Just ‘Cuz

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I’ve ridden a great many bike events over the years. From charity rides that were as elaborately produced as a wedding to road races marshaled by a van with half a million miles on it and industrial park crits that were as nondescript as the buildings we rode by. In that time I’ve run across one event that I really feel has gotten the formula right for producing a memorable cycling event. And it’s no secret that I think that event is Levi’s Gran Fondo.

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I first went up to ride the gran fondo just because I wanted to go for an organized ride in Sonoma County. That it was to be a gran fondo—that is, a century with a mass start and controlled intersections to make it a bit more like an actual race—was more interesting to me than the ride being attached to a big pro. What interested me was doing a 100-mile ride with loads of climbing and great descents and only putting down my foot when I got to a rest stop. Not having to stop every few miles for a red light was easily worth the entry fee.

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I got that experience, but I also got plenty more. I was amazed at the hordes of volunteers. There were volunteers who knew what they were doing everywhere I went. Out on the course there were police and fire officers helping to direct us and families at the end of driveways applauded us. I’d never done an event where someone cheered for me nearly every mile.

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Then there was the fact that the ride had attracted licensed racers, dedicated century riders, double-century types for whom an event like this is just a good start as well as families. It was the broadest cross section of riders I’d ever encountered at a single event.

 

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I became curious how the guys at Bike Monkey had managed to run an event through at least half a dozen different towns, on roads that are popular with tourists. I can think of a half dozen event promoters who would have looked at the proposed route, and a start and finish in the city of Santa Rosa and have pronounced it impossible.

The reason I was curious was simple: To my eye, a couple of guys in Santa Rosa had figured out how to make a single grass roots cycling event attractive to nearly anyone, everyone. When was the last time law enforcement, city governments, homeowners and cyclists all agreed on the value of a cycling event? To be sure, not everyone is in love with Levi’s Gran Fondo, but there are enough of us that the event has been happening without problems for four years.

 

 

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The question that nagged at me was how. How did they do it? As it turns out, the answer is neither a secret nor impossible. Their strategy is a simple one: direct a portion of proceeds to charities. The AIDS Rides did that, but operationally, those rides were very different. They paid a cast of hundreds to work for them and they directed a tiny percentage to the actual charities meant to benefit. That strategy backfired when people learned that Pallotta Teamworks, the organizers behind the AIDS Rides, were really just a rather profitable event planner.

Bike Monkey doesn’t bill Levi’s Gran Fondo as a charity event. But the charity they do is no accident. What’s remarkable is how when 7,500 people each pay upwards of $100 to participate in a cycling event, you have some horsepower to get things done. Bike Monkey took that horsepower to a number of local charities. Among the beneficiaries of the gran fondo’s largesse are schools and fire departments along the route that the gran fondo follows. Those underfunded outposts receive checks that can make a real difference in the service they provide each year.

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I shot these photos on a ride that Bike Monkey puts on the day before the fondo. It’s a chance for the top fundraisers attending the event to go on a short ride with Leipheimer and select VIPs. In addition to Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn, the very important types this year included the Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talanksy and Peter Stetina, Rebecca Rusch, Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson, Alison Tetrick of Team Exergy Twenty16, United Health Care’s Lucas Euser, Jeff Castelaz of the Pablove Foundation and Bissell rider Julian Kyer.

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The ride went to Forget Me Not Farm on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Levi Effect,” Levi’s wife, Odessa, is a serious animal person and she volunteers there. Forget Me Not Farm rescues farm animals and uses them in therapy with kids who have been abused. Of course, their story is a good deal richer and more life-affirming than that, but that’s the elevator pitch. The farm is among the charities that the ride helps to support.

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Attendees were served food grown at the farm and I can attest that the strawberries were as good as any I’ve had. Frankly, I didn’t think you could grow good strawberries that far north. It was a chance for people who don’t often have a chance to meet a pro cyclist to interact with a few of them, not to mention an opportunity to get an additional guided tour in while visiting Sonoma.

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I am aware that some people are still hot enough about Levi Leipheimer’s doping to boil water. At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making. Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger. I’ve heard a few people say that the charity work that the gran fondo does is a chance for Levi to give something back to the community now that he’s no longer a pro. The funny thing is, that was always his intent. Those who know him have told me he shies from the limelight, that he really doesn’t want the attention. What was evident from “The Levi Effect” was how he got behind the idea of the gran fondo as a way to give back to a community that had accepted him as one of their own.

