When I told people in my world outside of Quebec that I was going to do Le Grand Defi Pierre Lavoie (GDPL) the response was ‘the what and the who?’. It’s not just the language barrier that led to the blank stare. English Canada has many charitable events and I’ve done a few of them. Events that raise awareness for disease, disaster or give voices to those silenced for reasons always unfair and unjust. So many events that I’ve been invited to do and rarely had the chance to engage in because of two decades plus training for Olympics winter and summer.
So when I finally quit sport for good last summer, one of the first invitations I accepted was to do the aforementioned event in La Belle Province.
The invite came from my good friend Joe Juneau. Joe asked if I would like to be a part of an extension of his hockey programs up in Nunavik, Quebec. Programs I knew well and held dearly in my heart after visiting and participating in 2010. Peter and I spent a good week up in the Inuit region of Quebec. Spent a week immersed in the foreign land and culture that took us in like we were their own. People that shared with us and injected our hearts and minds with warmth and compassion. And the kids…well I never forget working with kids wherever I am. Problem was, after that visit, I was back on my bike training for another Games. I left that initial visit with a promise to Joe that when I was done competing, I was there for him and the kids.
To be honest I didn’t really know what the GDPL was. I’d heard of it while training in Montreal the two summers before in a workout studio. People came back with epic tales of freezing cold rides, massive crashes and incredible challenges met. They returned injected with this sense of having achieved something monumental in life. They seemed to be in a state of exhausted awe and I couldn’t quite grasp why.
So when I said yes to this, the 5th edition of the ride, I had no idea what I was getting into. All I knew and really all that mattered to me was to contribute to two of the youth I knew and saw when up north in 2010. The two youngsters that were chosen to do the GDPL this year based on their grades, community involvement, leadership and character. Based on their potential not just to finish the thing but to share the experience and inject their region with an example of what is possible.
One of the girls who was chosen to represent Nunavik was a girl named Andrea Brazeau. Andrea picked me up on her Dad’s dogsled that first trip North. Upon arrival at the small airport I was bundled up by my new friends and hopped on the sled pulled by the fanning line of dogs. Kangiqsualujjuaq is an Inuit town of about 800 people and the Northern most community on the East side of Ungava Bay, just west of the Torngat Mountains in northern Labrador. This village was to be our home for a week. It was my first time on a dogsled and we laughed a lot on the ride into town.
I didn’t have the chance to meet Julia that first trip but I spent a lot of time with Jean Guy, her grandfather. Jean Guy came to the north as a young man and never left. He’s an observer. He looks for signs of character in the way people interact, to see who they are and then decide whether or not to let them in. Once you’re accepted into Jean Guy’s heart of gold, you’re there for good. He took us out on the land, holding court in the winter camp while sharing the ways of the Inuit. The ptarmigan he brought along, aged to perfection shot just four days before, seared in the cast iron pan with a stick of sweet butter was so good that we devoured it all (he said to me yesterday he couldn’t believe we ate them all!). Peter still uses his technique of chopping the smallest pieces of wood from the side instead of toiling from the top. He’s a story teller and a sweet man who loves his grandkids more than anything: more than the birds and the trees, the animals and the land, than life itself. And believe me he loves all of these things. I wasn’t surprised when I got to know Julia this past half year that I not only liked her very much, she made me laugh. She’s inherited the best of Jean Guy with a feminine touch.
Ptarmigan with Jean Guy
Joe asked that I be a part of a star studded team with the girls. Star studded with the likes of Gaetan Boucher, Benoit Lamarche and Joe Juneau. I think the guys were not too comfortable traveling in the RV with the two girls and wanted/needed a house mamma on board to deal with all things female. Oh, and I guess I added some Olympic fire power, too.
Our team was set and the girls started training for the GDPL months ago. For half a year they applied themselves to not only the hockey season (Andrea is Captain and Julia Assistant Captain of the Nunavik Bantam Team….they won a big tournament down south in Ottawa with only one week to prepare as a team….these girls rock!) but also the hundreds of kilometers on the bike they would do come June.
