Undeterred: Levi’s Gran Fondo

Undeterred: Levi’s Gran Fondo

The reason King Ridge Road is King Ridge and not, say King Mountain, is that after making the arduous climb out of Cazadero you arrive not on top of a mountain, but at the crest of a ridgeline, one that trades up for down like so many baseball cards. It’s sequence of intervals, a workout of determinate schedule, one imposed upon riders, no matter what they have in mind.

It’s not the place to concede that your legs picked the day to go on sabbatical. But there I was, 50-odd miles into a 120-ish mile day with a pair of gams that were lazier than a porch-laying bloodhound on a July afternoon. So I climbed along at 7 maybe 8 mph. That made the hills long, giving me time for introspection, but rather than the traditional meditations on the nature of man, I found myself in an existential crisis.

Was I not as fit as I thought? Had I been fooling myself? Had the scale been lying to me? Was I sick? Was there a deeper concern as yet unknown but about to make an entrance from stage left?

img_2211Ted King gives a sort of smile.

If there was a doubt, I ran it through the system. And then I had the good sense to look to my right and take a deep breath. The view spread north of undulating ridges, forests occasionally interrupted by the orderly rows of vineyard. On any other day I might have wondered whose Pinot Noir was hanging from those vines. But on this day I backed up, making a recursive pivot to the bigger picture. With views that gorgeous, how could I possibly have a bad day? I mean, I knew the answer, but I didn’t need to continue down that path.

I relaxed. My legs hurt less.

I’ve ridden all eight editions of Levi’s GranFondo and in that time a pattern or two has emerged. The big one is that standing around at the start for an hour in 50-degree temperatures chills my legs—a bottle of Champagne in an ice bucket. And like a switch flipped on a router, voila, my legs shut down. No more wifi.

The roll out of Santa Rosa requires a bit of jockeying; fall too far back and the traffic gets a bit interesting before it calms again. On the outskirts of Sebastopol the course turns onto Mill Station road and a short time later hits the first real hill of the day. The combination of a narrower road and a sharp hill gives riders at the front a chance to punch the gas and stretch the group out. At the base of the hill riders could hear my legs make the wurp, wuurp, wuuurp that the Millenium Falcon made in The Empire Strikes Back when it failed to make the jump to light speed.

It’s gonna be a long day.

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But I know the roads, the region, better now and understand what this place means to people who have called it home for decades. I’ve never done another event where people line more of the course waving to riders as they come by. I saw picnics, lawn chairs, heard countless cowbells (where did these folks learn that ringing a cowbell is something you do for cyclists?) and hundreds of cheers from voices both small and big. In so many places, a bike event is an inconvenience, just another thing to drive around, while there will always be that for some people, the families lining the road saw us for what we are—a celebration of a place they’ve chosen to call home.

And seriously, Sonoma County simply doesn’t get better than early fall. Blue skies, a light breeze, temperatures in the 70s. Rest stops equipped with every bonk preventative known to man.

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Somewhere out on Tin Barn Road, which is the northern reach of the 113-mile Panzer course, the point of no return, my legs roared to life just as I hit a small rise.

Well this is novel.

img_2238In addition to the free coffee they served at the start, Taylor Maid Farms pulled espresso shots at Stewart’s Point.

I spent the climb of Kruse Rhododendron, a dirt road of approximate maintenance, riding with an RKP reader chatting about the wonder that is Sonoma County and how easy it is to have a collection of tires the way a chef has knives.

Rest stops have, in my experience, always had a progression to them, sound-wise. At the early ones you hear upbeat people, urgency, maybe a jocular challenge. The stops get quieter and quieter as the day progresses. And that’s what made the lunch stop at Ritchey Ranch so odd. I heard laughter, audible glee. Excitement. I attributed most of this to veterans who knew that there was only one big climb to go, either Willow Creek or Coleman Valley. A buddy who was a marshall greeted me with a hug.

Bike Monkey shrank registration this year to 5500. It made logistics a bit easier to manage, the day shorter for the volunteers, and the course a bit less crowded for attendees. There are now a whopping 12 official routes; there’s something for everyone. Bike Monkey also eliminated the qualification time for the Panzer, so if you want the big day, just sign right up.

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This year, I was invited to attend the Festa del Fondo, a charity dinner held the Thursday before the fondo. I’ve heard about the event previously; it’s a terrific dinner punctuated by a silent auction (on offer was a complete bike from Sycip) and then many checks written by folks who can afford to do that sort of thing. A big sponsor of the evening is Patron Tequila and they brought a couple of bottles of tequila that could bring aficionados to their knees; one was one of only three bottles on the planet aged in a Bordeaux barrel. The King Ridge Foundation raise nearly $150k this year and the beneficiariesForget Me Not Farm, SAY (Social Advocates for Youth) and the B-Rad Foundation—work to help at-risk youth in a variety of ways. Hearing the stories of some of the kids that have benefitted from these programs … let’s just say the napkins were handy.

I can at least say that by the time I reached the dirt climb of Willow Creek, as beautiful a climb as there is, my systems were all nominal. I was able to enjoy something akin to form all the way back into Santa Rosa. That the fondo uses most of the same roads from just outside Sebastopol all the way back into Santa Rosa (save for the bike path), there’s a circularity to the course, the sense that you’re enjoying a homecoming.

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The best part of the day were those moments out on the course when I encountered riders who were visiting the area just for the event. Whether it was their first time or their fifth, it was gratifying to share the wonder of that place.

 


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2 comments

  1. Scott

    I’ve never ridden the Fondo itself. I have ridden King Ridge several dozen times solo. It’s a very different experience when it’s just me, a skunk, and a few lonely buzzards soaring on updrafts below the Butcher’s Knife. On one such ride, most of King Ridge was enveloped by a wet blanket of cloud, hiding the panorama from me and a rider from Minnesota who was riding King Ridge for the first/only time. Sucks to be him. Perhaps he’ll return.

    Local ride support is legendary. On the occasions I’ve ridden The Terrible Two, Santa Rosa residents turn out at 5:30 AM to cheer the peloton as we cross town. Late in the day, I’ve encountered “Tifosi” sitting high atop Fort Ross road ringing a cow bell for me and other solo combatants assailing this remote wall. That’s not to mention the official ride support with a 1:1 ratio of volunteers to riders. The stories go on…

    I can’t say why Sonoma County is so accommodating. I can say that between the Terrible Two, The Wine Country Century, Amgen Tour of California, and now Levi’s Gran Fondo, the community has a long history of exceptional support for the occasional “Cyclist Invasion.” Thank you Sonoma County residents for setting a high bar!

  2. Clark

    I rode the Panzer this year after “qualifying” last year (which was pretty fun in and of itself having ridden the route with no real agenda in many prior years), and really enjoyed the novelty of those ten miles of completely unfamiliar roads on an otherwise well-known route. The cooler of fresh apple juice someone set out at the end of their driveway just after the start of the Panzer loop, the delicious hand pies and well-timed espresso, excellent tarmac down the coast, and fantastic dirt made what is always a great day on the bike that much better.

    I too have signed on for every edition of the Fondo, and it’s become a traditional fall bike getaway for my wife and I. We’re already looking forward to next year, when she’ll likely step up to the Gran route for the first time.

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