The RBC GranFondo Whistler is an annual organized 122km (76-mile) bike ride from downtown Vancouver to the resort town of Whistler, along the scenic Sea to Sky Highway.
What started in 2010 as a legacy event to Vancouver’s Winter Olympics saw its fourth installment the first weekend of September, 2013, with around 4,000 riders pouring into West Georgia Street early Saturday morning. Despite the slight drizzle, everything was set for “a day you will never forget,” according to start-line announcer Phil Johnson.
Not a race
Even though the GranFondo has a lot of elements of a professional race, including finish time-based start corrals, cyclists of every level can participate. Looking around my “5 hours plus” corral, I saw people on tandems, folks on mountain bikes, and even a unicyclist.
“I’ve done long 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 felt up for the challenge. “So where is the 7 hour plus corral?” he asked before we parted ways.
A cautious start under wet conditions brought us through Stanley Park and across Lions Gate Bridge, before taking the on-ramp onto the Trans-Canada Highway 99, heading north towards Whistler. The peloton enjoyed a traffic-controlled course that ensured the least amount of interference from motorists on this normally very busy thoroughfare on British Columbia’s West Coast. While the rain was a nuisance coming out of Vancouver, it had subsided by the time the first rest stop, at Horseshoe Bay, was reached after 20km (12 miles).
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 ride at Furry Creek — a 1.5km climb, gaining roughly 330 feet in the process. This ascent would be a precursor for the climbing we could expect in the second half of the ride.
The toughest part came past the 70km marker, when the climbing began and didn’t subside until Whistler, 52km and 650 vertical meters (2,130 feet) away. The scenic nature of the route, with emerald lakes and granite peaks, now under sunshine and blue skies, thankfully generated ample distractions.
At one of the five volunteer-staffed rest stops, I exchanged a few words with James, from Toronto, who’d ridden in all three previous GranFondos. 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.”
Brandywine Falls hosted the fifth and final rest stop, with 18km to go and the last chance to muster energy for the home stretch. Passing through the neighborhoods of Function Junction and Whistler Creekside, the end was in sight and the spectators on the side of the road plentiful. One last effort heading east on Village Gate Boulevard and then turning left onto Blackcomb Way was necessary before crossing the finish line under the cheer of the crowd.
The ride completed, the distance conquered, it was finally time to celebrate. Finishers received their medals at the finish area, while hundreds of others lined up for post-race nutrition on Olympic Plaza. What started in the early morning under rainy skies was now a party on the plaza lawn in magnificent late summer weather.
To make the most of the event, get to Vancouver a minimum of one day before the ride and treat yourself to an additional night in Whistler post-ride. In Vancouver, the St. Regis Hotel downtown ranks high on two things important to participants: First, it’s only about a two-minute bike ride from the start corrals; second, breakfast is included in the price of the room, and they serve it from 5:30am on race day.
The Aava Whistler Hotel, opened in 2009 and located in the southwestern part of Whistler Village and a 10-minute walk from Olympic Plaza, is a welcomed change from your Hyatts and Hiltons. Hotel pool, hot tub, and sauna appease a cyclist’s aching body. Also of note is that the hotel is a supporter of World Bicycle Relief, a nonprofit that provides rugged custom-built bicycles to rural communities in Africa.
Other things to check out pre- and post-ride
- Food trucks – Vancover has been voted one of the top five cities for street food.
- FlyOverCanada – The city’s latest tourist attraction, this 30-minute virtual flight ride gives guests a bird’s-eye view of famous Canadian scenery, including Niagara Falls, Parliament Hill, icebergs, and Vancouver Harbour.
- Waterfront by bike – For nearly all of its 14 miles, the Vancouver seawall offers uninterrupted postcard views of the ocean and snow-capped mountains and can be biked the entire way.
- Scandinave Spa Whistler – For that bit of extra pampering after the big ride. Alternating between hot and cold outdoor pools, the two- to three-hour process, following an age-old Finnish tradition, includes saunas, steam baths, and relaxation rooms.
- PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola – After the street-level view, check out this elevated, 360-degree perspective on Whistler Village, mountain peaks, lakes, glaciers, and forests in a glass-bottom gondola, linking Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains.