A Hay River woman has just completed a long-distance bicycle ride – although shortened by smoke – in the fight against cancer.

Ashley Coombs travelled south to Calgary last month for the annual Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, a fundraiser for the Alberta Cancer Foundation to support research, treatment and services.

Ashley Coombs lifts her bike into the air during her first Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer in Alberta. photos courtesy of Ashley Coombs

It was her first time participating in the event.

Coombs said she joined the ride because of the death of an aunt in 2017.

“She had brain cancer and we lost her last summer,” said Coombs. “She had done this ride a couple of years herself. She had a big passion for cycling and had intentions of doing it again for the third year, but unfortunately was losing her battle so she was unable to, and I just felt such an inspiration from her.”

Coombs said her aunt had gone through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but was still determined enough to get on her bike and do the ride the very next day in 2016.

Her aunt – Cathleen Kidd of Stavely, Alta. – passed away in July of last year.

Coombs said it was then that she decided to ride in the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer in her aunt’s memory.

“It was something that really inspired me,” she said. “And I’m not a cyclist or done road cycling. So it was just something I said, ‘You know what, we need to keep doing this.’ I told myself that was it, so I registered immediately for the next year.”

This year’s Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer began on Aug. 18 at Olympic Park in Calgary, and the bicyclists – all 1,803 of them – were to ride to Sundre and back over two days for a total of about 240 km.

However, things didn’t work out like that.

Coombs explained that the bicyclists had made it about 75 km to the community of Cremona when the ride was cancelled because of smoke drifting into Alberta from forest fires in British Columbia.

“We were told at that time that the ride was going to be called off due to the severity of the air quality and the fact that it was unsafe for any riders to continue at that point,” she said. “The winds had shifted in such a way where it was just so bad in Sundre that nobody was able to proceed and spend that night in Sundre. It was really disappointing news.”

Support crews drove the riders and their bikes back to Calgary.

Coombs said it is unfortunate when Mother Nature steps in the way of such an event, but that was a factor beyond the control of riders.

She said air quality was pretty bad, recalling that someone told her that her eyes were red because of the smoke.

In fact, it was so bad that some riders were wearing masks in an attempt to protect themselves from the smoke.

Last month, Ashley Coombs travelled to Alberta for her first Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, a fundraising event that attracted 1,803 participants.

Coombs will get a second chance to complete the ride, because she said she “totally” plans to make it an annual thing.

The 36-year-old had trained for the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer by borrowing a bike and practising, including by riding to Enterprise and back, and participating in the annual 500-km ride from Yellowknife to Hay River in July.

“When I did it, it was so fun,” she said of that ride. “It wasn’t intimidating at all.”

Plus, it gave her confidence for the ride in Alberta.

Despite that recent ride being cut short, Coombs had a good experience at the event.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “When you see over 1,800 cyclists on the road, it’s really incredible just to be a part of that. You’re a wave of emotions, essentially.”

Coombs also noted the riders heard from inspirational speakers, who were people battling cancer.

“They participate in the ride,” she said. “Everybody is there for someone. You see survivors that are out there. They’ve got yellow flags off the back of their bikes.”

Most importantly, the ride raised over $8 million, with each rider having to raise a minimum of $2,500.

Coombs, an aquatics supervisor with the Town of Hay River, raised $4,375 herself.

Just before the race, she contacted Jarrid’s Team, which was the group of riders to which her late aunt belonged, and they asked her if she wanted to ride with them.

“And so, of course, I was very honoured knowing I was taking my aunt’s place on that team this year,” Coombs said. “So it was really great.”

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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