“Look out for one another out there, especially under these conditions”, star-line announcer Phil Johnson had reminded the roughly 4000 riders in this year’s RBC GranFondo Whistler. The importance of this statement of caution became apparent soon after the ride was underway. “Slowing! Slowing!” I heard from several riders in front of me. Like a wave, those words of warning made it past me and repeated further back in the peloton. We had only come a mile from the start and eventually slowed to a halt on West Georgia Street in Downtown Vancouver, just before Stanley Park.
The reason for this unintended stop became obvious immediately: one of the riders had already fallen victim to the slippery road conditions caused by a slight drizzle throughout the early morning hours. “That is a somber start,” a fellow cyclist next to me remarked as we saw an ambulance pass the sea of riders to get to the site of the crash. We were stopped for about thirty seconds before the riders in front proceeded with caution, and many glimpsed at the bike of the victim of the accident, leaned against a light pole, with the ambulance parked next to it. Nobody moaned, nobody complained about the delay, everyone in my corral and further back seemed to be concerned about the well-being of one of their own. A somber start, yes, but at the same time a display of camaraderie which demonstrated that the majority of riders wanted for the person to the right or left to have a great experience during this 122 km cycling celebration from Vancouver to Whistler.
I had left the St. Regis Hotel in Downtown Vancouver, the host hotel of the GranFondo, at 5:30 am. “Have a great ride!” one of the front desk attendants wished me while holding the door open so I could get my bike and myself, spandex-clad, out on the street. It took only about a minute to get to the start area on Georgia Street from the hotel. With about 45 minutes until the start, I checked the content of my jersey pockets in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, one of the meeting and hangout points for various cyclists before the race. As I was trying to decide whether to eat that banana now or save it for later, I spotted a guy wheeling a unicycle. “I have done longer rides before, but this one will be my longest,” Nigel Wakita revealed while affixing his bib number to his helmet. Working as a juggling instructor at the Vancouver Circus School, he just felt up for this unique challenge. “So where is the 7 hour plus corral?” he asked me before we parted ways. Nigel, in his twenties, with short black hair and black-rimmed glasses, sporting a blue and white jersey with the logo of the circus school on his right shoulder, would eventually complete the 122 km (76 miles) in 8 hours and 51 minutes.
The start procedure on Georgia Street was handled in a very orderly fashion, despite the thousands of cyclists and the sprinkle from the sky. Even though the ride is not a race but rather a “big ride”, it has many elements of a race. The start corrals by estimated finish time, for example—elite riders at the front, slower riders in the back. I put myself in the five to six-hour corral, which meant that after the start gun had gone off at 6:45 am, it took me about fifteen minutes actually to cross the start line, Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway” blasting from the speakers. One could sense that folks were cautious for the first few miles riding out of Vancouver, across Lions Gate Bridge and taking the on-ramp onto the Trans Canada Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, heading north towards Whistler.
Riding in a traffic-controlled, car-free lane on the highway, I reached rest stop #1 at Horseshoe Bay at kilometer marker 20 after about 45 minutes, when the rain finally subsided. Like all five rest stops, countless volunteers operated this one, handing out bananas or other types of snacks, filling up people’s water bottles with smiles on their faces and words of encouragement on their lips. I couldn’t say “Thank you!” enough to them since the generous donation of their time, in essence, makes an event like the GranFondo even possible. Not wanting to lose too much time, I used the bathroom, stretched, and was back on the road.
Up to the town of Squamish, the ride hugged the coastline with views of Howe Sound on the left, while we cruised on moderately flat terrain through Lions Bay and Porteau Cove. At marker 45, we reached the King of the Mountains (KoM) section of the race at Furry Creek, a 1.5 km climb, gaining roughly 330 feet in the process. This ascent would be a precursor for the climbing that would await us in the second half of the ride. For now, a fast downhill section on the way into Squamish meant some temporary rest for the legs.
Strategically placed at marker 73, rest stop #3 was our starting point for the toughest section of the GranFondo. The last 49 kilometers consisted of “climbing that will not get thrown away”, as one of the riders put it. Consequently, stop number three was also the best equipped with a bike valet, a DJ, muffins, and, yes, wine tasting, in addition to the regular snacks, energy drinks, and water. An older rider in a black-and-white jersey, wearing a gold-colored helmet, remarked, “Wine and muffins! I’ll never make it…”. Obviously, the organizers wanted to see the crowd motivated and well-nourished before climbing the remaining 500 vertical meters to Whistler. On my way out from the rest stop, I exchanged a few words with James, from Toronto, who had ridden in all three previous GranFondos. He told me his reasons for coming back a fourth time: “It’s the scenery, it’s the people, it’s incredibly well organized. I have a lot of friends in the area. It is just an amazing place to come”.
