Adventure | The crossing of Lake St-Jean: Fatbike in the white desert
Thirty-two kilometers. It probably doesn’t sound much but when its on one of America’s largest frozen lakes deep in the heart of Canada with temperatures around -25°C and a continuous 40 km/h lateral wind blowing you off balance – things are a bit different. The figure thirty-two should be written down in big, bold letters.
Olivier Béart was amongst the 72 courageous bike riders who braved the elements on their fatbikes. While waiting for the upcoming full report dedicated to this booming new winter sport, here is the story of the crossing of Lake St Jean. A truly outstanding adventure.
A slice of Belgian history…
Believe it or not the crossing of Lake St-Jean is a Belgian story. The story of a slightly crazy guy by the name of David Lecointre, 20 year expat, and a genuine “crinqué de vélo” as they say in Canada. Well-known in the region for having developed a Ravel/Green Path trail map around the lake, he one day imagined a slightly wild challenge: to cross the lake’s gigantic white stretch on a fatbike during wintertime when covered entirely by ice and snow. Perhaps in respect of the crazy guys who have been swimming across the lake each summer now for over 50 years!
This is how the crossing of Lake St-Jean was born last year. However if the first edition “beta” was more of an improvised adventure amongst friends, with deplorable weather conditions and absolutely no groomed path, which incidentally turned the journey into a genuine expedition, the 2015 edition took an entirely different approach. David Lecointre has his adoptive home under his skin and tourism promotion is his job. Therefore he relentlessly seeks out new ways of promoting this truly superb Quebec province situated just a 5h drive from Montréal.
This is how the first real crossing of lake St-Jean welcomed no less than 5 different nationalities, Canadians of course but also Americans, Italians, Belgians and one Frenchman! For security reasons the number of participants had been limited to 70 (consequently 40 participation requests had to be declined). You simply don’t kid around with the lake and even if weather conditions were good, everything can suddenly change in a matter of hours rendering the journey extremely perilous with serious risk of getting lost due extreme and sudden loss of visibility. This was one of the main reasons why over 110 voluntary workers were mobilized for the occasion!
Given the experience and success of this “1.0” edition the organizers are already thinking of increasing the overall capacity. But before speaking of the future let’s go back to our 2015 edition, which was literally lived through from the inside by yours truly as a participant/ reporter/ photographer…
The pre race – Dual Night Ride
For this first official edition of the crossing of Lake St-Jean the organizers truly did a great job with several “on the side” activities like a mini show in which you could find big names like Specialized, Rocky Mountain and Norco. Canadian media where also on the scene, having sensed the growing importance of the Fatbike throutghout the country, topped also by the fact that the crossing was an absolute first. The ‘faraway’ participants (Belgians and French) were honored on national television… live if you please! For the event our Belgian friend Bernard had put on his lovely fur lined boots. One thing’s for sure he won’t have cold feet!
On Friday night a “Fat Four Cross” race was organized just to warm up the troops a bit… the thermometer read a good -20°C! This ‘eliminator race’ took place in Péribonka’s marina, just a stone’s throw away from tomorrow’s starting line. A very fun 500m circuit (partly iced-up) gave birth to some quite epic battles and more or less artistic figures! Even at this early stage, favorites were highlighted, such as Rocky Mountain pilot Christian Gauvin who won the race just in front of his teammate Ian Carbonneau. For the story the lucky winner was given his own weight in… potatoes from Péribonka. Obviously this shows that the region is proud of its agricultural products but also that people here don’t take themselves too seriously!
Around 22h00 it was time to put the fatbikes in the garage for what was most probably one of the biggest gatherings in the young history of this sport. “One last drink then off to bed” (I don’t want to be too tired for tomorrow…). On the agenda: rise at 6h30, crossing begins at 8h30…
Crossing of Lake St-Jean: D-Day
Finally, Saturday 28th February, the big day! At dawn 70 guys are preparing to launch themselves into this famous and eagerly awaited crossing.
Three ‘waves’ are organized each separated by 15 min: First ‘Discovery’ then ‘Adventure’ and finally ‘Race’: the aim is to gather participants according to their level in order to minimize gaps at the finish but also that nobody rides alone. I choose Discovery in order to go with the first wave and get gradually caught up by all the other riders. My aim is to take the maximum number pictures while at the same time fully live the adventure.
After a full briefing and with a head full of safety instructions on how to fight the cold it’s time to warm-up and slowly make my way to the starting line. Outside the weather is optimal: a good -25°C accompanied by a biting breeze… but apparently it’s going to warm up. The snow is good and hard and the sky is a perfect blue. What more could you ask for? Let’s go!
You cut to the chase pretty quickly. After riding along side the lake for just over 2km (to get off the river Péribonka) a 45° left turn takes you into the big white desert. Even though the snow is compact the grip is still precarious and overall ‘roll resistance’ disconcerting. To the eyes and head this must roll but the legs say otherwise! Giving it all I have to quickly get to the supply point in order to take some pictures I am indeed quite easily in the lead of the Discovery wave… but it’s practically impossible to even reach 20Km/h.
At km 8 an “ice fisherman’s village” serves as first supply point. Eight kilometers, that might seem early on in the race but when you take into account the speed at which water turns into ice (just a couple of minutes in the pipe of your camelback), the fact that you are wearing thick gloves and that you mouth is covered by a Buff, you quickly understand that it is extremely difficult to eat or drink. Yet it’s vital because the air is so dry and the condensation so high in your thick clothes.
