For a Dutch man looking to follow in Terry Fox's cross-country footsteps, Michael van Beek sure got walloped by Canada.
But despite the driving wind, snow, giant hail and wild thunderstorms, funnel clouds and more bears than he cared to see, van Beek persevered and pedalled from St. John's, Newfoundland on April 12 and arrived in Port Coquitlam in time to visit Fox's grave on June 28, the 34th anniversary of his death. The trip was a way to honour a young man who made a significant impression on van Beek and to recuperate from his own health scare.
Van Beek was a young teenager visiting Canada with his family in 1980 when they watched Fox running near Ottawa.
"It made a huge impression on me," van Beek said. "It stuck with me all my life."
Fast forward to 2012 and van Beek, a financial manager with a local government in Holland, was beset by health issues ranging from vision and memory loss to continuous fatigue. He thought he was burnt out by the stress of his job but, after several months of tests, he learned he had the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis.
"I was laying in the sun feeling sorry for myself, thinking I was going to lose my job…and suddenly it was almost like I could hear the voice of Terry, and I thought there's hope, I have to fight for it, and follow my dreams," van Beek said. "I promised myself if I got better I would do something about it."
That idea burgeoned into plans to cycle across Canada, partly in honour of van Beek's grandfather, a man who had built all of van Beek's bikes as a kid and even taught him how to ride, and who recently died of cancer.
His doctor gave him the green light but cautioned it would be challenging trip even for a young person who didn't have sarcoidosis. It took some time to convince his wife and kids, but things got easier after van Beek was featured on a national Dutch news program.
"They had some images of Terry Fox and that made a huge change," van Beek said, noting that most people he talked to, apart from runners, hadn't known Fox's story. "People started to see why I was doing it."
So he trained for a year and a half, telling his story on his blog and through social media, and stood on the east coast on April 12 at 8 a.m., just as Fox had done 35 years earlier, ready to cross Canada on two wheels.
But it was a cold start, and by the end of the first day van Beek had serious doubts. He stopped for the night at the Moorland Motel and confessed to the owner that he didn't think he could go on.
"She said to wait until the next morning, and see how you feel then," adding she wouldn't charge him for the room, van Beek said. It was the same room Fox had slept in 35 years ago.
"I cried there, that was a change for me," van Beek said. "That guy didn't give up, and I won't give up either."
He continued through gruelling headwinds over the prairies and had to race for shelter when a massive thunderstorm, complete with funnel clouds, rolled toward him. There were sleepless nights tenting in the pouring rain and a few too-close encounters with bears and, in mid-June, the realization that he wasn't going to make it to the west coast in time to meet his family for a planned holiday starting July 4.
Van Beek decided if he had to skip that last part of his trip he'd do it in time to visit Fox's grave in Port Coquitlam on June 28, where he was visited by yet another bear and, later in the morning, PoCo Mayor Greg Moore and members of council.
"For me that was a big thing to honour Terry, I think he was an amazing guy."
• For more information about Michael van Beek's trip, and for links to donate to the Canadian Cancer Foundation or the National Sarcoidosis Organization, visit www.strengthofhope2015.com.