In 2013, Jasper firefighter Greg Van Tighem braved extreme heat, rattlesnakes, and roaring transport trucks on a 2800 kms cycle for multiple sclerosis (MS).
Most fund raising cyclists would call that a career, park their bikes in the garage, and live off the memories. But not Van Tighem; this year, the 53-year-old fire chief and Alberta MS ambassador is planning an even more ambitious challenge: Cycle the 3100 kms length of Hwy. 16 from Masset, B.C. to Winnipeg, Manitoba in approximately 28 days.
On a fat bike.
Perhaps. But Van Tighem, who learned a thing or two about himself and cycling during last year’s epic ride, insists it can be done.
“I realize it will be extremely difficult, and I may hit the wall once or twice, but I will succeed,” he said confidently last week from his office in Jasper. “I have to. I’ve put this out to the whole world. There is no turning back now – barring a major accident or catastrophe. There is no ‘try’.”
Van Tighem started cycling for charity approximately seven years ago, when a fellow firefighter suggested they enter a team in the Hinton MS Bike tour, a two-day, 90 kms race through the Rocky Mountains. The experience helped him rediscover cycling, and introduced him to the MS Society of Canada.
“I think that first year we had 17 people on the team, most of them firefighters,” he recalls. “The next year, we had 30 members, and we became the top fund-raising team.”
Cycling for the MS Society also brought him into contact with people suffering from the debilitating disease, and their courage inspired him.
“The second year of the bike tour, I had a friend – actually, my younger brother’s good friend, another firefighter – who passed away. He had MS, and I knew him fairly well. I’d fished with him and stuff, so I rode for him for the next few years… Then I just started meeting more people (with MS), and the MS society approached me and asked if I’d be an ambassador. Once I started doing that, it just sort of snowballed.”
A little over a year ago, Van Tighem started looking for a way to take his MS fund raising to another level. Jasper is the northernmost town on Hwy. 93, a winding route through Canada and the United States that terminates in Wickenburg, Arizona. So when the municipality of Jasper formed a sister city relationship with Wickenburg, he came up with a bold plan to ride the length of Hwy. 93.
In April, he packed his bags and touring bike and flew to Phoenix, Arizona. After a short shuttle to Wickenburg, the man some thought was crazy pedaled off alone into the desert heat.
As expected, the three-week trip wasn’t a cake-walk.
“There were two specific times I seriously wanted to quit,” he recalls. “Once was when I had been biking a three-inch shoulder in 35 Celsius heat most of the day, and I was almost struck by a tractor trailer.”
“The other time (I wanted to quit) was between MacKay, Idaho and Salmon, Idaho, a distance of almost 200 kms. I started in the pouring rain with a strong headwind, got soaking wet, then was chased by a mean dog. To top it off, I had four flats and my hands were so cramped. ‘One day at a time’ became my motto.”
After conquering Hwy. 93, Van Tighem took a brief rest before riding in several other cycling events. After exceeding his fund-raising goal of $93,000 in 2013 (in the end, his activities raised more than $96,000 for the MS Society of Canada), he started looking for a way to ‘kick it up a notch’ this year.
He found it along the ribbon of asphalt known as Hwy. 16.
For Van Tighem, who hopes to raise another $93,000 for the MS society this year, the Masset-to-Winnipeg ride will be even more challenging than his 2013 trip. Riding a fat bike isn’t easy; add icy roads, heavily loaded logging trucks, and sub-zero temperatures to the mix, and the result is a challenge most cyclists wouldn’t dream of accepting.
Yet the fire chief from Jasper, despite insisting he’s just an ‘average guy’, has proven he’s anything but ordinary.
Van Tighem left Jasper for Prince Rupert on Feb. 28, and planned to start his epic ride March 3 in Masset.
He expects to encounter adversity along the way, but insists he won’t quit. On previous tours, when pain and stress became almost too much to bear, he found himself thinking about the thousands of MS patients who each day find the courage to fight a disease that has no cure. It made his personal problems seem insignificant, and gave him the strength to keep pedaling.
“I think about people like my buddy Luigi,” he says quietly. “He has MS. I used to play hockey against him. Ten years ago, he could only walk with the aid of crutches. Today, he’s confined to a wheelchair. He’s a fighter, though; he goes to physiotherapy every week, and he has a personal trainer. He’s had stem cell transplants twice and Liberation treatment once. When the going gets get tough, I offer the ride to him and the many others dealing with the same pain, frustration, and helplessness.”
Van Tighem is scheduled to arrive in Burns Lake on March 8, where he’ll be a guest of the Burns Lake Volunteer Fire Department.
Readers interested in following his journey – or making a donation to the MS Society of Canada – can do so at www.endms93.com.