Marathon cycling is back in Chemainus

At least 10-12 cyclists are expected to complete the 1,500-kilometre Eau de Hell marathon cycling series this week.

After a two-year hiatus, Eau de Hell week and its tireless 70-year-old founder return to Chemainus for a sixth time May 20.

Eau de Hell — one of British Columbia’s marquee marathon cycling events — is a week-long series of “brevets,” or marathon rides, that begin and end in Chemainus.

Founded in 2007 by Victoria ultra-cyclist Ken Bonner, Eau de Hell consists of 200-, 300-, 400- and 600-kilometre rides through some of Vancouver Island’s most scenic and challenging terrain.

Bonner said he created the tour to showcase the Island while at the same time combining all four qualifying rides for the Paris-Brest-Paris series (PBP) — a 1,200-kilometre event that draws 5,000 cyclists to the French countryside every four years — into a single event.

Bonner chose Chemainus as home base for riders because it’s centrally located and because he wanted to help the local economy in a “little, tiny way.”

His apt choice of name for the event stems from a combination of a play on words and the Island’s climate.

“I termed it Eau de Hell week because of the time of year,” Bonner said, referring to the spring rains that typically fall on Vancouver Island during early April, when the event was first staged.

“And it’s also a play on the perfume, the Eau de Hell,” Bonner said. “When you ride these things you get pretty smelly.”

Bonner grew up in Cobble Hill, where he first learned to ride on his father’s steel-framed racing bike from the 1930s. As “a young kid,” Bonner rode 10 to 15 miles every day while delivering newspapers in the southern Cowichan Valley, he said, but he wouldn’t embrace cycling as his sport of choice until decades later.

He began running marathons in his mid 30s, he said, but his interest in the sport began to fade after two dozen races. He stumbled onto the idea of “randonneuring” — derived from the French word randonnée, meaning “excursion” — through a brochure advertising long-haul cycling he came across in the late 1980s.

Bonner rode his first brevet in 1988, he said, and he’s logged no fewer than 42 1,200-kilometre rides over the span of his 25-year career, including five PBPs and a record-setting first-place finish in the 2007 “Rocky Mountain 1200km” at the age of 65.

Bonner has ridden through Eau de Hell five times now, he said, and he expects to finish this year’s race barring illness or injury. He doesn’t seem all that concerned, though; rather than resting up for his big ride, Bonner signed on to ride a 400-kilometre event May 18, two days prior to the start of Eau de Hell week.

This year’s Eau de Hell event began Monday, May 20, series co-ordinator Mike Croy said, with the 200-kilometre “Tour of the Cowichan Valley,” followed by the 300-kilometre “Coast2Coast” event, from Chemainus to Port Renfrew and back, Tuesday, May 21.

“Lost but not Forgotten,” a 400-kilometre round-trip journey from Chemainus to Buckley Bay, is scheduled for Thursday, May 23, Croy added, followed by the week’s second rest day.

The final leg of the series — a gruelling 600-kilometre odyssey titled the “Ukee Pokey” — is scheduled to depart Chemainus at 5 a.m. Saturday, May 25.

Eau de Hell adds credibility to the series’ name on days six and seven as riders traverse the Island from Qualicum Beach to Ucluelet and back again, grinding their way up and over the lofty heights of the Port Alberni Summit (425 metres) and the Sutton Pass (230 metres) twice in a single day.

Once back on the east coast of the Island, riders venture as far north as Courtenay before returning to Chemainus via Duncan. Riders who persevere through the entire 605-kilometre Ukee Pokey event should begin trickling into Chemainus mid to late morning on Sunday, May 26.

Considering how challenging the final leg of the series can be — riders rarely complete the journey in under 30 hours — it comes as no surprise that so few riders register for all four Eau de Hell events.

Croy has “six or seven people” signed up to complete the entire 1,500-kilometre series right now, he said, including Yutaka Moriwaka, a “very experienced ultra-marathon cyclist” from Japan who’s travelling to Canada solely for Eau de Hell.

He anticipates having “10 to 12 people” signed up to complete the series by race day, or “maybe more.”

Croy completed the entire Eau de Hell series in 2010, he said, but he’s only signed up to ride in this year’s Coast2Coast event. “Cherry picking” specific individual events in this way is fairly common in marathon cycling, Croy said, and “lots of people” will follow suit.

Thirty-six riders completed the 200-kilometre event in 2011, while 14 of 19 riders finished that year’s 600-kilometre-round-trip Chemainus to Gold River event.

The event is sponsored by the BC Randonneurs Cycling Club, Cray said, but no cash prizes or lucrative endorsement deals await riders at the finish line.

“You’re only doing it for your own sense of self-satisfaction,” Croy said, “and to see if you can.”

For more on Eau de Hell, including routes and past results, click here.