When I heard the megaphone, it didn’t compute. I was riding on a dirt road in reaches of Sonoma County so remote the road barely shows up on Google Maps. It’s not a place where one, generally speaking, anticipates announcements. Part of my incomprehension was due to the fact that I was busy having a delightful chat with a third-generation Santa Rosa native, and I was busier listening to him than anticipating broadcasts through the woods. The other part can be attributed to the reality that I was going hard enough the I’d have been slow to process a phone call from my wife.
Honestly, I’m still not sure what the dude with the ancient motorcycle and the megaphone was going on about. I can tell you his tone was upbeat and the way the gathered crowd cheered, he may have been announcing our arrival, rather than encouraging us. He wasn’t shy with the volume either. You could have heard that thing in Sebastopol.
Around a right-hand bend I rolled and suddenly a small clearing opened. There were probably two dozen people mid-party, and for reasons I’ll never understand, we seemed to be the guests of honor. What the Medieval truck with the boom crane was for, I still don’t know. And the stop sign that was leaning against the foot of a tree? I ran it. We were somewhere between Stewart’s Point and Fort Ross, a spot which I’ve yet to locate on a map.
As I rolled into the clearing, some guy waves until he catches my attention and motions me to ride in his direction. He points down and there’s a giant sheet of plywood, probably six feet by four feet with a pink serpentine spray-painted on it. I’m thinking it’s a bike see-saw and figure what the hell.
Then I got to the edge.
Turns out, it was a ramp. The sheet of plywood wasn’t straddling a log, it was propped up on a milk crate. I had a moment of, “Holy shit, I wasn’t planning to go off a ramp with a drop bar, 700C wheels and a rigid fork.” But it was far too late to back out. I dropped off the edge and the crowd cheered like I’d just just won a race. As I rolled back toward the primary line through the clearing, I noticed a character in a floppy hat and red union suit. He had the bushy, gray beard to match. I think I saw him in a western starring Clint Eastwood. He was holding an open Tecate. A guy over his shoulder started pointing at me saying, “This guy. This guy.”
The cowpoke handed me the beer.
The crowd cheered even louder.
I had little recourse but to take a sip. This would be where I confess that I’m not really a fan of Tecate. But the Tecate was cold and the day was just warm enough that—Holy cow! This is really pretty good.
I felt guilt about tossing the half-finished can to the side of the “road.”
That was somewhere around the 70-mile mark of what would prove to be a 123-mile day for me, the longest I’ve had in 10 years. The surreality and hilarity of that moment was soon pierced, though. After we completed the loop that denotes the 116-mile Panzer route of Levi’s GranFondo, we rejoined the Gran route somewhere in Fort Ross, north of the Ritchey Ranch lunch stop. One of the Gran riders, after asking me how the riding was on the Panzer route was, then asked if we’d been slowed down by the accident.
“Yeah, there was a fatal crash.”
I didn’t learn much more than that, only how the crash had occurred on Hauser Bridge Road, which told me all I really felt I needed to know. I’d learn plenty more at the finish, but just knowing someone had died on the road made my already cautious descending just that much more gentle.
The shock of the news caused me to reflect on the start of the day. Since the event has grown to a field of 7500, the starts have been a bit like the opening laps of a criterium, with riders charging for the front of the bunch. This year was different, though, thanks, it seems, to a couple of vehicles leading the ride. And while a couple of friends at the very front said there were still plenty of jostling of position, where I was—some 200 spots back—the situation was much calmer. Whether it was happenstance or planned, I found it a welcome evolution. By the time we hit the hills on the way to Occidental the sort was established and the group I found myself within was easy to trust.
I’d seen my buddy the Fat Cyclist at the start, along with his wife, the Hammer, and though they were doing the Gran route, when he suggested we ride together, I agreed, figuring would could have 40-odd enjoyable miles together before the route split. However, once the gun went off, I never saw them again. I’ve no idea who was ahead of whom. I could blame 7497 other people, but the reality is they were probably next to me and I just couldn’t find their jerseys in the mass of bodies.
The run from Occidental to Cazadero is one of my favorite sections of the entire ride. The course passes through Redwood forest on roads too narrow to allow to semis to pass one another. The forest is dark, damp, invades the road in places and twists enough to force you to keep your fingers on your brake levers.
I stopped briefly at the Cazadero rest stop, crammed a bit of food in my mouth and rolled out. Part of our massive group never stopped, so when I began rolling, I was in a no-man’s land between the lead group and the better mass of riders still in the rest stop. The upshot was that I got to climb King’s Ridge—a road of such unparalleled amazing that I found myself oddly grateful that I haven’t made it a regular part of my training since moving to the area. I don’t really want to make this road too familiar, and it’s just hard enough and just remote enough that it’s easy to keep that way.
