Cam Alexander (right)

Two decades of chewin’ the fat

Nelson Fat Tire Festival marks its 20th year of celebrating everything bicycle this weekend with cross-country and downhill events.

How do you celebrate something you love? Hold a festival. The 20th annual Nelson Fat Tire Festival has begun and continues into Sunday.

2014 Morning Mountain Madness downhill race. Submitted photo

The festival was the idea and vision of avid mountain biker Cam Alexander who lived and worked in Nelson as a bike mechanic. When he died suddenly in a mountain biking accident in 1996, his friends found a way to celebrate the man they loved and missed so dearly by holding the first Nelson Fat Tire Festival.

Twenty years later, the two-day cycling shenanigans have geared up into more than  three days of fun where bicycle lovers get to immerse themselves in their passion of everything bicycle.

Pictured: Superheros Lucas Meyers and Dylan Henderson getting serious for the cross country race in years past. Submitted photo

Cam Alexander: The man

Alexander, originally from Vancouver Island, made his way to Nelson for a new adventure and a job running the service department at Gerick Cycle in 1995. Owner Ross McNamara remembers hiring the energetic man.

“Amazing athletic guy,” says McNamara. “He was a larger-than-life character who attracted people to him and wanted to give back to the cycling community for all that it had given to him. He was not only an employee here at Gerick’s, but he was my very dear friend.”

Another friend, Kenneth Craig described him as a “very fit, very fast rider who loved to spend his wages on McMahon titanium bikes.”

Alexander and best friend James Wilson “loved to ride trails that very few people had ever contemplated doing on bicycles,” Craig said. “They were pushing high into the alpine and waited for the snows to recede so they could ride right up to the edges of the glaciers.”

Alexander also loved cooking, fine food, fine wine and dark beer.

“His booming laugh made us all smile, even when he had flown 40 feet off the trail into the bush and was hanging upside down in a tangle of logs and ferns,” wrote Craig. “All the guys wanted to be like him, and all the girls wanted to be with him.”

The fateful day

On Father’s Day, June 16, 1996, Alexander and a group of close friends embarked on a truly epic ride: the Earl Grey Pass trail. The 61 km, five-day hiking trail has multiple cable car crossings. It begins north of Argenta and ends up on the east side of the Purcells.

Alexander had forgotten his bike bag, with his clip-less pedals and helmet. “He was using toe straps and hiking boots without a helmet and of course being Cam, he was out front leading the pack,” recalled McNamara. “Hamill Creek was raging at the time and there was a bit of a wash out.”

Alexander fell into the canyon of whitewater and a desperate search proved fruitless. Friends suspect he hit his head and was caught under debris. His body was found a month later in Kootenay Lake.

A festival is born

The first Fat Tire festival was held that summer. While the rest of the world watched mountain biking in the summer Olympics for the first time, the two-day festival saw naked wheelie competitors and lingerie-clad lady riders with actual maxi pad protection stuck on their shins and forearms. The two main culprits were McNamara and Bjorn Enga, along with help from Ann Bokser-Wishlow (nee Fletcher).

Pictured: A blast from the past. Back in 1996, Ross McNamara (owner of Gericks Cycle and Ski) helped organize the first Nelson Fat Tire Festival. Submitted

It was designed to celebrate all the disciplines Alexander loved: fast, timed road racing, grueling cross-country, high-speed and high-danger downhill and tricks and stunts for the crowds.

“It was pretty wild back in the day,” McNamara says of the inaugural year.

The cross country race used to be a “bonkers trail” as downhill wasn’t much of a thing back then.  “There was always a bit of carnage after and during this,” he says. In honour of its namesake, the Cam Slam event was a tough loop with a big jump at the bottom.

“All-in-all it was a crazy fun, out-there event,” laughed McNamara.

Fast forward two decades

Twenty years later, the festival has grown into a three-day bicycle bonanza thanks to Nelson Cycling Club organizer Jessica DeMars and a mass of volunteers. As mountain biking has evolved, so has the festival.

The first open jump jam was held on Thursday night at the bike park and biking workshops were held today. Group rides abound on Saturday and Sunday’s Morning Mountain Madness will top off the weekend events.

The grand finale is the Cam Slam Award, which goes to a rider who shows great spirit and sportsmanship through the weekend.

For more information on how join in, check out nelsonfattire.com.

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