The weekend was a whirlwind. Driving, fueling (both me and the car), riding, shooting, writing, more writing and talking. Talking, talking and more talking; after all, that’s what happens, even to an introvert, when he bumps into scores of terrific people. I feel as if much of the weekend went by too quickly to properly record it all on my gray matter memory stick, but I did what I could to let it all soak in.
But wait a sec. I should point out that the weekend of Levi’s Gran Fondo, okay more properly, Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo (a name like some pure-bred dog’s) is the most unlikely of events. Unlikely not because it is a cycling event that takes place in a smaller community (at roughly 170,000 you can’t really call Santa Rosa a small town), but because the town’s population swells by a good six or seven percent—enough to be fill every hotel and motel for 20 miles—cycling takes center stage and it’s a rare occasion when cycling becomes cool. Cool by any measure. It feels like what high school would have been like had I been cool back then. Of course, that’s purely conjecture on my part as I was as far from cool as Boise is from Miami.
Friday night was the premiere of the documentary about Leipheimer called “The Levi Effect.” The event saw a crowd lined up down the street for a good city block. Inside it took over several of the theaters, at least three by my count. Before the movie started Leipheimer spoke for a few moments and told the assembled crowd (and there was a video feed to stream his comments into the other theaters) how the only way he had been willing to agree to a documentary was that if it didn’t focus exclusively on him. Everyone laughed; clearly the notion that you could have a documentary titled “The Levi Effect” and not focus it on Levi Leipheimer seemed funny, but he was serious. He talked about how he wanted the documentary to focus on the way the cycling gave him Santa Rosa and how the gran fondo was his way to say thank you to Santa Rosa.
The documentary itself was a delight. I doubt there’s another film in existence that can sell Santa Rosa or even Sonoma County the was this film does, but I’ll save the review for another occasion. Following the film there was a panel discussion with Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and the filmmakers. Danielson stole the show with some incredibly funny remarks: “What’s it like to race with Levi?”
“He kind of a dick.” Danielson has a great command of irony.
If there’s one thing that Levi’s Gran Fondo lacks, it’s a Jumbotron. They need to position one about 100 yards from the start for the many riders who, once queued up, can’t see the stars being interviewed. Patrick Dempsey, above, was the only genuine A-lister I saw this year, though last year I did bump into Erika Christensen in the VIP tent. Danielson made a stop by Dave Towle, also known as the voice of the Amgen Tour of California, as did Olympic Gold Medalist Kristin Armstrong and, of course, Levi.
The man behind the scenes who never gets enough credit: Carlos Perez. This is Carlos with his wife Cheryce and their daughter Zoie. Carlos is the CEO of Bike Monkey and the man who is really the force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo and a great many other terrific events that happen in and around Santa Rosa. He was also the executive producer of “The Levi Effect.” If you ever want to say thank you to someone, this is the guy.
I met Shane Bresnyan on the Specialized Ride to Vegas last year. On our opening ride I’d gotten concerned about a gap that had opened and decided I should jump across to what I thought were the fast guys. I was half way across a 10 second gap on a false flat when he and NorCal BikeSport owner Glenn Fant came by me as if I was getting dropped.
Oh. Huh? Wow.
Shane is one of Levi’s training buds when he’s home. I think that covers it. Oh, wait, he’s also stunningly nice.
Levi took a lot of time to wander through the VIP area at the start and personally say hi to as many riders as possible. This is Levi with Glenn Fant. Fant has served as Levi’s personal mechanic at the Amgen Tour of California, the Criterium du Dauphiné and even the Tour de France. He’s also, perhaps, the only rider in Sonoma County who speaks even less than Levi does.
Specialized honch Mike Sinyard. Mike loves a good, hard ride.
Elden, Fatty, Nelson with Bike Monkey Brand Ambassador (and scribe) Yuri Hauswald.
So what happens when bloggers meet? Pictures, of course.
I’ve been to a lot of bike events in the last 25 years. Races, rides, charity events, you name it, I’ve gone. I can say that the electricity at the start of Levi’s Gran Fondo was unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere, save last year at … Levi’s Gran Fondo.
This is the Church Marching Band performing the National Anthem. They are a 13-piece street band (though they were only eight or nine on this morning) I bumped into this spring at the opening stage of the Tour of California in Santa Rosa. They do everything from Dixieland to Klezmer and I dare say all points between. I’ll say that their rendition of the National Anthem was played with enough love that I got choked up. Hell of a way to start my favorite ride.
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.
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.