Josh, a local teacher and coach, agreed to transfer his hockey skills to the bike and be there for the girls as the weeks went by. I am certain that without Josh it would not have been the same. He kept things light and fun and got our girls in the shape of their lives for June. They did all their riding indoors. Countless hours on stationary bikes from girls who had not ridden much in their lives.
We met up in Kangiqsualujjuaq in April for a little team building camp. You may think of motivational speeches, challenging games and crap like that for this kind of camp. We did team building Nunavik style. We climbed up the steep slopes of the ridges next to town to take our team photo in the bitter cold with the village below, we ate arctic char sushi, went out on the land with the girls as guides, skinned ptarmigan together, laughed our asses off cross country skiing together, watched a lot of hockey and participated in presentations for all the visiting hockey teams from the fourteen villages in Nunavik that were in town for a hockey tournament. All the kids that are a part of Joe’s hockey programs got to hear what Julia and Andrea were going to do, with us, representing all of them.
Watching the girls begin to grasp their role as leaders with the experiences they were having evolve was a highlight. It was extremely motivating to support the two of them in any way possible when I saw their capacities evolve. We shared stories of sport and life; shared medals from myriad Olympic Games. The girls did the same only their medals came from hockey down south. The kids loved seeing these medals. They shared what it took to get there and what it was taking to prepare for the GDPL. Talked about making good choices in life to realize your goals and dreams. Told their peers from all across the north that they could have their own Defi.
Next up was our little four day training camp in Quebec City. Time to get the girls on roads. Yes, that’s right, they’d never really ridden bikes on roads save for scooting around their village to see a friend or buy a freez-ee. A village that has approximately five kilometers of tarmac at best.
We all met and rode countless kilometers in rain and shine. The girls crashed more than once but always got up, never afraid to pedal again and keep moving forward. They were exhausted yet confident when the camp ended with their last ride: just the two of them around the lake we stayed on during the camp. They came back laughing and smiling. It was an adventure not just to give confidence, but to show that we trusted and believed in them. That they were ready for the ‘Defi’ or ‘challenge’ come June.
Pierre Lavoie the man behind the entire initiative came to ride with us on day one of our camp. He’s a force armed with a personality larger than life. My french is limited but his passion was not lost on me. Pierre and his wife lost two children to rare diseases. Instead of doing nothing about these incredible losses but grieve, Pierre decided to do something. To raise money and awareness to fund research to save lives. He also has a clear vision of getting kids active. So the entire evolution of the GDPL has been astonishing and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. I can only speak from the experience of seeing the impact of what he is doing on that small village of 800 people Julia and Andrea come from.
The entire village was behind our girls. The kids from the schools started taking part in the ‘energy cube’ initiative that adds up segments of 15 active minutes for schools connected to teams taking part in the GDPL. The most active schools after a month of calculations got trips to Montreal to be a part of the GDPL. The most active kids from the communities all around Quebec got to go, too. Six kids from Andrea and Julia’s village came and took part. Julia’s sister Brenda was one of the one’s who earneda trip south. To see the photos from Kangiqsualujjuaq of kids riding, running, walking, playing street hockey for not just 15 minutes but hours each day was pure magic. To see the displays on the walls of the school adding up the progress of the kids activities was incredible.
The GDPL and our girls got an entire village up and moving. Being active. Engaging kids in the education of moving for health and fun. Nothing short of phenomenal what happened up there.
We met again in Quebec City at the airport last Thursday. Ready to drive up in our rented RV to Chicoutimi and then the start in La Baie on Friday morning. The start of the almost 1000km team relay to Montreal. All in three days. Our girls were nervous but ready. Excited yet scared. They were in my mind perfectly prepared mind body and spirit for what laid ahead. And they brought their sense of humor that never seems to leave them, and what was exactly that got us all through a very emotional experience for the entire Defi. The girls made us laugh when we were all exhausted or stressed. They reached out and took care of us just like we took care of them. We all six were leaders on our team sharing roles as the stages and exhaustion progressed.
