I don’t hide the fact that I moved to Sonoma County because I fell in love with this place after repeated annual trips up here to ride Levi’s GranFondo. October in Sonoma County is a special time, as good as this place gets, and let me tell you, this place is amazing in April. To go for a long bike ride in West County, as folks here call it, is to take good ingredients and hand them to a great chef.
Early October means mornings that begin chilly, often in the 40s, but rise through the day until mid-afternoon highs reach the 80s. Dressing for a six-hour ride that starts at 8:00 am requires a bit of strategy.
This year I was particularly excited for the start because a friend was to receive some recognition for work he was doing on behalf a charity for which he is the executive director. Jeremiah Kahmoson is a cyclist and climber and formed the B-Rad Foundation to honor his friend and climbing partner Bradley Parker who died in a climbing accident in Yosemite in 2014. The B-Rad Foundation offers underprivileged kids opportunities for adventure, now including mountain biking outings. More on that in a bit.
To be honest, when I first started doing the fondo, I was unaware of the charity work it did. The King Ridge Foundation was formed along with the fondo as a 501(c)3 to take money and channel it to at-risk youth. Santa Rosa has a significant homeless population as well as a notable segment of the community on county and state assistance programs.
That’s the backdrop for what unfolded at the start. From a flatbed truck that serves as the announcer’s stage, Congressman Mike Thompson and Levi Leipheimer brought Jeremiah Kahmoson up, gave him a congressional proclamation and then Leipheimer handed Kahmoson a giant cardboard check for more than $34,000. In addition to those funds (which had already been distributed), Kahmoson had been awarded a matching grant from the Outride Foundation. This is the nonprofit that began as the Specialized Foundation and was charged with researching ways that cycling can help kids with ADHD manage their symptoms. The Outride Foundation is now an organization separate from Specialized for the simple reason that the folks at Specialized (and particularly CEO Mike Sinyard) think this issue is bigger than just them, so he wants the nonprofit to be, uh, more non-denominational.
Kahmoson purchased a dozen bikes, helmets and a trailer to store all the bikes in. He had some of the kids who will be going for rides on the bikes show up at the start and had all the bikes lined up near the stage.
Fort Ross lacks the big vistas of King Ridge, but there are times when I prefer it for its intimacy.
I share this because I’ve done an incredible number of rides that are meant to benefit a nonprofit or charity but while at the ride I never see the feedback loop closed so that the net fruit of the ride is displayed in some way to show riders what they have contributed to. This was a rare occasion where seeing the outcome of the work was possible, and even to meet some of the kids who will benefit. Granted, most riders didn’t make their way up to the start line before the ride began, but the event made up for that by putting Leipheimer and Kahmoson up on top of a sprinter van and telling the crowd about the work of the B-Rad Foundation.
And suddenly, amid cheers, we were off. The start takes place in a different location than it used to, a bit farther west and with fewer turns before feeding riders onto Occidental Road. That made the start less nervous (not having riders gutter-to-gutter over five lanes, plus parking space, really helps with that), so by the time we hit the first hill in Sebastopol the pace was quick but not desperate.
The first big hill of the day is the climb up Graton Road, a thickly forested road that winds west out of the village of Graton before topping out on a high hill that overlooks Occidental. For anyone new to the event, Graton Road is the signal that King Ridge won’t be the day’s only challenge. The climb is a bit less than 4 mi. and just steep enough that it will take the faster riders 12 to 15 minutes to climb. There’s a quick drop into Occidental before the right turn into one of the thickest Redwood forests in the entire ride. The drop through Camp Meeker and into Monte Rio winds through the trees that tower like skyscrapers and drops at a gentle grade, quick enough to be fun, but gentle enough I’ll pedal out of turns. This is the spot where anyone wearing super-dark glasses will pull them down.
What would you like on it?
Upon crossing the bridge at Monte Rio there is a long, mostly flat run to the turn for Cazadero Hwy, that takes riders back into Redwood forest. This is where groups form, mop up other riders, spit some out, and occasionally catch other groups. The first rest stop of the day is in Cazadero just ahead of the turn onto King Ridge.
