Nova Scotia cycling event becomes tourism darling in just 2 years

Nova Scotia cycling event becomes tourism darling in just 2 years

It takes cyclists through fishing villages, past one of North America's largest wooden churches and ends with a feast of lobster caught from nearby St. Marys Bay.

In just two years, the Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie along Nova Scotia's French shore has doubled in size and become the biggest cycling event east of Quebec.

So quickly has it pedalled into popularity that the Municipality of Clare, which hosts the event, is now a finalist for an award from the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance.

"It's snowballed into something bigger than we could have ever imagined," said Louanne Doucet, co-owner of Velo Baie Sainte-Marie in Saulnierville and one of the organizers of the event. "It's so incredible to think that we've already been nominated for such a big award."

Grand Fondo is a type of long distance cycling event that originated in Italy but has become popular in other countries.

Three years ago, the Municipality of Clare began exploring the idea of a new tourism event to draw people to the area. It wasn't long before work began on a cycling event that would embrace healthy living, Acadian culture and the region's natural beauty.

"It's one of those events where I think everybody in Clare can take great pride in," said Larry Peach, the municipality's tourism manager.

Four hundred cyclists, most of them recreational riders, signed up for the first Gran Fondo in September 2015. More than double that number took part last year.

The event has four different levels, ranging from 35 kilometres to 161 kilometres. Cyclists travel past some of Clare's old churches, including the enormous wooden Église Sainte-Marie Church, and the route offers up views of St. Marys Bay and Digby Neck.

"The vast majority of riders are doing it for fun and the social experience," said Peach. "A lot of people are coming here for the first time and visiting a new part of Nova Scotia."

The Municipality of Clare is a finalist next month for Sport Tourism Organization of the Year at the 2017 Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance PRESTIGE Awards. The other finalists in the category are sport-hosting groups in Vancouver and Burnaby, B.C.

"We have hundreds of volunteers and everybody shows up and gives 100 per cent," said Doucet. "That's why the event is such a success. It's a community effort."

Registration for the third annual Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie, to be held Sept. 24, is now open. Organizers are expecting the event to continue to grow.

"We've handled it so far and if it continues to get bigger then we'll just accommodate more people and I think we'll be OK," said Doucet.

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