the world, I should take the time to enjoy it.. I take Manfred's comment to heart and back the pace off a notch.

One nice thing about not racing is that I can take some time to take pictures along the way. Earlier this year I picked up a nine-dollar refurbished Aiptek digital camera. Since I don't have a lot invested in the camera, I don't worry about it and I keep it hung from a strap around my neck. The camera doesn't have anything fancy like a picture display or a flash unit and it's only 1.3 mega-pixels but I've found it to be adequate for my needs.

It's getting light as we near Sidney and the day's second control. I get a few action shots of Dean on his recumbent and some shots of our little group at the control.

This is a perfect day for cycling. The rising sun warms things up nicely and we are still enough of a cohesive group that we are able to help each other spot road signs and navigate turns. Dan greats every dog walker and morning stroller with a comment about the loveliness of the day and I sure can't disagree with him. After a few more controls (including a Tim Hortons just to make sure we all know that we're in Canada!) we complete our scenic loop of the Saanich Peninsula and turn North onto the busy Trans Canada Highway.

The Trans Canada Highway is not the world's loveliest road although it traverses some beautiful country and it's got some beautiful climbs and descents and overviews. I'm mostly riding alone on this section but I'm accompanied by the most welcome of cycling companions, a nice tailwind. After 33 kilometers of highway, I turn off onto the scenic road to Mill Bay.

The scenic roads are wonderful in a jaw-dropping, picture postcard, overwhelm the camera sort of way. A mother deer and her two fawns blissfully ignore the passing randonneurs. The roads continue to be small and scenic and even the one turn that somehow avoided the printed cue-sheet can't mar this day. At the Cowichan Bay Ice Cream Store I consider my nutritional options and select a bag of gummy raspberry candies for the road.

The day is filled with sunshine, tailwinds, and scenic bayside controls. Nanaimo is a big city in the ugly, strip-mall mold that reminds me of Dar Williams' line that "the mountain was so beautiful that this guy built a mall and pizza shack" but past Nanaimo the road is smaller. The bayside communities naturally cater to the tourists but there are also oyster fishing operations and logging trucks rolling up and down the island shuttling logs between the northern woods and the big waterfront wood processing plants. I'm used to narrow roads and rumble strips and logging trucks, we have all these things in Washington state as well, and I've learned that folks who drive trucks for a living tend to be pretty good at their jobs. And by urban standards, the traffic is very light and gets lighter the farther north I go.

It's 9:27 PM when I roll into Campbell River. This control is 382 kilometers into the ride and many riders will be stopping here for the night. This far north at this time of year it is still light and I opt to press on a bit further. At 11:16 PM I'm at the rest area at Roberts Lake. It's deeply dark now and I have more than on third of the ride behind me. Ken had cautioned riders not to bivouac at the roadside because of the dangers of wild animals but I've spent more time than most folks in the backwoods. I know how to stow my gear and I also know the most dangerous creatures on this planet walk on two legs. I find a secluded spot, unroll my bivy and settle in for a few hours. At one point in the very small hours of the morning I'm awakened by the sounds of a human argument. The phrase I hear repeated over and over is "get in the ____ing truck now!" I guess the two people come to some sort of agreement because the last I hear is a door slam and wheels spin as the truck pulls away.

At 3:30 AM I wake again and decide that I've slept enough. I pack up my bivy and roll on.

The Sayward Junction Gas & Convenience Store opens at 6:00 AM. It's 5:20 AM on Thursday July 6th. In the past 26 hours and 20 minutes I've ridden 447 kilometers and slept for 4 hours. It would be nice to have a cup of coffee and something to eat besides the power snacks and gummy raspberries I have tucked in my Jandd frame bag, but I should be moving on. At least there is an outside water faucet here.

As I'm filling my water bottles in the gradually dawning light, a young woman rolls up on a mountain bike. She snaps off her bike headlight and says "Waiting for the store to open, eh?" I explain that the store doesn't open until six and that I'm headed out. "I work here," she smiles, "give me ten minutes and I'll have the place opened up."

Andrea Storback
is true to her word and ten minutes later she's got the store open. The first coffee of the day is wonderful and Andrea won't take any money for the donut I select. "Those are yesterday's donuts, I can't charge you for that."

Andrea is intrigued when I tell her about the VanIsle 1200K and thinks that it's very cool that the Junction is a check-point. "If we'd known you folks would be riding through here, we could've set something up overnight." I tell her that there are some riders ahead of me but that there are more coming up from Campbell River. Andrea is a runner and while she's interested in our event, she doesn't have any the "you guys are insane" undercurrent that defines many of the conversations we randonneurs often have with non-randos. She wishes me luck on my trip and I head down the road toward Woss.

The country is wild here and the road heads west and over the mountains of that form the spine of the island. These hills are not like the long climbs of the Rockies or steep pitches like those of BMB but the climbs and descents are long enough and frequent enough for me to think fondly of my decision to equip my bike with the multi-speed hub.

