Saskatoon

'You're completely alone': Fat-bike riders ride by night in annual Saskatchewan race

For fat bike rider Charlotte Brockman, racing in Escape the Hooved Man, a marathon nighttime fat bike race through historic Northern Saskatchewan’s winter terrain, is about adventure.

Hooved Man fat-tire race introduces riders to Saskatchewan River Delta

The 2020 edition of the Escape the Hooved Man fat-tire bike race attracted a record 14 participants. (Greg Basky)

Fat-bike rider Charlotte Brockman says racing in Escape the Hooved Man — a 23-kilometre, nighttime race through the frozen terrain of northern Saskatchewan — is about adventure. 

"I have ridden my fat bike in the wintertime a couple times so far but not through the forest, which, to me, adds an element of excitement and fun," Brockman said Saturday at Big Eddy Lodge, near the community of Cumberland House. "Being far from the city, far from the lights, far from help. No cell service."

Escape the Hooved Man is named in memory of Métis trapper and Second World War veteran Joe McGillivary, who legend has it was visited in his cabin one night by a man with the legs of an animal and hooves for feet. 

The race, in its fifth year, has run every February Family Day long weekend in the Saskatchewan River Delta, encompassing acres of wooded forest, muskeg, Canadian Shield and frozen lakes, rivers and streams. Racers take to their fat bikes — off-road bikes with oversized tires for maximum stability — and barrel across the snow and ice.

Fat bikes roll on high-volume tires that are between 9.6 and 12.2 centimetres wide, pumped up to pressures from 10 psi to as low as three psi. (Greg Basky)

The race is a family affair. Michela Carriere is the official organizer, while her father, Solomon, keeps the trails manicured, and at age 64 still races the event himself every year. Mother Renée helps out with event logistics and running the kitchen, a big job when you're hosting a group of athletes who need loads of calories to refuel. 

The race is run on trapline trails that were originally established by Métis veterans. (Greg Basky)

The race is run over trapline trails originally established by Solomon Carriere's father and his friends, who trapped and made a living in the area.

"This is a way for me to introduce the [Saskatchewan River] Delta to other people and to tell the stories of the veterans that lived here," Solomon Carriere said. "I want to keep their memory going. This is one of the ways that Renée and I have chosen to honour the veterans."

At a time of year when most of us are content to pull the down comforter up to our chin and binge watch our latest favorite TV series, a die-hard group of cyclists make the trek north to Cumberland House, to compete in a race for fat tire bikes. The event, called Escape the Hooved Man, has a unique history, and attracts a unique cast of characters. Oh...and did we mention the race is run at night, through the forest? Saskatoon freelancer Greg Basky was there and prepared this report for CBC. 6:56

Race covers variety of terrain

It was –20 C with some wind at 7 p.m., as racers began rolling up to the start line for this year's race. Only a few short hours earlier, participants had climbed out of their warm vehicles, loaded their fat bikes with a weekend's worth of clothing and gear and rode 13 kilometres from the trailhead parking lot to Big Eddy Lodge.

Hooved Man uses a staggered start, with competitors charging off at two-minute intervals, headlight mounted on their handlebar to illuminate the path ahead, tail light mounted to their seat post, a beacon to racers trying to catch them. Race order is established by drawing numbers from a hat.

Escape the Hooved Man fat-tire race is hosted at Big Eddy Lodge, a hunting and fishing outfitter four-and-a-half hours northeast of Saskatoon. (Greg Basky)

The course starts at the lodge, on the shores of the South Saskatchewan River. Riders cross Ben Lake, pass through Martina's Portage and skirt the shoreline of Hill Island Lake. Then it's up and over Coolie and Hooved Man mountains. Riders return following the Burntwood River, which brings them to a series of channels, portages, and forested areas alongside Steamboat River, back to Big Eddy Lodge.

'You're completely alone'

Hooved Man competitor Ryan Soulier was sporting a frosty "beard" after 80 minutes of night racing in the –20 C cold. (Greg Basky)

Escape the Hooved Man attracts riders of all ages and levels of experience driven by a variety of motivations.

Paul Buffel, who rode his second Hooved Man this year, says riding by the light of the moon is magical. 

"You're completely alone in the middle of the forest on lakes and rivers ... with a little light shining your way. And every once in a while, you might pass somebody or somebody might pass you. But it's an odd and amazing experience at the same time, because it's a little bit disconcerting. But it's also really exciting and incredibly peaceful and beautiful."

For Jeff Hehn — fat-bike rider since 2011, third-time racer at Hooved Man and trail connoisseur — it's the opportunity to savour some of the best fat-bike trails he's ridden anywhere. 

"The trails are impeccable," he said. "[Solomon] loves grooming trails. And I also groom some trails. So we share that passion. But the amount of work that he puts into creating a wonderful ribbon through the forest for us to ride and the fact that he rides himself is just, it's amazing." 

Sarah Robbins and Sasha Kisin, women's and men's champs at this year's Escape the Hooved Man fat-tire bike race, hoist the commemorative trophy. (Greg Basky)

The hard-core racers relish the opportunity to ride at red line from start to finish, holding off riders behind them, and catching as many riders as they can in front of them. Last year's champ, Sasha Kisin, repeated as men's winner this year in a time of one hour, 14 minutes. Women's winner, Sarah Robbins, crossed the line in one hour, 26 minutes. 

Experienced fat-biker but first-time Hooved Man rider Tyler Rittinger said he'll definitely be back. 

"It was just this sort of like sensory overload of the extreme of being by yourself in the cold, kind of fighting to get to this destination. And then kind of the opposite of just hammering into the heat of the sauna. It was exhilarating." 

About the Author

Greg Basky is a Saskatoon-based writer specializing in medicine and health care. His work has been published in the British Medical Journal, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Medical Post, WebMD, Runner's World, and Canadian Living.

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