Since USADA released its Reasoned Decision in October of 2012, cycling fans have turned on riders it once revered. Most hardcore riders I know had tired of Lance Armstrong long before Travis Tygart served him like a calf, fatted, but George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and Levi Leipheimer had remained popular riders among the cognoscenti. Once their doping was a matter of public record, though, the public turned on them.
It’s a state of affairs fueled by emotions running higher than the audience at a Grateful Dead concert. At a certain level it’s easy to understand. There were a few events in my adolescence in which my father said, “Just tell me what happened and I won’t get mad.” Of course, when I told him, he got mad. The upshot was that I never wanted to level with him when I got into trouble. If he was going to get mad either way, I figured I might as well keep my misdeeds to myself.
Pros who have doped are in a similar no-win situation.
As a result of the revelations regarding Leipheimer’s doping, Levi’s GranFondo has come under fire to some degree. Given the event sold out last year, though more slowly than usual, whatever hits it will take don’t seem to be that bad. I’ve also taken a certain amount of criticism, mostly in social media, for my support of Levi’s GranFondo. I can write most of it off to trolls, but because I’ve encountered some misperceptions out there about the event, I figured a post to help set the record straight was warranted. The guys at Bike Monkey signed on as an advertiser here at RKP and while I don’t owe them anything more than the advertising space they purchased, because I respect the work they do, I want to do them a solid by helping correct any misunderstandings about the event.
I’ve never pandered to RKP’s readership; I won’t write something just to try to attract eyeballs, nor will I allow anyone to tell me what to write. There have always been people who don’t read this site, and maybe even don’t like this site. That’s fine. If people choose to turn their backs on this site because I ride Levi’s GranFondo, that seems silly, but lose sleep I will not.
The single most frequent criticism I’ve heard is that the GranFondo is how Levi makes his living. I’ve asked the guys at Bike Monkey the question, and while I knew the answer, I just wanted to hear the response. Levi doesn’t make a dime from the event. I heard one person suggest that Forget-Me-Not Farms, which is a recipient of some of the GranFondo’s charitable giving, employs Odessa Gunn, Levi’s wife. Not true. She’s a volunteer and recently undertook a drive to Redding to help rescue a bunch (61) of diseased dogs from the home of an animal hoarder. Her vehicle, her gas, no reimbursement. You might say that’s just how she, uh, rolls.
So why not just pull Levi’s name off the event? First and foremost, Greg Fisher, marketing director for Bike Monkey, told me that the ride is Levi’s. It’s his event in that it was his idea, so even though Bike Monkey makes the event happen, it’s not theirs to rename.
Fisher put it this way: “Aside from the fact that he came up with the whole thing, we weren’t comfortable with renaming it. Our feeling was that we needed to stand by him, the history of the event to date, and his commitment to Sonoma County. We’ve taken hits for that, but long-term we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s different if you’re selling a widget; we’re trying to give people the best possible experience on a bike in our home county. We are tied to a place; we can’t just turn our backs on that part of it.”
Fisher’s larger point bears repeating: Levi is a local guy and this is a local event. It wouldn’t have happened without him.
Then he posed the question to me—what if they did rename it? “What’s the difference? (Levi’s vs. King Ridge). We would like see a short term gain on a semantic point. People are entitled to be angry about what happened with the doping scandal. We can’t control that. But we can remind people of the simple magic of a great day out on their bikes. For that reason alone, it’s probably not a good idea to be mad a long time.”
It’s fair to wonder just how long people will remain bitter about this generation of riders.
“These guys’ fame is very fleeting. Some kid in 10 years is gonna be on the line and turn to his dad and say, ‘Who’s Levi?'”
It occurred to me that could easily be me with my son Philip. I like that idea. A lot. It goes to the larger point I’ve tried to make to critics; this event is not just bigger than Levi’s sins; it’s bigger than Levi himself.
