The inaugural Levi Leipheimer King Ridge GranFondo, which saw thousands of riders take on the ribbons of asphalt winding through Sonoma County near the Northern California coast, has been hailed a great success.
It's hoped that the ride's non-competitive sportive format, which has already taken off in Europe, could inspire a new generation of American riders to take to the roads.
A combination of routes for all abilities (103-mile Gran, 65-mile Medio and 36-mile Piccolo), perfect weather (in the mid-70s with a mild tailwind down picturesque Highway 1) and the chance for pros and amateurs to ride side by side resulted in a great day's riding.
Soaring redwoods and Douglas firs shielded riders from what few crosswinds there were last Saturday (3 October), as Astana (and future Team RadioShack) rider Leipheimer rolled on familiar roads; roads that shaped him as a professional cyclist.
The 35-year-old has called Santa Rosa, California home since 1996, two years before he became a pro with Saturn. The 5ft 7in Montana native was all smiles throughout the day, surrounded by friends, family and 3,499 other devout cyclists.
"Realistically, 13 years of living here and riding these roads a thousand times has hammered me to be a better cyclist, breaking me down and building me back up," the three-time Tour of California winner said after the ride. "Over the years I've been able to inch my way forward in the ranks of pro cycling, and I really credit Sonoma County for that."
The smile at the post-ride press conference summed up Leipheimer's feelings on the day
GranFondo? What's that?
The term granfondo means long distance or great endurance, and events in Europe attract as many as 10,000 riders. Pinarello, Campagnolo and Colnago have organised granfondos for years; former and current pros participate, some for general fitness, others for bragging rights. BMC Racing's Scott Nydam finished first in Santa Rosa, covering the 103-mile route in 4:48.
The first such ride in the US, the GranFondo San Diego, was held this past March. Campagnolo North America's general manager Tom Katttus has ridden a handful of events both stateside and abroad, and gave high praise to the Levi GranFondo, an event he heard about at Interbike 2009.
"It’s hard for me to pick out highlights from the Levi ride," he told BikeRadar. "From the minute I woke up Saturday morning, it was a great day! The weather was perfect for a ride like this; chilly in the morning and warmed up to a perfect 75 degrees. The terrain was spectacular and the vistas were breathtaking.
"What really made it a special day for me was being able to enjoy and share the beauty of Santa Rosa and the surrounding area with friends and people I enjoy."
The first rest stop was well attended and fully stocked by enthusiastic volunteers
GranFondo riders tackled approximately 6,500ft of elevation gain over the 103 miles, similar to that which Leipheimer's Astana team experienced during their Santa Rosa training camp in early February. MedioFondo riders racked up 3,000ft and the PiccoloFondo riders 1,100ft. With so many riders in each category, there was always a sizeable group to ride with.
Another Santa Rosa resident, Ibis Cycles founder Scot Nicol, was more than pleased with how the inaugural Levi GranFondo played out. "There was tremendous anticipation among the local cycling community, me included," Nicol told BikeRadar. "Sometimes great expectations can be met with a bit of disappointment, but on 3 October nothing could be further from the truth.
"The organisation was unbelievable, from the road closures to the incredible rest stops to the route chosen. And then the after-party in the park, wow it was nearly perfect."
Santa Rosa residents Scot Nicol (Ibis) and Levi Leipheimer at the pre-ride VIP party
Nicol, an experienced guide for 1988 Giro d'Italia winner Andy Hampsten's European tours, has ridden some of the most spectacular roads in the world, and tends to be a bit biased about his backyard roads.
"Not only do we have the big epics like King Ridge, Skaggs, Tin Barn, Geysers, Cavedale, Trinity, Coleman/Bay Hill, Pine Flat and others, we also have the West County spiderweb of roads around Sebastopol, and the beautiful vineyard roads of Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley," he said. "Add to that the relative deserted nature of them, the 12-month-long riding season, and you can see why Levi likes it here.
"Levi likes to call the roads organic. Some of us in Santa Rosa call them 'certified California ribbon roads', because they traverse the landscape like a ribbon. "The 'King' is the king of our rides, but we have a dozen others that are 95 percent as good. I'm already lobbying to be part of the route committee for next year; it would be kind of neat to do different routes each year. Not sure what they're planning."
Leipheimer agreed with Nicol's assessment. "Believe it or not, what you saw today was only the tip of the iceberg for riding around here. We have 100 more loops like those we could ride," he said after the ride.
The sweeping coastal roads were a treat
How the Levi GranFondo came about
"It all came together one afternoon earlier this year when I was sitting in Occidental with a friend," Leipheimer said. "A light went off in my head about having a granfondo in Sonoma."
Leipheimer kept hearing about these events in Italy and realised there had to be one in his backyard; something that would rival the Tour of California that has rolled through Santa Rosa for the past four years.
"I called Mo (McElroy) at the (Sonoma County) Tourism Bureau, and told him we gotta do this to put Santa Rosa on the map," he said. "The organising crew put it together in just five months. Seeing the rest stops and expo blew my mind."
