Loosely translated from Italian, gran fondo means "big ride."
In 2007, when Kevin Thomson and Neil McKinnon set out to create a big ride from Vancouver to Whistler, they perhaps had no idea just how big it would become.
In September 2010, after three years of scheming and dreaming, the pair launched the inaugural GranFondo Whistler ride, up the spectacular Sea to Sky Highway as a legacy of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
This Sept. 7, an estimated 5,000 cyclists will arrive from around the globe for the third edition of Gran-Fondo Whistler, which has become one of the top cycling events in North America. An entire lane shuts down to car traffic to give cyclists free rein for heart-thumping climbs, thrilling descents and glimpses of some of the best nature has to offer.
Sept. 7 might seem a long way off, but when you consider that cyclists will need the muscle power and skills to pedal 122 kilometres with 1,700 metres of elevation gain, it's not too soon to begin training.
So Lara Penno, who has been hired as clinic programmer, launched the first of weekly mid-week riding clinics earlier this week to get cyclists in shape for the big ride.
In one of eight clinics launched throughout the Lower Mainland, 11 brave souls of varying cycling skills headed out in the pouring rain from the Trout Lake community centre to learn everything from how to lift a bottle of water for a drink during a mass ride to how to signal to fellow riders that there is debris on the road or a pothole.
Among them was Christine Delong, who was returning to cycling after a 10-year absence.
"I am hoping to make it part of my lifestyle again," she said, while pausing during a warm-up session inside the community centre. "Riding a bike still gives me the same pleasure I had when I was a kid."
She knows the training and the ride will be gruelling, but she feels she is up for the challenge.
Hayden Ross expects to be a little sore when his feet finally came to rest and he has reached his destination in the alpine village that has graced the cover of many ski magazines.
He has promised himself a spell in a hot tub followed by a beer as a reward.
Some will make the ride to Whistler in as little as 3½ hours, but he expects it will take him closer to six or seven. He doesn't mind the extra time. He plans to enjoy every minute.
He was here to learn and Penno, along with clinic co-ordinators in each of the eight locations, were here to teach him things such as how to smoothly shift gears when climbing and descending, to give them nutritional tips as well as tips on how to
prevent injury, to teach them some bike maintenance and generally, to make cycling accessible even to those with cold feet.
There are a few prerequisites. The cost of participating in GranFondo Whistler is $250. Throw in the clinics and the bill climbs to $399. You have to know how to ride a bike, though you don't need to know the fancy twists and turns. That can come later. Riders also need to plan for 14 to 16 weeks of consistent training, preferably involving two mid-week rides and a dedicated weekend ride of 100 kilometres or so.
Taking a cue from the Sun Run training clinics, Cycling B.C. has developed the series of clinics so that even the greenest of novices can prepare. (You can see our weekly coverage on Monday's in The Sun's Arts & Life section.) The welcoming sign to this adventure might read: No steep learning curve here. The clinics are designed to break cyclists into "pods" if necessary, putting together those who are roughly at the same skill level.
Riders need not be intimidated about being crunched by the masses at the start.
"We have corrals at the beginning so it's a staggered rolling start," said Penno. And the speeds are controlled initially with no one allowed to go over 25 km/h before Taylor Way in North
Vancouver. While it is a recreational ride, there is a serious side that will appeal to the many competitive yearnings. Cyclists will wear chips that will record their time.
With thousands of riders pedalling within inches of each other, it's not like you are alone on a country road where you can meander all over the place and stop when you feel like it. Hence a big focus on safety. You don't want to take down others in the line. Cycling etiquette will be big on the clinic lessons.
But Penno, 43, said there is also an intent to make the clinics fun, by inserting games and drills like passing a water bottle up and down the line or manoeuvring around cones in a parking lot.
Mass cycling events have been popular in Europe for decades and seem to have been gaining ground in North America. Wherever you find a mass cycling event, you find a fraternity on the road.
There is now also a GranFondo Banff and a GranFondo Niagara in Ontario run under by the company started in Vancouver by Thomson and McKinnon called Toit Events, which also
sponsors several marathon runs. Thomson bought out McKinnon last year.
"Ever since I was a kid, I have always enjoyed cycling," said Ross. "I don't know much about road biking, but I can tell you that every moment I spend on the bike I always seem to enjoy it."