I’ve ridden a great many bike events over the years. From charity rides that were as elaborately produced as a wedding to road races marshaled by a van with half a million miles on it and industrial park crits that were as nondescript as the buildings we rode by. In that time I’ve run across one event that I really feel has gotten the formula right for producing a memorable cycling event. And it’s no secret that I think that event is Levi’s Gran Fondo.
I first went up to ride the gran fondo just because I wanted to go for an organized ride in Sonoma County. That it was to be a gran fondo—that is, a century with a mass start and controlled intersections to make it a bit more like an actual race—was more interesting to me than the ride being attached to a big pro. What interested me was doing a 100-mile ride with loads of climbing and great descents and only putting down my foot when I got to a rest stop. Not having to stop every few miles for a red light was easily worth the entry fee.
I got that experience, but I also got plenty more. I was amazed at the hordes of volunteers. There were volunteers who knew what they were doing everywhere I went. Out on the course there were police and fire officers helping to direct us and families at the end of driveways applauded us. I’d never done an event where someone cheered for me nearly every mile.
Then there was the fact that the ride had attracted licensed racers, dedicated century riders, double-century types for whom an event like this is just a good start as well as families. It was the broadest cross section of riders I’d ever encountered at a single event.
I became curious how the guys at Bike Monkey had managed to run an event through at least half a dozen different towns, on roads that are popular with tourists. I can think of a half dozen event promoters who would have looked at the proposed route, and a start and finish in the city of Santa Rosa and have pronounced it impossible.
The reason I was curious was simple: To my eye, a couple of guys in Santa Rosa had figured out how to make a single grass roots cycling event attractive to nearly anyone, everyone. When was the last time law enforcement, city governments, homeowners and cyclists all agreed on the value of a cycling event? To be sure, not everyone is in love with Levi’s Gran Fondo, but there are enough of us that the event has been happening without problems for four years.
The question that nagged at me was how. How did they do it? As it turns out, the answer is neither a secret nor impossible. Their strategy is a simple one: direct a portion of proceeds to charities. The AIDS Rides did that, but operationally, those rides were very different. They paid a cast of hundreds to work for them and they directed a tiny percentage to the actual charities meant to benefit. That strategy backfired when people learned that Pallotta Teamworks, the organizers behind the AIDS Rides, were really just a rather profitable event planner.
Bike Monkey doesn’t bill Levi’s Gran Fondo as a charity event. But the charity they do is no accident. What’s remarkable is how when 7,500 people each pay upwards of $100 to participate in a cycling event, you have some horsepower to get things done. Bike Monkey took that horsepower to a number of local charities. Among the beneficiaries of the gran fondo’s largesse are schools and fire departments along the route that the gran fondo follows. Those underfunded outposts receive checks that can make a real difference in the service they provide each year.
I shot these photos on a ride that Bike Monkey puts on the day before the fondo. It’s a chance for the top fundraisers attending the event to go on a short ride with Leipheimer and select VIPs. In addition to Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn, the very important types this year included the Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talanksy and Peter Stetina, Rebecca Rusch, Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson, Alison Tetrick of Team Exergy Twenty16, United Health Care’s Lucas Euser, Jeff Castelaz of the Pablove Foundation and Bissell rider Julian Kyer.
The ride went to Forget Me Not Farm on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Levi Effect,” Levi’s wife, Odessa, is a serious animal person and she volunteers there. Forget Me Not Farm rescues farm animals and uses them in therapy with kids who have been abused. Of course, their story is a good deal richer and more life-affirming than that, but that’s the elevator pitch. The farm is among the charities that the ride helps to support.
Attendees were served food grown at the farm and I can attest that the strawberries were as good as any I’ve had. Frankly, I didn’t think you could grow good strawberries that far north. It was a chance for people who don’t often have a chance to meet a pro cyclist to interact with a few of them, not to mention an opportunity to get an additional guided tour in while visiting Sonoma.
I am aware that some people are still hot enough about Levi Leipheimer’s doping to boil water. At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making. Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger. I’ve heard a few people say that the charity work that the gran fondo does is a chance for Levi to give something back to the community now that he’s no longer a pro. The funny thing is, that was always his intent. Those who know him have told me he shies from the limelight, that he really doesn’t want the attention. What was evident from “The Levi Effect” was how he got behind the idea of the gran fondo as a way to give back to a community that had accepted him as one of their own.
It was that vision, that desire to bring attention to the community, rather than the rider, that I think makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so very different from other events I’ve ridden. Perhaps it’s not the only one; certainly, I’ve not ridden all the rides there are, but it’s notably superior to every other ride I’ve done in its ability to deliver a stellar experience without hitch. That experience wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who are tied to the many charities to which the gran fondo donates. Think what you will of Levi for doping; whether you let go of your anger over that or not is beyond our control, but I hope you’ll bear this in mind: rather than using the event as a chance to bask in his fame, he turned the spot on the area, on something he loves and in that he gave Sonoma a boost it deserves, it needs.
We’re at an uneasy place with our heroes. Even without the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the landscape of our understanding of professional bike racing in the last 20 years has fundamentally changed. For most followers of bike racing, doping went from this little problem in uncommon instances to a pervasive culture common to all but the rarest riders. While we beg for the truth about what occurred, as sporting fans, we’ve yet to embrace a single rider who confesses. As a group, we’ve yet to confer forgiveness to a single prodigal son.