Close to 200 teams took part, most made up of 5 people, each sharing in the workload of the many stages to come. Some in the day some at night; some long some short. Epic to say the least. I just did as I was told and rode when I was scheduled to ride by the spreadsheet that changed more than a few times.
What I worried about the most was that perhaps Joe had set the girls to do too much. I wanted then to be challenged but I wanted them to succeed. There is a fine balance between too many kilometers and not enough of a challenge. In the end the combination was perfect. Both Julia and Andrea shone like stars in the Northern sky. In fact they are like the North star to me. Something to look at for guidance and beauty. Something that lets you feel like you’re not alone in the world.
I also worried even more was that they would be safe. I thought what if a crash happened and one of them got hurt. I felt like Mamma Bear to my two little cubs. I think we all felt that way about our girls.
Moments I will never forget are Benoit coming back from an 81km stage the first day. We had all ridden the 21km opening stage that morning and the girls were set to ride the longer afternoon segment with Benoit. We all wondered and worried the entire time they were gone. We made our transfer in the RV caravan of 200 to the finishing town. Seeing people out on the streets waiting to cheer the procession of cyclists by blew my mind each and every day. I don’t think I’ve seen crowds that big for bike races in Canada and we were only riding our bikes. But that’s a whole other story.
That first long ride for the girls left Benoit in tears. They came into the finish smiling and tired “that was awesome!” Benoit was only able to mutter a few words “they were incredible…just incredible…” Finally when he was able to speak he talked about the other stronger cyclists who tried to help when by giving them pushes up the hills, and how Julia said “don’t push me I can do this myself!!” and then proceed to pass others who did need some help from those helping hands. He said they were “Amazing. Just amazing…” Many other people in le Defi said the same.
Then Just after Gaetan, Joe and I set out on a most glorious ride to La Tuque. Passing through some of the most glorious landscape and greenspace on two wheels late in the day was exhilarating. Even the people struggling with the distance were in awe I think. We all helped each other and gave a little push here, words of encouragement there. I learned from talking with people what the GDPL meant to them. How setting out to do something so seemingly impossible for them shifted and even fundamentally changed their lives. I learned of all the ‘defis’ within ‘le grand defi’.
I’m rewarded with great endurance after twenty years of training toil so the distances and efforts were not much, but seeing what it meant to others to simply finish a stage touched my heart. I felt so proud of everyone.
We rode in the back almost the entire way. We were there to have our girls in a place they were comfortable and also to help others. It was incredible and kind of funny for me to be on the receiving end like we all were of so much encouragement from the start and finish towns, the villages along the way. You see I have always had to suffer dearly in sport when racing for those cheers. So to be just riding along and have energy and time to even say thanks to those cheering for us was really fun. The people out cheering were there because they knew what a challenge it must be for so many people to be a part of this ride. I imagine it made them think that is me out there, that could be me out there, and I want that person to not give up! It was truly beautiful. A totally different take on sport than I have ever seen. I have to say I liked it very much.
The biggest stage we did as a team was the big loop starting in Quebec City. 135kms later and the girls were with friends and family at the finish, tears of joy rolling down their smiling cheeks. I was in a state of awe and wonder that they could ride so well. They had ridden 103 kms the day before and went on to pedal another 61 that night, finishing in the dark. Yes, it was hard at times, but our girls were prepared. They were fit and ready to ride. They could push through anything because they had worked so hard. I don’t think they know how strong they are but we all saw it. Again, incredible. That second day totaled 196kms each for our girls. Encroyable.
