There was a moment on Friday night when I had a rather minor, if sheepish epiphany. It came as I watched the premiere of “The Levi Effect” during an interview with Levi and he spoke of how the gran fondo was a way for him to give back to Santa Rosa, a way to say thank you to a community that had welcomed him as a native son.
Before I go any further, I need to back up a second and tell you that last winter my wife and I decided to do whatever was necessary to move our family to Santa Rosa. Our love for the region began with our honeymoon, during which we visited Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. I kid that after two days my wife was ready to cancel the rest of the trip, drive home and start packing. In reality, that’s not far off. The kicker for us has been going back to Santa Rosa on an annual basis for Levi’s Gran Fondo. With each successive visit we fall a bit more in love with the community in specific and the region in general.
Santa Rosa is a place like very few I’ve visited; it hurts to leave.
And so as I sat in the dark theater, it occurred to me that Levi Leipheimer is a big part of why I want to move to Santa Rosa. I need to hasten to add that I’m not a Levi fanboy; I’m not dying to go on his training rides, if only for the simple reason that I’d be embarrassed that I’d be holding them up or in the way. I’ll ad that I had a rather surreal introduction to him during the Tour of California. He was about to leave the Omega Pharma-Quickstep dinner I had attended and as he began to say his goodbyes, as it happened we found ourselves standing together. So he did the thing polite guys do: He turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m Levi.”
In a normal world, I would have responded, “Hi, I’m Patrick Brady.” Actually, that is what I said, which is normal enough, huh? But his response was what threw me off.
“Oh, you’re from Santa Rosa, right?”
I tried to explain in 50 words or less that I wasn’t yet, but I was trying. Honestly, I can’t say which part of that is weirdest to me. As much as I want my work to be known, I don’t actually want to be known. I’d like to have a big readership for RKP, but anonymity for me is how I view the natural order for the universe. It taught me a few things: the cycling community in Santa Rosa is tight-freaking-knit, Levi pays attention, oh, and he’s a genuinely decent guy. I was beyond embarrassed that he took a moment for me when I thought the spotlight should be anywhere other than on me.
So when Levi says several times in the course of the film that he wanted to use his celebrity to bring attention to just how special Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are, please take him at his word. It’s that special a place.
Now, concerning the ride itself for this year, the first thing to mention is just how much more sane the start was this year. Last year we may have had a bit more of the full width of the road and a great many riders were desperate to get to the very front. It was nervous and unpleasant, but for reasons I can’t explain, this year was entirely calmer.
There are more and more events out there calling themselves gran fondos and while I haven’t done most of them, what I keep hearing from readers and friends is just how many don’t have a unified start and don’t control intersections to speed riders’ passage. Well, I’m here to tell you, that unless the organizers provide those two elements, it’s not a gran fondo; it’s just a century and calling the event a gran fondo is an insult to the name.
It’s impossible to overstate the incredible amount of work that goes into putting on Levi’s Gran Fondo; the army of volunteers alone is larger than some events’ total ridership. That work has a tangible bottom line, making the experience of speeding out of Santa Rosa, through Sebastopol and toward Occidental an occasion with all the thrill of the opening miles of a bike race. And better than any race I ever participated in, the road is lined with families and volunteers cheering us on as if each of us—to a rider—actually mattered. Those opening miles are a kind of commerce, with the locals cheering riders because they know what’s in store, and in a way cheering for themselves.
Yes, cheering for themselves. A very big component to the gran fondo is charity work. One scene in “The Levi Effect” shows Carlos Perez handing off a check to one of the small communities the ride passes through. With 7,500 people ponying up a C-note, there’s some wealth to spread around.
The day started cool with a bit of mist; it was my first occasion to wear arm warmers this fall and while those opening climbs were through damp forest, once on King Ridge we rode out of the forest and into 360-degree views of the golden hills of Sonoma County. We shed our arm warmers and looked around with stunned expressions and exclamations of hyperbolic superlatives.
“Does it get better than this?”
I was lucky enough to ride for a while with Scot Nicol of Ibis. Scot’s a favorite son of Santa Rosa and all-around nice guy. I think he was going easy this year because normally he comes roaring by me on the opening pitch of King Ridge and this year we actually rode together for a good chunk of the day. The gent on his wheel is Don Winkle, the general counsel for the gran fondo, and part of Scot’s ongoing ride posse. Must be fun.
The combination of broken forest, golden hills and ordered vineyards gave the panaorama a view that changed with each new bend in the road. For sheer variety of view, there aren’t many places that can match this, though the Alps and Tuscany can hold their own.
Being greeted at a rest stop by a guy handing out sandwiches was an occasion of such sheer surprise it reminded me of the scene at the end of “Pretty in Pink” where the hot girl smiles at Ducky and he mouthes, “Moi?”
