The RBC GranFondo Whistler started out in 2010 as a one-of-a-kind experience, giving thousands of cyclists a chance to pedal 122 kilometres up the Sea to Sky Highway, free of cars, from downtown Vancouver to the resort.
That unique ride is still at the heart of the event, taking place Saturday, Sept. 6. But with the GranFondo reaching a milestone fifth edition this weekend, organizers have made several additions to truly make it a weekend of celebration, rather than just a few hours in the saddle.
"Our objective when we started in 2010 was really the GranFondo, the one-day experience, and people obviously embraced it," said Neil McKinnon, president of GranFondo Canada. "Now, looking into our fifth year, (we're saying,) 'OK, we've done this for four years, we've gotta keep it current and keep it exciting.' But most importantly, we want to make a weekend of all the activities.
"It's not just about cycling — it's a celebration of the end of the summer... it's a celebration of family, and a celebration of Whistler, quite frankly."
So a jam-packed weekend is exactly what the GranFondo will be offering in Whistler on Saturday and Sunday, following two days of pre-ride festivities down in Vancouver, including Friday's Velospoke convention.
And Saturday's ride itself is seeing a major expansion this year, including the return of the Giro pro race for the first time since 2011, with more than $23,000 in prize money up for grabs. There's also the brand-new Forte route extension, which will see 500 participants tack an extra 30 km onto their ride by heading up to the summit of Cypress Mountain and back.
But the most notable change within Whistler will come on the Sunday, when the Family Fundo comes to the resort for the first time, followed by a new sprint race, the Pursuit Challenge.
The GranFondo's growth into a full weekend activity for its fifth year mirrors the explosion of popularity in road cycling that is apparent on any daytime drive up Highway 99 in the summer.
"Cycling is growing, and we really want to make sure that one day of the year that everyone has a reason to get on their bike, do it safely and celebrate it in Whistler," said McKinnon.
"There's much more people at different levels in cycling now than there were in 2010, and we want to be at the forefront of providing those opportunities."
Here's a look at all of the new GranFondo features for 2014, and what spectators can check out in Whistler this weekend.
STANLEY PARK START
Riders have lined up on Georgia Street in Vancouver to take their first pedal strokes each of the last four years, but the departure point has been moved to Stanley Park this year. So rather than cruise along downtown blocks to begin their ascent into the mountains, cyclists will instead assemble near the 9 O'Clock Gun in Stanley Park, head past the Brockton Point Lighthouse and continue on through the park before joining the Stanley Park Causeway and riding over the Lions Gate Bridge.
Though the location change will make it easier for organizers to facilitate the earlier start time for Forte riders and lessen the traffic impact downtown, McKinnon noted that the park will add another memorable setting to the gorgeous route.
"We're all about creating iconic elements for our event, and starting in Stanley Park on the east side of the park with the sun rising, over by 9 O'Clock Gun, it just adds again to the whole story of what is already a very storied event," he said.
The first riders will leave the start just before 7 a.m.
The 500 spots up for grabs in the Forte were snapped up quickly, proving that there's no shortage of cyclists looking to increase the difficulty level of their GranFondo. By riding to the Cypress summit before re-joining the rest of the Fondo field, Forte participants will cover an additional 30 km and climb an extra 800 metres on Saturday.
"With the Forte, the objective there was to say, 'OK, you've done a GranFondo before? Here's a new experience,'" said McKinnon, "because people are getting stronger, they're getting faster and they're looking for that new challenge."
Forte riders roll off the start line from Stanley Park at 6:05 a.m.
However, some of the most competitive riders taking part on Saturday will be challenging themselves against each other through the resurrected Giro Race.
With a $23,750 prize purse furnished by Vancouver developer Robert J. MacDonald, the top 20 male and female competitors in the Giro will finish in the money on Saturday — $10,000 of which will be split between the winners.
"The return of the Giro gives those young riders who have worked very hard all summer long and are in the peak of their fitness an opportunity," said McKinnon.
Having been the first female finisher in three of the four GranFondo Whistlers to date, Leah Guloien could be on the verge of a big payday Saturday. But some other notable riders in the field will give Guloien a good test should they line up to race, including Denise Ramsden and Laura Brown.
Ramsden, a Canadian Olympian in 2012, is having another successful year with her Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies pro team, and is coming off a first-place finish at GranFondo Banff. Brown, who was also in London two years ago as part of Canada's track cycling team, would also be another contender to watch.
After reaching the finish first in 2013, Whistler's own Will Routley won't be able to defend his title this year — he and fellow local product Ben Chaddock will be busy racing the Tour of Alberta.
However, McKinnon said organizers are expecting a few current and former pros with some Grand Tour experience to headline the men's Giro.
"Obviously, by putting up a large prize purse... we were able to make it enticing for people to put it on their calendars," said McKinnon.
"We have a great field of some very accomplished male and female athletes."
Sunday's expanded programming kicks off with the Family Fundo at 9 a.m., which will give children up to age 12 a chance to ride a kids' course. The route for youth riders will also travel down Blackcomb Way, where the finish line sits for Saturday's main event.
The Family Fundo used to take place in Vancouver on the Friday of GranFondo weekend, but the move to Whistler the day after the big ride should add to the festival feel of the weekend's celebrations.
"The kids will get this wonderful GranFondo experience with their parents cheering them on," said McKinnon.
Participation is free and all youth riders will receive a T-shirt and ribbon.
While the GranFondo is a long-distance test of endurance, the brand-new Pursuit Challenge will put the emphasis on sprinting.
Riders will face off in heats of four, with the winner of each heat advancing to the next round until just one man and one woman are left standing. Winners will take home $500.
Racing will take place around a 900-metre loop on Blackcomb Way between Lorimer Road and Village Gate Boulevard, making for a very spectator-friendly finish to the weekend's cycling events.
"It's new and a little bit of a different format, but we think it's going to be very exciting for people to watch," said McKinnon. "We think the kids who just finished their own Family Fundo just before that are going to have an absolute scream. It'll be a fun opportunity for everyone."
Pursuit Challenge heats begin at 10 a.m. All proceeds will go to the Whistler Cycling Club.
There are other gatherings in Whistler this weekend adding to the celebrations, including a Saturday-night after party at Garfinkel's and a Sunday lunch at the Longhorn Saloon & Grill starting at 2 p.m. With a full weekend of activity to take in, McKinnon is hopeful that Whistler residents and visitors will come out to embrace another GranFondo and support the 3,000-plus hardy riders, each of whom will have a different accomplishment to savour upon reaching the finish line.
"We have a 79-year-old woman riding the course who is celebrating her 80th birthday the next day," said McKinnon. "There are some major personal achievements (like that), some life-changing achievements for different people, and all of Whistler is welcome to come join us."
See www.granfondowhistler.com for full event details, including impacts to traffic flow in Whistler Village and on Highway 99 during the weekend.