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.