Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo ’11

The forecast for my favorite event of the year and the event I’ll go to the mat arguing is the best day of cycling in all of the Americas was for wet. Fog, mist, possible rain, it wasn’t a day to have a camera on your shoulder. Ugh.

In the previous editions (both of them), Levi spoke to the crowd from the announcer’s dais, which is to say that unless you were within 20 feet of him, you couldn’t see him. This year he stood up on top of a Sprinter van and the excitement the crowd drew from actually seeing him was palpable.

And then we were off. And by “we” I mean an incredible 7500 cyclists. It’s the biggest one-day event I’ve ever taken part in. The start was a bit sketchy, with everyone within 100 meters of me attempting to make sure they stayed in the front 20 riders.

Fred Rodgriguez talks with Specialized honch Mike Sinyard

The first climb of the day comes roughly 12 miles into the ride and while the pace has been animated up to this point, it hasn’t been fast enough to burn off anyone with reasonable fitness. However, by the time we begin the second kilometer of that climb, the real sort is underway. So goes the story of the day. Each successive climb continues the sort.



Kevin Franks, a veteran of Bike Magazine and Easton Bell, is part of Specialized’s Global Marketing Team

A friend commented to me at the finish, as we were consuming an ambitious post-ride meal, the unexpected pleasure of being on a ride with 7499 other people and yet finding himself utterly alone at times. The opportunity for seclusion and quiet moments alone is arguably one of the ride’s surprise gifts.

This year, for the first time ever, I actually looked down at my Garmin unit on a couple of occasions to check the gradient of some of the pitches on King Ridge. I’d heard that there were sections at 20 percent previously. I filed the data under unnecessary. As it turns out, on two entirely different pitches I saw the numbers 24 and 25. It was less informative than a pick-me-up for my self-esteem. I was moving pretty slow.

Chris Distefano of Chris King and Cielo (back to camera), Kevin Franks and mountain bike god Scot Nicol.

 The weather on King Ridge started overcast and damp, gradually turned foggy and then near the top mist flirted with drizzle. It made some of the descents a puckery affair. There was a reward, though, for the truly fall weather. On the descent to Jenner we dropped out of the fog with just enough elevation remaining to give a view of the coast that was as sudden in its appearance as it was spectacular in expression. I’d compare it to walking into a friend’s living room only to behold Botticelli’s Venus.

I’ve done rides with a tenth of the ridership that were goat parades. I’ve never done a ride that was better organized. Sure, there was plentiful food and signage. Thank heaven all the intersections were controlled (well, we were stopped at one and at another the CHP officer was sitting in his cruiser while traffic approached), but it may be that what really defines a gran fondo in the U.S. (it’s a different beast in Italy—I accept that) isn’t the mass start or the controlled intersections.

What makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so special is that it’s an expression of place. Santa Rosa is Levi’s adopted home and they have adopted him as much as he has them. So you’ve got an adored and bona fide cycling celebrity, which is a good start. But that’s not enough. The secret really comes down to the way Carlos Perez, Greg Fisher and Yuri Hauswald—the guys behind Bike Monkey have enlisted the support of not just Santa Rosa, but Sebastopol and Jenner and Bodega Bay and more. At a certain level, the fact that the ride happens says something for the love the community has for the way the guys at Bike Monkey have created a cycling culture outsized to the community they serve, which is why the gran fondo can draw people from all over the world.

I can tell you this: If I ever miss this event, check the hospitals.

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  1. Bikeboy

    “Epic” is overused, but accurately describes the ride and route. The new dirt & gravel section up Willow Creek, added as an option this year, was a huge bonus, not to be missed (although I sure didn’t see many people on it!) And as Padraig points out, the logistics were top-notch.

    However, what I didn’t expect turned out to be the best part of Levi’s Gran Fondo: the overwhelming support of the locals standing out along the road, singly, in small groups, in families, with neighbors – and all of them cheering, clapping, encouraging and ringing cowbells like it was a ‘cross race in Belgium! That outpouring of warmth was just wonderful.

  2. Simon

    I agree, the local support was outstanding. The ride was very challenging, especially with the rain. I wish the descents were longer than the climbs.

    Great event.

  3. Pingback: Our American Cycling : Red Kite Prayer

  4. Noodle

    I live in fear that I will not get a spot one year. It is my intention to never miss it, but realize by telling everyone they HAVE to do it, I am creating a bigger server choke hold on registration day.

    Tough as it was, it’s the best kind of suffering.

    1. Author

      Ah Noodle, that’s the tough thing about sharing. You can drink an amazing bottle of wine by yourself, or you can share it with friends and though you drink less of it, you have a much better time, huh? Maybe Carlos and Fish need to come up with a special category for folks like you who give referrals.

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