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.
In the 21st Century the call of the Sirens has been replaced by the opportunity to ride almost any bike you might desire. How else can we explain what could get so many non-desert dwellers to congregate at a park where it was 104 degrees in the shade?
With so many choices, it’s tough to decide just where to start. For me, I knew I needed to check out Felt’s redesigned F-series. While the new flagship F1 was not yet available, I did ride the F2. In a 56, frame weight is reported to be about 850g, which is roughly 50g less than last year’s F1. It’s also stiffer than last year’s F1 and while they have the numbers to back that claim up, I’ve spent some time on the F1 and can tell you, the changes due to the new design and new construction methods make the improvements more than apparent.
This was my first opportunity to ride the Specialized Roubaix SL3. Many bikes achieve vibration damping through the use of lots of intermediate modulus carbon fiber. Ultimately, those bikes feel rather dead. Thanks to the Zertz dampers, long wheelbase and carbon layup, the Roubaix SL3 didn’t feel dead so much as muted. It was extraordinarily stiff, must stiffer than could be achieved were the bike built from intermediate modulus carbon fiber exclusively.
Last year, the Tarmac SL3 was my pick of the litter. I really thought it has the best combination of road feel, stiffness and handling of any bike I rode. I took a short spin on it for comparison purposes, just to make drawing a comparison to a known benchmark easier.
In 1978, long before sealed bearing headsets bearing his name became the headset of choice, Chris King was building steel frames in his Santa Barbara shop. Today, frames bearing his Cielo Cycles monicker are once again being sold to shops. Jay Sycip (yes, of the Sycip brothers fame) oversees production on the bikes and worked with Chris on the geometry.
This Cielo is a great example of why people buy steel bikes. It had terrific stiffness; it was absolutely stiffer than I thought it would be. It also featured crisp, precise handling and Jay revealed each frame features its own fork in order to keep trail constant. The upshot is that everyone gets the same riding experience, which is really special. This is one of the very best steel frames I’ve ridden in the last eight years, if not the outright best.
The head tube and seatstays featured some lovely polished stainless steel touches.
Cervelo’s R3SL is one of a handful of bikes that seemingly everyone asks about. Any time I talk to someone interested in compliance and ride quality, the R3SL is one of the first bikes they ask about. People have good reason to be curious. While my test-ride bike was a little small for me, I was impressed with the combination of stiffness and ride quality.
Trek has come a long way since the days of the OCLV series bikes. The new Madone 6.0 uses carbon fiber superior to anything the company has used before. On the road, it definitely had the best ride quality of any Trek I’d ever ridden, not to mention stiffness that can rival many bikes. But while the other bikes I rode had handling that was quick but predictable, the Madone 6.0 felt a touch nervous, as if there wasn’t enough weight on the front wheel. That said, the longer I rode the bike, the more accustomed to the handling I became, but my preference is for bikes with fewer nerves.
Overall, the big surprise of the day was the Cielo, but the most impressive bike of the bunch was the Felt F2. Its combination of rarely achieved stiffness, kid-glove sensitivity and masterful handling led me to the conclusion that most riders could easily be fooled into thinking this was Felt’s top-of-the-line bike if they never saw the decals.