As I mentioned, Jeremiah is a friend and we’d ridden out from the start together, along with a childhood friend of his, Isaac. We got separated on the Graton climb but managed to find each other in Cazadero. We left the rest stop with the intention of finding David Wood, who directs the Outride Foundation, who was up the road just a bit. Because we wanted to have a chance to ride together and talk, we elected to do one of the other options for the fondo, what’s called the Fort route. Instead of climbing King Ridge, the Fort route takes in the much more secluded climb of Fort Ross, a road known to riders who do the Grasshoppers.
Whereas King Ridge follows the contours of a ridgeline, climbing interrupted by brief drops and then punctuated with more climbs, before a broken descent to the next rest stop, Fort Ross is a sustained, steep climb on a narrow road encroached by woods that seem to want to reclaim the road. Because the climb is both consistent and steep, it’s easy to think that providence is at hand when the road drops away. The descent is steep and winds like all roads in Sonoma County are required. And then the climb resumes. Somewhere in the trees I thought I heard laughter. Maybe they were just birds. But those birds were laughing at me.
When people ask me what makes this ride worth the drive, I will occasionally boil it down to two items. The lunch stop at Ritchey Ranch is a standard by which I can measure all other rest stops. Very few even come close. Here’s the thing: There was an entire tent like you’d have for a wedding reception with four stations manned with volunteers making sandwiches to order. You read that right. I walked up, requested wheat bread, meat (I went for chicken instead of ham), mayo and mustard, cheese (Monterey Jack rather than cheddar), lettuce, tomato, hold the onion. She put it in a little cardboard basket and added a pickle. Over at one side of the meadow there were more than 60 folding chairs. Chairs, dude. Srsly.
So the lunch stop is thing one. Thing two is Myers Grade Road. The descent is challenging; two different stretches hit 18 percent.
Before the descent has a chance to scare anyone, riders are served up one of the most breathtaking views of coastline anywhere in the world. The view south takes in the cliffs that hang over the ocean. Occasional beaches meet the water, and giant craggy rocks dot the shoreline. It’s the sort of place a biologist could spend a career. And I could spend a day just looking out on the dramatic cusp of land and sea.
I can say with considerable expertise that for someone depressed, it’s the sort of view that can put the brakes on those darkest thoughts. It’s not a sexy sales pitch, but it says a lot.
Once Myers Grade reaches Hwy 1, riders are treated to a coastal road unlike I’ve encountered anywhere other than California. My general experience is that coastal roads run parallel to the beach along a line that could have been drawn with a ruler. Such an idea didn’t translate here. Hwy 1 reflects the land itself, rising, falling, looping and squiggling in a way that is faithful to what this land is.
For a guy with a naturally sunny disposition, Jeremiah was on a high that day that could have warmed Attila the Hun’s heart.
Above us, a blue sky spread, uninterrupted by clouds, and a faint breeze blew in from the ocean, carrying the smell of brine with it. A short distance before the turn onto Coleman Valley Road there is yet another rest stop, and while I didn’t need anything to eat, filling my bottles was welcome. This is the spot where I’ll take a moment to look out at the ocean before thinking to myself, ‘Okay, home now.’
I’ve written about the ordeal that Coleman Valley Road can be. Hit it hard enough and it will make anyone rethink bicycle ownership. Crueler yet is the way the climb continues to roll and gain elevation even after the initial slope is conquered. That’s why I like to keep my heart rate in check when I can. The vistas change constantly and every angle rewards.
What makes this last leg of the ride so great is the way it takes riders from the ocean back into fall. We left the fall colors and cool morning temperatures to ride away from the salt air and back into the scent of fall and the afternoon warmth of Indian summer. Moving through the different microclimates gives me a chance to connect with something more elemental, bigger than mankind. This is one place that won’t be paved over.
After a day that hard, riders deserve to return to good food and enough of it that the organizer doesn’t run out before everyone gets back. I’ve seen everything from bad hamburgers to nothing offered at all. The paella served at the fondo does what my father said of a good meal: “It sticks to your ribs.” You can tell people who have done the event before on the run back into Santa Rosa because they’ll start fantasizing about the paella. The finish is in a park in downtown Santa Rosa now, not on the western end of town and I could easily imagine people went back to their cars to change, wolfed that yellow rice and seafood, then wandered into town, perhaps to Russian River Brewing Company. That’s what I’d have done if I was visiting from out of town.