Given my placement, the rolling sections of the road allowed me to hit the descents with only one or two other riders around. That suited my disposition and my taste for not passing riders I don’t know while on the drop.
It was on one of the steepest sections of King Ridge (we’re talking steeper than 18 percent) that I began to hear behind me,
“Is that him?”
“Yeah, I think it is.”
“Should I say hi?”
“You think that’s a good idea?”
“His writing is so good. I love that site.”
“I dunno. He looks like he’s going pretty hard.”
“But I’m such a fan. I’d like to meet him.”
It took a bit before I knew this whispered conversation was actually about me. Levi’s has VIPs the way Cazadero has Redwoods. And with the bulk of my bloodflow going to my legs, I was slower than usual in picking up on the fact that someone was messing with me.
“What the fu—” I looked over my shoulder to see Greg Fisher, until recently the voice of Bike Monkey, coming by me with a self-pleased grin on his face. And off he climbed out of view. I prayed to whoever was listening that he’d go hypoxic before the top so I could claw my way back to him and say something clever. What that something would have been was more than I could dream, at least, in that condition.
Following the stop at the top of King Ridge, the Panzer route split off and after some short, stiff hills, we (by “we” I mean the two guys I could see ahead of me and the one guy I could see behind me) hit the Skaggs Springs descent and though it was less than two miles, it averaged 10 percent—a preface to the Myers Grade descent to come. So while this was my first time riding the road, the challenge I had wasn’t whether I was braking enough for the turns, but whether or not I was braking enough to soak in the wonder of that primordial forest.
Have a seen roads more beautiful? Maybe, but they were all bucket-list stuff. The descent off the south side of the Col du Galibier, the view into Umbria as you descend out of the walled city of Assisi, seeing the rolling hills of Western Massachusetts splashed in the Pantones of fall as you drop out of the Berkshires.
The final drop to Hwy 1 where the Pacific hammers the cliffs was a moment of Kodachrome splendor with the deep greens and browns giving way to the white-capped blue of the ocean.
As I passed a marshall holding traffic for me to cross the road to our rest stop, I let slip, “You have got to be kidding.” I’m hoping that the look of wonder on my face gave my pronouncement the proper context, that I was amazed by the scenery, but she could easily have thought I was expressing gratitude for her efforts to keep me alive. I’m good with that, too.
Tailor Made Farms was serving up espresso for everyone who’d made it to this far outpost. The line was long enough that those at the back were probably going to be waiting at least 20 minutes, which will give you some idea just how important that elixir was at that point of the day.
But boy, Bike Monkey’s owner, Carlos Perez was right when he told us at the start that it was going to be a windy one. I hadn’t seen it this windy at the coast since the first edition. With 303s on my bike, I could feel the wind shift and the bike go from receiving a helping hand to getting a brusque shove. Despite the fact that the road that turned into Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve was instantly 12 percent, I was grateful to get out of the wind.
I got another reminder of just how challenging that course is when I began my plummet to the coast on Myers Grade. In one of the steepest sections I saw a guy carrying a bike; the front wheel was damaged and the tire hanging partly off. Just past a right-hand curve someone stopped a car, presumably to shuttle this guy elsewhere, and I came within inches of the left rear quarter panel as I dove into the lane of oncoming traffic to avoid the giant hunk of black cherry metal. Not great.
The wind was so strong that you could tasted salt as you rode along the coast.
By the time we reached the coast a second time I was a bit punchy. I’m just gonna put that out there, mostly because it’s true. I started calling out to riders to join me on Willow Creek. And because Bike Monkey had delineated our numbers—the Panzer riders’ numbers were black and white, while the Gran riders’ numbers were mostly red with black and white—each time I passed or was passed by another Panzer rider I called out, “Panzerrrrr.” Silly is permitted, oui?
I’d chosen to run a new tire from Zipp on the ride, the Tangente Speed R28, a 28mm-wide, 220 tpi tire, a tire whose selection had been wholly predicated on the two dirt climbs I’d undertake. And it was on the steepest portion of Willow Creek, the Two Sisters, where I’d been concerned about whether or not the tire would give me the grip necessary to get over the 20-plus-percent sections while grunting through with a 34×27 low gear. Five meters from the point where the grade starts to roll off I new I’d make it. The relief flowed through me like a sudden wave of morphine.
Once you reach the top of Willow Creek you know why you climbed it.
I was on the final flat roads through farmland west of Santa Rosa, where a tailwind whipped through the valley with all civility and rush of a soccer mom driving to get her hair done that I united with two other Panzer riders and we started trading pulls at a pace that reminded me of the final laps of a crit. It was just the sort of finish that allows you to convince yourself you rode well, within yourself and strong enough to feel proud as you cross the line. And while all of that is true, it’s also true that the very next thought I had upon crossing the line was how they had Mexican Cokes on ice.