When a Nightmare becomes a social event: Midnight Gravel Group ride on the Cowichan Valley Trail

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to race your gravel bike on the Cowichan Valley Trail in the middle of the night with 80 cyclists that might have a few screws loose? If the thought of a challenging gravel race through the Cowichan Valley sounds appealing, the Cowichan Valley Nightmare might be the adventure you’ve been seeking.

The calm before the ferry.

The Cowichan Valley Nightmare, initiated in 2021 by Matt Livingston and Eric Jensen, was designed for those who enjoy a different kind of cycling suffering. Spanning 205 kilometres from Nanaimo to Victoria, with approximately 70% of the route on gravel, this ride starts with the 6:30 PM ferry departure from Horseshoe Bay and kicks off as soon as the ferry doors open. From there, it’s game on. While the route itself isn’t excessively difficult or technical, contending with rain, fellow riders, and sleep deprivation can transform this journey into one of the most demanding local rides around.

50 people, on packed race bikes, waiting for a 7pm ferry gets some odd looks.

The third annual Cowichan Valley Nightmare, which took place on Friday the 13th this year, was the largest and best yet. Approximately 50 participants started at Horseshoe Bay, with another 30 or so waiting in Nanaimo for the group to arrive. As the ferry docked and the doors swung open at precisely 9 PM, the riders were greeted by light rain and exceptionally high excitement levels. Just 3 kilometers into the ride, the skies opened up, rain began to pour, and the pace accelerated to the next level.

The first red light off the ferry had everyone frothing.

Starting with 50 kilometers on mostly paved back roads, the group formed a peloton comprising the front 30 or so riders, creating a scene reminiscent of a seasoned road rider’s worst nightmare. Speeds soared to 50 kilometers per hour, while torrential downpour and a shortage of fenders left everyone’s first meal tasting like a mix of rainwater and road grime. As the ride transitioned to gravel and veered inland towards Lake Cowichan, the rain subsided, riders spread out, and everyone found their own pace for the rest of the night. Some chose to stick with a pack, while others preferred going solo.

Hit dirt and the real fun begins!

At around the 150-kilometer mark, the real test of the ride awaited: the challenging Malahat climb. This approximately 5-kilometer steep ascent coincided with the time when your sleep-deprived brain might begin to play tricks on you, creating a unique and memorable experience. Upon conquering the climb and likely questioning your decision to participate, you’ll realize that the last 50 kilometers are ahead, and it’s almost all downhill from here to the ferry!

In this year’s edition of the ride, the fastest riders made it back to the Victoria, BC Ferry in 7 hours and 40 minutes, setting new records. Sage Deluce claimed the men’s FKT, while Mackenzie Fleming and Alexia Molina achieved the women’s FKT with a time of 9 hours and 43 minutes. However, it’s important to note that this event is not technically a race. It’s an adventure with friends, and everyone is a winner, whether you secured an FKT, pushed your limits, or took a leisurely 13 hours to complete the ride. Simply finishing this ride is a testament to your endurance and determination.

Fixing flats and being prepared is all part of the game!

The Cowichan Valley Nightmare isn’t your typical ride. There are no entry fees, no aid stations or timing chips. The event organizers keep a low profile, and participants are responsible for themselves and look out for each other. This unique setup creates a sense of community unparalleled by any other gravel event. If this thrilling experience aligns with your cycling interests, follow the event on Instagram (@cowichanvalleynightmare) or find it on Facebook (there is no webpage, and the accounts are relatively quiet until a few months before the ride). Get ready for an unforgettable journey on your gravel bike in the middle of the night. If you’re into challenging yourself, this is the event for you! See you in the NIGHTMARE.

Mega thanks to Stef Curtis for all the photos and if you are riding in the area and need help from a local bike shop, visit Cowichan Cycles to keep you rolling.

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