I'm at the Woss check-point at 9:15 AM. There is a café here and at least half a dozen other riders. Larry Midura and I check out the café, but they seem overwhelmed by the traffic and I opt to grab a sandwich at the store instead. Clouds and wind seem to be coming from the west and my sense is that today won't be as quick a day as yesterday. I roll off, munching the sandwich as I ride.

As I'm pedaling along I see the super speedy Bryan Johnson coming towards me, urging his very trick titanium Seven back towards Victoria. Bryan is too much of a blur for me to photograph, but a bit later I see Ken Bonner also headed back. Ken pulls over and we chat. Ken tells me where I'm at relative to the rest of the field. I think he says that  I am twelfth at this point but it's not a piece of information I lock in my long-term memory. Ken also inquires about how my hub is doing. "Running like a Swiss clock!" I tell him. On every brevet there is a chance our technology or bodies or minds will fail us but for the moment at least all systems are go. Ken and I wish each other luck and I head off towards Port Hardy while Ken heads towards Victoria.

I ride on and some of the speedy, fully-breakfasted folks catch and pass me before the next control at Hyde Creek. There are a lot of trees and hills here and a few totem poles and a sign promising a dire fine to those who feed the bears. I think all of us have placed not feeding the bears high on our priority list but the sign is a reminder that we're quite far from the place where the bears are just oddly painted photo-ops for tourists.

The section from Hyde Creek to Port Hardy is filled with headwinds and geographic rain. The west wind off the ocean is moisture-laden and as it hits the mountains, that moisture dumps out. The moisture takes forms varying from mist to light rain to heavy rain. But the weather varies with each rise of mountain and dip of valley and rather than take a rain jacket on and off in a nearly infinite repeating cycle, I layer my DriClime windshirt over my light wool jersey and beneath my rain-vest. I've found this combination of layers to be very versatile across a fairly wide range of conditions and today it's perfect.

Port Hardy may have some redeeming features tucked away someplace but today all I see is rain and yet another Shell station. I buy a couple of Snickers bars and some milk and head back towards Hyde Creek. The intermittent rain continues on and off with the rises and falls of the land and I manage to snap some pictures of my fellow randonneurs working their way against the wind. The tailwind is nice now and every kilometer brings me closer to the dry side of the island and closer to my next nap.

I'm back at Hyde Creek at the same time as Ron Penner and Larry Midura. Ron tells Larry and I that he's got a room at Woss and that we're welcome to sleep for a bit there. Ron looks like he's having a difficult ride and says he wants to make plans while he's still thinking semi-clearly. I know the feeling, as the hours and kilometers build-up your head and body can start doing some really weird things.

Ron is riding faster than Larry and I and he makes it back to Woss ahead of us. At 9:15 PM Larry and I are back at Woss. The control workers have some great home-made peanut-butter cookies here and I inhale a few before settling in for a few hours sleep. When Larry takes off around 1:00 AM the light and noise wakes Ron and I but I fall back asleep quickly. Ron is not so lucky; he's a light sleeper and unfortunately I snore like an Electrolux vacuum cleaner trying to suck up a hairball. I'm sure Ron is regretting his offer of hospitality. I reawaken to see a grim and groggy Ron staring at me. He explains the problem, which takes a moment to sink into my sleep-sodden brain. I apologize as best I can and add "I'm just gonna go" and I roll out into the night. I've gotten three hours of sleep and that should be plenty. It's 1:45 AM.

Many thoughts run through my mind while riding these dark roads. Thoughts ranging from the profound to the mundane to the silly. The profound breakthrough is a perfectly clear design for as set of panniers made from trash cans and duct tape, while the mundane are thoughts of the snacks I'll obtain at the next convenience store. The snack thoughts tip me into the recurring silly thought, an endless loop of the Milky Way candy bar commercial where the sexy talking candy bar comforts the guy by telling him that he is "a buffet of manliness."

I'm desperately hoping for something to break my mind out of this inane interior dialog when fellow Seattle International Randonneur Ron Himschoot pulls up along side me. Ron is one of the true long distance veterans, a guy who has been with SIR pretty much since the beginning. Ron also rides at least as many brevets with Canadians as he does with us and he's a great guy to talk to on a dark night. Our paces are somewhat similar, although he's a bit faster on the descents than I am and I may be a bit quicker on some of the climbs. We manage to talk about almost everything except stupid candy bar commercials and at 5:35 AM the sun is up and we are back at Sayward Junction.

If randonneurs have saints, I'd like to nominate Andrea Storback. Once again she is smiling and cheerful and has the store open early. Again the coffee is on and the donuts are free. I buy a turkey sandwich and some non-Milky Way candy bars. Ron Himschoot power-naps for a few minutes and then Ron Penner pulls up. Kogswell Ron looks like a groggy version of Death. "Were you able to get back to sleep after I left?" I ask. "No," says Ron, "I lay there for awhile but I couldn't sleep and eventually decided to just go." I feel terrible but there really isn't anything I can do. I offer Ron some of my turkey sandwich but he declines and heads into the store. I head down the road toward Roberts Lake.

