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.
Every now and then you encounter the perfect intersection between athlete and event. Consider Eddy Merckx and his seven victories at Milan-San Remo. The guy could climb like a squirrel up a tree; he could descend like a hawk diving at prey and he could sprint like there was a lion behind him. You might say he was made for that race.
Last year when I met Brian Vaughn, the CEO (Chief Endurance Officer) at GU, he stuck me as a fresh expression of the human potential movement. Instead of being some grandfatherly psychologist hunched over a lectern announcing pithy sayings to convince you that you are the only thing standing between you and your greatness, Brian, I could tell, saw things a little differently. He might say it differently, might pitch it differently, but to my eye, he sees athletes and goals and what stands between most athletes and their goals is optimal event nutrition.
He speaks of athletes unlocking their true potential, of setting records, of plumbing new depths within themselves.
And in a world where we value those who “walk the walk,” Brian is all-in. He’s lean like I wish I was, gentle like my stepfather was, and there’s a glint in his eye that tells me he’s got a sense of fun as adaptable as a child’s. I don’t just dig him, I’d like to spend more time with him.
But that won’t happen this week. As I write this, Brian is six hours into the Colorado Trail Race. It’s a mountain bike race. Straightforward, right? It’s a race from Durango to Denver? Straightforward, right? It’s a mountain bike race from Durango to Denver. Crazy, right? The course is—you guessed it—the Colorado Trail.
The event is like RAAM in that when the starter’s pistol went off this morning at 4:00 am in Durango, it was on. But it’s not like RAAM because there’s no crew. There’s also no entry fee, no registration and no support whatsoever. It’s you and your wits. It’s what you bring, what you stop to source and what you leave the trail to buy. All you have to do is ride 485 miles with about 70,000 feet of climbing over roughly 300 miles of it is singletrack. Insane.
Brian’s goal is six days, I’m told. Clearly, he’s not going to do the whole thing on GU—gels or chomps—but what strikes me is that the question is less the what than the how. He can leave the trail and roll into a town for a meal at a restaurant and a hotel room. Or he can eat bark and sleep in a bivy shelter. His call. I don’t know much of his plans, but GU’s brand ambassador, Yuri Hauswald, is going to be shadowing him in an attempt to document some of this crazy adventure. I’m hoping we can get an update or two on how this goes to make for some more reading for you all. Yuri can tell a compelling story; I just don’t know how he will find Brian, or if he will even find him.
And if you’re thinking he’s got this wired, let me share with you a little tidbit from NICA Executive Director Austin McInerny: “I suggested to him maybe he should bring a whole first aid kit.”
Let me be clear. Such an event would be a nightmare for me personally. It doesn’t sound like fun for me. But I’m fascinated by the possibilities for someone who looks at this event and thinks, “Ooh! Fun.!”
Check out the site for the Colorado Trail Race here. Brian might be hard to find; Yuri’s updates (f we get any) less so.