It’s been two years since we headed off to Iceland to begin what turned into a 16-month cycling odyssey through Europe, Oman and South America. It all seems a bit like a dream now as we have comfortably, and perhaps a little reluctantly, settled back into our house, work and all the trappings that come with urban life.
The spring has been warm and dry on the west coast and what better thing to do than go cycling. So, when the Victoria Day long weekend came along we decided to go for a little ride in our back yard to see if we still had the legs. We managed to infect our friends Chris and Grietje with cycle touring fever and they got their new bikes ready the night before our scheduled departure.
We loaded the four bikes and all the panniers into our friends’ truck on a Friday morning and drove to Tsawwassen near the ferry terminal. A short ride down the causeway we got in line for the ferry to Duke Point, just south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. No waiting or reservation needed when you arrive on a bicycle, even on a busy holiday weekend.
Two hours later, we arrived at Duke Point and got our wheels rolling towards Duncan, partly on the Trans-Canada Trail and partly on roads through the bucolic setting of Southern Vancouver Island. We set an easy-going pace as there was no rush and we did not want to overdo it.
I have recently acquired another touring bicycle and this trip was meant to be a shake-down for the Surly ECR. Surly calls it “a lovechild” born of three of their other bicycles, the Ogre, Troll and Long Haul Trucker. It’s a bit of a monster with large, 29-inch, disc brake-equipped wheels, wrapped with 3-inch-wide rubber.
With plenty of mounts for racks, fenders and bottle cages, it’s a bike designed for off-road touring and trail riding but also performs well on asphalt. This weekend we would ride a mix of road and off-road and I wanted to find out how the bike felt and if any adjustments in its set-up would be needed. I decided to load it with four panniers to see how the bike would perform under such a load. Depending on the kind of tour I will use the ECR, I might go with a bike packing set-up without panniers, or a hybrid with just rear panniers.
As we cycled south through the towns of Cedar, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Westholme we quickly found our groove. The scenery is lovely and riding on the Trans-Canada Trail we found ourselves pretty much on our own.
By the end of the afternoon, we arrived in Duncan and set up camp at Riverside Campsite on the Cowichan River. It was lovely to be camping again. There is something so soothing about camping. It’s the simplicity of it all, I think. No myriad of distractions from radio, tv or internet. Just sharing time with friends in the outdoors. Life slows down and it feels good to be tired from the day’s ride. It’s good for body and mind.
The Cowichan Valley Trail makes a loop from Duncan along the north side of the Cowichan River to the town of Lake Cowichan and back along the south side of the river. It’s part of the Trans-Canada Trail.
We took the south shore trail. It’s a decommissioned railway with four trestle bridges and meanders through dense second-growth forest. Occasionally, you can see stumps of trees of unimaginable size, giants cut down over a century ago. The entire island was once covered with these ancient cedar and fir trees but now, sadly, there are only a few pockets left.
The trail is easy cycling. It climbs continuously to Lake Cowichan but at a grade that’s hardly noticeable. It narrows to single-track in places but generally it’s about 2-3 metres wide. The wooden trestles cross the Cowichan River and its tributaries, and are still in good repair nearly a century after they were built.
At Lake Cowichan, we found a grocery store and a beer store, enabling us to pick up supplies for the night. The municipal camp site on the lake shore was just about full but lucky for us, there was still a site available for our two tents. Most of the sites had long ago been reserved for this weekend, a prelude to the summer and for many people the first camping trip of the year.
We were surrounded by large caravans and RVs, a group of friends and family who had gathered here for the weekend. As we began preparing our dinner, they were just finishing theirs and brought some left-over food: corn on the cob, salads and potatoes. I guess we looked hungry, or perhaps they thought we needed more food because we were cycling. It didn’t matter as we happily ate the food, saved our own for another day, and washed it all down with beer and wine.
The next morning, we turned our wheels south heading along the Pacific Marine Route to the town of Port Renfrew, nestled in the San Juan River estuary on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail, a world-renowned hiking trail that gets booked up months in advance by hikers from all over the world. It’s also the northern terminus of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail which runs south to Jordan River.
We slowly climbed away from Lake Cowichan, reaching the high point on our route of 450 metres above sea level about 25 kilometres south of Lake Cowichan. From there, it was a 40-kilometre downhill run to the Pacific Ocean at Port Renfrew. Again, the campgrounds were filled but we managed to secure a waterfront site on the estuary. We relaxed in the warm sun on the grassy bank, dozing and drinking beer. What a life we have.
It was an amazingly warm evening as we made camp and prepared dinner. As the sun sank into the Pacific, we built a small fire and we lounged by the flames for a couple of hours before turning in. After three days of cycling, I think Chris and Grietje were beginning to feel the exertion. They felt pain in places where they didn’t know they had places. For Jan and me, it was all about muscle memory, a familiar feeling of effort and satisfaction.
The climb out of Port Renfrew is a steep one. Thankfully, it’s only 2.5 kilometres long. But with a grade of up to nine per cent, it gets your attention before it flattens out and climbs a bit higher on a more gentle grade.
There were lovely views of a mist-covered Strait of Juan de Fuca with the peaks of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula looming on the southern horizon as we cycled the next 40 kilometres on rolling terrain down to Jordan River back down to sea level. It is a lovely piece of road with a nice opportunity for a snack or lunch at the Cold Shoulder Café at the end of it.
We ended our day’s ride in Sooke at a very expensive campsite where they charged us $25 per tent. On top of that, the showers also required money so we chose to forego those. Nevertheless, we had supplied ourselves in town with a bag of charcoal, four big steaks, potatoes, veggies, beer and wine. A fitting meal for four hungry cyclists.
The following morning, we got on the Galloping Goose Trail which runs all the way into Victoria. This is another decommissioned railway named for the passenger train that ran between Victoria and Sooke through the towns of Metchosin, Langford, View Royal and Saanich in the 1920s.
In Victoria, it connects with the Lochside Trail, another former railway, running between downtown Victoria and the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. It’s an easy ride on a lovely and well-maintained trail. By mid-afternoon we arrived in Sidney where we lounged around for an hour before cycling the final few kilometres to the ferry terminal and the boat ride back to the mainland.
On board the ferry, we treated ourselves to the Pacific Buffet, a cyclists’ dream come true with salmon, prime rib, salads, and a myriad of desserts. It can be a 90-minute feeding fest, should you want it to be, and well worth the $23.
All in all, it was a great long weekend. Warm, sunny weather, great company of friends and lovely cycling right here in our own back yard. It was a good test run for my ECR. I know now that the set-up is good. It’s a comfortable ride and will compete with my Rodriguez for future tours.
The only thing I don’t like is the current gearing set-up. It’s a 2×9 with a 22-36 in front and a 12-36 cassette. The jump between the chain rings is a bit big but a compromise for having both low-end for climbing, and a reasonable high gear for flat and downhill riding. It begs to have a Rohloff IGH so that is what I will install. It’s an expensive proposition but one worth investing in. It will make the bike a near perfect touring machine.