They’re coming from all over for one reason — the chance to ride one of North America’s most impressive cycling routes on a day that’s just for bikes.
As the RBC GranFondo Whistler’s reputation as a premier cycling event continues to grow, so too has the number of participants travelling long distances for the chance to ride up the Sea to Sky Highway, free of cars, from downtown Vancouver.
Of the thousands of cyclists who will take on the 122-kilometre climb up to Whistler on Saturday (Sept. 7), more than 40 per cent are coming from outside the Lower Mainland and Sea to Sky corridor. That’s an increase over each of the past two years.
“People are travelling for GranFondos now a lot more,” said Kevin Thomson, president of GranFondo Canada. “I think it’s on the radar for people saying, ‘This is something I’ve gotta go up there to see and get this thing done.’”
Organizers of the annual ride, which is running for the fourth time on Saturday, have listened to rider feedback each year to continue improving the event and catering more to cyclists each time. But Thomson said it’s also simply the unique route that participants are travelling for.
“The ride itself is a fantastic experience,” he said. “There are very few rides in North America where you can start right in the heart of a city and travel along one of the most beautiful highways you can imagine before ending up in a wonderful resort.
“So far, we haven’t seen anything that can match this kind of grandeur.”
This year’s course hasn’t been changed one bit from 2012, as the first 34 km of the ride will once again have at least two lanes of open roadway free of cones and cars. But there will be some noticeable changes at the Whistler Olympic Plaza finish, as participants this year will be able to celebrate their arrival in the resort by having a beverage while sitting with family rather than being penned up in a beer garden.
Additionally, GranFondo organizers are capitalizing on the growing trend of businesses entering teams into the ride by establishing new Corporate Lounges at the finish area.
“We’ve noticed there were a lot of people coming in as business groups and corporate teams, so that’s turning into a very good hosting opportunity for people to be able to bring their staff or their customers out for a ride,” said Thomson.
And while the course hasn’t changed, Thomson said riders can keep an eye out for some entertainers along the way as they pedal up Highway 99.
Although the GranFondo’s focus has shifted since the inaugural event to make it more of a ride and an experience than a race, ultimately, there will be riders vying to cross the finish line first, and organizers will be more formally rewarding the winners this year.
The top male and female finishers on Saturday will pull on a coveted yellow jersey while also taking home a watch and $500 gift certificate to Whistler’s Keir Fine Jewelery. There will also be timed sections on course with more jerseys and prizes up for grabs — a green jersey and Corsa Cycles spending spree for the quickest riders through a 500-metre sprint in Squamish, and polka-dot King and Queen of the Mountain jersey plus more prizes to the fastest climbers up Furry Creek Hill.
“When you have a course as we’ve set up in such a way that people can go as fast as they want and not be stopped, people will end up challenging themselves and challenging each other along the way,” said Thomson. “We wanted to recognize that, even though it’s not a licensed ride as it was with the Giro (pro class) in the past. That may come back, but at this point at least we know we can have some kind of celebration for the people who are at the top of their cycling game.”
There will be no shortage of talented cyclists vying for the jersey, including Whistler’s own Will Routley. The pro cyclist who rides with Belgian team Accent Jobs Wanty recently revealed he’ll be riding on Saturday. Among the other notable riders in this year’s Fondo field are 2010 winner Andrew Pinfold, two-time women’s winner Leah Guloien. Canadian mountain bike Olympian Geoff Kabush could also be in the mix. The top finishers are expected to reach the finish line starting around 10 a.m.
As per usual, there will also be a handful of celebrity riders, including Vancouver Canucks great Trevor Linden, former B.C. Lions lineman Brent Johnson, Olympic windsurfer Nikola Girke and Breakfast Television host Riaz Meghji.
The ride is not yet sold out and there’s still a chance for last-minute registration. Although the online sign-up is now closed, interested riders can stop by the GranFesta at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Friday (Sept. 6) between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. to get their name on the start list.
“This is the fourth time, but it still feels like it’s just an idea,” said Thomson. “Time has moved so quickly and next year’s already the fifth anniversary … but we’ve got to inspire people to say that it’s not just a bucket list thing, it’s something you can look forward to every year as a culmination of your riding season.”