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Locals complete Ride of Your Life

Traverse from Whistler to Yellowknife hampered by wildfire, rain

Hearing about the Ride of Your Life group's plan to ride the 2,200 kilometres from Whistler to Yellowknife, N.W.T. in just 10 days sounded like it would be a challenge.

It ended up being even tougher.

The group of eight Whistler riders ventured out on May 25 and arrived in the territorial capital on June 4, a day later than anticipated.

The group rode through near-freezing temperatures, wind and rain to get to their destination, never mind the detours. One was an ill-advised decision early on that cut 35 kilometres from the route, but was over gravel and, because of rainy conditions, mud so thick that one rider held a stick in one hand so he could clear the gunk accumulating on his tires.

"That was our introduction to gravel, which we weren't expecting to do at all on the trip," said organizer Quinn Lanzon, who planned the trip to his childhood hometown as part of his 30th birthday celebrations. The ride was also planned to raise money for the Yellowknife Mountain Bike Park.

However, with a wildfire affecting their planned route right through High Level, Alta., the riders were faced with a difficult decision.

"That night at Dawson Creek is when we had to make the decision to change the route," Lanzon said. "It ended up adding an extra 8,000 metres of climbing and almost 400 kms (actually 380 km)."

It was difficult for the riders to suss out what their detour would look like once they reached the Northwest Territories, hearing conflicting information as to whether the route was paved or not. As it turns out, Highway 7 was paved until a few years ago, but now, is nearly 500 km of gravel.

"When you get to the border with the Northwest Territories, no word of a lie, it's like the B.C. Government said, 'Well, that's the end of it,' and the Northwest Territories was, 'Oh, we don't have any money (to pave),'" said Graeme Meiklejohn, who documented the journey.

Lanzon recalled the journey's final days as being miserably cold and rainy, with the daily highs never leaving the single digits. At times, the conditions were so challenging that the riders rode under tarps, with Lanzon likening it to how elementary school children play under a parachute in gym class.

"When we left Fort Nelson, it started to rain and it got cold. It stayed that way for the rest of the trip. It was single digits and rain pretty much the entire time, on gravel, so the gravel was getting slow. On gravel, you can't draft anymore, so the weaker riders, the group couldn't pull them through," he said. "It exposed the two guys who eventually wouldn't be able to complete the trip."

On a particularly brutal day, the group came upon a couple that invited them to warm up in their hunting cabin, made coffee for them and let them rest for a bit. When the group got into Fort Liard around 1 a.m., locals opened up the general store to allow riders to buy real food instead of more energy bars.

"That was our last store for the next big push for two days," Lanzon said.

Two riders struggled in the final days. One had lost a significant amount of weight while training for the ride, but he had trouble adapting in the chilly conditions with such low body fat, while another rider had trouble keeping up and knew he wasn't going to be able to make it. His knee is still stiff weeks after the ride ended.

Both were left in Fort Providence, as there wasn't room for them in the support car, and had to fend for themselves. They had no luck hitchhiking, but the president of the Yellowknife Mountain Bike Club, Geoff Foster, went to pick them up and bring them to the city, completing a 600-km round trip.

The group didn't make it through entirely unscathed, as over the course of the journey, there was one accident. Lanzon noted that rider Mark Taylor has Raynaud syndrome, which results in reduced blood flow to extremities and therefore, cold fingers and toes. He was regularly switching out gloves with the support car, but during one exchange, veered into the car at 25 km/h and had his front wheel go under the car's back tire. Taylor and another rider were banged up, but could continue on.

One of the most intriguing parts of the journey for Lanzon and Meiklejohn was the volume of wildlife they saw along the way, including black bears, bison, lynx and arctic foxes. The bison, in particular, were fascinating to see along the way.

"They weren't used to seeing people and probably had never seen cyclists before. What they do is as you ride towards them and they're on the side of the road, they look and they wait, and once you're equal with them, they take off and start racing you," Lanzon recalled.

"They can fully gallop like horses. They can have all four legs off the ground at once," added Meiklejohn.

A memorable moment for Lanzon was that his dad surprised the riders on the road during the last day.

"We saw a truck pull over on the side of the road and my dad jumps out. I'm like, 'What the hell?'" Lanzon recalled. "We didn't stop that long because we were going to get cold, and he just said, 'I just wanted to make sure you guys were on the road,' and gave us shit for being behind schedule," he added with a chuckle.

Once in Yellowknife, the local Rotary Club welcomed the riders with a barbecue and presented plans for the bike park. They were also recognized in the Legislative Assembly and had the opportunity to explore and party in the city at a time it was experiencing nearly 24 hours of sunlight.

Looking ahead, the group is considering holding another ride next year starting from Yellowknife.

"We're making our way across the country in the most inefficient way possible," Meiklejohn said.

As for his documentary, Meiklejohn "shot too much stuff and too much stuff happened." He's hoping to have a short completed for this year's film festival circuit, and, if he has time, will put together a feature that also looks at the forest-fire impact and other climate conditions the riders faced.

In terms of fundraising, the riders blew past their first goal of $5,000 and now raised it to $10,000. As of June 18, the GoFundMe had raised more than $7,000.

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