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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.