AS dawn's first rays flirted with the rippling tides off Lions Bay, 4,000 cyclists rubbed the sleep from their eyes and focused on the journey ahead.
In the middle of that good-natured bike gang was Heather Owen, who was putting the rubber to the road in the first GranFondo Whistler.
Owen, the director of brand and communications for the Royal Bank of Canada, the primary sponsor of the event, discussed her GranFondo experience while prepping for this year's event, which is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 8.
"There was this incredible experience of being in this place that you knew so well but it looked so different because of all these bikes," she recalled of the first race.
The riders took off from West Georgia Street and Burrard Street, crossing the Lions Gate Bridge and pedalling their way to Squamish before winding up in Whistler Village.
After 2010's inaugural run, organizers were forced to cap rider registration at 7,000, a pleasant surprise for GranFondo Canada co-founder and president Kevin Thomson.
"We didn't know if we'd get 1,000 people," Thomson said, recalling the relatively low expectations of 2010.
Thomson, a North Vancouver resident, noted the burgeoning popularity of road cycling in Europe and designed the GranFondo to marry the fledgling sport with the Sea to Sky Highway's scenic beauty.
With a few staggered starts, Thomson is hoping this year's event steers clear of the giant packs of Lycra-clad cyclists that irritated drivers last year.
This year's event will feature riders from every state in the United States, most countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and many Asian countries, according to Thomson. Youth may also be served at this year's event, as the registration list includes a 14-year-old cyclist from North Vancouver.
"It brings in $8 million in economic activity," Thomson said. "It (showcases) this region as an attractive place for healthy living."
Asked if she'd spent much time on her bicycle prior to sponsoring the race, Owen responded: "Absolutely not."
In the last three years, Owen has rode in the Kelowna, Banff and Whistler incarnations of the GranFondo.
"One new bike later and lots of cycling gear and hundreds and hundreds of hours of riding, it's a real passion of mine now," she says.
Her passion sprung from meetings with GranFondo representatives.
Yoga and running kept Owen in shape, but she said road cycling has its own distinct appeal.
"The thrill of a great paceline or the challenge of a big hill," she said. "I thought it was a temporary activity . . . and I fell in love with the sport."
Owen also has advice for riders who are new to the event's group dynamic.
"The rules of the road are much like being in a car: if you're in the slow lane you head over to the right and if you're passing, you pass on the left," she said. "If you are on a flat surface or if you're a really skilled rider and you're used to being in a group, you can engage in drafting."
Drafting enables a rider to reduce wind resistance by riding close behind another rider. Typically, two or more riders will trade-off during the course of the race.
"It makes it quite social," Owen said.
For first-time riders, Owen has one simple piece of advice: "Make it to the finish line in your own time. It's not a race, it's a ride."
One southbound lane will remain open on the Lions Gate Bridge during the ride. There will also be road closures at Taylor Way. Traffic patterns in West Vancouver are expected to return to normal by 8 a.m.
A full list of traffic impacts is available online at www.september8.ca.