When I think back on the peak experiences in my life as a cyclist, those days where I was never more pleased to be a cyclist, I survey some pretty fine days.
There was the day in 1997 when, as part of the Washington D.C. AIDS Ride, I rode onto the National Mall and cheered other cyclists as we stood before the Washington Monument. Riding into Washington, I slowed down as we crossed the Potomac River just so I could take in the view of the Lincoln Memorial, and as we rode onto the National Mall I couldn’t help but thinking that you couldn’t find a more perfect spot on which to end a bike ride that sought to reach out to others, the perfect ending to a great act of charity. I still get chills thinking about that day.
There was the first time I did the Tour of the California Alps, better known as the Markleeville Death Ride, and with the ride two-thirds completed, I passed through the single-equine burg of Markleeville and seemingly the entire town was seated on the lawn of the post office cheering us on as if we were participants in the Tour de France. For a few seconds, I felt cool.
There was the final day of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Championships way back in 1992 and I took a flyer in the criterium with two laps to go. People screamed the way they do at sporting events—like it mattered—and the incredible thing was they were caring about whether or not I stayed away. I didn’t, but that ride up the start/finish gutter was better than any medal I might have taken home.
And then there was this past Saturday. As I’m a guy prone to bold statements, I’ll save you all the trouble of wondering just what I’m playing at with the title of this post. I do declare that Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo is the best cycling event in the United States of America.
I know you’re going to want me to back up that claim. I’m happy to. That’s the whole point of this post: To tell you what an amazing time it was. Let’s try some of this in broad-stroke bullet-point style:
1) From what I could tell, the ant colony of volunteers seamlessly registered more than 6000 participants. WTF?
2) The goody bags were cool musette bags emblazoned with the gran fondo’s logo and included truly useful stuff such as samples of DZ Nuts chamois cream and a CamelBak water bottle (as opposed to some low-fi bottle with a leaky top and syringe-like nipple.
3) Start festivities included interviews with Levi Leipheimer and Patrick “Doctor McDreamy” Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy.
4) Michael Ward of Wallflowers and “Mike and the Bike” fame gave the crowd a Jimi Hendrix-style National Anthem sendoff.
5) VIPs included recently crowned U.S. road race champion Ben King and U23 Time Trial World Champion Taylor Phinney.
6) All but one intersection was controlled by local police for quick passage.
7) The course was pretty enough to be arguably the prettiest you’ll do in the U.S.
8) The course was challenging enough to be a major achievement for most riders who undertook it.
9) The post-ride festivities included great food and plenty of it. The paealla was good enough last year that it was a point of conversation prior to this year’s ride.
10) Rolling back into town, people lined the streets as they had done for the whole ride but cheered with the ferocity reserved for stage finishes of the Tour de France.
I wrote about how great the course was last year. The course remains unchanged. The rollout is flat enough to give you a chance to warm up and the first hill just enough work to sort the group appropriately. While most of the climbs aren’t terribly long, many of them contain some pretty steep pitches, stiff enough to reduce some riders to walking.
More significant, perhaps, were two of the descents, the first following the lunch stop and the second down to Jenner, on the coast. Both contained pitches in the neighborhood of 18 percent. They are not only steep, but rather technical as well. Depending on your view, they offer a thrilling challenge or a terrifying interlude. While I wasn’t willing to let the bike run, I did enjoy them in a job-performance-review way.
For me, the ride offered a bonus; I saw a great many industry friends. From industry legend Tom Ritchey to former Mountain Bike and Bicycle Guide editor Mark Reidy to Capo Forma boss Gary Vasconi, and even Greg Shapleigh and Eric Richter of Easton/Bell Sports, I was pleased to see such a great turnout from the industry. Frequently, events such as these happen and you won’t see a soul from the bike industry. I met BMC team manager Gavin Chilcott, who is both a local and a one-time very fast guy.
This year, the start/finish was moved from the parking lot of the Finley Center to the road in front of it, which made the start a little smoother, but more importantly made an actual sprint to the finish possible, which is to say that even though I doubted I’d sprint to the finish, I found myself doing exactly that even as I tried to capture an image or two of my group winding it up. Events might not have played out that way had it not been for the fact that within the last 20 miles I found myself in a group with Fred Rodriguez and then, closer to town, we were joined by Levi Leipheimer’s group, with also included Ben King.
I saw Leipheimer and Rodriguez at two of the rest stops and neither refused a single picture or autograph. That they are famous and I’m not gave me a significant edge in logging (easier) miles, though the last few miles were actual work and the sprint was something of a shock. People lined the finish stretch and cheered our arrival as if we were all as famous as Levi.