On Saturday, 3500 cycling enthusiasts along with an army of 600+ volunteers got together to celebrate cycling at the inaugural Levi Lepheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, in Sonoma CA. In many ways, the event was bigger than Levi Leipheimer, and in other ways, it was much smaller and personal. While he came up with the idea and used his name to garner support to create a Gran Fondo, many of the participants didn’t have a chance to ride with the multi-time Tour of California winner but that didn’t matter – and that’s just the way it should be. Spouses, life partners, mothers and daughters, sons and fathers, bike club members, pros, old and new friends all came together, smiling, to enjoy the ride, the views, the camaraderie under blue skies and a shining sun.
“I’ve ridden that road a lot and I’ve ridden that road in sideways rain, I’ve ridden that road in sunshine like this, I’ve ridden that road in 110 degree heat. Only a few weeks ago, a friend of mine had to start walking the climb, another friend had to pull over and take a nap on the side of the road. I’ve ridden it a lot but I’ve never had so much fun as I had today.” said Leipheimer who got a bit emotional when asked about his experience.
“To start off with the fast guys and really nail King Ridge the way that my friends and I just love to rip up and down the mountain and a helicopter was there and the motos, it really felt like I was in the Tour de France, I really did. I had the same adrenaline and the same energy and then it was time to chill out, relax and enjoy it as many people as I could. Getting to see everybody experience the road and the view for the first time, that’s really what it’s about. I’ve been able to show teammates these roads a few times and I know what it’s like to bring someone out there and just see them awe-inspired and that was so cool to see all of you in that same state today.” added Leipheimer while speaking to the assembled crowd enjoying the expo after their rides were over.
Three routes were put together, the 36-mile PiccoloFondo with 1,100′ of climbing, the 65-mile MedioFondo with 3,500′ of climbing and the big daddy of them all, the 103-mile GranFondo with 6,500′ of climbing which, for Leipheimer, is similar to a stage in the Giro, or the Tour.
“That’s the idea behind the event, you can go to work on Monday and you can tell them that you’ve ridden one of the hardest courses in the world, no doubt. I don’t know if you realized but that exact same course was used twenty years ago in the Coors Classic and some day it’s going to be used in the Tour of California and some of the hardest stages I’ve done lie in the Giro d’Italia for example, have been like that, except that the views today were much better and we’re in California and we have an expo, and beer and live band and great company. ” stated Leipheimer.
Thirteen years in the making. “It did happen in one moment that I had the idea but realistically it’s thirteen years in the works, of living here, riding these roads that you all rode today. I’ve done those roads a thousand times and they have hammered me to be a better cyclist, they have literally broken me down, build me back up and over the years I’ve been able to inch my way forwards in the ranks of pro cycling and I really credit Sonoma County for that.” said Leipheimer.
The idea came to Leipheimer one afternoon in March during a ride as he took a break in Occidental, the first rest stop in the Gran Fondo route, and “a light went off” in his head. “I keep hearing about these events, throughout my career, I’ve heard about these events in Italy and what they are like and the atmosphere and the energy surrounding it and I have to tell you, I think that we, in the first year, blew that out of the water.”
The ball started rolling as calls were made to the Sonoma Traveler’s Bureau and to Carlos Perez, founder of Bike Monkey who went off to create a Gran Fondo.
“I’ve never gone to a Gran Fondo before but the concept clicked immediately, everybody at Bike Monkey got it, we knew what this was about, this is about all the events that we’ve produced, the friends, the camaraderie that cycling creates and harnessing that and making it bigger. ” commented event director Perez.
Gauntlet has been thrown down. While the GranFondo per say is not a race, but put a bunch of cyclists together and you know that competition will happen. The fastest time was set by Scott Nydam of BMC, with an official time of 4:49, which according to Leipheimer is “a good 25 minutes faster than we did it in our Astana team training camp this February.”
“In my idea, I was hoping that Scott would be the unofficial, of whatever you call it, winner of the event because he’s a local guy, great guy, a good friend of mine that I’ve gotten to know very well over the years.” said Leipheimer. “He’s had a bit of a rough year but he’s keeping his chin up and I think that it just fit that Scott Nydam should be the first guy to finish first the first Gran Fondo.”
Nydam has been quietly fighting his own private battle, to recover from brain injury following two crashes this year, the first one at the Tour of California and a subsequent crash at the Tour of the Gila.
For Nydam, “it was just like any other day ride in Sonoma County.” After the crowd finished laughing, the 32-year old smiled and continued. “In some seriousness it was, in the sense it was that.” After the hard climb to get to King Ridge and the twisty descents, where “it’s just as hard to stay on Levi’s wheel in the curvy descents that he has memorized in his umpteenth years of living out here,” it just hits.
“We slow up right before that Camelbak rest stop and we all start taking it in, because the views start to get grand and we were all doing that today, the guys from Norcal Bike Sport today, the mountain bike crew and it was just like any other training ride. This time we had a helicopter flying over us. It was one of many days, I’ve gone over that with Levi in full on fog where you couldn’t see more that 20 meters in front of you and it was just indelible and amazing. Just like today, knowing that 3000 plus people were coming up behind us, it’s hard to wrap your head around that.”
Tour of California. The primary motive for the ride is to help raise the money, $175,000, that Santa Rosa needs to help get a stage at the Tour of California. The other beneficiary is the Forget Me Not Farm, a non-profit supported by Leipheimer’s wife, Odessa Gunn, that provides therapy for at-risk and abused children.
“Ahhhhh. Where’s Andrew Messick?” answered a smiling Leipheimer when asked about the status of getting the Tour of California to stop, for the fifth time, in his city. “It looks very good for Santa Rosa, wink wink.”
Love and support. “Absolutely.” replied Leipheimer when asked if he was surprised by the support and well love shown by the participants.
“When I was talking about that idea that I had back in March, I never dreamed about this in my wildest dreams. I thought it would be a thousand riders maybe, we would start in some parking lot somewhere and I’d say ‘Hey thanks for coming, let’s go. Good luck’. ” laughed Leipheimer. “But the production that we’ve seen today has just been amazing, I couldn’t have imagined it because I’ve never seen an event like this before, I’m really blown away and impressed. I can’t wait to see next year. ”
So what about next year? “The more, the merrier.” said Leipheimer when asked if the cap on riders could be lifted.
“Me and Levi are wrestling a little bit on how we do this.” commented Perez. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board and see what we can do better. There’s always something that we can do better and we’re going to figure that out and figure out what the event is going to be, and we’re going to decide on an event date in the very near future, probably within the next couple of weeks.”
Check out all the photos over a Levi’s GranFondo Gallery.