A bowl of hot soup and a bun and I’m off on my titanium Skyde. An atypical machine in a Canadian platoon: titanium frame, exotic components but also “small” wheels with only 50mm wide rims fitted with 4.0” tires. The locals all use 80 or 100mm wide rims with 4.6 to 4.8” tires in order to be at ease on soft snow. But for the crossing my European Fat was really nice except maybe for the tires… the studs being more for the look than any effective grip.
In the heart of the lake the wind and cold are utterly paralyzing. Cold temperature expert and Fatbike pioneer, Italian Michel Mottini, knows how to equip himself. Not one centimeter of bare skin was visible and his already gloved hands were protected yet again in big handle gloves. If Michel was fully equipped at the start of the race all of the other participants were given these small accessories, which proved to be very useful in the cold. These yellow fur lined handle gloves signed Bilodeau were the work of a local craftsman and event partner.
On the lake you feel really small. I mean really really small. Tiny in fact. The lake’s shores are only just visible. You are surrounded by ‘White’ and an oppressing feeling quickly kicks in. The only perceptible sounds are those of your tires on the snow and the wind through your helmet. A truly unique moment where one finds himself alone with his thoughts. On the ground even with the path groomed and posts every 50m the contact with the snow remains disconcerting. The wind blows up snowdrifts and snow consistency changes like (black) magic.
To ‘get rolling’, despite the fat tires, you often sink down several centimeters. You slide and skid. With each pedal stroke, a loss of energy. If I had to compare this exercise I would say that it felt like a 32km climb to a pass. You consistently have to be heavy on the pedals else even though it’s flat it’s like an uphill climb: you come to a standstill and put a foot on the ground.
To go the distance and grab an energy bar, hidden away in your back pocket, involves the risk taking off a glove for a few seconds. A very risky choice, because with each contact with the ice cold air comes pain. And it takes several long minutes for the pain to go away and for the hands to eventually warm up again (with no guaranties!).
Loneliness. Hour after hour. Occasionally broken by the sound of a snow bike. A “Ski Doo” as they call them here. And you remember I said that the path was flat well that’s not entirely true. See the small snow waves created by the wind to the left on the picture? Believe me after 1h30 hours of hard pedaling you start cursing them.
Shortly after the intermediary supply stop (at km 15) the two race favorites Christian Gauvin and Ian Carbonneau are on me. I quickly seize the occasion and get out my camera. Gauvin is really into it, focused, strong. Carbonneau, not far behind, relaxed, smiling. Both athletes will cross the finishing line together, hand in hand and smiling in just under 2h00. Just a few minutes ahead of the French extreme raid specialist Patrick Lamarre.
I even think that they would have easily continued by going the other way just to make things a little more interesting… In fact, the organizers don’t exclude an eventual “across and back” race scenario in the future. But I have to say that weather conditions were really optimal this year making things a lot more “accessible”. Just as a reminder, during the 2014 edition the fastest cross took 6h00.
Shortly after the two leaders, dressed all in white came 6th position Catherine Fleury accompanied by her father. Not at all surprising since she is amongst the best U23’s in the country with several national team call-ups. My little finger tells me that we’ll be hearing from her again soon. You’ll be forgiven though if you don’t recognize her in a world cup without all of her layers on. In total 9 women lined up for the crossing… and they all finished!
I said it before; weather conditions were pretty exceptional this year. Of the 72 participants only 2 abandoned: one due to mechanical problems and the other for light injury. But fear not, no chance of being forgotten in the middle of the lake thanks to security patrols!
I’m nearly there, only 9 more km. The last supply stop is behind me. I thankfully get rid of 7kg of photography equipment thanks to a snow biker. I say thankfully because the last straight line to Roberval turned out to be extremely tedious. Snow being clearly softer you often skid from the front wheel. Some places are literally impossible on a bike and you’re forced to put your feet on the ground. Like this passage with a huge crevasse (everything had been secured I reassure you).
And even if you can see the shore in front of you it’s impossible to evaluate precisely the distance due to the ever-white blanket of snow and ice.
Finally, I’m there, the public is in sight. A crowd of people to cheer on the “finishers”. The finishing line is in the center of the Roberval Lake’s celebrations.
TV crew and press are waiting. You really think that you’re some sort of celebrity or star! But make no mistake about it the real stars of this event are the lake and the Fatbike. A new discipline which offers the Canadians an additional sport to “pass the time of winter”. Cross-country skiers will no longer feel alone in the category of ‘endurance sport which can be practicable during extreme cold weather’.
But let’s focus a moment on the ‘French speaking participant from the Old World’ who crossed the finishing line: Bernard De Jaeghere, 10th position (green jacket); our confrere from EndorphinMag.fr Patrick Lamarre, 3rd position (orange jacket); yours truly finishing in just under 3h00; and the most Québécois of Belgian’s (or the other way round), the event organizer David Lecointre who couldn’t resist running “his own” race… but swore never to do it again due to the fatigue accumulated during all the preparations.
One other star was this dog who, used to accompanying its masters during their fatbike expeditions, did the 32km crossing in 2h53min! His name, sweet sound to our ears: Mojo.
The day ends in a friendly atmosphere around a nice hot meal. Wheelies and hugs for each and every crossing of the finishing line is a small event in itself.
As for the winners’ prize… let’s just say that they’ll never have cold ears again! (Thanks to a local craftsman yet again)
As a tonic one has never tasted better! And the name is quite appropriate.
On our shuttle back to Péribonka the sun sets on the lake anchoring a last memorable image in our minds. An image which now has a particular savor when you’ve, like us, done the crossing there and back. Farewell dear lake. Hope to see you soon sometime despite the long distance that separates us. Hope also that many of our readers get the chance to cross your icy waters.
Words Olivier Béart, vojomag.com Photos: Olivier Béart, Charles-David Robitaille