The Gran Fondo Los Angeles
The promise of winning an athletic competition is the potential to live a little piece of life perfected. A win is an objective confirmation that you were correct on enough, if not all, counts to take the day. For many riders, there’s no better place to polish life’s meaning than in a bike race. There was a time when that was the case for me, but it didn’t last long.
Much of the problem could be summed up in the simple fact that the rides I most like to do are rarely run as races. Give me a 70- to 80-mile course with 5000 or so feet of climbing and I’m a happy boy. Most of the races within three hours of me don’t fit this bill. There came a point when I realized I’d rather just be doing the group ride in Malibu on Sundays than getting up to drive to the hinterlands for some flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. There was almost nothing about the experience that fit my definition of fun. A top-three could short-circuit that, but those didn’t come with any sort of regularity you’d call routine.
The rise of the gran fondo here in the U.S. has given me a second lease on organized events. You get a mass-start, the nervousness as the pack sorts itself out and early selection accelerations. In other words, it’s a century without the helmet mirrors.
Gran Fondo USA has staked its reputation on doing lavish productions that leave from splashy locations. The organization’s most recent event was the Gran Fondo Los Angeles. By Los Angeles, they meant Beverly Hills. If there’s a tonier place on the west coast to start a cycling event, I can’t think of what it might be. That the city fathers of Beverly Hills even deigned to allow the event to happen must have had much to do with the event’s 7 am start. Seeing bikes fill Rodeo Drive was an unqualified stunner.
Most of the event took place in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, my wheelhouse, so to speak. I adore riding in these mountains and don’t miss many chances to spend as many weekend rides there as possible.
The 72-mile course took in two Cat. 2 climbs and five Cat. 4 climbs. The second big descent of the day, down the aptly named Stunt Road is the stuff of drugs. Hit it right and you’ll never touch your brakes. The experience bathes your brain in more dopamine than a psychiatrist can prescribe. If your nerves get the better of you, it’ll be a slow and harrowing escape. People fleeing zombies should know such fear.
Nearly everything about this ride was superb. It ran on time, had a great announcer, a few select VIPs (no one expected Andy Garcia—yes, that Andy Garcia—to be that tall), well-equipped sag stops, lovely food at the finish, not to mention a fun expo area. And, as I mentioned, the Santa Monica Mountains. What could be better?
Well, that’s the rub. If you’ve ever been to Beverly Hills, then you know it’s nowhere near Malibu. Or the ocean. Our ride, upon leaving the BH headed down Wilshire Boulevard, which is tantamount to taking a group down Park Avenue in Manhattan. Neat concept. In practice, notsomuch.
The Sheriff’s Department, which controlled the intersections for us, held the front of the group to 20 miles per hour. That was fine as we went up a few rolling hills in Century City and Westwood. However, it was no bueno on the downside. I commented to a friend how I was glad I wasn’t running tubulars. Riders further back in staging rushed the front of the group and soon we were 10 abreast across three lanes.
Late in the ride, as we headed for the finish we infected traffic in a residential area of Sunset Boulevard; this a road that serpentines over undulating terrain, and as this is a ritzy zip code, infinitely successful people do 60 over these roads in their AMG Mercedes; it’s just not a place for bikes. With some riders jumping red lights I was uneasy that someone would get hit. We needed some amount of marshaling. Even if the intersections weren’t controlled, we needed someone to alert traffic and pedestrians to the fact that an actual event was taking place. Upon making our way to Wilshire for the last few miles we had to fight traffic for a lane and dodge potholes. For what?
From the right turn onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard and until the route returns down Topanga and reaches Pacific Coast Highway, this ride is one of the great jewels of California riding. I’ll take Malibu over anyplace else in the United States. Full freakin’ stop. Riding on Wilshire and Sunset? I don’t need that kind of hostility from drivers, not without some sort of posse to protect me.
If the guys from Bike Monkey had organized this, they’d have convinced the Brentwood homeowners themselves to stop traffic as we passed. And they’d have cheered us. How do you explain that 55 miles of this course was heaven itself, but the rest was hell? Well, I guess that’s how you do it.
I promise you, the first time you begin to drop down the south side of Piuma Road and see the Pacific spread below you, you’ll wonder what you’ve been doing with your life.