At heart, I’m a peasant and such a level of service was nearly more than my feeble brain could process.
Food was plentiful like beer at a frat house. I had to walk around the lunch stop just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on something special—Nutter Butters? Are you serious?! It was only after I’d made the rounds the first time that I looked up and noticed how there were all these incredibly helpful signs that if you weren’t locked in your own little time zone could direct you to your ultimate refuel. It’s a small touch, but it’s yet another great example of how Bike Monkey goes the extra mile at every turn.
A proper Sonoma County day is one in which you extra clothing to tackle changing conditions. A typical day can see 30-degree temperature swings. At the start we were mere degrees above the need for a vest; I did see plenty of people with wind breakers and vests. I went with a bit of Rapha embro and arm warmers, plus one of my heavier base layers. Following the stellar sun and warmth on top of King Ridge, we could see the blanket of clouds that signaled the drop down Meyer’s Grade to Jenner and the Sonoma Coast, land of amazing Pinot Noir. Be sure to click on the image to see it in a larger size; this tiny display doesn’t do the view justice.
The Northern California coast bears nothing in common with Southern California’s sand beaches. It’s a place of drama, real nature in action and so overloaded with fascinating scenes it’s hard not to soft pedal and take in the beauty.
Shane Bresnyan and Glenn Fant of the Bike Peddler and NorCal Bike Sport. Check a Strava segment anywhere in Sonoma County, off-road or on it and you’ll see their names in the top 10. By the time I rolled into the finish Shane and Glenn were showered, fed and relaxing with friends. Neat trick.
Tom Danielson was a great addition to the gran fondo this year. He was every bit as friendly and gracious as Levi himself and proved to be a huge draw for young riders.
There’s going to come a day when I take my son to Levi’s Gran Fondo. I expect that first edition will be piccolo, but the ride will nearly be beside the point. Pro cycling may be a mess right now, but the ugly story lines are lost, thankfully, on the sport’s youngest practitioners. Meeting a big-time pro has the power to be a transformative experience. I’m looking forward to sharing an amazing day with my little peddler.
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to visit Santa Rosa, Calif., and do Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, you’ve missed out on what is easily the best cycling event I’ve ever entered, let alone completed. The real powers-that-be behind the event are the guys from Bike Monkey. Without them, the veritable army of volunteers that makes the event happen would all be out riding their bikes or watching American Idol. Which begs the question, how did they get to be so good at it?
Well, if you were only familiar with the gran fondo or maybe their eponymously titled magazine, Bike Monkey, then you’ve missed the bread and butter of what this bunch does. Led by Carlos Perez, Bike Monkey is best known to NorCal residents as an organizer of mountain bike races.
I’ve made some mention of my intent to move to Santa Rosa. The ability to go mountain biking without loading my bike into my car is no small part of that decision. That’s the life I had in New England and frankly, I’m fed up of not having that. There’s also the fact that mountain biking in Sonoma is magic. Don’t take my word for it, though, just consider that mountain bike legend Chuck Ibis (Scot Nicol to the rest of the unwashed) calls Santa Rosa home. So once I’d picked up a used 29er I needed to immediately go ride in amazing places. I mean, I had to, right?
When I contacted Bike Monkey about SoNoMás, I was surprised by the response I got. I was told it was a small event, only a couple hundred people. That it was low-key with a simple barbecue afterward. No expo. The course was as technical as the code for WordPress and almost no one rides the whole thing. And it can be hotter than a Russian bride.
It struck me as an odd sort of sales pitch. Then I realized they thought I might not enjoy the event and wanted to caution me. That collection of details was a warning. I told them I couldn’t wait.
Honestly, I figured that I’d treat this like a guided tour. I’m not really in race shape (not that I want anyone to check Strava or Map My Ride just to verify that), but it struck me as an excellent chance to go out for a really long ride in completely unfamiliar terrain while getting great support and benefitting from the utter impossibility that I’d get lost.
It was a genius plan. At least, on paper.
Certain parts of the plan went to, uh, plan. I didn’t get lost. The aid stations (can I just say God bless Brian Vaughn and the folks at Gu?) were stocked with real racer-type energy foods like Gu gel packs, Gu chomps, Gu brew and plenty of water. Not a freakin’ Oreo in sight. There were plenty at each aid station, all seven of them. So I didn’t bonk, either.
But that bit where I told myself that I’d ride the shallower climbs easy so I could leave something in the tank for the technical and steep bits. Yeah, that part succeeded the way Contador’s appeal did. Hey, I got this, yeah, genius plan, whoa that looks tough, no, wait, I’m gonna make it, oof, my hip hurts.