Some people would like to see Leipheimer and every other confessed doper shot by firing squad, or at least expunged from the collective memory of cycling. Truly, some of the vitriol is hard to fathom. But he hasn’t gone away, nor has his eponymous event. To evidence this drop in stock value, entries for Levi’s Gran Fondo sold at a slower rate this year than they did in previous years. But they did sell out.
I’ve heard speculation that Santa Rosa wasn’t bringing the Tour of California back for a stage visit because the town was angry at Leipheimer for the shame he brought on the city and that the gran fondo wouldn’t last much longer. Really? The fact is, the city simply didn’t want to bear that expense in 2014, and if anything, due to the charitable work that Bike Monkey does, the gran fondo is more beloved than ever. While the long route sold out more slowly than it did in years past, the ride did sell out all three routes.
The staging area is almost the exact opposite of Interbike. At the trade show, I see a great many friends from the industry, such as Road Bike Action’s Zap (left) or TRUE Communications’ Mark Riedy (right), but unless I have an appointment, we’re all usually walking so quickly we don’t have a chance to say anything more than hi. In the staging area at Levi’s Gran Fondo, you’re standing around, waiting for the start, so it’s a good deal easier to actually chat with friends.
Shane Bresnyan (left) and Glenn Fant (right) are two of the faster guys in town and Glenn is the owner of NorCal Bikesport and the Bike Peddler and a significant sponsor of the gran fondo.
It was nice to see the Fat Cyclist himself, Elden Nelson and his wife, aka the Hammer.
Austin McInerny is the executive director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and was there with a full gaggle of high school riders from the NorCal league.
Levi’s Gran Fondo always manages to pull in a number of bona fide cycling stars and at this year’s event, and this year Andrew Talansky, who finished 10th at this year’s Tour de France and lives nearby in Napa, came out to ride.
Luca Euser of United Healthcare chose to ride pretty far back in the group and could be seen pulling people from one rest stop to another. He’s got an event of his own coming up in Napa. I may need to attend that.
Saturday was one of those bluebird days that would have seemed like Indian Summer anywhere else, but because this was Sonoma County, you can get days like this late in the fall. And while the morning began down in the 40s and required riders to don arm warmers, vests or jackets and consider at least knee warmers or embrocation, most of the day carried conditions to make you wish for another week of days like this one.
The descent to the coast comes in two big drops. The first, Myers Grade, plummets with such abandon that I saw a few people walking it. I have to admit I went slower on it in past years, partly because of the people at the side of the road and partly because my confidence on fast steep terrain just hasn’t returned, even though it’s been a full year since my crash.
Just to do something a little different this year, I decided to do the climb up Willow Creek rather than the full run down the coast to Coleman Valley Road. Willow Creek starts with pavement that gives way to gravel and becomes a double-track ascent through the forest. On the climb the trees shaded the sun enough to drop the temperature more than five degrees.
It was only upon hitting the climb that I began to feel good. I’d spent the entire day, some 70 miles to this point with my legs effectively offline. My best guess is that while I had good fitness, the cold of the morning caused my lower back and left IT Band to tighten up like a suspension bridge. As a result, I found myself pedaling mile after mile at 17 mph. I felt fine otherwise, but I couldn’t generate any power and as a result, all the people I’d planned to ride with early on spun up the road as I watched group after group pass. The why of my pace wasn’t terribly important, other than it gave me something to consider for a while, but the pace itself did force me to confront a larger issue. How was I going to handle it? I’d been riding well and wanted to rip one that day.
I thought back on Tyler Hamilton’s crash at the 2004 Tour de France in which he injured his back and afterward said he left the race because while he could pedal the flats, his back wouldn’t allow him to generate any power for climbing. I didn’t understand what he meant, at least, not at the time. I fully get it now.
But the question was what I would do with my attitude. I could spend 100 miles pissed that I showed up but my legs didn’t. I could whine for 100 miles that I got a shitty hand of cards. Or I could simply go slow, check out the sights and maybe see some new things because I was going too fast in years past. All things considered, given that I was riding through some of the prettier country in Sonoma County, were I to do anything other than enjoy myself on such a superb day would mean I was as inelastic as a pane of glass, and not much brighter.
So I enjoyed myself. Which wasn’t hard to do. Having my legs finally come on line meant that my riding could be playful on the climb of Willow Creek. While most of it isn’t all that steep so that you can drill it through the gravel through long stretches, there are a couple of ultra steep sections—one was 30 percent while another hit 27 percent—that turned the riding into something more reminiscent of mountain biking.
Following the descent into Occidental the ride into Santa Rosa takes you past a few final vineyards, some farm fields and then suddenly you’re turning onto the bike path. It’s a surprisingly welcome turn and conveys the relief of being nearly finished even if you’re not across the line quite yet. Sorta like a red kite, I suppose. Rolling into the finish was a mix of relief to be finished and sadness that the day was coming to a close.
Before closing, I’d like to say thank you to Christina, Sami, Arjuno, Russell (hell, even Andrew Talansky reads RKP!) and the many other people who stopped me to say thanks for RKP. It’s difficult to put into words what it means to have people tell me personally how much they appreciate RKP. I’ve been unable to summon anything more articulate than, “No, thank you.”
If there’s a better way to spend a day, I can’t summon it. A long bike ride without a bunch of stop lights, terrain so beautiful you want to pull over just to stare, seeing old friends, making a few new ones and all on a day you wish would never end.
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.