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North America’s Fondo Founding Father

Words by Clive Pursehouse, with images by Clint Trahan/Crankworx

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On the heels of the 2010 Olympics, Neil McKinnon launched the RBC Gran Fondo Whistler. The Western Canadian town is known as a skiing and downhill mountain bike mecca, but this event is helping push road riding into that territory. It may be North America’s greatest fondo event—it’s certainly the grandest of fondos with over 4,500 participants. RBC Gran Fondo Whistler has been chosen as the 2020 UCI Gran Fondo World Championships and this year’s event will see former cylocross pro Jeremy Powers competing in their classic bike category in an effort to qualify for the 2020 World Championships. The “classic” category includes road racing bicycle construction styles that date up until 1987. Think downtube shifters, steel and aluminum wheels with at least thirty two spokes. Handlebar streamers are not required, but likely encouraged.

PELOTON Magazine: Neil, you didn’t come from a cycling background but you’re responsible for the grandest Gran Fondo in all of North America. How did you get here and where did the concept for the RBC Gran Fondo Whistler come from?

Neil McKinnon: You’re right, I have been a competitive runner and triathlete for some time and came across the Fondo concept in Europe a number of years ago. The idea that there were this many people coming out to ride in a recreational race of sorts made me wonder how we could do something like this back home in British Columbia.

A partner and I were looking to create something involves sports  that would allow us to piggyback on local spirit created by the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver and Whistler. And truthfully, that is what made the whole thing possible, given the very difficult logistics of creating this particular bike ride.

Neil McKinnon at the RBC Gran Fondo Whistler

PM: Perhaps what makes this ride so captivating is the route, on what is arguably one of the world’s most dramatic stretches of highway. For the Fondo, you actually close Highway 99, better known as Sea to Sky, which is really the one north to south arterial that runs through this part of Western British Columbia and into Vancouver. First question, why take on something like that, and then secondly, what is involved in managing these kinds of logistics?

NM: For most of our participants, the opportunity to ride Sea to Sky really is what makes this event. I think we can only even approach doing something like this because the city of Vancouver and the whole region was really captivated by the magic of the Olympics and we built off that good will in taking this approach. The Whistler Fondo has accomplished a lot of things, it’s possible none of that success happens if we aren’t able to offer cyclists such a one of a kind opportunity. We have a protected lane on one of the most iconic stretches of highway in North America certainly, and it is a unique experience and frankly the Fondo is the only way you can get it.

In terms of the how, it’s very difficult. The Sea to Sky goes through about ten different municipalities, and the permitting alone costs a fortune. Everyone around here certainly understands what it means to close this particular road. I mean, given how rugged the mountains are, and how sparsely populated the coastline is there for long stretches, it makes sense that there’s only one road, and for one day a year, it’s just for bikes.

PM: A fondness for fondos is certainly sweeping the country, and I suppose the continent. Even where local and regional road racing is struggling to maintain its footing, fondo events are strong. The road cycling scene is, unfortunately, not always known as the most welcoming to new riders or outsiders, yet your event is the biggest one in North America. And from what I’ve read, more than a quarter of your 4,500 participants are women riders. What’s got so many people coming to Vancouver for this event?

NM:  There are a number of factors I think. Vancouver is an international city, and it’s quite beautiful in its own right, so the opportunity to ride across Lion Gate’s Bridge and see the city by bicycle while feeling really safe is a factor. We see riders from around forty five countries join us. I think to be honest, not coming from the racing road cycling scene may give me a competitive advantage.

What’s beautiful about the sport of cycling is the community that you can build and maintain while you’re riding your bicycle. Additionally, a bicycle is arguably the best way to see the world. You can move quickly, but not so fast that you miss anything, and you’re in the context of the place, you’re outdoors and you’re earning it. But as you said, there is perhaps some elitism that comes with this sport. My background is in adult recreational sport leagues, and I call myself the “Chief Enthusiast” because it’s not about being a super competitor, but really about making people feel welcome, and enjoying the experience that is most important.

We want people to have a memorable experience at our fondos or our Bici Gusti events and there’s a bit of a luxury element to it. Our support stations might include wine and nice cheeses. But there’s no attitude whatsoever and I think that really appeals to new riders, and in particular to women who want to get into this sport but might see the attitudes or standoffishness of some of their male counterparts as a barrier. One of the statistics for me that stands out is that we see about a fifty five percent return rate for participants across our events. And considering that people are investing their time and their money, I feel really good about that number. It’s clear to me that they’re having a positive experience, and ultimately that’s what these kind of events should be all about.

You can find more information about this year’s event here:  

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