And so the “real” climbing began. With Highway 99 tucked into Paradise Valley, I focused on one pedal stroke at a time and tried to maintain an even cadence. My body had spared me of any issues thus far, but now muscles started aching notably, predominantly my quads and lower back area. Skipping rest stop number four at marker 88, the views of emerald Daisy Lake pulled me out of my misery for at least a little while. With 23 kilometers to go, I stopped to take a picture of the destination distance sign on the highway, which, in addition to English, had “Whistler” listed in two variations (“Skwikw” and “Tsiqten”) of the indigenous Salish language family. “You get bonus points if you can pronounce it,” a scraggy rider in a pink jersey remarked as he passed me.
Brandywine Falls hosted the fifth and last rest stop, with 18 kilometers to go. A quick break was in order before the final push to the resort town. I filled up one of my two bottles, munched down my last energy gel, and got back on the highway. Passing through the Function Junction neighborhoods, with its antique shops, second-hand stores, design studios, and art galleries, and Whistler Creekside, the end was in sight, and the spectators on the side of the road plentiful. I had to make one last effort heading east on Village Gate Boulevard and then turning left onto Blackcomb Way with the finish arch in sight, crossing the line after five and a half hours.
Any big endurance event’s finish area is usually filled with elation, positivity, joy, and pride. RBC GranFondo Whistler was no different. Finishers received their medals as well as a complimentary massage. If you were inclined to wait in line, that is. The real party was happening west of Blackcomb Way, at the Olympic Plaza, where hundreds of cyclists lined up for post-race nutrition and lounged on the lawn to relax and recover, indulging in what was now magnificent late summer weather, with sunshine and blue skies.
Before heading over to the Plaza, I bumped into Paul, a lean built finisher, still in his blue and white cycling kit, who hailed from Toronto but now calls London, England home. “This is my second time. I did it last year with a friend. We did a bit better this year. It was quite slow getting out of Vancouver because of the weather”.
With long black hair and dressed in a coral pink cycling skirt from the Squamish area, Melissa was in line for food in front of me, waiting to get her hands on some protein. “I did the Medio ride from Squamish (alternative ride option, 54 km – ed.). It was great, I haven’t been riding much because of a shoulder injury. I just got back into biking this summer.”
Kevin, from Vancouver and in full GranFondo branded gear, wearing a heavily worn black Nike visor cap, did the ride together with his wife. He confessed that he was concerned about the wet conditions at the beginning. “A woman coming in from the women’s corral wiped out in front of us. Badly. Luckily, a couple of people were there quickly to help her. Once the sun came out later, it was just fantastic”.
I spotted an older rider in the crowd, wearing a jersey with the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company logo. Asking him about it, Jim explained that he is actually from Illinois and nowhere near Chico, California, where its headquarters are located. “But I really like the beer!” Jim confessed. Dark wrap-around sunglasses graced his nearly bald head. “I really enjoyed the ride. I came here with my girlfriend on vacation and decided to add the GranFondo as part of it”.
It was early afternoon when I decided I had enough of the festivities and dragged my tired body, together with my bike, to the Aava Hotel, my post-ride accommodation. Muscle soreness announced itself in the early evening and was in full swing Sunday morning despite a good night’s sleep. Regardless, my return transport to Vancouver sure wasn’t willing to wait for me, and so I shuffled to the Skylinx bus stop at Whistler Village for my 12:30 pm departure. Going back the same way we came up the day before, only this time in a comfortable multi-axle bus, gave me a chance to realize what I, together with thousands of other cycling enthusiasts, had accomplished.
The beauty of the landscape we had passed through was now, from the relaxed view of a cushioned coach seat, much more tangible. The water draining from Daisy Lake Reservoir sparkled brightly in the midday sun as it hit the rocks fifty feet below. Howe Sound was filled with ferries and people in sailboats, enjoying the warm Sunday weather. Climbers on Stawamus Chief, a 700-meter granite dome near Squamish, could not have asked for better conditions. Driving along the Sea To Sky highway is an activity on any top ten list of things to do in British Columbia. Now imagine instead of chugging along the congested highway in one of many cars, you are sharing the road with thousands of like-minded “friends on the road”, your cycling buddies for one day.