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Sea to Sky Olympians Darren Gardner, Chris Spring to take on the 2023 RBC GranFondo Whistler

The popular annual road cycling race returns on Saturday, Sept. 9 

Of the 6,000-odd cyclists set to engage in the RBC GranFondo Whistler this Saturday, at least two are world-class athletes: snowboarder Darren Gardner and bobsled pilot Chris Spring. These men have five Olympic Games and boatloads of physical talent between them. What they may lack is high-end knowledge of road cycling, and that could make the upcoming race very interesting for both. 

Gardner is easily the more experienced of the duo, having grown up messing around on his bike as kids often do. Upon moving to Squamish a decade ago, he fell in love with mountain biking. In addition, the Burlington, Ont. native took to his road bicycle as a form of supplemental training during his professional snowboard career, well before his first GranFondo in 2022. 

Pace yourself

There are more similarities between cycling and snowboarding than one might expect. 

For starters, both are individual disciplines with a prominent team aspect. Behind every respectable outing on Gardner’s parallel slalom record is the backing of a solid team, and it’s also key for road cyclists to surround themselves (literally and figuratively) with a good group for encouragement and guidance. Secondly, pace is vital: while slalom snowboarders usually take about 45 seconds to finish a run, a hasty or ill-timed turn can spell disaster. 

Likewise, road cyclists need to manage their fuel tanks conscientiously. 

“In the RBC GranFondo, most of the work happens in the final stretch between Squamish and Whistler,” said Gardner in a press release. “You are climbing for most of it, so if you’ve let your adrenaline get the better of you and gone too hard early in the ride … you won’t finish well.

“Trying to stay with a group beyond your ability probably also means your legs will be giving out on you earlier, and you’ll be using up your energy reserves too early.”

That point will be of critical importance to Spring, who is accustomed to five-second bursts of unrestrained power to get his 630-odd kilogram sled down the track as expediently as possible. A GranFondo presents the opposite challenge: a six-hour (or 21,600-second) trip spanning 122 kilometres between Vancouver and Whistler. 

Throughout his bobsled life, Spring has always fallen back on his training: the knowledge that he, as an extremely hard worker, has done everything possible to ready himself for a given contest. That’s not true here—in fact, while the four-time Olympian enjoys mountain biking as much as any Sea to Sky denizen, he’s never ridden a road bike before. 

Spring will lean this time not on preparation, but upon another signature character trait: obstinacy. 

“If I set a goal, like finishing this race, I know that I’ll accomplish it because I’m stubborn,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll play games with my mind in order to take the focus of pain away from my brain. I’ve never been a part of a mass-start-type race before, so I think the best thing for me to do is to hang back and really enjoy the moment.

“I’m definitely not expecting to be setting any race records or any course records. I just want to go out there and enjoy it, and enjoy the cycling community.” 

Good views and good times

Indeed, what draws Spring towards this gruelling new challenge is the opportunity to tackle it with other riders of varying skill levels and walks of life. There’s also nature itself: he has driven Highway 99 countless times, and the beautiful scenery along the route never fails to captivate him. Spring looks forward to revisiting his favourite views from a fresh new perspective, and he doesn’t expect that any amount of pain in his lungs or rear will dampen the experience. 

Gardner feels much the same way. The RBC GranFondo has been on his radar for years, and he cherished his first kick at the can last September—early morning start time and all. 

“I’ll never forget crossing the Lions Gate Bridge at sunrise, and the beauty of so many riders enjoying it,” he said. “In a six-hour event where you are really pushing yourself, it can be easy to lose sight of your surroundings, but I try to take in the scenery.

“I know a few people for whom it’s their first time riding. For me, I was a little nervous on my first Fondo last year, so [I want to] be there for those people and kind of talk them off the ledge, making them know that it’s going to be good. I’m certainly looking forward to the beer at the end.” 

Having said that, Gardner isn’t too worried about Spring, and has plenty of good things to say about his fellow RBC Olympian.

“I’m excited to be biking with [Spring],” he remarked. “He brings a lot of energy. He is very much a team player and just a great person. I think where he will lack in road bike [experience], his mental capacity will take him over the finish line. Very humble guy and he has a good head on his shoulders.” 

The 2023 RBC GranFondo Whistler is shaping up to be as ambitious an undertaking as ever, with thousands of riders making their way up the Sea to Sky Highway in a dedicated lane. Event organizers ask the public for their understanding as speed limits will be capped at 60 km/h and traffic impacted between Stanley Park and Whistler’s Day Lot No. 4 between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Further information about the event and related traffic advisories can be found at