America’s Greatest Cycling Event

When I think back on the peak experiences in my life as a cyclist, those days where I was never more pleased to be a cyclist, I survey some pretty fine days.

There was the day in 1997 when, as part of the Washington D.C. AIDS Ride, I rode onto the National Mall and cheered other cyclists as we stood before the Washington Monument. Riding into Washington, I slowed down as we crossed the Potomac River just so I could take in the view of the Lincoln Memorial, and as we rode onto the National Mall I couldn’t help but thinking that you couldn’t find a more perfect spot on which to end a bike ride that sought to reach out to others, the perfect ending to a great act of charity. I still get chills thinking about that day.

Patrick Dempsey interviewed at the start

There was the first time I did the Tour of the California Alps, better known as the Markleeville Death Ride, and with the ride two-thirds completed, I passed through the single-equine burg of Markleeville and seemingly the entire town was seated on the lawn of the post office cheering us on as if we were participants in the Tour de France. For a few seconds, I felt cool.

There was the final day of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Championships way back in 1992 and I took a flyer in the criterium with two laps to go. People screamed the way they do at sporting events—like it mattered—and the incredible thing was they were caring about whether or not I stayed away. I didn’t, but that ride up the start/finish gutter was better than any medal I might have taken home.

Ibis’ Scot Nicol shows off his fileted leg, which was the big talk of the weekend

And then there was this past Saturday. As I’m a guy prone to bold statements, I’ll save you all the trouble of wondering just what I’m playing at with the title of this post. I do declare that Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo is the best cycling event in the United States of America.

Michael Ward performs the Star Spangled Banner

I know you’re going to want me to back up that claim. I’m happy to. That’s the whole point of this post: To tell you what an amazing time it was. Let’s try some of this in broad-stroke bullet-point style:

1)    From what I could tell, the ant colony of volunteers seamlessly registered more than 6000 participants. WTF?

2)    The goody bags were cool musette bags emblazoned with the gran fondo’s logo and included truly useful stuff such as samples of DZ Nuts chamois cream and a CamelBak water bottle (as opposed to some low-fi bottle with a leaky top and syringe-like nipple.

3)    Start festivities included interviews with Levi Leipheimer and Patrick “Doctor McDreamy” Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy.

4)    Michael Ward of Wallflowers and “Mike and the Bike” fame gave the crowd a Jimi Hendrix-style National Anthem sendoff.

5)    VIPs included recently crowned U.S. road race champion Ben King and U23 Time Trial World Champion Taylor Phinney.

6)    All but one intersection was controlled by local police for quick passage.

7)    The course was pretty enough to be arguably the prettiest you’ll do in the U.S.

8)    The course was challenging enough to be a major achievement for most riders who undertook it.

9)    The post-ride festivities included great food and plenty of it. The paealla was good enough last year that it was a point of conversation prior to this year’s ride.

10) Rolling back into town, people lined the streets as they had done for the whole ride but cheered with the ferocity reserved for stage finishes of the Tour de France.

Steep climbs seemed to outnumber the gentle ones

I wrote about how great the course was last year. The course remains unchanged. The rollout is flat enough to give you a chance to warm up and the first hill just enough work to sort the group appropriately. While most of the climbs aren’t terribly long, many of them contain some pretty steep pitches, stiff enough to reduce some riders to walking.

Levi was gracious and accepted each photo request

More significant, perhaps, were two of the descents, the first following the lunch stop and the second down to Jenner, on the coast. Both contained pitches in the neighborhood of 18 percent. They are not only steep, but rather technical as well. Depending on your view, they offer a thrilling challenge or a terrifying interlude. While I wasn’t willing to let the bike run, I did enjoy them in a job-performance-review way.

The drop to Jenner is as breathtaking for its beauty as the coming steep pitch

For me, the ride offered a bonus; I saw a great many industry friends. From industry legend Tom Ritchey to former Mountain Bike and Bicycle Guide editor Mark Reidy to Capo Forma boss Gary Vasconi, and even Greg Shapleigh and Eric Richter of Easton/Bell Sports, I was pleased to see such a great turnout from the industry. Frequently, events such as these happen and you won’t see a soul from the bike industry. I met BMC team manager Gavin Chilcott, who is both a local and a one-time very fast guy.

Few rides take in coast as beautiful as this

This year, the start/finish was moved from the parking lot of the Finley Center to the road in front of it, which made the start a little smoother, but more importantly made an actual sprint to the finish possible, which is to say that even though I doubted I’d sprint to the finish, I found myself doing exactly that even as I tried to capture an image or two of my group winding it up. Events might not have played out that way had it not been for the fact that within the last 20 miles I found myself in a group with Fred Rodriguez and then, closer to town, we were joined by Levi Leipheimer’s group, with also included Ben King.

