Chief to tackle Dempster! (Fitzhugh News)

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Winter training at Mile Zero on a Freewheel Pugsly

Winter training at Mile Zero on a Freewheel Pugsly

He pedalled the 2,700-kilometre length of Highway 93 in the blistering heat, and 3,000 kilometres across Highway 16 in blizzards. Now, Greg Van Tighem plans to tackle his toughest two-wheeled challenge to date.

In his third extreme cycling trip to raise money and awareness for the MS Society of Canada, Jasper’s fire chief will ride a fat bike the length of the Dempster Highway.

The 930-kilometre highway begins about 40 kilometres east of Dawson City, Yukon and extends 736 kilometres to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories. During the winter, an ice road to Tuktoyaktuk adds another 194 kilometres to the road.

And, of course, Van Tighem plans to ride the highway during the winter, pushing himself to complete its entire length—ice road and all.

As always he will ride unsupported, a single man carrying all his gear, pedalling a clunky fat bike through sub-zero temperatures. Temperatures on the Dempster routinely dip below -20°C during April, when Van Tighem will attempt the ride, and have even been known to drop to -30°C or lower.

For Van Tighem, those conditions are an important aspect of the ride. Thrills aside, his primary goal is to raise $93,000 and a whole lot of awareness for the MS Society of Canada. He said that he hopes the extreme conditions will garner the media attention he needs to accomplish that.

The extreme isolation means Van Tighem will spend many nights camped out in a tent, cooking dehydrated food over a small camping stove. But the chief said he is prepared: he knows how to protect himself in extreme cold, and also when to suck it up and call for help.

“I’m not going to do anything that’s ridiculously dangerous. If it’s 30 below I’ll be prepared. I mean, I’ve cycled in 30 below before. You just have to do it right.

“But if it gets colder than that … I’m just going to pull the pin and go to the next stop and hunker down and wait it out.”

He added that he will carry a satellite phone and rescue beacon, and have local truckers and relatives checking up on him throughout his ride. But other than those random encounters and a few settlements along the way, Van Tighem will be alone.

He admitted, however, he’s actually looking forward to that; both because he will largely be free from terrifying traffic, and also for the same intangible reason all endurance athletes seem to crave the isolation brought on by extreme physical endurance.

“All my other rides were semi isolated too. I mean I do run into people, but when you’re on the road you’re alone, you’re pedalling by yourself.”

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Geke Duncan is the regional representative for the MS Society, based in Hinton. She facilitates client services for Multiple Sclerosis patients around the region, and organizes the annual MS Bike Tour fundraiser in Hinton.

She said that the society is incredibly grateful for everything Van Tighem has done to raise money and its profile.

“We love him at the MS Society, and we are just thrilled to pieces that he has chosen our society to support. They are few and far between, people like him.”

She pointed out that while Van Tighem is an ambassador in a very public way, his efforts to help MS patients go far beyond. He also does a tremendous number of little things that people don’t see.

“He does so much, it’s not just the riding. He’s on my advisory council; he’s on my bike tour committee. He looks after the trails, which is a huge physical job. He flags the whole trail, he puts in bridges, he gets out the chainsaw to clear the trail.

“And the advocating. And he will take some of my clients out for a beer, or just give them a call and say ‘hey’ just to brighten their day a little bit.

“He does so much more that people don’t see.”

She said that Van Tighem’s name has become so synonymous with MS advocacy that when she first began coming to Jasper to ask for donations, people would ask if she worked for him.

“So that says it all, right? When people think of MS in Jasper, they think of Greg. He is the poster child of the MS Society.”

In each of the previous two years, Van Tighem set himself the goal of raising $93,000 for the MS Society. He surpassed that in 2013, the year he rode the length of Highway 93, but fell short in 2014, raising about $50,000.

Although Duncan said Van Tighem has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the society over the years, Van Tighem’s 2014 shortfall left him a little bit disappointed.

“Last year I didn’t do it, I fell short of my goal. So this year I’m more motivated to reach that goal. And also I’m trying to raise awareness for MS, just to get the people understanding that people with MS need help,” he said, adding that right now he is in training and planning mode.

When he set out to ride the length of Highway 93 in 2013, he committed to three years of major cycling fundraisers. This year marks the final of such trips, but Van Tighem said it doesn’t mean he’s finished.

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He said he will always support the MS Society, and will likely continue his fundraising efforts as long as he can. But just because he likely won’t attempt another extreme bike ride next year, doesn’t mean he’s finished as a cyclist.

“No, I’m still going to be on two wheels for as long as I can pedal,” he said.

Van Tighem plans to begin pedaling March 31. He guessed the ride will take him about two weeks, but a lot depends on the weather.

Check back with the Fitzhugh for updates, or visit his blog.

Source: Fitzhugh Newspaper, Jasper.

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