One of my favorite events of the year, is Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. It’s always a great day on the bike, riding in some beautiful country, with a lot of awesome riders, including some well-known pros including Levi, of course.
As I have in previous years, I signed up for the “Medio” route, which is about 100k distance with about 4000′ feet of climbing, including the infamous Coleman Valley Road, which connects the coast to the town of Occidental. This hill is always a challenge, but at the same exhilarating. One of those “love-hate” things.
A couple of months before the ride, I was contacted by a friend who was being ordained to the priesthood, and he asked if I would be the organist for the service. I immediately said yes, and asked the date. October 1… same day as the Fondo. At that point, I thought I would have to bag the Fondo completely. I was disappointed, but he is a good friend, and I wanted to play for the service.
After several unsuccessful attempts to sell my Fondo registration, I decided that I could still do both. The ordination was in the evening, and at the very least I could ride the “Piccolo” (32 miles) version of the Fondo, and still have time to shower and get to Davis for the service.
Those who know my recent history, know that I seem to have a penchant for winning contests. Notably, the Specialized Tarmac S-works bicycle I have dubbed “The Red Baron,” is a Saxo-Bank team bike which I won during the Amgen Tour of California in 2010. So, I continue to enter contests, and encourage my friends to do the same. A couple of weeks before the Fondo, it was announced that SRAM would be giving away a dozen “Wi-Fli” (wider/faster/lighter) gearing upgrades. All one had to do was to answer a fairly simple quiz, and those answering all correctly would be entered in a drawing. Two days before the Fondo, I got an email notifying me that I had won one of the upgrades to be installed by a SRAM technician the day before the ride during registration.
Back to my love-hate relationship with Coleman Valley Road… Being a big guy, I am not a good climber. In fact, I’m a sucky climber, and hills are a real struggle for me. A while ago, I realized that part of the problem had to do with the gearing proportions on “The Red Baron,” which are designed for a pro tour rider… some one like say… Levi Leipheimer. Not for a large 55 year old guy. The new “Wi-Fli” technology uses a wider range of gear possibilities in the back, with a extra-long derailleur cage, which is supposed to give one more options for steep climbs. Needless to say, I was anxious to try it out.
Friday morning I packed up my camping gear and cycling stuff, and headed over to Santa Rosa. I had a campsite reserved at Spring Lake County Park on the east side of Santa Rosa, about seven miles from Finley Center, Fondo headquarters. I got my tent set up, and then rode my bike over to register and get the new gearing installed. I found the SRAM “neutral support” vehicles out front, and handed the Baron over while I went inside and checked in for the ride. After I picked up my swag-bag, I wandered back over to the SRAM area, and watched the tech finishing my installation.
After SRAM was finished doing their thing, I waited to meet up with my friend Chris (@velopriest) who I’d corresponded with but never met. After dinner we headed over to the Russian River Brewing Company, to do some carbo-loading via their fine brews. However, we didn’t stay out too late, as it was going to be a early morning on Saturday.
When I got back to the campground, a large group of families with small/loud children had taken over one entire side of the campground, with me right in the middle. In addition, some of them had parked their vehicles in my campsite, so I couldn’t even get into it, and found myself getting highly irritated. I soon found a ranger who put things right, and I headed off to bed, for a hopeful good night’s sleep. Sleep??? Who am I kidding???
The alarm went of at 5:30 am, about ten minutes after I finally got to sleep. I stumbled out of my tent and made a pot of Peets Major Dickasons (yeah), ate some brekfast, and got dressed and ready to go. A little before 7:00 I rolled out and rode my bike to the start. The seven mile ride is actually a pretty nice warmup ride, so I got to Finley Center and lined up with 7500 of my new friends, including several pro-riders and other celebrities: Jason McCartney (Radio Shack), “Fast Freddie” Rodriguez (Exergy), Alison Tetrick-Starnes (PB & Comp twenty12), Gavin Chilcott (manager BMC cycling team), Axel Merckx (son of the legendary Eddie Merckx), Ed Wimmer (owner of Road ID), Patrick “Dr McDreamy” Dempsey, the always lovely Odessa Gunn (aka Mrs Leipheimer), and of course Levi himself.
Start time was supposed to be “8:00 am sharp,” but the start takes awhile, with a lot of standing around… then the slow shuffle… then finally at about 8:28 I was able to clip in and the clock started. It was a perfect morning at the start, cool but with some clouds looming. One of the most amazing things about this ride, is the distance some folks travel to be a part of it. For me, it’s a easy two-hour drive from Sacramento. But there were people who’d come from all over the United States, Europe, and beyond to be here for a day of riding.
As we rode through the streets of Santa Rosa headed west towards Occidental, dozens of locals lined the streets and corners and cheering us on. The local support for this ride is really something. As the route headed west, we rode through vineyards and redwood forests, with our first rest-stop at the old Gilliam Cemetery (there was something a bit odd about this, I have to say).
I knew, because of my shortened day, that the only chance I’d really have to test the new “Wi-Fli” gearing, would be the first climb on Graton Road leading into Occidental. This isn’t really that steep (only 4-5% at the most), but I was surprised at how much easier it was over last year’s ride. My only real worry was getting stuck behind someone climbing slower than me (which has never been the case before). Just at the top of the hill, course marshals had us get off of our bikes and walk partway down. Two riders had crashed on the descent, and were being tended to by emergency crews. Then a speedy coast took us into the rest stop in Occidental.
I had decided that I would have a pre-determined “turn around time,” as I didn’t want to risk being late for the event in Davis. I figured I would make it to the first rest-stop in Occidental, and maybe a little further before heading back. After the Occidental rest stop, I continued down the Bohemian Highway towards Monte Rio. I was hoping to make it there before I hit that pre-determined turn-around time, which I did. A quick pit-stop in Monte Rio, and I was heading back up the Bohemian Highway towards Occidental. I made it back to Finley Center in Santa Rosa fifteen minutes ahead of my intended time, so was pretty happy about that.
I had a really tasty Chicken Tikka Masala lunch, enjoyed a cold one from New Belgium, and walked around the Fondo Fest before heading back to the campground for a shower and drive to Davis. I made it in plenty of time, and the ordination was great. I returned to Sacramento about 9 pm, exhausted, but having had a great day.
Two quick reviews: 1) I was very happy with the new SRAM Wi-Fli gearing system. It made the hills much easier to deal with, and I’m looking forward to next year’s Fondo, to try it out on Coleman Valley Road! 2) Levi’s Gran Fondo is an awesome event… whether you do the 32 mile Piccolo route, or go for the full-monty, it’s a great day on the bike with riders of every ability. One thing that please me was to see the number of young people on the ride, some of them tackling those hills like old pros!