It was that vision, that desire to bring attention to the community, rather than the rider, that I think makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so very different from other events I’ve ridden. Perhaps it’s not the only one; certainly, I’ve not ridden all the rides there are, but it’s notably superior to every other ride I’ve done in its ability to deliver a stellar experience without hitch. That experience wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who are tied to the many charities to which the gran fondo donates. Think what you will of Levi for doping; whether you let go of your anger over that or not is beyond our control, but I hope you’ll bear this in mind: rather than using the event as a chance to bask in his fame, he turned the spot on the area, on something he loves and in that he gave Sonoma a boost it deserves, it needs.

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17 comments

  1. Dave

    “Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger.”
    Actually Levi won the “Crusher in the Tushar” in July racing for Team Cliff Bar.

    This ride is definitely on my “must ride” list.

  2. Rocket

    At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making.

    Really? Did you read the USADA report?

    This may well have been a nice event, but as a person who enjoys riding and professional cycling I could never support it. There are plenty of good charity rides out there, I won’t passively support dopers like Leipheimer or Hincapie by attending events they are associated with.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Rocket: If you’re so against doping that you can’t possibly forgive a rider who doped once he has both confessed and retired, or support an event that bears his name, how can you possibly support professional cycling? The peloton is cleaner than it has ever been, but to believe it is 100% clean is to be naive. It seems to me that if we are to claim we support clean riding, then we need to welcome riders who confess otherwise we are demonstrating that the only answer is to remain secretive. And secrets are the lifeblood of doping.

  3. Brian Stephens

    Thanks for the info on the ride. I had no idea it was a mass start with so many riders and blocked intersections. That is the best kind of ride, in my mind. I just rode the Sea Gull Century in Maryland for the first time and they have a similar setup…7,500 riders, huge number of volunteers from Salisbury University (small school who receives much of the charity support), police support to help at intersections, and lots of quiet roads for a great ride.

    As for the doping, I only hold a grudge, if you will, against a few riders. Mainly Armstrong. For the rest, you had the best word…”pawns.” Eventually, I’ll get over the Armstrong offenses and move on. But Levi is doing great work with this ride and I would love to ride it one day…if I can get myself out to the west coast.

  4. hoshie99

    I did this ride twice and I’d have to say it is the best organized ride I have done. And, the King’s Ridge route and its associated climbs then plunge down to the coast can only be described as spectacular.

    As to the Levi factor, I’ll eschew commentary. That’s for people to decide individually imho.

    j

  5. Scott

    It was a good ride last weekend, but I suspect that it was better towards the front of the pack then it was for those of us further back. Apparently I misjudged my place in the starting lineup (around halfway back), because I spent the first hour stuck in traffic peaking around 15 MPH, and even grinding to a halt (surrounded by people locking up their brakes in panic) during the detour. Once we passed Occidental, it was all good.

    There were a lot of riders (especially on the Medio) who didn’t really have a lot of experience with group rides, and weren’t really prepared for this. That doesn’t bother me–it’s great that they’re out riding–but it wasn’t what I expected to see.

    Still, the ride itself was extremely well organized, and the volunteers and people who lived along the route were amazing.

  6. Rocket

    Padraig, I generally enjoy your writing but in this case I believe you are really off the mark.

    “Rocket: If you’re so against doping that you can’t possibly forgive a rider who doped once he has both confessed and retired, or support an event that bears his name, how can you possibly support professional cycling?”

    Levi only retired after he was fired and unable to find another job, but because I cannot support Leipheimer doesn’t mean I can’t root for Tejay Van Garderen or ride on the 4th of July in my Matthew Busche US Champion jersey. I don’t understand your logic.

    “The peloton is cleaner than it has ever been, but to believe it is 100% clean is to be naive.”

    You do not have sufficient scientific evidence to support that claim, so why make it? I hope the peloton is cleaner and I would like it to be 100% clean, but I am under no illusion that it is.

    “It seems to me that if we are to claim we support clean riding, then we need to welcome riders who confess otherwise we are demonstrating that the only answer is to remain secretive. And secrets are the lifeblood of doping.”

    I would ride and shake hands with many of the people mentioned in the USADA report, but some I would not. To me Leipheimer is like a stock broker who used inside information for his financial benefit, got caught and lost his job, but was still able to keep the assets he acquired through the illegal activities. Greed is the lifeblood of doping.