That there’s curiosity surrounding what the event does with its proceeds is understandable. The event has revenues from rider registration and sponsorship that runs roughly $1 million. For the armchair critics, this can only mean that Levi continues to inject EPO daily at a rate that exceeds my consumption of Mountain Dew. The truth is, unfortunately far less sexy. It is, as is typical of most things in life, easier to criticize an event you’ve never attended. But as someone who has ridden each edition and as a former racer who has heard event promoters complain about the incredible expense of securing the California Highway Patrol for road closures, I knew that having controlled intersections over a 100-mile course was probably worth what a down payment on a nice home in Sonoma County runs. I’m not wrong on that.
Fisher told me how in order to have enough officers to cover their needs they have to recruit from as far as four hours away. He clarified the need thusly, “There would be dope, guns and fucking in the streets if we took it all from the Bay Area.”
He stressed how much larger the GranFondo is than the other events the company produces. Numbers-wise, it is larger than their other events combined.
To frame the size of the event he told me, “We need 15,000 gels. We go through five five-gallon buckets of peanut butter. We go through a wall of bread 100 feet wide and 800 feet tall. We spend thousands in tents—not the pop-ups. There are so many buckets of water to hold down tents that’s one whole water truck.”
They marshall 1000 volunteers. And while they are called volunteers, the greater truth is that the bulk of them come from the various charities that receive the GranFondo’s largesse. In 2011 and 2012 that was roughly $250k, while for 2013 it was closer to $263k.
Fisher stressed that for Bike Monkey the sun rises and sets on the simple idea of Sonoma County as a great place to ride a bike. “This is the kind of event we would want to participate in. It doesn’t have an end date. It doesn’t leave Sonoma County. We’re here for the long haul.
Leipheimer himself expanded on the connection the event has to Sonoma County. “The strength of this event is in the connection it has to this community and how this community, in turn, supports the event. We wouldn’t be able to duplicate that by rolling into someone else’s town, taking up resources and trying to set up a business on the backs of a community in which we’re not deeply involved. This is about our home and wanting other people to know it and love it like we do.”
I’ve traditionally viewed the GranFondo as an outward-looking event, a way to showcase cycling in Sonoma County to the rest of the world. It’s a very real part of the mission of Levi’s GranFondo. Media about the event has often mentioned how the first edition was meant to help the City of Santa Rosa meet the financial obligation of bringing the Amgen Tour of California back to Santa Rosa. But Fisher clarified that the fundamental drive for Levi was simpler.
Perhaps the easiest way to clarify why the ride exists is to let Leipheimer himself say it. “Every bit of this was about putting on a truly spectacular bike ride, one that could only happen here.”
Toward the end of our conversation Fisher said something that completely surprised me. Bike Monkey had an additional motive for putting on the GranFondo. They wanted to show the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma the economic power of cycling. Because Bike Monkey is a local operation and needs as many friends in high places as possible to put on their events that showcase the incredible riding in Sonoma, they wanted to have an event that could swing a big bat, an event that would make the entire town wake up to cycling as a vehicle to drive tourism.
The upshot imparts a surprising debt. Businesses in Sonoma County have proven to be exceedingly friendly to cyclists, based on my experience. Next time you go clickety-clack through a hotel lobby and the staff asks you how your ride was, you have Levi Leipheimer to thank for that. Even I didn’t see that coming.
People have a right to be upset about the Generation EPO. I am. Have any of these guys been punished sufficiently? It’s not a point I really want to devote my time to because there are no easy answers. Any reasonable person can have dozens of reasons for not traveling to Sonoma County in October for a bike ride. The distance, the expense and the time of year are all perfectly valid reasons for not going. Not leaving your sweetie alone in a hotel room for eight hours is another fine one. However, if you don’t go to Levi’s GranFondo in order to punish him—because you don’t want your actions to support the life of an ex-pro—your punishment will miss its mark. I’d understand a boycott if the event was his new paycheck, but he’s not going to make a dime off you and in the end, all you’d really do is punish yourself by missing out on what is arguably the best cycling event produced in North America. The people supported by the ride will never be famous. They’re just residents of Sonoma.
Rest assured, if I’m not on the start line on October 4, it’ll be because I or one of my family members is in the hospital.