Location makes granfondo a hit

Numbers rise for the Valley First Granfondo Axel Merckx Okanagan.

VALLEY FIRST GRANFONDO Axel Merckx Okanagan has already surpassed participant numbers from last year. For 2013

VALLEY FIRST GRANFONDO Axel Merckx Okanagan has already surpassed participant numbers from last year. For 2013

Numbers continue to rise for the Valley First Granfondo Axel Merckx Okanagan.

The third annual event rolls in on July 7 with numbers of participants surpassing the previous total for the second straight year. After debuting with over 2,000, last year’s event attracted 2,600 participants. It’s the same this year with 150 spots available for onsite registration only.

Axel Merckx said the reason for the growth is that people know Penticton is a destination.

“It is really worth coming down to ride your bike,” said Merckx. “The event has proven over the last three years that it is a high-quality event. This event has components that differ from others. Have lots of good charities (this year’s being Feed the Valley and the Axel Merckx Youth Development Foundation) linked to the event.”

The weekend also has a family feel, especially with the Piccolofondo on Saturday, said Merckx. Registration for that is over hall full.

“This is one of the highlights of the weekend for me,” said the retired Belgian professional cyclist. “Just to see the younger generation taking a passion for cycling. You can see they enjoy that, family enjoying it, getting the little medal.”

Also attracted to the event are known athletes such as Alison Sydor, who will join Merckx this year, along with former Canadian Olympic medal-winning triathlete Simon Whitfield, Olympic medal-winning rower Andrew Byrnes, former Ironman Canada triathlete Peter Reid and local Peachland pro cyclist Ethan Guthrie.

Merckx is friends with Reid and Whitfield.

“Simon has been a big supporter of the Granfondo,” said Merckx. “It was a twitter exchange between me and him that got the idea going of organizing a Granfondo here in the South Okanagan.”

Merckx’s friend Trevor Linden, former Vancouver Canucks captain, is expected to return. Merckx said it’s those names that put Penticton in the centre of the Canadian sports calendar around early July.

Byrnes, 30, won gold in rowing during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and silver at the 2012 London Olympic, signed up because he needed a training goal. He is taking this year to pursue cycling thanks to the maintenance year provided by Canadian Sport. Cycling is a means of cross-training for him.

Having been to the Okanagan a few times, Byrnes said it is a beautiful area.

“I know it’s gonna be hot,” said Byrnes. “Should be a great ride. Beautiful countryside. Great location for a huge ride like this.”

What he is looking forward to is enjoying the sport with other enthusiasts. He also welcomes anybody to ride with him. There is just one requirement:

“I think people are going to have to be fast if they want to keep up with me,” he said.

As for Merckx, he loves riding with people and said it really comes down to joking around and having a good time.

An addition to the weekend races will be the inaugural Oakley King of the Mountain Challenge. Riders in the Cortofondo (55-kilometres), Mediofondo (92-km) and Granfondo (160-km) categories will be able to challenge for the fastest climber award on the Okanagan’s Peach Orchard Hill Climb, approximately 25-km into the mass participation ride. Top male and female climbers in each age group will receive a limited edition Oakley KOM Polka Dot Jersey, as well as a pair of Oakley sunglasses.

VFGAMO facts: Nearly a third of all registrants are women. Jason Curran of VFGAMO said it is terrific and they are committed to supporting this trend. On July 5, they will be hosting a Granfondo Women’s Night.

To register for any events, go to www.granfondoaxelmerckx.com. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Sherrie Burechailo at sherrie@granfondoaxelmerckx.com.