    Levi is not a victim, he was part of the problem. The victims were the clean riders he raced against, and the riders today who are losing their rides because teams are folding. And a big reason those teams are folding is because sponsors are no longer willing to accept the potential negative impact caused by doping.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Rocket: I’m going to respond to only a few points in your comment. First, riders will continue to test positive. The next positive test will prove my point. Second, you’re correct in that what Levi did was part of the problem. And yes, the clean riders, the few there were, were victimized. Where you and I differ is on just who victimized the clean riders and the fans of cycling. I assert that it was the UCI because only they had the ability to clean up the sport. The proof behind my assertion is that many people wondered if Chris Froome was clean. There is strong evidence to suggest he won the Tour de France clean, and yet not everyone is willing to accept that idea. Why? Because the UCI has done such a lousy job of making their operation transparent. Levi isn’t why teams can’t find sponsors, it’s the UCI.

  7. Ian Gordon Holsworth

    Padraig, I am glad you got to visit the Sonoma valley, tis a beautiful area and the descent of Kings Ridge is awesome…. I did the Gran Fondo in ’11 and ’12 and enjoyed the experience greatly…. BUT…. at the post-ride festival last year we all gathered in front of the presentation stage to bask in our cycling endorphins, enjoy the Russian River ales and hear Levi speak… and speak he did, about the ride, about his year racing, about his future plans and he introduced us to his pro mates who were there for the event…. yet he never mentioned that in a couple of days the USADA decision was about to be released and he was going to be featured, implicated and punished for his PED use….. not a word. His friends, his fans, his supporters all deserved better. It was an appropriate and apt time for him to take responsibility for his actions and show the people who have heavily supported his efforts and plans that he was an open, ethical and responsible member of the cycling community. A simple and heartfelt statement that demonstrated to those present that he could be honest, that he could be open and he could stand up and take responsibility for his actions would have ensured our support, trust and ongoing attendance at his ride. He failed us at that moment, more so than any time before when that information remained behind closed doors. We needed honesty and he promoted “The Levi Effect”. He is a disgrace to the cycling fraternity and should crawl back under the rock that the USADA dragged him from under as he is obviously better suited to a life of subterfuge and dishonesty. Won’t be back and am sad about it. A man is defined by his actions not his intentions.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Ian: A columnist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat had the same issue with Leipheimer, that he didn’t announce his cooperation with WADA at the gran fondo or in any way admit his previous doping before the USADA announcement. There’s a simple reason why, and it has nothing to do with honesty or integrity. Simply put, he wasn’t allowed to. His agreement with USADA didn’t permit him to say anything ahead of the release of the Reasoned Decision. To do so would have stolen their thunder; worse, it would have negated his agreement with them.

      I respect that people are upset about doping. What I hope is that the public will begin to see that if we welcome those who admit their misdeeds back into the fold, others will begin to come forward. A Truth and Reconciliation commission will be able to accomplish nothing if all we do is stone everyone who comes clean.

      To your point, that a man is defined by his actions, I submit that the charities that Leipheimer has chosen to give his time and energy to, without the benefit of a massive PR machine announcing his every magnanimous gesture, shows that there’s more to his character than the doping.

  8. bob

    Wow Ian that entire post of raging sanctimony was based on completely incorrect information. Congratulations on practicing your typing I guess. Even if Levi had been able to discuss the report about to be released it would have been the entirely wrong place to talk about it because that’s not what the ride is about.

    “we all gathered in front of the presentation stage to bask in our cycling endorphins, enjoy the Russian River ales” I think you got it there and didn’t realize it.

    I sure hope you found a ladder tall enough to get off your pedestal.

  9. Susan

    Levi’s Grand Fondo looks fun. I’ve thought about doing it for the past couple of years–maybe someday I’ll actually make it out there.

    As for Levi and doping, life is complicated, no less so is forgiveness. I think Levi probably has things he wishes he could do over. It’s time to move on.

  10. Russell

    LGF is a fantastic ride and so worth the effort to do it! As for Levi, well I’m of the opinion that he’s given more to Sonoma county than he’s taken so for that I say well done Levi keep up the good work and that’s all that matters at this point.

    Padraig, it was really nice meeting you at LGF and getting the opportunity to chat for bit. I hope to ride the same roads as you again someday! In the meantime you keep writing and I’ll keep reading, all great stuff!

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