Tour de Victoria: A Very Long Bike Ride with Friendly Strangers
Second Chances for the Land of Queenie
Here is what I used to know about Victoria:
Big gardens I could care less about
Buskers (god, I even hate that word)
Boats and water ferries
Bad trip with college boyfriend and his mom involving tea, previously mentioned dumb gardens and a Christmas Shoppe
Besides the bad college-boyfriend trip of infamy, the last time I was in Victoria was last summer during one of my solo bike tours. I’d ridden north from Portland and had just come across on a ferry. After clearing customs, I was dumped out into a mass of mindless, touristy humanity on the city’s inner harbor. I’ll be honest with you: I freaked out. Then I did what seemed safest – I got on my big, heavy bicycle and pedaled out of town as fast as humanly possible.
It wasn’t really fair to Victoria, but I did what I had to do. The next day I followed the Galloping Goose Trail and connected to the Lochside Trail system to ride up the coast toward the ferry that would take me to Vancouver. It was one of the best days of the tour. The trail took me through farmland and coastline and gravely passages covered in green canopy. It was lovely. And amazing.
I vowed to give Victoria another chance.
That chance came a few days ago, when I paid the old island a visit for a big bike ride with 1500 friendly strangers. (The Tour de Victoria is a 140k ride that covers the most beautiful roads in Victoria and its surrounding towns.)
Bike Boxes Win Friends and Influence People
(Or at least just make good conversation pieces.)
Having never flown alone with my bike before, I commissioned a Bike Packing Boot Camp session from my favorite wrench (that one boy what lives with me in my house and brings me coffee in the morning). After showing me the ropes, he forced me to disassemble, pack and the re-assemble my bike twice to make sure I knew what I was doing. Apparently, I was convincing because he gave me a bike-packing merit badge and dropped me off at the airport.
Traveling with a big bike box seems to draw a lot of attention and most of the conversations I had went like this:
Them: Hey, what’s in that huge box?
Me: Bike. (I enjoyed saying “Bike” instead of “a bike”. As if Bike were a proper noun. It doesn’t take much to amuse me.)
NO WAY! A bike??! What is it like one of those ones that folds up or something?
[Me looking at the HUGE box kinda funny] No, it’s just a regular bike. A road bike.
NO WAY! How did you get it in there?
You have to take it all apart and then stack it together. It’s like a tetris game but with more grease.
Ha! So, you take it apart… like with a wrench?
Yeah, kind of like that. Handlebars and seat and wheels and pedals come off. You take off the derailleur too. (I started to lose them here, so I’d stop talking.)
Well, I’ll be….
From the Famous Last Words Department…
The weather didn’t look very promising when I left Portland, so I packed a fender. If I pack a fender, I reasoned, then it will be sunny for sure!
I was feeling very smug and sneaky the next day when I woke up to a report that said it was going to be partly cloudy and mostly dry during the day of the race. Victoria better be thanking me for my fender black magic, I thought. I turned my two-room, two-balcony suite at the Grand Pacific Hotel into a bike shop and reassembled Bike. Then I moved the coffee maker to the bedstand, set it up and set an alarm for 5:00am. In the morning I rolled over, punched the button and waited for the smell to hit me.
When I woke up I thought, It’s a good day for a long bike ride with 1500 strangers.
On the start line I chatted up a lovely couple.
The announcer bellowed and hollered and it was exciting, though I couldn’t quite make out what was being said.
Then a gun went off or a horn blew or something loud happened and we were rolling.
As we went under the starting banner I could finally understand the announcer who said things like, “look at the mass of humanity rolling through downtown Victoria!” and “incredible crowd!” and “Good luck!”
I reached back and patted my pocket to double check my food supplies only to discover that I’d forgotten them in the hotel room.
No worries. The first feed zone is at 40k. I can ride 40k without calories, no problem.
Meat Sticks and Mud
I prefer to ride alone, but when you’re in a recreational group ride, the point is to relish the togetherness and camaraderie. Riding with people is a quintessential cycling experience – an act that bonds us and brings our consciousness beyond our own suffering. I’d come to the ride alone, but I hoped to find a group to call home.