My least happy moment of the Defi was my own stupidity in day 2. Riding in the onset of a rainstorm with the temperature dropping, winds raging, rain pouring down, I stopped to put on my rain vest. Then for some dumb reason I thought I could put on my rain gloves in the eye of this storm while chasing back on feeling pretty good about myself and my bike handling skills. Not so smart because I hit one of the infamous bumps while doing just that and smacked down on the ground.
There had been many crashes already and I feared for the girls and myself, too, to get caught in one, and there I was all alone lying on the ground. I smacked my head hard and hurt badly but decided to push on. I remembered the girls crashing in our training camp and then getting back on their bikes. I thought what message would it send if I quit. I was mad more than anything and thought pedaling more would tame the self-directed rage.
Oh did that hurt. At least I didn’t take anyone else down with me.
When I got back to the RV I realized my helmet was cracked in half and that I was very lucky. Lucky my head was in one piece. Others were not so lucky with their crashes. I felt for and feel for all the wounded riders from le Defi. Unfortunately it is a part of riding a bike. It is dangerous in a group and also, I guess no matter one’s level of experience, dangerous alone as well. I’ve had so many crashes in my life you’d think I would know better. Oh well. Pretty embarrassing.
And then that last day. Our guys rode all night and the RVs made their way from one town to the next. I rode with a team director out for a spin after a day of racing in the Tour de Beauce, a bike race in the region we passed through. He snuck into our peleton of 400 riders or so and I filled him in on le GDPL. He said we had way more spectators than all of the races combined in the tour de beauce. In ways I think people connect more to that journey we were all on than any race. Pierre Lavoie started the whole thing and his vision has grown and inspired so many. It’s larger than any one person, I think, and this is why people connect to it and love it so much. It’s about challenging oneself and feeling alive. Again, incredible. Encroyable.
The last day our guys missed the start because I guess somehow we missed the memo that the 720am start had been moved up to 650am. Somehow missed this info when our guys finished their last ride at 4am. There were some glitches in the GDPL but I guess that’s destined to happen with so many logistical challenges. Like the morning prior to the 135km stage when there was no coffee to be had. Gaetan and I did a last ditched effort and sprinted to a gas station coming to the about to start stage with what turned out to be pretty good gas station brew for us and Joe and Benoit. There was no riding that distance for any of us with a caffeine headache.
That missed start saw our three guys 30 minutes behind chasing with all their might. Even these three supermen could not bridge that gap not to mention they got lost without the caravan. We found them, loaded them into the RV, found le peleton and they hopped out to rejoin the ride. Gaetan had the funniest quote referring back to our joking that they should try to ‘win’ the stage that morning right at the same time unbeknownst to any of us the ride was leaving without them “well I guess our plan was f***ing stupid….attack the stage when we missed the start!’.
Then it was my turn as Mamma Bear with Julia and Andrea in a very wet and cold second to last stage. It was slick and I was sore from crashing the day before, and inside terrified that one or both of the girls might get caught in a crash. Andrea told me she was scared and I told her that was ok, it’s perfectly normal to be afraid and that I was, too. I told her to relax and stay focussed and just follow my wheel. One of the guys whose role was to help people in need of a push or encouragement took Julia under his wing. We called him Julia’s BodyGuard and she tucked right behind him all the way. His name was Ben and we were lucky to have him. The girls got their confidence and the rainy road slick kilometers passed and soon they were riding like champs in the rain and wind. I knew as long as we were moving we’d be ok. It was when we stopped that the shivers would set in.
I was crying myself when we pulled into the cheers of thousands of people waiting to say Bravo. I was so proud of Julia and Andrea and so relived that I was speechless.
We had a problem, however: our guys were not there at the finish line and we had nowhere to go. Pretty much everyone was in the same boat and as my lips turned purple from the cold the girls started to feel a little shiver, too. Their level of cold tolerance being much higher than mine made for a little more time to solve our freezing cold and wet problem.
