The third annual RBC GranFondo Whistler rolls out this Saturday, Sept. 8 with thousands of riders at the start line — a massive mass start that could make previous years seem tame. The main reason is that organizers, in an effort to streamline the event and minimize inconveniences for communities along the route, have abandoned the separate Giro race category for pro-level road riders. The top racers will still be recognized at the end of the 122km epic from Vancouver to Whistler, but this year they'll be starting at the same time as everyone else.
Online registration for the event closed at the start of the week, but organizers are offering in-person registration at "GranFesta," taking place from noon to 8 p.m. on Sept. 6 and 7 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
The race/ride gets underway on West Georgia Street in Vancouver at 6:45 a.m. following the national anthem, heading through Stanley Park and over the Lions Gate Bridge to Taylor Way, and the long climb to Highway 99.
This year organizers have secured additional lanes — and at least one extra lane — for the first 34km of the ride to give cyclists more room to spread out and further reducing the inconvenience for communities along the route. The feed station has also been adjusted in Squamish to keep riders moving through that community, resulting in shorter closures.
From beginning to end it's a roller coaster, with a total vertical gain of over 1,700 metres (5,000 feet), starting at sea level and finishing in Whistler Village at just under 700 metres elevation.
The top racers will average almost 40 kilometres an hour from start to finish, with the fastest male time between 3:14 and 3:15 the first two years. The top female last year was Jenny Lehmann in 3:51:58.
While a lot of riders in the event are just in it for the views and making the finish, a few have set their sights a little higher. One of them is former Paralympic skier Phil Chew, who is racing the event for the third time and looking to improve on his time once again.
In 2010, Chew finished the route in 4:31:11 in the top 25 per cent of riders. He was 1,493rd overall out of 5,387 finishers, and 305th out of 1,233 riders in the Male 50 to 59-age category. And he's a below-the-hip amputee with one leg to pedal with.
When asked if he thought he could improve on his time from last year, Chew was optimistic. "You know, I think I can," he said. "One thing that happened last year was that there was a headwind out of the Cheakamus Canyon, once you were over Brohm Ridge. Because of that a lot of people said they were slower, when I was almost 10 minutes faster, so if the weather cooperates there I think I could be faster for sure."
Chew has also worked on his fitness more, getting his weight down while building strength and technique. He raced the 140km Tour of Victoria this year, and has a number of training runs over 100km. He also kayaks every morning, which he says has improved his fitness and upper body strength, something he has to rely on more than other riders to stay balanced and power the pedals.
He's also relying on some technology to help him along, a shaped gear that racers use to even out their stroke.
"I talked to a few guys about it, and while it kind of makes things better for two-legged guys, for a one-legged guy it's really nice — it's easier to get over the top and it really smoothes out the stroke so that when I'm climbing I can go into a higher gear and be really smooth. I think that's going to be a big advantage over the whole course."
While a bad bone bruise on his pelvis where his right femur used to be kept him off his bike for a few weeks this summer, Chew said he's recovered from that injury. He's ready to race.
As the head coach for the B.C. Para-Alpine Ski Team, Chew said it's important to get out and set an example for other people with disabilities and the athletes he works with.
"I think it works out (road racing) because I'm setting an example for fitness, and an example of what a person with a disability can do — that's more or less why I'm doing it, too, to show what a person with a disability is capable of. That's my task in life, and this is my venue to be able to showcase it."
Hundreds of riders from Sea to Sky take part every year, but at least one team will be missing from the event this year. Team Fun Hogg, which won the mixed team category last year, opted to miss the race so members could take part in the Four Kings mountain bike race, also taking place this weekend.
Instead, the team went to the Prospera Valley GranFondo in July, where they won the mixed category. They rode as a team the whole way, with team members Sylvie Allen and Marla Zucht placing first and second in the women's field.
The top Sea to Sky rider in 2011 was Whistler's Ben Chaddock, who races professionally for Team Exergy and placed eighth in 3:23:47. Pemberton's Josh Hall finished 15th overall in 3:23:48. The fastest local female was Squamish's Brandi Heisterman in 3:52.51.
The race follows Highway 99 to Village Gate, then turns left on Blackcomb Way for the final sprint to the finish. Based on previous years, the first riders will be arriving just before 10 a.m.
For more on the race/ride, visit www.rbcgranfondowhistler.com.
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