25 kilometers in, I began to yo-yo with a group of three women who were mixed intermittently in with a pod of men. I couldn’t tell exactly where the alliances were, so I stayed close and paid attention. The woman in gray hammered on the flats. The woman in red pulled away on the climbs. Eventually, I introduced myself to the climber and we rode together a while. She stopped for a nature break and I kept riding, eager to find the first feed zone and get some calories rolling.
Eventually, I realized that I’d manage to miss it all together – my computer read 50k and I still hadn’t eaten. No one else had seen it either, so two gentleman took pity on me and fed me. They got me through the worst of the climbs, a section of the route referred to as the Highlands: punchy, steep hills on narrow roads through wooded countryside. Stunning and spooky with sharp turns that sent at least one rider careening over a barrier and down a hillside.
When we emerged from the Highlands, the Climber in Red caught me. We sat up together and waited for her companions and when they arrived she introduced me. We worked together. It started to rain. Hard. We stopped to put on jackets and The Climber fed me cured meat.
“Be careful with that meat!” laughed Gray Vest, “She keeps it in her bra!”
Gray Vest had a name: Mary. Mary the Mountain Biker.
The rain came down harder and when we hit a grade I decided not to let The Climber get away again. I sat on her wheel eating mud and water, then took a shift dragging her up the second half of the hill. Sitting in back while a steady spray came off my back wheel she said, “UFF! I think I liked it better up there!” No one had fenders. It wasn’t supposed to rain.
At the second feed zone (kilometer 75) we filled our bottles with water and our pockets with food. It was the last time we stopped to rest, choosing to blow through the final two feed zones in favor of finishing faster.
On long rides, I always get better as I go along – it takes me a good 35 miles to really start feeling good. There is a point where the legs begin to feel disconnected from me – almost numb. I look down and they are turning over like pistons – 85 or 90 RPM. Tick, tick, tick, tick. The connection between my body, my bike and the road is seamless and I feel like I can ride forever.
That happened to me this time, but I could tell my group was starting to feel the pain. I started to drop The Climber when the road tilted up. The pace on the flat sections eased a little bit. We chatted and laughed. We hit and off-road gravel section and came out of it looking like battle-weary cyclocross racers, faces and bodies covered in mud.
As we got closer to Victoria, the volunteers who were controlling traffic (a rolling enclosure for a recreational ride – amazing!!) became more and more animated. At the top of a steep but short hill, one ran alongside me, clapping and cheering. The corner marshals told us we looked strong. The cadets who were stationed at each corner throughout Oak Bay cheered like they meant it.
Somewhere up the road in Victoria, Ryder Hesjedal was finished and showered. Here we were straggling in hours later and the crowds made us feel like we were winning.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
By the time we rolled under the finishing banner, we didn’t feel that way anymore. Weary and cold (my companions all had numb hands from wet gloves – it’s worth noting that though my $18 wool DeFeet gloves soaked all the way through, my hands stayed warm until to the bitter end), we rallied a bystander to take a picture of us.
The lens on my phone camera was fogged from condensation and the resulting image says just about everything there was to say about our ride:
I said my goodbyes, pedaled around to the back of my hotel and took off my outer layer of socks, which was caked in grime. Holding my shoes and socks in one hand and bike in the other I tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak in unnoticed by hotel staff. Luckily, they smiled at me instead of beating me with my own carbon fiber and then making me clean up the watery footprints I was leaving.
In the room I realized I had no recovery food (I didn’t play this nutrition thing very well, huh?) so I scarfed a bar I’d been handed as a promo on the finish line, jumped into a neck-deep tub of hot, hot water and tried not to scream as the embrocation re-ignited to varying degrees of fiery hell. (ok, I admit it, I kinda like it when that happens. Pain is my pleasure.)
One tw0-hour nap and a very muddy sink later I was ready to rock. Ryder Hesjedal and the Tour de Victoria crew hosted a salmon barbeque on the top floor of the Parkside Resort and Spa which was filled with free booze, hot pro cyclists and really, really awesome local cycling advocates and organizers who filled me in on the state of trail projects, the upcoming Bike to Work Week initiative and what it really took to put together a ride like the Tour de Victoria.
Glory stories and celebration were the order of the day.
I walked home exhausted, stopped at a 7-11 for Kinder Eggs and cream for my morning coffee, and then collapsed with the city winking outside the window.