With more than 600 volunteers, it was no easy feat. Participants were treated like kings and queens for the day, and Leipheimer stopped to thank the volunteers at each rest stop, taking photos with them and smiling ear to ear.
According to event organisers, the average age among the 3,500 participants was 40, with the youngest being nine-year-old Liam Flanagan from Newport Beach, California, dressed in Livestrong kit and riding with his father Bill. The oldest was 75.
Riders paid US$115 to ride; tandems paid US$230. A percentage of the proceeds went to The Forget Me Not Farm, a Santa Rosa-based place where children from abusive homes can connect with animals.
Bill and Liam Flanagan chat with Leipheimer
What would a cycling event be without its share of celebrity sightings and participants? The Levi GranFondo drew industry icons Steve Hed (one of the event sponsors), former pro and current television commentator Bob Roll, former Belgian pro and current Trek-Livestrong U23 director Axel Merckx, Garmin-Slipstream pro Lucas Euser and multiple world and national champion mountain bike racer Brian Lopes.
Other familiar faces included mountain bike racer Mark Weir, former pro and current BMC Racing general manager Gavin Chilcott, Specialized founder and president Mike Sinyard, Tour of California race director Andrew Messick, 1984 Olympic medalist Steve Hegg, NorCal Racing League founder Matt Fritzinger and board member Austin McInerny, Leipheimer's wife and former racer Odessa Gunn, Bissell racer Paul Mach, mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey, plus up-and-coming mountain bike racers Max Plaxton and Kris Sneddon.
Former Team 7-Eleven and Motorola director Jim Ochowicz, now co-owner of the BMC Racing team – based in Santa Rosa –was thrilled to take part. "Levi asked if I would attend, which was very kind of him," he told BikeRadar. "It was a great course. Safe, well protected and fun. What beautiful scenery!"
For someone who has ridden in the Alps and Pyrenees, Ochowicz, an avid cyclist who lives in Palo Alto, Coleman Valley Road still proved a challenge, but one shared with people he enjoys riding with. "Getting over the last climb and spending most of the day riding with friends Axel Merckx, Dylan Casey, Andrew Messick and David Helfrich was a highlight," he said.
Axel Merckx (L) chats with Bissell's Paul Mach and Scott Nydam after the ride
Can Granfondos catch on in the US?
According to several participants, there appears to be a movement in the works. When asked if he thought granfondos might take a foothold in the US, Scot Nicol was upbeat. "Being an optimist, I'd say yes," he told BikeRadar. "It's one of the many things the Europeans get right, and we're making baby steps in that direction.
"If Santa Rosa can get it right, I hold out hope for more of these events. Santa Rosa's culture is firmly based on SUVs and shopping malls. The good news about that is that the roads are deserted once you get away from the Highway 101 corridor, making this such a riding mecca. The bad news is that people drive way too much around here.
"Hopefully the Levi GranFondo will increase some awareness and get people on their bikes a little bit more. Fortunately our local paper had the Fondo on the front page at least four times during this last week, both before and after the ride, and it was presented in a postitive light."
Another experienced rider and industry veteran, Sidi America brand manager Sara Eccelsine, agreed with Nicol on the granfondo's potential in the US. "The Colnago GranFondos have gotten super popular," Ecclesine said. "The granfondo serves a wide range of people, from those that are very serious about their riding and competitive with their friends, to the laughing group in the back.
"The (Sonoma County) course was a fantastic scenic rollercoaster. It was like Disneyland for my bike. I kept giggling out loud, either because of the outrageous descents and whoop-de-doos or the beautiful mountain, ocean and vineyard vistas. Or maybe it was a sugar rush from all the Nutter Butters. Plus there was that dirt section at the end… I love that."
Bike industry veterans Sara Eccelsine (Sidi USA) and Tom Kattus (Campagnolo North America)
Campagnolo's Kattus said: "On any given weekend in Europe there are sold out granfondos all over. The first granfondo I went to was the GranFondo Campagnolo in Feltre Italy; there were in excess of 4,000 participants and if they opened it up to 10,000 it would have sold out!
"I support the concept 100 percent and will do all I can to promote the granfondo concept throughout North America; you will definitely see me at the starting line of the Colnago events and Levi’s next year."
With a successful event on the books, Nicol is already getting ready for 2010. "To anyone who will actually listen to me, I tell them that there is no more beautiful ride in the world than King Ridge," he said. "I'm not saying it's the most beautiful, but I can't think of a better route.
"The highlight for me was 100 little highlights. Talking to friends on the ride, seeing the huge mass of people on the roads just after the start, the excellent rest stops, the insane views up on King Ridge, the plummet to the ocean off Meyer's Grade, Gerard's Paella and the abundant New Belgium goodness after the ride, the headwind on Coleman Valley Road (not!), the dirt bike path on the way in to the finish and all the smiling faces after the ride.
"There were a lot of really happy people hanging out after they finished. So, if Santa Rosa can do it right, why not a bunch of other communities?"
The bike industry crew at the halfway point. The author is wearing the yellow jersey