2017 RBC GranFondo Whistler: Big hills, Bare legs, Bold Hearts
Maureen Duteau reports from North America's largest Gran Fondo
With eerie synchronicity, cyclists materialize on the streets of Vancouver. They come from all directions and in the early morning mist they are quiet and focused, seamlessly pedaling by as they anticipate the day’s challenging ride. Like clockwork, they weave in and out forming a stream that flows down Georgia street where they join a river of riders awaiting their wave start at Brockton Point. They follow the course route in their mind, thrilling to the thought of riding side by side with more than 4,500 riders on the stunningly impressive Sea to Sky corridor.
The morning is overcast, and friends cheerily jostle with each other as they get into position. While smiling, all are anticipating a hard day of riding. Even for the fittest rider, the Whistler Gran Fondo could not be considered an easy ride. It is known for its spectacular scenery, epic climbs and significant elevation gain: “The elevation gain from Vancouver to Whistler is about 700 metres but the riders will actually climb over 1700 vertical metres of various hills” (Whistler Insider). The truth is that most of the riders are a little nervous, and many have never climbed the hills that lead to Whistler.
Whistler Gran Fondo is an endurance ride: each cyclist no matter his or her ability is trying to do the best he or she can given the route and conditions.
Photo Credit: Tammy Brimner
The conditions are not ideal. It starts to lightly rain as we pedal across the start line and does not let up until we reach Porteau Cove. Riding along the upper levels in North Vancouver, we silently conduct a mental check of what clothing items we should have brought. Many of us are wearing cycling shorts, fingerless gloves, light layers and uncovered helmets and shoes. In short, we are ill-prepared for the rain. In spite of the worsening conditions, riders are in good spirits. There is a saying that a person’s true character is revealed in times of duress. This is never more evident than on the 2017 Whistler Gran Fondo. The weather gods have decided to test our mettle by wreaking havoc with the perfect summer streak we have had until this day. On this day only, winter decides to pay an early visit.
At the second rest stop, I run across a friend who is so cold that her whole body shakes convulsively and every hair on her body stands on end. She is wearing short sleeves, and has very little body fat to insulate her. WIthin seconds a man notices her distress and passes her a steaming cup of coffee to hold, after which he gives her his own rain jacket to wear. Examples of this generosity are abundant and combat the efforts of the nimbostratus to dampen our spirits. The persistent rain and deepening cold are abated by warm rays of human spirit. All along the course from Taylor Way to Creekside, family and supporters brave the wintry weather to cheer us on. They stand and chant words of encouragement, play inspirational music, hold up posters, hand out bacon (Yes! Bacon!), and set up extra water break stations.
Leaving Squamish, the route enters a series of relentless inclines. Rain gushes onto my face like an absurdly placed sprinkler and the temperature drops with each meter of elevation. I fight numb fingers and cramping legs. Although the rain and cold have increased, fondo riders ignore their own needs and potential time goals to lend a hand to one another: I see groups waiting for each other to change a flat, couples cycling together in solidarity, strangers offering a wheel to a fellow rider, and newly made friends engaging in idiotic banter to lift morale. My heart gleams at this unspoken etiquette of camaraderie in the cycling community and gives me the energy I need to finish strong.
Even more astonishing, I discover a remarkably tenacious group of individuals: Support mechanics and course marshals ride the same challenging route as the rest of us but in slow motion as they must stop to rescue riders repeatedly throughout the day. These life preservers end up spending more than 8 to 9 hours on the course, changing flats, repairing bikes, and connecting riders with First Aid.
I meet Matt Smith, manager of Obsession Bikes in North Vancouver, in the warming tent a full two hours after most riders have come in. He spent the day working as a roaming support mechanic and is blunt about the conditions, saying, “It was hard to stay warm. We would stop to fix flats and my fingers could barely move, they were so stiff from the cold.” Matt downplays the adverse conditions as he was able to see the ride from a different perspective in his role: “If I had been riding at my own pace, I would never have made the same connection to people and heard their stories.” One story stands out for him. He stopped to help a cyclist and noticed something flapping on his bike handlebars. It was a photo of a man’s face. Probing the cyclist, he found out that it was a photo of his best friend and cycling partner who had died of cancer a few weeks previously. The photo was a way for him to feel like he was still riding the fondo with his best friend at his side. Recalling this story, Matt is clearly moved.
Throughout the day, Matt and his partner change over eighteen flats, repair brakes and shifters, resolve chain issues, and help riders trying to overcome cramped legs. With each encounter, he is struck by the gratitude and appreciation shown and takes away gems of information about each person he meets. This sentiment is echoed by Rob Atwell, a course marshal attached to the Forte class riders. His job of ensuring that riders make safe decisions and “that everyone has a good time” is not easy with the cold, wet weather, especially after a chilly descent down Cypress (the Forte class riders tack on an extra 30 kilometers). Rob notes that most people adjust to their conditions by slowing down and that riders make the best of their experience. He praises the heroic work of police and ambulance crews, Reckless Cycles who provide roaming repair trucks, and the BC Motorcycle Drill Team who together with the support mechanics and course marshals round out a network of care. Looking back, both Matt and Rob agree that riding support made their day significantly longer and colder, but it also made it more rewarding. As for the rest of us, our safety was insured by these unsung heroes and their support gave us the courage to push forward.
Matt Smith, Maureen Duteau, Rob Atwell
We forgive the adverse weather conditions when we hold a cup of Galileo coffee at a rest stop, when we look out at the shimmering expanse of ocean in the Georgia strait winding its way up the coast, when we relish our dedicated lane unfettered by traffic or when we see rider helping rider. On September 9 2017, the cycling community came together with bold hearts to support each other in a common love of cycling and the challenge of conquering a goal.
Click here for more information on the 2018 RBC GranFondo Whistler.
Photo Credit: Tammy Brimner