You'd have to be blind not to see the explosion in popularity for the sport of road biking in Sea to Sky and elsewhere in recent years, although sometimes it takes an event like the RBC GranFondo Whistler and its estimated 4,500 participants to underline the point.
The RBC GranFondo Whistler celebrates its fourth year this Saturday, Sept. 7. The course starts in downtown Vancouver and finishes on Blackcomb Way in Whistler. The total distance is 122km, about two-thirds the length of a national championship course or Ironman course, but it can be a challenging route with several significant climbs — Taylor Way to the Upper Levels Highway for starters, followed by the climbs out of Furry Creek, Britannia and Squamish. As well, there are numerous tough climbs through the Cheakamus Canyon between Squamish at sea level and Whistler at 700 metres, and headwinds can be a huge factor on the second half as well. The total vertical gain is around 1,700 metres from end to end, which is the equivalent of riding from the base of Whistler to the peak and then climbing another 170 metres.
The organizers have made one significant change this year, getting rid of the "pro" Giro category and folding the elite race into the mass start. The goal was to get the ride started more quickly and minimize delays along the route, while emphasizing that the GranFondo is a ride rather than a race. One side effect of this arrangement will be a lot of fast age groups mixing it up with the pro riders out of the start line: the pros will have to start fast to get out ahead of the stronger age group racers, while the age groups have a brief opportunity to fall in with the top licensed riders and try to keep up.
To separate groups by ability, participants are asked to seed themselves at the start by their estimated finish time, with the fastest riders up front. There's also an optional start for women who don't want to get caught up in the mad rush down West Georgia Street and through Stanley Park. All times are chip times, so the clock won't start running until riders pass through the gate.
The start corrals open at 5:30 a.m. and the traditional singing of the national anthem is scheduled for 6:35 a.m. The official start time is 6:45 a.m., while the shorter Medio Fondo from Squamish to Whistler gets going at 9:30 a.m. after the top riders have passed through. The fastest riders usually finish in just over three hours, while most riders will finish between four and five hours.
The pro category should be extremely competitive with all five of the top male finishers from 2012 racing once again, including 2012 champion Marvin Guzman. He'll be joined by James Scale, Tim Abercrombie, Christian Fransden and Matt Van Nostrand.
Whistler's Will Routley will also be in the race this year, looking to add a GranFondo title to his long list of other cycling achievements. He'll be racing solo once again in an event that favours team tactics, but if he can stay with the lead group until the final sprint he's a definite threat to win.
He wasn't intending to race after seven months of travelling and racing, mostly in Europe, but said he was talked into keeping up the pace for another week.
"I guess it came about because I spoke to someone involved with organizing the race and agreed to do a ride the day before with some of the sponsors and VIPs," he said. "At the start I thought I'd just be a guest, and that it would be fun to race an event to my hometown, and I wasn't thinking about competing so much — but everybody is telling me I should go out and try to set a good time, and that got me thinking that maybe I should keep pedalling hard for another week and be ready to go this weekend."