It was nice not to fall in front of the photographer, though. And these photos, by the way, are courtesy of Daydreamer Cinema. Daydreamer’s Jamie Tuell is part of the team working on the documentary about Levi being produced by Bike Monkey called The Levi Effect.
Kym Fant, pictured above, is one of the sextet of women doing the Reve Tour this summer, riding each of the stages of the Tour de France the day before the race does. She joined us for a ride a couple of weeks ago when I was up in Geyserville checking out the P5 and being introduced to Osmo. On the ride she told me that she had recently completed a week in which she’d trained 25 hours. She and her husband, Glenn, who is a regular training partner of Levi’s and the owner of NorCal Bikesport (and one of Bike Monkey’s most ardent sponsors) have a three-year-old son. Theirs is a very full schedule. Aside from being utterly charming, Kym finished SoNoMás in four hours. Glenn was a bit closer to three.
My personal odyssey lasted a bit more than five hours—5:18 to be precise. Because the course was a true point-to-point loop (and not a bunch of laps on some circuit) there came a point in my third hour where I didn’t see anyone for a while. I was just out having a mountain bike ride with free lemonade stands along the way.
I dig that someone had the wherewithall to wheelie the finish.
And yes, some guys killed this thing.
The post-event barbecue was relaxed. Relaxed in a family get-together way. There were plenty of wives/girlfriends/kids/dogs. And they all poached some of that excellent chicken at some point. None were quite so opportunist as the dogs, though.
This was hard enough that I wouldn’t want to ride it every weekend, but as part of the arc to each season, I hope never to miss it in the future. Truly a first-class event. That there were only 200 or so racers just means more people need to hear about it.
Images: Jamie Tuell, Daydreamer Cinema
The forecast for my favorite event of the year and the event I’ll go to the mat arguing is the best day of cycling in all of the Americas was for wet. Fog, mist, possible rain, it wasn’t a day to have a camera on your shoulder. Ugh.
In the previous editions (both of them), Levi spoke to the crowd from the announcer’s dais, which is to say that unless you were within 20 feet of him, you couldn’t see him. This year he stood up on top of a Sprinter van and the excitement the crowd drew from actually seeing him was palpable.
And then we were off. And by “we” I mean an incredible 7500 cyclists. It’s the biggest one-day event I’ve ever taken part in. The start was a bit sketchy, with everyone within 100 meters of me attempting to make sure they stayed in the front 20 riders.
The first climb of the day comes roughly 12 miles into the ride and while the pace has been animated up to this point, it hasn’t been fast enough to burn off anyone with reasonable fitness. However, by the time we begin the second kilometer of that climb, the real sort is underway. So goes the story of the day. Each successive climb continues the sort.
A friend commented to me at the finish, as we were consuming an ambitious post-ride meal, the unexpected pleasure of being on a ride with 7499 other people and yet finding himself utterly alone at times. The opportunity for seclusion and quiet moments alone is arguably one of the ride’s surprise gifts.
This year, for the first time ever, I actually looked down at my Garmin unit on a couple of occasions to check the gradient of some of the pitches on King Ridge. I’d heard that there were sections at 20 percent previously. I filed the data under unnecessary. As it turns out, on two entirely different pitches I saw the numbers 24 and 25. It was less informative than a pick-me-up for my self-esteem. I was moving pretty slow.
The weather on King Ridge started overcast and damp, gradually turned foggy and then near the top mist flirted with drizzle. It made some of the descents a puckery affair. There was a reward, though, for the truly fall weather. On the descent to Jenner we dropped out of the fog with just enough elevation remaining to give a view of the coast that was as sudden in its appearance as it was spectacular in expression. I’d compare it to walking into a friend’s living room only to behold Botticelli’s Venus.
I’ve done rides with a tenth of the ridership that were goat parades. I’ve never done a ride that was better organized. Sure, there was plentiful food and signage. Thank heaven all the intersections were controlled (well, we were stopped at one and at another the CHP officer was sitting in his cruiser while traffic approached), but it may be that what really defines a gran fondo in the U.S. (it’s a different beast in Italy—I accept that) isn’t the mass start or the controlled intersections.
What makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so special is that it’s an expression of place. Santa Rosa is Levi’s adopted home and they have adopted him as much as he has them. So you’ve got an adored and bona fide cycling celebrity, which is a good start. But that’s not enough. The secret really comes down to the way Carlos Perez, Greg Fisher and Yuri Hauswald—the guys behind Bike Monkey have enlisted the support of not just Santa Rosa, but Sebastopol and Jenner and Bodega Bay and more. At a certain level, the fact that the ride happens says something for the love the community has for the way the guys at Bike Monkey have created a cycling culture outsized to the community they serve, which is why the gran fondo can draw people from all over the world.