In daylight I see that there really is a lake next to the Roberts Lake rest area and now the day is warm and the skies are clear. At 10:15 AM both Rons and I are back at Campbell River. I inhale some food before I realize that it's part of the control worker's private food stash and not community property. Again, I feel terrible. I think I do better when I'm off on my own and get ready to head out. Kogswell Ron is having problems holding his head upright. I feel I should say something comforting, but the only words that come to mind are "you are a buffet of manliness" and I don't think that's quite the right thing to say under the circumstances. I remain silent while Jaye offers helpful advice about how to bungie his helmet to his Camelbak. I grab a couple of bananas from the legitimate pile of community food and head out.

I stop at the Wendys in the busy modern town of Courtenay at 2:00 PM for some chicken nuggets, fries and a Frosty. Forty minutes later I stop at a lovely Espresso Barn for a great caramel latte and a chocolate chip granola bar. At 4:00 PM I take a ten minute power-nap in the park next to the Fanny Bay Community Center and at 6:00 PM I feast on a sausage roll and a donut and Pringles and some milk at the Qualicum Beach Shell station. As I try to note in every one of my ride reports, I am not a nutritional role model.

Bike Friday Manfred catches up with me at Nanaimo shortly before 9:00 PM. We stop at the 7-11 control and get our cards signed. Manfred is looking strong and swift and relaxed as he pulls out. I am still feeling pretty good but I'm also not thinking about pulling an all-nighter. The cue-sheet promises many kilometers of highway riding and rumble strips ahead and I decide to keep my eyes open for a likely place to sleep for a few hours. With my bivy and mattress pad and tiny down sleeping bag, I have a lot of options.

At 11:35 PM I see the friendly glow of the North Cowichan Municipal Hall. There is a little park-like area near the offices and on this Friday night the place is perfectly quiet and secluded. There is the constant drone of traffic on the highway but I'm sure that will just blend in with my snoring. I sleep for nearly five hours.

I'm rolling again before 5:00 AM and I'm back to riding with other randonneurs. Chatty Dan is here and Manfred must have slept somewhere because he is here as well. At the Mill Bay control at 6:00 AM we are all blinking with varying levels of alertness. Some have ridden all night through the cold and others, like Manfred and myself, are feeling pretty well recharged. Dan relays a story of Melissa's woe, her freehub has decided to freewheel in both directions. Something as tiny as a pawl spring can be a very big problem on a ride like this. When Dan left Melissa and Scott they were frantically looking for a solution that would let Melissa continue.

Manfred knows these roads well and advises us about the rumble strips and the rock walls that close in on the road at the bottom of steep descents. This is terrain that is far more fun to ride in the clear light of day than the dark of night.

At 8:41 AM Manfred and I are at the Ravine Way Tim Hortons. If randonneuring ever gets professional sponsorship, we all should be sporting Tim Hortons and Starbucks logos on our jerseys. But we don't do these rides for the money or the glory or the groupies because as near as I can tell randonneuring has no money or glory or groupies. In fact, after more than 1100 kilometers over the past three days, I don't know if any of us could tell you why we do this. Maybe it's the feeling of warm sunshine after riding through a cold night. Maybe it's the feeling that you can ride and eat and sleep and then ride and eat and sleep again almost forever. Maybe it's knowing that any distance is biking distance. Maybe it's something else.

We wind our way back up the Saanich Peninsula. The sun is warm and we are almost home. At the last 7-11 Manfred says something sensible about stopping for a real breakfast. He makes a good case, this isn't a race and we have time, but I have a ferry to catch back to the states and a beautiful wife waiting for me at home. Manfred and some other randos stop for breakfast and I roll on.

It's getting close to 2:00 PM when I roll into Victoria. I see folks looking out at the bay and a local points my attention to the proper spot. Two orcas are out in the water, their great fins slicing the smooth water.

At 1:42 PM I buy a pint of milk at Mac's Convenience Store and twenty minutes later Ken Bonner is signing my control card at the final check-point. He gives me my finishers medals and I ride off to catch the 3:00 PM ferry for Port Angeles.


I rode 35 kilometers from Port Angeles to Sequim Bay State Park where I camped for the night. Just after I checked in a couple of German cycle tourists rolled into camp. Since I'd just gotten the last site and don't take up much room, I shared my site with them. The next morning I had a great latte at the Espresso Garden in Gardiner and rode the remaining 116 kilometers home.

Both Melissa Friesen and Paul Johnson had freehub problems and persisted through to complete this ride. You can read about the issues they faced here:

Shermer's Neck got the better of Ron Penner. Of the original 36 riders, 30 finished the VanIsle. The results can be seen here:

My pictures from the VanIsle can be seen here:

And Toshiyuki Nemoto's pictures from the VanIsle are here: