It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Jasper. The leaves on the trees are golden and hardly a breeze stirs the crisp fall air. I am enjoying the smooth buzz of my bike tires rolling over asphalt.
As I cock my head sideways to listen to the singing of a bird, I approach a gaggle of spandex-clad Jasperites near the Miette River bridge. Never mind the birds. As I weave my way through the crowd, that’s when the real chirping begins.
“I see you almost have a real bike this year Bob!”
When the mayor of the town is smack-talking you before a race, you know you’re at a locals’ event. The Honorable Richard Ireland is one of 34 athletes taking part in the annual Freewheel Fall Biathlon, held along the buckled pavement of Highway 93A and the ruggedly beautiful Geradline Lakes fireroad. The biking (30 km) and running (10 km) event is something of a rite of passage in Jasper’s recreational community. And like the race itself, many of the jokes which participants lob at each other are at least 29-years-old.
“It’s a bi-athlon, not a uni-athlon,” Freewheel’s Chris Peel reminds me, as though I’ve forgotten when he peer-pressured me into completing the race solo. This year, thanks to some late night peer pressuring of my own, I’ve recruited the agreeable Geoff Fraser as my runner, but as I survey the competition I quickly realize individual entries (14) outnumber the teams (10). Maybe I am a wimp.
And maybe my bike seat is two inches too low! Unfortunately, race organizer Wendy Hall is already counting us down. As I fumble to get my allen key stowed away and my pack on my shoulders, the racers depart. Standing over my bike like an idiot, I sheepishly shrug off Jordan Sales’ “what were you thinking?” look and concentrate on catching up with Rob Olson. “Olson’s bike weighs 45 pounds,” I say to myself. “He is not the guy you should be chasing.”
Soon enough, however, I’m passing Olson’s fat frame (his bike), and the biathlon’s only other mountain biker, Eduardo Lara. Lara, had it not been for Peel’s attentive eye, would have been riding with 18 PSI in his tires. Later, at the Papa George’s dinner, he will eat four helpings of lasagna.
I manage to pass Anna Misskey, only because her borrowed shoes won’t clip into her pedals, and eventually I’ve got my eyes on Jon Goulet, whose silhouette I can identify thanks to his rolled up ice climbing pants. Just when I get close enough that I think I can make a pass, the grade tapers off, then starts to plummet. Goulet, who outweighs my scrawny frame by at least 50 pounds and who is used to making quick horizontal miles en route to scary vertical ones, is soon a distant speck. I’ll have to wait 15 killometres, until the dreaded Leach Lake climb, to make a challenge.
And the event is a challenge, albeit a different one for everyone who enters.
For local plumber Gary Hilworth, known more as a hockey player than a hill climber, the challenge is to finish the biathlon feeling strong. For lone female soloist Katie Poirier, a coach for The Fitness Network and no stranger to cranking up the cardio, the challenge is doing something different to keep active. For Declan Unsworth, Marty Oeggerli, Cam Vos and other road rippers who can do 30 km in their sleep, the challenge is keeping on Derek Anderson’s wheel. And for Geoff Fraser, the challenge is apparently going to be getting to the relay point ahead of me...wait, what?
Whoops! Tasked with helping The Jasper Local get some race photos, Fraser apparently underestimated my desire to stay ahead of Goulet. He’s casually stretching, two kilometres from the interchange, when I surprise him by cresting the last hill. Seconds later he’s leapfrogging me in his jeep, apologizing out the window. As if I care. I’m just happy my job is done, uni-athalon be darned.
While the runners filter in, to the applause of spectators and supporters, it become apparent that the biathlon is enjoyed by a wide range of athletes. Families, first-time racers and formidable fitness freaks (the Marty and Lucas Oeggerli team, for example, qualify in all three categories) come together on the same 40-km strip of Jasper National Park. The day is a good reminder that local events can be competitive and casual at the same time.
At least one racer, however, is from outside of Jasper: Edmonton’s David Percy. The 53-year-old financial planner, who last participated in the biathlon the first year it was organized, wanted to beat his 1985 result: second place.
Twenty nine years later, coming into the Athabasca Falls parking lot seven minutes ahead of Victor Vassallo, he did just that.
“Dave MacDowell won it the first time I did it,” Percy recalled before biking back to Jasper with 2008 biathlon champ Brent Schleppe. “Good thing he’s not here today.”