I can tell you this: If I ever miss this event, check the hospitals.
It was a Thursday in April. The spring had been spectacular. I’d been piling on the miles and getting stronger by the week. I’d scheduled the day to work from home, which gave me the chance to take in a four-hour ride in the morning; a great loop in the mountains north of home was the recipe. I’d just finished a 2000-foot climb and rolled over some gentle terrain followed by a brief 45 mph descent. I thought I felt great.
The moment the road turned back up, and by up I mean an extended false flat, one that would last the next 10 miles, I found out that I was not okay. My legs felt as if they’d been hollowed out. It was an emptiness I’d never known.
Things didn’t really improve when I finished the false flat. I was still 25 miles from home and the steepest climb of the day lay ahead. Inside the convenience store I purchased a Mountain Dew and a Snickers bar. It was more a prayer than a calculated gambit to find energy. The word woozy doesn’t begin to illustrate the way my head reeled.
I sat on the sidewalk chewing and sipping my way through the refined-sugar equivalent of rocket fuel. I took no notice of the neon flavors.
The irony of crossing the top of Spunky Canyon in my condition escaped me. I descended for more than a half hour, pedaling only when mandatory.
In the shower, I slumped against the wall. I wondered if I was getting sick. I ate everything in the kitchen that didn’t require cooking. That afternoon I napped and managed only one email that could be construed as “work-related.”
I dashed off a note to a coach I frequently used as a pundit for all things cycling. By this time, my despair was Orwellian. My body had betrayed me, abandoned me. “What happened?” Honestly, I was less concerned with what went wrong than what was required to fix the situation. I needed a solution STAT because I couldn’t abide feeling like the flicker of a dead florescent tube.
You already know the answer: I was overtrained. So overtrained it took me three weeks to get back on track. This was my first season of consistent 15-18-hour weeks and my rest weeks had been, well, they hadn’t been rest weeks, had they?
And just like John Cleese’s character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who claims a witch turned him into a newt, I got better. We all do.
Friends, I’m overtrained. For the first time ever in my life as a writer, I’m tapped. In the last 12 weeks, between posts for RKP, features for peloton and Bike Monkey, reviews for Map My Ride and copy for several industry clients, I’ve written roughly 50,000 words—half a novel.
I’ve tried to limp along for the last two weeks, but I’ve done a lousy job and RKP has suffered for it. While the desire is there, the feeling is similar to how Beethoven described being deaf—it’s not a silence, but a roar. I sit down ready to write but all I hear is static.
I am going to put the keyboard away for the next week. Following a trip to Chicago to promote my book The No-Drop Zone at Velosmith Bicycle Studio, I’m heading up to the Sierra Nevada to take in as many hors categorie climbs as I can manage in a week. As I empty one battery, I plan to charge another. I’ll be back by Labor Day.
Thanks for reading.
On the evening before Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo the folks at SyCip Cycles hosted a little get-together they called the Gran La Fonda. It was one-quarter handbuilt bicycle show, one-quarter party, 3/16 mad inventor parade and 9/8 fun. The device above is a tricycle of sorts that is designed to traverse old railroad tracks, though it seemed to handle asphalt tolerably.
Here’s a look at its inner workings; it was utterly confusing and wonderful to my eye.
Noci is a gelato and sorbetto place in Mill Valley around the corner from Above Category. They were serving up some tasty creations scooped from their bakfiets.
The Whiskey Drome is modeled on the ramps motorcycle stunt riders used to ride. Roughly 20 feet in diameter watching riders negotiate its banking was large-scale fun.
At right is Scot “Chuck Ibis” Nicol of local fame and Ibis Cycles, though not necessarily in that order. At right is Eldon “Fatty” Nelson of Fat Cyclist fame. Incredibly low-key and gracious, I could have spent the evening hanging out with him and his wife, “The Runner.”
Sean Walling of Soulcraft was but one of a long list of builders in attendance. Also present with bikes were SyCip (duh), Inglis/Retrotec, Rebolledo, Steve Rex, Rick Hunter, Cielo, DeSalvo, Black Cat, Caletti, Bruce Gordon and Ira Ryan.
It’s not every day you see a high-end carbon fiber road bike locked to a metal pole. I really dug seeing a road bike being used for basic transportation. Passing the lock through the helmet straps was a nice touch.
Builders in consultation: At left, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, a man without whom the Santa Cruz ‘cross scene would die and at right, Ira Ryan of the Portland Bike Mafia, and a man with a soft spot for touring.
That cute little button of a girl is Zoie, the daughter of Carlos Perez, the publisher of Bike Monkey, and the driving force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo. She’s hugging RKP’s pint-sized climber, Philip, who is squealing in delight at the attention from yet another adoring woman. We think we heard wedding bells that night.