The full moon lit up the sea and the sky across English Bay in Vancouver just before sunrise on the morning of the GranFondo Whistler as I rode across the Lions Gate Bridge towards the start.
To my right, the ocean was dotted with the lights of ships in the bay. To my left, the Vancouver skyline illuminated the scene of hundreds of cyclists quietly speeding past in the opposite direction. They were setting out for the Forte, the most challenging of GranFondo Whistler’s distance options, which adds a climb up Mount Seymour before beginning the ride from Vancouver to Whistler.
I was doing the classic Gran Fondo distance. The route is 122 kilometres and takes riders from Stanley Park in Vancouver along the stunning Sea to Sky Highway, finishing in Whistler Village. While it would be the farthest I’d ever ridden in one day before, my main concern was the elevation gain. Starting at the ocean and finishing in the mountains requires some uphill, and 1900 metres of elevation gain is a magnitude that’s best put to the back of your mind until afterwards.
For anyone not up for pedalling the full distance, GranFondo Whistler also offers a shorter Medio distance at 55 kilometres, starting and finishing in Whistler and taking riders into the beautiful Callaghan Valley.
Be Bold, Start Cold
Shivering in the cold air accentuated my nervous anticipation for the big ride ahead. The day’s forecast called for a warm summer day, but with nowhere to store layers I had to rely on the be bold, start cold mantra. I was looking forward to some sunshine, but it was still dark as I looked for the start of the ride.
Later, the sun finally beamed through the trees and cast an orange glow on the sea of cyclists inching towards the inflated archway that formed the starting line. The ride commenced, the pace increasing to a steady flow as thousands of us pedalled along the Vancouver Seawall towards the towering presence of the Lions Gate Bridge.
Over the bridge, the first big climb began, fuelled by enthusiastic cheers and encouragement from spectators lining the highway that rises steeply up Sentinel Hill towards the North Shore Mountains.
“You’re so strong, you can do this!”
As the gradient mellowed and I settled into a steady cadence, I began to pass time reflecting on cycling. It has brought me a lot of joy since I was young – one of my earliest memories is the elation I felt on my fourth birthday when my wish was granted after weeks of begging my parents for a purple bike that goes whoosh.
Riding bikes was what brought me to North America. My best friend and I finished university with the wild idea that we wanted to cycle from Alaska to the Mexican border, and then, even wilder, we actually did it. When I later found myself living in Canada, I inevitably came across a whole new way to enjoy bikes when I bought my first mountain bike and discovered the thrill of a bit of suspension and dirt trails in the woods.
My ultimate love for bikes is rooted in their utility to take you places under your own steam and the sense of independence I have when cycling to get where I’m going, whether it’s near or far. Travelling by bike gives you a new appreciation for a destination and the often-overlooked places in between, which was what I was most looking forward to when I signed up for GranFondo Whistler.
Having just moved to the Sea to Sky, I knew the ride would make me feel more acquainted with my new home. I would get to feel the distance along the corridor, doing so without sharing the highway with cars on the one day of the year that a traffic-free passage by bike is possible.
Leaving North Vancouver, we pedalled alongside the ocean towards Squamish in what was easily the most pleasant part of the entire route. The sea breeze was in my face as the smooth highway undulated and wound along the coastline, my legs still feeling fresh.
Eventually, the iconic Stawamus Chief granite monolith came into view, signalling our arrival into Squamish and marking the halfway point of the ride distance-wise, but only the beginning of the climbing. Through Squamish, I pedalled past lively spectators and a band playing beside the road. As I left town, the ocean receded behind me and the ascent into the mountains began with a long, sustained climb.
The second half of the ride was characterized by heat, headwinds and hills. These challenges were alleviated with the distraction of the stunning peaks and glaciers of the Tantalus Mountain Range ahead of us. And despite the highway consistently trending steeply upwards, there were some downhill sections which allowed me to gain momentum and propel myself partway up the next climb.
Anyone who’s entered Whistler from the south is likely familiar with the tantalizingly distant placement of the Welcome to Whistler sign from the Village itself. I felt it tenfold as the sign taunted me with the idea of finally being in Whistler when in reality I still had 15 uphill kilometres to go.
The silver lining was that the Whistler sign also happened to mark the last aid station of the ride. I sat for a minute to eat a stack of cookies, whine to my friends via text and select some motivating music to get me through to the end. Eventually, I dragged myself back onto the bike for the final push home.
Finding the Familiar
Pedalling through the south end of Whistler, I had a sudden surge of energy as I turned a corner (thank you cookies). It felt particularly familiar, as for the final five kilometres I was on my daily work commute. So far, the ride had felt like such a grand and unfamiliar adventure, and yet now I was pedalling the route I rode every day, familiar down to every last pothole and incline.
But this time it felt different – instead of having just left my apartment, I had ridden here all the way from Vancouver. I was a lot more exhausted than I usually felt along my well-trodden commute, and instead of riding solo, I had brought 6,000 people along with me.
Through my exhaustion at the very end, I had to consciously fight the robotic urge to turn towards work, speeding past it towards the finish line in the heart of Whistler Village. I was propelled by the knowledge that it was almost over, and then just like that, it was. I was finally off the bike, sitting on the grass with a burger and a beer, watching a live band perform at Whistler Olympic Plaza. I was satisfied with what I’d achieved, if rather grateful that when Monday morning rolled around I’d only be facing my usual five kilometres.
I’d like to acknowledge that the GranFondo Whistler passes through the unceded, traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Lil’wat Nations.
Extend your weekend in Whistler for the RBC GranFondo and take advantage of a free $100 Dining Voucher when you stay for 3+ nights for arrivals from September 8 to 11, 2023. Take a look at the offer details on Whistler.com.