Once “Fast” Freddie put his head down, I hung on and prayed for the finish

I saw Leipheimer and Rodriguez at two of the rest stops and neither refused a single picture or autograph. That they are famous and I’m not gave me a significant edge in logging (easier) miles, though the last few miles were actual work and the sprint was something of a shock. People lined the finish stretch and cheered our arrival as if we were all as famous as Levi.

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  2. Michael

    Agreed on all points, brilliant event, I thoroughly enjoyed myself on the Medio Fondo. Will be back next year to do the Gran ride! The organisation of this event put the Whistler Granfondo here in Vancouver last month to shame. Truly 1st class. The fact that I got to ride the event on a Moots RSL was the proverbial icing on the cake!

    My only suggestion to make the event better – increase the festival size to include local artists and small businesses ie non-sponsors. Even better, make it free for them to attend. This would solve the only perpetual sore spot amongst local businesses who don’t quite understand what the event is all about.

    Hopefully they catch the person responsible for the hit and run on the Granfondo course.

  3. Matt Walsh

    Agree with every goddam word you wrote. Did the 6o mile version and it was fabulous, challenging, beautiful, well-run, super fun and the food and beer and party vibe after were perfect. Consider us signed up forever.

  4. bobgade

    Agreed. This was my second Gran Fondo, and I was fired up after my first experience.
    I had the added bonus of meeting Padraig in the first part of the ride. One part that was even cooler that the first edition was the helicopter presence. I had never before experienced rotor wash like that. On the big first climb on Kings Ridge, that sucker was literally parked on a turnout with the rotor spinning over the road. I was a bit unsure on the safety, but, hey, this is one of those rides where you just go with it. I had a career day. Going out with the big boys at speeds I never would have imagined, and although I was eventually dropped by the leaders, I managed to finish strongly. Something about that atmosphere definitely charged me up.
    I never did get to say hi to Mr. Phinney, but I was able to congratulate Mr. King on his recent exploits. My favorite call up was Mike Richter – yeah, that Mike Richter. Layer upon layer of cool.

  5. michael

    TP was at the beach rest stop just before Coleman Valley road when I pulled in on the Medio ride. he was signing autographs for star struck retirees non-stop. I only pulled into the stop to top up on fluids before booking it for the climb. Was having a great ride and wanted to keep the momentum going.

    A little while later (about 3/4ths of the way up Coleman) a rider in red kit motored past me at impressive speed. Considering every other rider I met on the climb who was faster was just barely inching up a little bit quicker than me I took note. turns out it was Mr. Phinney motoring in the big ring on that false flat’ish section prior to the last kicker to the top and laying waste to the top section of Coleman.

    first time I am on the road with a profi. I shudder to think what a proper climber would have done going past!

  6. Norm of Brooklyn

    Thanks Padraig,

    Thanks for writing the ride recap of this most excellent granfondo… special thanks for calling attention to the two significant descents as being so notable. I live in NYC so I don’t normally ride roads that require much in the realm of descending skill, so the descents provided a good seminar for me and my wobble-prone physique. I took them slowly, working on relaxing into the madness and edging a little more speed through that relaxation and following the flow of the road. I was rewarded with more confidence in my skills. I loved it that such a large and well-organized event included such a challenging course.

    By the way, what other rides did you do while up in the bay/wine country area? I rode a few other rides… and was most impressed by the beauty of the Tunitas Creek Rd. (climbing from east to west starting at Hwy 1) down in South Bay area. Not as long as KIng Ridge and not as steep as Coleman Valley Rd., it was however, a damn enchanting climb –the views are something out of Lord of the Chainrings.

    Thanks again,

  7. michael

    @ Norm

    I love love love everything up, over, across and around Mt. Tam in Marin. The Bolinas-Fairfax road climb is a gas, and the twisty, technical descending on any road coming back down will make you a champion descender within a few weeks.

    The boys who call Mill Valley home are most lucky indeed!

  8. Robert

    @ Norm

    There are hundreds of rides with differnet degrees of difficulty through out the bay area. I live in Santa Rosa and know about 95% of the roads/rides in and around Sonoma County. I love showing off our area. Next time you are here give me a Tweet (a.k.a. ManiacOnWheels) and I will be glad to take you out or at least point you in the right direction.
    You think Kingsridge is blast, try Skaggs Springs Rd! We punch some of those descent at +50mph

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