When I lined up for Levi’s GranFondo this year, I was doing so for reasons that had more to do with community and budding tradition than for my own personal riding. I’d been traveling too much; I’d spent two of the previous four weeks out of town and my fitness wasn’t exactly burnished. Unlike the previous two editions, where I’d made sure I was fit enough to ride the double-metric-ish (when ridden from my home) Panzer route, I knew I’d be riding something shorter this year. But there was never any question about whether I’d show up.
Since USADA’s Reasoned Decision, I’ve taken heat for my support of the event. And I’ve taken additional heat for my refusal to back down in the face of said heat. I’m not interested in writing about doping any further, so I want to keep my remarks on this brief. I’ll say I assumed Leipheimer doped simply because he’d finished in the top 10 of the general classification of the Tour de France. To me, that’s nearly all the proof you need. Yes, Leipheimer was forced to confess and didn’t come forward of his own volition, but I can’t really criticize him for that; no one came forward willingly because to do so was a death sentence. What I can’t abide is our two-faced attitude of turning our backs on members of our community once they’ve been outed. Again, his doping wasn’t news, but worse, why is it Jens Voigt and so many other riders continue to get a pass? There’s no way Voigt didn’t dope, and given the way everyone turned on Leipheimer, Zabriskie, Hincapie and the others, why would he ever confess? A constant thread that runs through this discussion but remains largely unsaid is the concept of honesty and integrity. And for those who want to criticize me for riding the event because of the lack of integrity these riders displayed by doping, I have to point out that my own integrity would be lacking if I stepped away from my support now.
My own sense of my integrity demands that I stand up. It was a great event when it launched. Leipheimer wasn’t a clean rider when it was launched. If I back away now, that suggests I’ve got some Pollyanna attitude toward pro cycling. And my reasons for supporting the fondo have less to do with Leipheimer than they do with what has become my home.
Finally, to those who say, “Okay, then, if it’s such a great event, then change the name.” I’m going to point out that a change of name is unlikely to satisfy anyone who is still wringing their hands over these dopers. Still being upset about doping that took place more than 10 years ago says more about the upset people than it does the riders who doped.
In the years since it’s launch the fondo has continued to improve. The organization is world-class; the start-line festivities from the call-outs to celebrities as well as current and former pros to the free coffee and goose-bump-inducing performance of the National Anthem is an experience in its own right. And unlike many organized rides, the fondo draws out local riders like no other event I’ve ever seen; even the grasshoppers don’t get the locals out the way Levi’s GranFondo does. Most riders I know end up volunteering as marshals who help pace groups and fix flats as well as keep people from accidentally turning off the route. The routes? They are second to none and now there are a whopping eight different options that allow you to have exactly the day you wish.
One change to the event for this year was an effort by Bike Monkey to help riders line up by their anticipated finish times, giving faster riders the chance to line up closer to the front, rather than just the riders who arrived earliest. For those who truly want to race the fondo and achieve the fastest finish time they can, this was a pretty welcome change. For me, it resulted in what I saw as the fastest, most nervous start I can recall seeing in some years. But that’s just me.
In suburban Sebastopol (which is a pretty funny concept if you know Sebastopol), the course hits its first hill, a pretty minor bump, but that’s just as the road narrows and it’s the first real chance for the group to turn some riders into exhaust, and I took that as my opportunity to drop off and find a smaller group to ride with. Unlike my days in SoCal, I don’t ride in big packs much anymore and I’m more comfortable if I’m not surrounded by riders I don’t know.
Instead of taking in the signature road of the fondo, King Ridge, I chose to climb up Fort Ross. There I saw but a handful of other riders. Taking the more secluded route gave me a chance to spend more time staring at my surroundings. I spied Pinot Noir vineyards used by Kosta Browne and Flowers and saw some singletrack I needed to ask a friend about.
I hit the coast at a great time. Most gran riders still hadn’t reached the lunch stop, so I had the road to myself until the ride’s leader passed me, followed several minutes later by a quartet including a local 14 year old, Luke Lamperti, who will one day be a household name. Kid had the breath to turn and say hi. Sheesh.
Even though I was still ahead of most riders, I decided to turn off on Willow Creek Road, which hits Hay 1 right at the mouth of the Russian River. It’s a road frequently used the Grasshoppers and it features everything I love about Sonoma County riding. Down low the pavement is bad, with frequent potholes and including just enough turns and small rollers to leave only 50 meters or so visible at a time. Once the climb starts the dirt road passes through thick Redwood forest. I always hope to finally see one of the Ewoks.
The view at the top is all-time. I’ve begun to joke that I’m not sure what to do for vacation now that I can ride this terrain any time I want. I hung out at the top for a while, greeting other riders and talking to the members of the Gianni Club who were manning the sag stop.
The run into the finish from Occidental includes one good hill and a couple of false flats before billiard table run on the bike path to the finish. I found a couple of quicker century riders who were leading some medio riders and three of us provided a good draft to the rest. It was nice to feel fresh, rather than spent as we rolled in.
Levi’s continues to offer the best post-ride meal I’ve encountered at an organized ride. Fork’s paella is so authentic when you get an occasional grain of sand in a muscle, it tastes of the Mediterranean.
The friends I saw at the finish were grins and high fives. There hasn’t been much of that since.