Levi’s Gran Fondo: the Ride

There was a moment on Friday night when I had a rather minor, if sheepish epiphany. It came as I watched the premiere of “The Levi Effect” during an interview with Levi and he spoke of how the gran fondo was a way for him to give back to Santa Rosa, a way to say thank you to a community that had welcomed him as a native son.

Before I go any further, I need to back up a second and tell you that last winter my wife and I decided to do whatever was necessary to move our family to Santa Rosa. Our love for the region began with our honeymoon, during which we visited Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. I kid that after two days my wife was ready to cancel the rest of the trip, drive home and start packing. In reality, that’s not far off. The kicker for us has been going back to Santa Rosa on an annual basis for Levi’s Gran Fondo. With each successive visit we fall a bit more in love with the community in specific and the region in general. 

Santa Rosa is a place like very few I’ve visited; it hurts to leave.

And so as I sat in the dark theater, it occurred to me that Levi Leipheimer is a big part of why I want to move to Santa Rosa. I need to hasten to add that I’m not a Levi fanboy; I’m not dying to go on his training rides, if only for the simple reason that I’d be embarrassed that I’d be holding them up or in the way. I’ll ad that I had a rather surreal introduction to him during the Tour of California. He was about to leave the Omega Pharma-Quickstep dinner I had attended and as he began to say his goodbyes, as it happened we found ourselves standing together. So he did the thing polite guys do: He turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m Levi.”

In a normal world, I would have responded, “Hi, I’m Patrick Brady.” Actually, that is what I said, which is normal enough, huh? But his response was what threw me off.

“Oh, you’re from Santa Rosa, right?”

I tried to explain in 50 words or less that I wasn’t yet, but I was trying. Honestly, I can’t say which part of that is weirdest to me. As much as I want my work to be known, I don’t actually want to be known. I’d like to have a big readership for RKP, but anonymity for me is how I view the natural order for the universe. It taught me a few things: the cycling community in Santa Rosa is tight-freaking-knit, Levi pays attention, oh, and he’s a genuinely decent guy. I was beyond embarrassed that he took a moment for me when I thought the spotlight should be anywhere other than on me.

So when Levi says several times in the course of the film that he wanted to use his celebrity to bring attention to just how special Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are, please take him at his word. It’s that special a place.

Now, concerning the ride itself for this year, the first thing to mention is just how much more sane the start was this year. Last year we may have had a bit more of the full width of the road and a great many riders were desperate to get to the very front. It was nervous and unpleasant, but for reasons I can’t explain, this year was entirely calmer.

There are more and more events out there calling themselves gran fondos and while I haven’t done most of them, what I keep hearing from readers and friends is just how many don’t have a unified start and don’t control intersections to speed riders’ passage. Well, I’m here to tell you, that unless the organizers provide those two elements, it’s not a gran fondo; it’s just a century and calling the event a gran fondo is an insult to the name.

It’s impossible to overstate the incredible amount of work that goes into putting on Levi’s Gran Fondo; the army of volunteers alone is larger than some events’ total ridership. That work has a tangible bottom line, making the experience of speeding out of Santa Rosa, through Sebastopol and toward Occidental an occasion with all the thrill of the opening miles of a bike race. And better than any race I ever participated in, the road is lined with families and volunteers cheering us on as if each of us—to a rider—actually mattered. Those opening miles are a kind of commerce, with the locals cheering riders because they know what’s in store, and in a way cheering for themselves.

Yes, cheering for themselves. A very big component to the gran fondo is charity work. One scene in “The Levi Effect” shows Carlos Perez handing off a check to one of the small communities the ride passes through. With 7,500 people ponying up a C-note, there’s some wealth to spread around.

The day started cool with a bit of mist; it was my first occasion to wear arm warmers this fall and while those opening climbs were through damp forest, once on King Ridge we rode out of the forest and into 360-degree views of the golden hills of Sonoma County. We shed our arm warmers and looked around with stunned expressions and exclamations of hyperbolic superlatives.

“Does it get better than this?”

I was lucky enough to ride for a while with Scot Nicol of Ibis. Scot’s a favorite son of Santa Rosa and all-around nice guy. I think he was going easy this year because normally he comes roaring by me on the opening pitch of King Ridge and this year we actually rode together for a good chunk of the day. The gent on his wheel is Don Winkle, the general counsel for the gran fondo, and part of Scot’s ongoing ride posse. Must be fun.

The combination of broken forest, golden hills and ordered vineyards gave the panaorama a view that changed with each new bend in the road. For sheer variety of view, there aren’t many places that can match this, though the Alps and Tuscany can hold their own.

Being greeted at a rest stop by a guy handing out sandwiches was an occasion of such sheer surprise it reminded me of the scene at the end of “Pretty in Pink” where the hot girl smiles at Ducky and he mouthes, “Moi?”

At heart, I’m a peasant and such a level of service was nearly more than my feeble brain could process.

