Hunkered down in his alma mater, sipping an IPA and wishing the Alumni House at Lakeland College in Vermillion, AB had a bathtub, Greg Van Tighem was otherwise in good spirits March 27.
The fat biking, fundraising phenom who has collected more than $250,000 for the Multiple Sclerosis Society had just completed day six of stage two of his End to End to End MS—a 3,100 km traverse of Western Canada’s Yellowhead Highway. Having experienced his first bona fide tail wind since he started stage one of the journey in Masset, on the Queen Charolette Islands, the 53-year-old fire chief said a 113 km day on a fat bike never seemed so easy.
“I thought to myself ‘something’s different here,’” he laughed.
Stage two certainly didn’t start out so so smooth. Not long after accepting a donation from the Jasper Lion’s Club and hugging his well-wishers goodbye at the Jasper Fire Hall on March 22, Van Tighem’s progress was halted by his first flat tire in 1,200 kms. Although he had a spare tube, it didn’t have the right valve. Luckily, he was only 15 kilometres from town and could call his son Taylor, who picked up the part from Freewheel Cycle and sent him on his way.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day and a great spot to have my first flat,” he said.
Seventy five kilometres later, he was being escorted into Hinton via fire truck parade where supporters were throwing a barbecue—a fundraising medium GVT has a particular fondness for. Heading out the next morning, he got as far as the Obed hill before another flat derailed his progress. He fixed it, but then got another. Then another. Finally, Hinton’s Mike Langford brought the chief a tube, a tire and a pump so day two could end on schedule in Edson, where more fire trucks awaited.
Unlike Van Tighem’s 2013 blitz of Highway 93, where few people he met on the route’s southern stem knew about Jasper, let alone the chief’s EndMS campaign, many of the folks he’s met on this leg are familiar with the flight of the fat bike. Having said that, not every fire truck he encountered had its sirens on for him. When he was nearing Wildwood, Van Tighem heard a pumper closing in and was rolling his eyes as if to say ‘not again,’ when he realized members of the Wildwood Fire Department were simply returning from a call.
“But then I recognized almost everyone on the truck,” he said. “I’d met most of them at one time or another. [Former Jasperite] Steve Otway was in there.”
It’s a small world, but Van Tighem still had a big day ahead of him. After catching up with his Wildwood peers, he kept the wheels turning until Wabamun, where EndMS ally Art Erickson introduced him to Wabamun’s claim to fame, the dragonfly. A hot meal couldn’t keep the next day’s blizzard at bay, but when former professional cyclist and Tour de France yellow jersey holder Alex Stieda met Van Tighem at Spruce Grove on his bike, the bad weather was all but forgotten.
Several TV interviews later, Van Tighem and friends were rolling into the city of Edmonton, a firetruck and a caravan of Jeeps keeping the bikers safe on the busy Yellowhead Trail. When they arrived at Station No. 10 his daughter, Emily, greeted her road warrior dad while station members cooked up a giant pot of jambalaya. With plans to overnight in the fire hall, Edmonton firefighters warned the chief that his rest would surely be disturbed—a typical graveyard shift in the city sees at least three calls per night, he was told.
“It was the first time they hadn’t had a call during the night in a month,” Van Tighem reported happily.
The next day, without an escort and realizing Yellowhead Trail was suicidal for solo cyclists, Van Tighem got a shuttle to the east end of the city. Despite the bump-up, day four was punishing, with strong headwinds and bone-numbing cold. Slush caked every surface of his bike and as he limped in to tiny Mundare, home of the world’s largest garlic sausage, he only wanted a place to crash. A friend had arranged for GVT to stay at Mundare’s “lodge,” but seeing no hotels or motels in the small community, he asked around until he was directed to the local seniors’ manor.
“I went in and a lady in the kitchen said ‘we’ve been waiting for you,’” he laughed.
The following day, with saddlebags stuffed with sausage links and a few more donations in the kitty, Van Tighem hit the road for Vermillion, but not before stopping to see Vegreville’s giant easter egg (“I thought it would be bigger,” he said). That’s when the tail wind kicked in, helping propel him to Vermillion’s Lakeland College, the place where his career, his passion and his connections to so many people he’s met since becoming a firefighter, began.
And while it is nice to visit the past, after a hard day on the bike, there’s not much time reflection, GVT admitted.
“Tomorrow’s a big day,” he said. “I’m hoping for no more flats, and no more east winds.”
Follow Greg's progress on endms93.com