In August 1995, two months after he’d moved to Yellowknife, Rob Thom was over in Europe, cycling into Paris and feeling loopy. It was the last 50 kilometres of a famous 1200-kilometre race from Paris to Brest and back again, and Rob had slept a total of three hours in the last three days.
“It’s almost as though someone was playing tricks with my mind,” says the 56-year-old cycling addict, traffic engineer and “math geek” extraordinaire. “It seemed like I was going through the same roundabout, the same patch of forest. This one section of road was like I was going through Stanley Park approaching the Lion’s Gate Bridge and it seemed like I was going through that same section of road half a dozen times. I thought I would never reach the finish line.”
He did, of course, finish, coming in the top third of the pack and crossing the line after 75 hours of near continuous riding. It’s the furthest he’s ridden in such a short period of time, but certainly not the furthest he’s ever gone. After countless long-distance trips, the CCM Phantom he’s had since 1979 – “the oldest bike in my fleet” – just turned over 200,000 kilometres.
Most Yellowknifers probably know Rob as the fellow in the blue windbreaker cycling along the snow-packed shoulder of the Ingraham Trail in depths of winter. He’s in the saddle all but 10 or so days a year, -40 temperatures be damned. In the summers he clocks around 100 km a day; in the winter, that drops down to (a mere!) 60 km or so.
“The lower the temperature the hotter you get,” he says.
Rob moved to Yellowknife from Winnipeg twenty years ago to manage the territory’s collisions database for the GNWT. Since 2006, he’s been a transportation planner and has worked on everything from the Deh Cho Bridge to the Inuvik-Tuk highway. It’s a slightly humorous situation, given that he doesn’t own a car. But as he says, “roads are there for the benefit of all road users. It isn’t there for just cars and trucks.”
“The roads would be a lot safer if there were far fewer cars on the road. It’s become so much worse in the past 35 years. I was more optimistic in the ‘80s that we’d make changes, but it really hasn’t happened to the extent I would like to see.”
Cycling is his number one passion, but math comes a close second. In 1975, while in grade 11, Thom made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing the most digits of Pi. After months of memorizing 50 digits a day, he was up to a record smashing 4005.
“I could see the digits. And people would ask me, say, what the 1551st digit is. It would take me a minute or so, but I could tell the digit. I just scroll down to that particular row of numbers and then count along. I was even able to recite the digits backwards.”
What was your first impression of Yellowknife?
It was about plus nine degree and light rain. I actually found it reasonably pleasant, I thought it would be quite cold. I was really impressed by the friendliness of the people. I got to know people really well. I knew within the first week of living here that I was going to be liking it a lot. Like a lot of people I figured I be here for two or three years then move on. But that was 20 years ago and I’m still here.
What is your favourite thing about Yellowknife?
The ability to get out and enjoy the outdoors, and be out in the wilderness. And if you’re tired of that you can be in a real cosmopolitan city.
What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?
Hard to say. The variety of places to go cycling are pretty limited. But you have the natural beauty that makes up for it.
What do you do in the summer?
It’s not all that different than during the winters. As far as cycling goes, I cover longer distances more quickly. I tend to go up Highways 3 and 4, and I tend to go out further for a couple of months. During winter I concentrate more on the Dettah Ice Road, and the Dettah all-weather road, which I call the Dettahbon. In recent years, I haven’t done that too much during the summer; I’m looking forward to them finishing it and chip sealing it then I’ll probably go back to doing it during the summer.
What do you do in the winter?
In the winter, your opportunities open up a lot more with the opening up of the Dettah ice road. And things get really interesting in the later part of the winter season when you have a road that goes out too the Wool Bay area. And the dog derby trail is a lot of fun to ride on too.
I find the winters are easier to handle here compared to Winnipeg – you don’t get the same wind and it’s just easier to get outside. In Winnipeg, often it’s the road conditions that are really limiting, even though the weather itself might not be so bad.
What opportunities do you find in Yellowknife that you don’t find anywhere else?
I tend to find with work and volunteer organizations you get to do stuff that only very senior position-type people would do in the south. I never thought I’d be in charge of something like a weigh-in-motion scale. I was involved in the one just south of Fort Providence on Highway 3. It was some new technology and we wanted to see how it worked in the North, so it was a good learning experience. I also I put in the road weather information system in Chan Lake, so you do tend to take on more responsibility.
Are you a Yellowknife lifer?
I’ve been here for 20 years so I guess I could qualify as lifer.