Plans for this ride have been bouncing around in my head for a little over a year, but I realistically never thought it would take place. With Graeme living in Ucluelet, I had daydreamed of doing the trip on my bike every time I travelled west for a visit. To some, it's the distance that seems insurmountable, but to me it was the inherent dangers of the roadway itself that left hesitance in my mind. Then everything just kind of fell into place. In an attempt to reimburse me for a favour involving sixteen hours, four cities and two letter presses, Blair offered to drive my FJ Cruiser as a pseudo support vehicle to become the final piece to the puzzle.
Our destination became the Tofino Brewing Company, as Blair (an incredibly talented designer) had just finished doing an overhaul on their beer labels. This would be the first time he'd get to see his work plastered on the dark glass bottles of the small town brewery. I can't remember the last time I visited the west coast without stopping in to fill up a growler and hear of local happenings. Only getting to see the space every three or four months over the passed few years has made the growth of the company more obvious than if I was a regular. Subtle changes each time, but expansion nonetheless.
After spending the afternoon there and talking with a number of different employees, a common theme of people enjoying what they're doing was evident. They have big plans in the works for 2014 and everyone seems ready and excited for what comes next at the brewery. If you find yourself in Tofino or Ucluelet, Tofino Brewery should really be on your list of places to stop, and even if you can't make it west for a weekend, the delicious beer has found it's way into stores as far south as Victoria.
Parksville to Tofino Brewing Co.
Find the ride on Strava: GRADIENT // TofinoBrewCo Gran Fondo
It was nine o'clock in the morning, and I'd taken the Friday off work. The departure time had been carefully chosen based on the amount of daylight, and the idea that roads would be quieter for the duration of my ride. Starting any later could have easily resulted in experiencing increased traffic through the narrowest portions of the trip. Garmin was ready, my rear light was rhythmically flashing and Blairs hand gave me a firm handshake accompanied with some encouraging words. I was off.
For this time of year, it's no surprise that the roads were damp and extremely filthy. No precipitation had fallen all week, but if you're from the west coast, you're well aware of the moisture that comes paired with our dense fog. This first leg of the ride took me through awfully familiar territory and mainly just taught me how to avoid getting dirt and mud in my eyes when the road let me pick up speed. Coombs offers long straight stretches and very gradual grades that leave you feeling in peak physical form as you propel past the farmers fields at race speeds. My steady pace soon became realized as I hit the false flats of climbing back out of the country side feeling barely warmed up from the coasting.
Rounding the corners of Cameron Lake was the first part of the ride that brought nervousness into play. It started well with scenic views that ran the length of the lake and showed off the valley in which this body of water was nestled in. Steep mountainsides shot straight up from the frigid, "bottomless" Cameron, and disappeared into the low hanging clouds. These mountains forced the road to stick quite closely to the shore of the lake as it narrowed towards Angel Rock. A chunk of road with a history of rock slides and close calls, a sliver of concrete I didn't particularly want to ride, a slab of highway with no shoulder, a tin can guard rail and a devious drop off to the hungry waves below.
Multiple shoulder checks and getting into a sprinting position prepped me for a quick time around this dangerous bit of history. To my relief, the plan of setting out early had already paid off as not a single car, van, truck, or semi was in sight as I made my way passed the steep drop off. I stopped holding my breath and continued on my way towards Cathedral Grove.
Never before had I ridden through this collection of massive trees and as I expected, I felt dwarfed. The road itself I know quite well, but for some reason I thought there would be more room to ride and it created an unfamiliarity for me, struggling between riding in the way of traffic, or on the rumble strips to my right. Vehicles were still cruising passed at an infrequent rate, so I took my chances in the lane.
Before this day had even started, mentally I had created checkpoints for myself. Smaller, more immediate goals that would hopefully keep me motivated throughout the duration of my travels. The first of these points was The Hump, a mountain pass reaching 411m above sea level that sat within the opening thirty-five kilometers of my ride. Pacing myself, I slowly ascended into the clouds which blanketed everything in sight. With the passing lane working in my favor as I climbed the category 4 hill, I remained on top of the white line to avoid the dirt, mud and glass on the shoulder. Only one person passed by as I conquered this feat, and he thought it was a good idea to get so close to me in his tractor-trailer that the wind and shock almost knocked me over.
Less than pleased by this display of chivalry, I was prepared to give him a piece of my mind at the quickly approaching brake check on the summit. But as luck would have it, he skipped the pull-out all together and began his descent in an unlawful manner.
At first I couldn't figure out why the descent from the top of the pass seemed to last so long, but as I reached the bottom of Port Alberni it dawned on me. This was the first time I'd ever dropped all the way from the mountains, back down to sea level in a single downhill section. There were a few places where the road almost flattened out, but for the most part had a downward slope the entire time until the odor of salt and salmon bombarded my senses. On the cusp of starting to shiver from all the high speed coasting, my legs finally got the chance to pump again as I rode parallel to the river on the flat section that would take me in the direction of Sproat Lake.
Rolling hills that took me passed the final few homes was the last feeling of true civilization before the road became surrounded by denser forests. Those small climbs and quick negative grades lasted for quite some time as the road naturally brought me back to the edge of the lake. By now I was three quarters of the way down Taylor Arm and the concrete barriers that separate the vehicles from the cliffs below was blocking any view that may have been possible. I kept standing on the pedals any chance I'd get, in hopes of sneaking a solid glimpse of the beautiful lake.
