By Heather Pardon
It’s plus 10 degrees celsius and the sun beckons me to get my wheels on the road. You wouldn’t think you’d be able to find such conditions anywhere in Canada on the 21st day of December, the Winter Solstice, but the Goddess of Winter Cycling had clearly blessed me so off I went for a ride around Nanaimo.
You may be thinking…..Nanaimo? Isn’t that where nanaimo bars come from? Yes. And I’ll get to that important piece of folklore later. Many of you have likely heard of the infamous bars but may not even know where Nanaimois. Nanaimois on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver and Canada’s mainland west coast.
The Canadian west coast is often referred to as the “wet coast” for its notorious reputation as a rainy climate. I’ve lived here off and on for the past two years and can’t argue the validity of that moniker. The chances are great that one day while out cycling, sooner and not later, you’ll get doused by a west coast downpour. Rain gear. Fenders. Learn to live with it. That’s my advice.
Today was a wonderful exception to the “wet coast” rule and a great example of the best that cycling in Nanaimo has to offer – a moderate climate, varied (aka“challenging”) terrain and spectacular views. I decided to do a loop around town that would mix a little bit of country with a little bit of city and finish off at my favourite cafe, Perkins on Commercial Street. As a point of interest, you will not have to wander too far while in town to find some good java as there are many wonderful shops all over town that are perfect for a post-ride refuelling and socializing session.
I began my ride from the four corners of downtown, which is a hop, skip and a jump from the harbour and breathtaking views of the ocean, mountains on the mainland and the neighbouring islands. You won’t want to miss spending some time along the waterfront when you’re in town, whether watching for eagles, the resident harbour seal, “Lucy”, or simply relaxing and taking in the view.
While Nanaimo is known as the “Harbour City” cyclists may prefer to call it the “Hilly City”. In life we must learn to embrace the ups and downs and such is also the case with riding around Nanaimo.
My first few pedal strokes lead me up Fitzwilliam Street which has three or four steep rises in its pitch as it takes you away from the city core and into the countryside. I am only five minutes into my ride when I catch a glimpse of Mount Benson which sits just to the west of Nanaimo. As I continue onward and cross the Trans-Canada highway a few minutes later, I am now cycling on Jingle Pot Road which is simply a darned cute name for a road.
Jingle Pot Road takes you off the beaten path, allowing you to enjoy farmfields, mountain views and the road less travelled on your way from downtown to north Nanaimo. And for the insane, it also offers the opportunity to test your metal on Calder Roadhill.
I’d noticed Calder Road many times in the past few months as it looms dauntingly in the neighbouring landscape. Could I climb that on my bicycle? Today was the day, I decided, to test myself against its 26% grade.
Two words here: granny gears. I wouldn’t have made it to the top of the approximately 250 metre climb without my granny ring. That, and the fact that the past few months climbing the other hills in town provided some nice base training which likely kept my heart rate from surpassing 200 bpm and my quads from declaring a mutiny as I made my way up Mount Calder.
I stood at the top with the excitement and pride that I imagine Sir Edmund Hillary felt when he reached the peak of Everest. Okay, he was on top of the world whereas I was only at the top of Nanaimo but it felt exhilerating nonetheless.
You don’t have to include an attempted ascent of the Calder hill in your cycling tour of Nanaimo. Unless you’re like me and just want to know what it’s like to climb a 26% grade. P.S. it is hard and will likely lead to a post-ride nap. Or unless you’d also like to know what it’s like to go down a 26% hill. P.S. it is really fast and really fun!
I continued making my way along Jingle Pot Road, enjoying the tamer hills and peaceful countryside views, before reaching the more suburan north end of town. A wonderful bike path, the “E and N Trail” runs parallel to the main highway and offers a direct route from the north end back to downtown. Today however, I was in no hurry so opted for the roundabout and more scenic route which would take me along Hammond Bay Road, a roller coaster ride of a road which shoulders the ocean.
As a former landlubber who grew up in Ontario, I won’t pass up on any opportunity to take the route that passes by the ocean. There is simply too much beauty to be enjoyed…..watching the ocean waves; smelling the sea air; seeing the snow-capped mountains on the mainland; admiring the boats and ships that pass by; squinting for any signs of dolphins or seals in the water.
Along the way I stopped at Piper’s Lagoon and Neck Point, both popular oceanside parks that you must put on your “Things to Do” list when in Nanaimo. Both are worth the visit, in any weather, and are also great vantage points for watching the sunrise or sunset. A local company even offers evening yoga classes in the summer at panoramic Piper’s Lagoon. I can understand why as there’s not a more beautiful place to stretch your mind, body and soul than Piper’s.
One word of caution if you’re cycling in Nanaimoin the warmer months – watch out for deer. The deer are abundant and they are everywhere. They are Nanaimo’s version of the squirrel and you’ll frequently see them darting across the road, walking down residential streets, eating out of local gardens or lounging on someone’s front yard. On more than one occasion I’ve nearly broadsided a deer while out on my bicycle.
My next stop after leaving Neck Point was Departure Bay beach, another panoramic post from which to enjoy the ocean landscape. I rested my legs for a few minutes, knowing that another steep climb was imminent, and watched the Nanaimo–Vancouver ferries come and go at the Departure Bay ferry terminal. Once my legs gave me the green light that they were ready to ride again, I slowly began to make my way up the long Departure Bay Roadhill which would connect me with the E and N Trail and take me back downtown.
There’s no better place to finish your ride than downtown because that’s where you will also find nanaimo bars and plenty of them. Much conjecture and lore surrounds this tripartite treat that is renowned for being Canada’s favourite confection. You can read up on the story and signature recipe of the nanaimo bar at the Nanaimo website. Nanaimo is proud of its namesake treat and even offers you the Nanaimo Bar Trail, a listing of shops in the downtown area that offer up different variations of the infamous nanaimo bar.
All that truly matters to me is that they’re delicious and the ideal way to end an idyllic ride in an idyllic island setting on an idyllic winter’s day.
Heather Pardon is an avid cyclist, nanaimo bar addict as well as an author, speaker and coach and Founder of A Wild Daisy Adventureprises. Her newest book, “Following Daisies – A True Story about One Woman’s Adventures Finding Happiness, Fulfilling Dreams and Becoming Herself” will be released in Spring 2012. This funspirational autobiography is based on Heather’s soul-searching adventure “following her heart wherever it took her” across Canada in her daisy-themed RV, Miss Daisy, accompanied by her faithful hybrid bicycle, Miss Daisy Too. You can enjoy preview chapters of the book, pre-order your copy and read more on .