Food was plentiful like beer at a frat house. I had to walk around the lunch stop just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on something special—Nutter Butters? Are you serious?! It was only after I’d made the rounds the first time that I looked up and noticed how there were all these incredibly helpful signs that if you weren’t locked in your own little time zone could direct you to your ultimate refuel. It’s a small touch, but it’s yet another great example of how Bike Monkey goes the extra mile at every turn.

A proper Sonoma County day is one in which you extra clothing to tackle changing conditions. A typical day can see 30-degree temperature swings. At the start we were mere degrees above the need for a vest; I did see plenty of people with wind breakers and vests. I went with a bit of Rapha embro and arm warmers, plus one of my heavier base layers. Following the stellar sun and warmth on top of King Ridge, we could see the blanket of clouds that signaled the drop down Meyer’s Grade to Jenner and the Sonoma Coast, land of amazing Pinot Noir. Be sure to click on the image to see it in a larger size; this tiny display doesn’t do the view justice.

The Northern California coast bears nothing in common with Southern California’s sand beaches. It’s a place of drama, real nature in action and so overloaded with fascinating scenes it’s hard not to soft pedal and take in the beauty.

Shane Bresnyan and Glenn Fant of the Bike Peddler and NorCal Bike Sport. Check a Strava segment anywhere in Sonoma County, off-road or on it and you’ll see their names in the top 10. By the time I rolled into the finish Shane and Glenn were showered, fed and relaxing with friends. Neat trick.

Tom Danielson was a great addition to the gran fondo this year. He was every bit as friendly and gracious as Levi himself and proved to be a huge draw for young riders.

There’s going to come a day when I take my son to Levi’s Gran Fondo. I expect that first edition will be piccolo, but the ride will nearly be beside the point. Pro cycling may be a mess right now, but the ugly story lines are lost, thankfully, on the sport’s youngest practitioners. Meeting a big-time pro has the power to be a transformative experience. I’m looking forward to sharing an amazing day with my little peddler.

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7 comments

  1. tinytim

    Theres so many choices of where to move in the county. Downtown SR is nice cause you can ride the mtb to Annadel and then hit up the dining/breweries. West county is good, but the roads in the thick forest stay wet from nov-may, the driving is literally a scary thing to do in the winter, and trees fall on houses. Healdsburg and North county is also a good choice and is close to the big climbs that ring the alexander valley and is close to lake sonoma mtb. My favorite though, is sebastopol/graton. Yeah you gotta drive to SR but its only like 8 miles on rural roads. The road riding in seb/graton area is a awesome mix of classic-style steep hills and its easy to hit up the north marin/southern sonoma county dairy rides (WINDY). The only place I would stay away from is Rohnert Park. Not bad, just a lame bedroom community.

  2. Bill Webster

    Nice article, great pictures. I rode the Gran route again this year, after doing it for the first time last year. The day started cool with a hint of m it’s, but quickly became the gorgeous day that had been forecast. It would not take much and I think you could actually gain a pound or 2 on this ride — the food i

  3. Scott

    If you like riding Sonoma County with 7,000 of your best friends, try it when you have King Ridge all to yourself (and a few cows, skunks and soaring birds). The Fondo covers an amazing course for sure but it’s really just an hors d oeuvre to a main course where you can fill up on ocean views, redwood groves, vineyards, fern grottos, high peaks, deep canyons, dirt climbs, and an area where the San Andreas Fault makes double digit normal.
    When you get the chance, take on Skaggs Spring (“lumpy” doesn’t cover it), Fort Ross Road from the ocean side (old growth redwoods), Kruse Rhododendron (dirt, ferns and blooms), Annapolis Rd. (a little of everything), Houser Bridge (the “other” direction, with the 27% pitch), Sweetwater Spring, Geysers Peak or Pine Flat. And when you want to push yourself a little, ride it all in one day on the Terrible Two – Santa Rosa’s other mass start ride with stellar support and an epic route.

  4. tinytim

    Scott, I second that! My first ‘road ride’ was sweet water from westside to guerneville on a univega mtn bike. There too many rides/roads to choose from. Another good one is old caz in the rain, just make sure to bring like 5 extra tubes:)

  5. marcoplacero

    Dug Levi’s GF again, this year’s superb weather. Spun in & out of friends & teammates til after lunch when some strong betos grouped for Willow Creek. ‘Cause I can see and ride huge paved climbs from my house, Coleman’s not a tug on my heart. Been there done better in my backyard, so I’ll take Willow Creek from now on with that quiet forest and unbelieveable pitch. Just told a friend this morning, if I ever leave here I’ll move to Santa Rosa. Riding out of a town oozing with enthusiasts is dope. Love my set in my burg, but Santa Rosa’s closest I been to Toscano since 2009.

  6. Wes Pohl

    Word around Santa ROsa is that next year’s Fondo includes a prologue hill climb on fountain grove parkway the day before. 500 non celebs will compete for 250 spaces at the start line behind the pros. 80$ entry!

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