This area always brought back memories from when I was a kid and living on the lake in the summer time. Everyone in my family would quickly pile into our boat when the Mars Water Bombers came out to play. The bloated looking air tankers would lazily taxi down the arm every week or so to check the planes instruments and engines before turning around for a full throttle return back to base. Close to a hundred other boats would follow suit to get a view of these monstrous planes in action. The roar of the engines, the smell of the fuel, the tsunami-esque wake it would create. Every feature about the experience felt exaggerated, but really it wasn't. You just had to be there.
Finally, I'd made it to Taylor River. One of my favourite places to stop whenever I'm driving out west, for a little break from staring out the windshield. An expansive river filled with water that makes you feel cold just by looking at it, and mountains framing the opposing shore as if they were painted in for dramatic effect. A location that's best visited in the winter.
Realistically I had been focusing on these beautiful scenes more intently than usual to keep my mind off the next checkpoint of my ride. Sutton Pass. Sitting around the eighty-five kilometer mark of my ride, I had started to dread the idea of climbing it. On normal rides I wouldn't have thought twice about ascending the 2.2km long up-hill section, but as someone who's better suited as a sprinter, I needed to be careful with my efforts. Not pedaling in an economical fashion with almost a hundred kilometers still remaining started to plague my mind. "I'm going to be gassed after this, there's no way I'll have enough legs for Tofino if this grade is too steep." I kept thinking.
When I could finally see it, I couldn't see it. Only the first two-hundred meters were visible as the fog engulfed the road just as it had on The Hump, but this time even thicker, which perfectly hid the road ahead of me. I stopped thinking about how much further I needed to go, or if the next section would be steeper than the one that proceeded it. The hills were dark, and quiet which settled my rampant thoughts. Another checkpoint was now complete.
The mood couldn't have been more different on the backside of the hill. Trees that had been standing still all day were now swaying in the wind and sun light was hitting mostly everything. Mentally, I felt refreshed and physically my muscles seemed ready to take on the rest of the ride as I quickly descended towards eight to ten kilometers of flat sections. If legs could smile, that's what they would have been doing at this point in my day.
Not sure I was thinking of much after Sutton Pass, but I do remember the words "cozy cadence" (can I trademark that?) in my mind. If there's one thing I know about my style of cycling, it's that pushing a larger ring than I should be, is a prevailing theme for most rides. Concentrated on keeping my revolutions per minute at a quicker pace, I found a nice rhythm with good form as I crossed bridges, met rivers, and truly started to enjoy the ride.
Another thing that changed once over the pass, was the traffic. Suddenly I wasn't just seen as an inconvenient cyclist who was doing a ride from Port Alberni, to the summit, and back. Drivers seemed to realize that I was going all the way as they greeted me with friendly honks, waves, and encouragement. Their habits became more courteous and accepting of me sharing the road with them while making me feel relieved. At ease from something I hadn't thought I was still worried about. Even as the route approached the high-flying roads that sat above Kennedy Lake, there was an odd sense of comfort in my pedal stroke.
Kennedy is one of those lakes that's so big, you could almost mistake it for the ocean. Some sort of expansive inlet, or bay with arms heading in all directions. The ride now brought me around the tightest sections of road that I'd seen all day as I looked over the eerily calm body of water from what felt like a goat path. Over hanging rock faces that jutted into the road forced all traffic to slow for safety and suddenly I was the faster mode of transportation.
Sharp turns awaited me after leaving the sight of Kennedy that would last all the way until the junction. I knew the road well enough to be aware of my fast approaching final checkpoint.
By the time I reached the junction, I was only six kilometers shy of the longest ride I'd ever done. There'd been a few around this distance, and almost always involved some sort of group effort. Going this far with no one else to take a pull was going to take it's toll on me at some point, I just wasn't sure when.
Long straights with hardly any incline gave me confidence to end my ride strong, but now that I was close to the coast, the ocean winds had begun to play their part. Somehow this innocent strip of road became the toughest portion of the entire ride. Thirty-two kilometers of road that I felt would never end, a food bonk during the only time in the trip that the support vehicle wasn't within minutes. Every corner I came around seemed to have a straight stretch longer than the last, hiding around it's curve. Vehicles seemed to consider this bit of asphalt their very own Bonneville Salt Flats as they rocketed past. Still no food, a numbness had taken over that left me worried, "If I stop pedaling, will I be able to start again?". My legs pumped with a mind of their own, not tired, but not strong at the same time, just churning to mimic what they'd been doing for the last five hours. Finally Blair and the vehicle came into sight around one of the repeating bends, allowing me to snag half a clif bar to help with the rest of my ride.
The Brewery was in striking distance at this point, and I gave it everything I had. Who knows if getting food really made a difference or if it was the knowledge of being within minutes of my destination that helped me along. Whatever it was, I felt good again, and I made it.
One-hundred sixty-four kilometers and almost five and a half hours later, I could see the industrial park that houses that delicious beer. Not a soul was in the parking lot when I arrived which felt incredibly anti-climactic. I rolled up to my vehicle, parked my bike, and mentally patted myself on the back. Ride to Tofino, checked off the bucket list.