As it had been the entire Defi, when we needed it most, someone was there for us. Two men from the organization came by and said you three come over in the mini van. They cranked the heat and the tunes and threw food and drink at us. Julia went and got what I am sure are pretty bad ham and nothing else sandwiches that tasted so good with the chocolate milk that washed them down. We had a little party going in that mini van and were sad to leave when Joe appeared out of the blue. The guys all had warm rain jackets on and swapped them for our soaking wet thin ones. And then off we were in the procession of 800 or so riders in the final short 28km leg into Montreal and the finish of the GDPL.
People cheered and whooped and sang, they cried and shared stories of experiences along the way. Our girls let out screams of joy and satisfaction, laughing all the time, just fine as they rode along in the pouring cold rain. We all cheered when we rode through the intersection of the Boulevard Gaetan Boucher.
And then it was all done. The crew from Kangiqsualujjuaq was there to cheer us in and wrap us in all the warm clothes and towels they had. We shivered and convulsed with cold along with every other rider. But we were happy and satisfied. Relieved it was safe, it was fun, it was epic and it was done.
We needed food and stood like savages shivering in the tent at the finish with our food box filled with decadent picnic items. Too cold to function we tore into the baguettes with our teeth, ripped into cold cuts, cheese and drinks. I will never in my life forget Joe so cold he was almost purple shivering out of control whilst wrapped in a garbage bag, plastic picnic table cloth drinking a beer and ripping into bread and salami. He could barely chew and there he was with a beer. Only Joe.
We found the tent next door with the Nunavik crew far more civilized with friends and family. All the riders had crazy eyes from being so cold. I laughed when I saw all the picnic items laid out on the table cloths, ready to share. Yes we were like wild animals cold and hungry, yet warm with satisfaction and love.
So this GDPL was an experience like no other. Would I do it again, probably not, as it would never be the same without our girls. Would I encourage another to take up le Defi, oh yes. You will be moved and challenged and you will quite possible leave feeling more alive than ever in your life. You will be touched and inspired by the experience and the stories you learn along the way. You will be a part of a rolling movement of hope and inspiration that you will never forget.
Me, I will never forget the journey it was with my team. I felt like I, too, represented the North. That I represented Nunavik. Like I have a place to draw warmth and strength from for the rest of my life because of this connection and shared experience with Julia and Andrea. With Joe and Benoit and Gaetan. With the beautiful Northern region of Nunavik and it’s culture, people, traditions and language. Its history and its future. With the potential that lies in so many of the young people I’ve met from this far away place. These kids can contribute in a positive and productive way to shift their world for the better. They have the ties to the past and their feet in the present, eyes on the horizon for the potential of the future. I’ve seen this capacity in many kids from the North and I look forward to seeing the future unfold.
The GDPL has shown these girls that anything is possible. Just like it’s shown the four other boys who did it before. Just like Lukasi (who did the GDPL with Joe and the guys) who did the leg of the Grand Traverse across Quebec this year, joining in the relay that started in British Columbia weeks before. When youth are empowered to have dreams and goals then given the support to work for them and persevere to achieve them, they can do anything. I’m an example of this in the same way as these kids.
In my life I will never forget the two girls who took care of me just like I took care of them. Who laughed and joked and cried and swore all when appropriate to do so. That I sat at 10am and ate ketchup potato chips with that last day of the GDPL. Who laid a blanket on me in the middle of the night when I slept in the RV with only a jacket on my legs for warmth. Who made sure the guys had drinks ready and joked with them when they looked tired. Who thought about those around them before they thought of themselves.
The GDPL is so much more than just riding. It is about all of this and so much more. It is about human potential, love and support. It breaks down barriers of differences. We had truckers, bikers, fishermen, hunters, punk rockers, moms, dads, sons and daughters, people of all race and religion, workers and bosses, blue collar and white, young and old, athlete and not cheering for us with unabashed joy like I have never seen before.
Yes, it was a weekend I will never forget. I don’t think any of us will.