Michael van den Ham’s wild escape from Chilliwack
Cyclocross, community and Canadian aviation history come togetherPhoto by: Michael van den Ham
Racing against the best in the world is, obviously, quite hard. But, for Michael van den Ham, that was the easy part of his Pan Am weekend. Just getting to the race ended up being an epic adventure involving two very small private planes, a rental car, and a last-minute plan that was almost the most Canadian flight ever. As he puts it, “Right up until I was in Vancouver, I wasn’t positive that I was going to make it to Texas.”
Normally, making it from Chilliwack to Vancouver is about an hour’s drive. Maybe more in traffic, but never a question of “if,” not “when.” Then the floods hit B.C. and van den Ham was stuck between Abbotsford and Hope, both of which were severely impacted. When we last talked to the Canadian champ, Highway 1 to Vancouver had just re-opened, allowing him to make plans to travel to Garland, Texas. 24 hours later, the situation looked very different.
Turns out, the story was just getting started.
Atmospheric rivers and closed highways
Another wave of rain swamped the lower mainland that Saturday night. “I was lying in bed listening to the rain absolutely pouring, thinking “there’s absolutely no way these roads stay open” because the water was already lapping at the roads.” That thought proved accurate, as the long-drained Lake Sema:th (Sumas Lake) rose again, cutting van den Ham off from any and all commercial airports.
Van den Ham knew Micke Rauch, a local race organizer that’s hosted mountain bike and cyclocross events, had a small plane. When the roads closed, he reached out about the possibility of helping him get out of Chilliwack. “Right away Mike was like ‘Absolutely, let’s make it happen,'” says van den Ham.
The pair made a plan. On Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, Rauch would fly his de Haviland Beaver, the famous Canadian-made bush plane, from Pitt Meadows to the tiny Chilliwack airstrip, pick up van den Ham and his bike, and return them to Pitt Meadows so the racer could continue on to Vancouver Airport. Here, it’s worth mentioning that MvdH’s Giant national championship bike is painted to match another iconic Canadian plane, the Avro Arrow.
The weather, though, wasn’t quite done yet. At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, van den Ham woke up to a text from Rauch saying the conditions were looking bad and asking if he could be ready in two hours. The Canadian scrambled to get ready and headed to the Chilliwack airstrip.
An ever-changing plan
Turns out, Rauch was having problems of his own. “The power went out at Pitt Meadows airport went out where Mike stores his plane, so there was no way to open the power-operated hangar doors,” says van den Ham. While many would have been frazzled, the Canadian stayed relaxed. “I just accepted that I was going to try get there, and I might not. That was just part of the deal and I just had to roll with it. Definitely getting to PanAm’s felt like the victory.”
Rauch reached out to a friend at the airport, who he know stored his plane in a hangar with mechanical doors, and a new plan was arranged. That pair flew off towards Chilliwack in a 1978 Cessna.
“That plane was even smaller than the de Haviland,” says van den Ham. “With them in the two front seats, we barely fit my bike, a double wheel bag and myself in the back.”
Nevertheless, 30 minutes later the trio landed in Pitt Meadows. Van den Ham hopped in a rental car and headed towards YVR for the flight to Garland, Texas and Pan American championships.
For van den Ham, the wild adventure, and racing at all, would not have been possible without the connections made racing locally.
“100 per cent, there’s no way without Mike being part of that community that I would have made it to Texas. I don’t know if it is unique to cycling, but it definitely speaks to how this type of sport brings people together and makes things possible.”
From Texas to Europe
In Texas, van den Ham was racing solidly inside the top 10. On the final lap he crashed while racing for sixth and faded to 11th. While it wasn’t what the Canadian was looking for, he’s keeping perspective.
“At some level, it was disappointing. To have all these pieces fall into place to get there and then not have a great race. On the other hand, it felt so good to be back racing with those people. It really made me appreciate the sport more, and it sets the stage for racing in Europe.” Also, strong racing considering everything he went through to get there and in the weeks leading up to the race.
That block of racing started Saturday at the Rucphen World Cup, where van den Ham was 44th. He races again in Namur on Sunday.
When the Christmas period racing ends, van den Ham will return to Victoria, B.C. for the re-scheduled Canadian national championships. Asked if he’s found his next Canadian aviation history-themed paint scheme, should he defend his title, he laughs. “I don’t know how I’d paint a bike to match the de Haviland Beaver, but if I did, I would.”