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#FyreFondo: GranFondo Whistler organizers 'acknowledge challenges' following backlash

Cyclists speak out after finding aid stations between Vancouver and Whistler Village drained of food and electrolytes—save for a few 'uneatable green bananas.'
The RBC GranFondo Whistler has long had a reputation as one of the continent's premiere cycling events, but many riders say the Fondo's 2022 iteration didn't meet expectations. File photo

RBC GranFondo organizers apologized and said they are taking responsibility after scores of cyclists spoke out about the "unacceptable" conditions they encountered along the course during Saturday, Sept. 10's ride. 

The event offers cyclists the choice between 152-kilometre, 122-km and 55-km courses between Vancouver and Whistler and bills itself as a "fully supported" ride, promising participants food, water, first-aid assistance and mechanical support at all rest stops. 

But for many participants who took to a Facebook comment thread to air their grievances—including Whistler resident Allyson Sutton, who participated in the 152-km Forte distance—that wasn't the case in 2022. 

This year, organizers reportedly cut the number of rest stops down from five to four, placing the first stop about 70 kilometres into the Forte ride near Porteau Cove, accessible only by climbing a steep grade that shot off from the official route along Highway 99. As the day went on, cyclists reported arriving at the first three rest stops to find food had largely run out. In some cases, the only food available were unripe, tough-to-open bananas. 

"Previous years saw some great food with waffles and good energy bars, gels and chews, but this year there was a serious lack of decent eats. And lastly, there were huge lines for electrolytes, so long that I gave up and just took water at all the stops," wrote one participant. 

Wrote another, "After being one of the best-supported rides I know, this year was a mess. I was light headed and scrounging for food from friends, panicking, and making back-up plans to bail out."

The lack of food was not only disappointing, but dangerous to cyclists' health and safety, many argued. "This is not the type of ride you can do without the fuel you need," wrote one Facebook user who identified themselves as a first-time rider. 

As Sutton explained, "People who are on the bikes the longest should have the most food at the end, because they're the ones that are giving the most energy, they need the most fuel, they're going to be on their bikes the longest—they deserve the most."

She added, "There were people five kilometres from the end that just said, 'No, I can't make it, I need a pick-up,' because they had no fuel. It was horrific." 

Sutton told Pique the fourth and final aid station was also mis-marked on the course map, leading to some confusion among riders. But when she and her riding partner pulled up, she found the station, manned by Whistler's Fresh St. Market, was fully-stocked with fresh fruit, cold drinks, muffins, granola bars, ibuprofen and tylenol. She credited store manager Mark Ball for continually heading back to the store and pulling items off the shelves in order to make sure riders were supplied with the fuel they needed to complete the final stretch to Whistler. "I just can't thank him enough," she said. 

Other participants offered shout-outs to volunteers who offered riders their own lunches once supplies ran dry, while some recounted stopping at coffee shops or grocery stores along the route as well, putting them even farther behind. Upon arrival in Whistler Village, "My reward was an empty finish line, closing stalls, and no rider food," one participant explained. 

Sutton also criticized organizers for wrapping up finish-line festivities at 4 p.m. sharp, when many participants were just arriving in Whistler after a long day in the saddle, riding into strong headwinds. 

Even this year's "swag bags" weren't up to par for many participants, while organizers were also criticized for failing to offer a starting line bag drop, instead requiring riders to hand in their belongings by 8 p.m. the day before.

Amid the chaos, a Squamish RCMP officer was injured while conducting a traffic stop associated with the event, after they noticed a car driving “erratically” and entering the Fondo's designated bike lane on Highway 99 near Clark Drive. 

Altogether, the mishaps were enough to prompt some participants to liken the event to the infamous Fyre Festival, the disastrous Bahamanian music festival which made international headlines in 2017 (and inspired an entertaining Netflix doc that premiered in 2019).

In a Facebook post published Sunday, the RBC GranFondo Team acknowledged "challenges" riders experienced at rest stops. 

"Some riders found that supplies had been partially exhausted by the time they reached the first three aid stations. We are debriefing the situation internally to understand what factors caused this situation to happen after years without incident," the statement read. 

In a follow-up statement issued via email on Monday, Fondo organizers said several factors led to "some riders [experiencing] poor access to food and longer than planned wait times for water." 

According to the RBC GranFondo team, "Riders experienced strong headwinds throughout the day creating greater calorie demands than usual. In addition, we experienced late food supply challenges, placing a burden on remaining stocks. Alongside issues with volunteer recruitment for a record number of cyclists led to water distribution delays on a hot day." The statement continued, "We are now aware of the issues, and take full responsibility; full stop, this can't happen again. We apologize, and will learn from these lessons and work to improve our contingency planning, supplier relationships and recruitment so that we can continue to bring you this award-winning event at the world-class level you expect."

With a record-breaking 6,700 riders registering to take part in this year's event, many agreed that the infrastructure created for the event just couldn't keep up with the crowds, and urged organizers to offer partial refunds or credits to cyclists. 

“It’s amazing—in 2019, the last time we held the event, we had 4,500 riders," said said RBC GranFondo founder Neil McKinnon in an earlier blog post published on the event's website ahead of the event. "This year we already have 6,500 registered (and counting), which is more than we’ve ever had. And 40% of them took up the sport during the pandemic.”

On the positive side, many riders agreed the volunteers, spectators and scenery helped make up for the disappointments along the course and at the finish line. 

The event was previously named the best North American GranFondo 2018 by GranFondo Guide.