Sunday, October 4, 2009

Levi's Gran Fondo

Levi Leipheimer, the US racer, lives and trains in Santa Rosa area and conceived of a Gran Fondo, a tradition in Italy, as a way to enhance further cycling in the area and a way to raise money for a variety of causes, including bring the Tour de California back to Santa Rosa. A Gran Fondo, e.g., the Gran Fondo Campagnolo, is a race, in the sense that it is timed, but open to the masses, and I mean masses. Several thousand riders typically participate in a Gran Fondo, and there were the maximum 3500 signed up for Levi's. A Fondo typically includes rides of several distances, and Levi's had a Piccolo Fondo of 35 miles, a Medio Fondo of 65 miles and the Gran Fondo of 100 miles.

I'd signed up way back in May when it was first announced, not thinking that it would attract so many riders. The only other ride that compares is the Death Ride. The difference being that, whereas Death Riders start pretty much whenever they want, everyone started at the same time in the Fondo. Well, notionally, as obviously you can't just unleash 3500 riders on the street at the same time. The way it worked was that we all lined up in a snake-like formation in the parking lot of the Finley Community Park, supposedly order by riding speed. The snake started rolling at 8:15, but it was a good 10 minutes before our segment rode through the start/finish arch.

I'm used to showing up and riding pretty much straight away, so this a little strange. Particularly as I chose not to spend any more money on hotels for bike rides and so drove up the morning of the event. Registration was from 6:00 to 7:30 and the organizers had been warning of parking problems and long lines at registration on the day. Evidently they scared enough people into arriving Friday evening because the word was that registration Friday was a zoo, whereas it was a breeze on Saturday, as was the parking, as they had lots of office parking lots available close by. But I still had a lot of time to kill after registering. I knew several people who were planning to ride and met up with fellow double century veteran Becky, and several old friends from her previous cycling club in Beverley Hills.

In the snake waiting to start

The organizers certainly had the roads well covered with volunteers and all the junctions out of town had police stopping traffic and waving the riders through.
Overall the standard of route marking was excellent and the rest stops were well stocked and the volunteers were very helpful. I didn't care much for the energy drink they provided, so stuck to water and the Hammer gel I had brought with me.

At first the ride went fine as we traveled on the mostly straight roads heading towards Sebastopol. There were also lots of people out cheering and ringing cowbells, like it was a real race, which continued for most of the day. Unfortunately, as soon as we hit the hills and a few sharp turns, the sheer number of riders caused major bottlenecks, and we came to a stop several times. It thinned out again on the Bohemian Highway on the way to Monte Rio but this was ride where, like the Death Ride, there is never a moment when you can't see a cyclist either ahead or behind you. At Monte Rio, and the first rest stop, the Medio Fondo turned off, so the number of riders thinned out some more, but 1500 were signed up for the Gran Fondo, so not by a huge amount.

The Beverley Hills Gang (and me) at Cazadero rest stop

After riding on 116 by the Russian River for a while we turned right towards Cazadero, and another rest stop, before tackling the climb up to King Ridge, the focus of the ride. I had never ridden this segment before and it is a good as advertized. It's a tough climb up to the ridge, similar to Kings Mountain, and then great views and a steadier climb to the high point. I always like ridge hikes and ridge rides are just as good. There's something special about riding high above everything. I ran into Randy and Chris, also friends met on doubles, on the climb but unfortunately never met up with then at lunch as hoped. Perhaps they stopped at the lemonade stop, which we passed on. After a partial descent we hit the lunch stop which included some nice Italian bread sandwiches to set the Fondo tone.

Lunch Stop

The volunteers were warning newbies about the descent immediately after lunch and it was pretty technical. It looked like one guy had crashed and later we saw an ambulance headed that way. The descent was short and only led to another climb, one that went on way longer than I expected. Not having studied the map carefully I had assumed that we went over the ridge to the coast and then down Hwy 1. In fact, we climbed steadily up to another ridge that paralleled the coast. I finally figured this when I caught sight of the ocean and realized that we were riding parallel to it.

Eventually we had to get down and we rode past two signs warning of 18% grade, only to find ourselves still doing rollers on the ridge. Finally, at the third sign, you could see we were finally going down as the coastline was spread out before us.

Final warning!

It was a truly epic and fun descent and only truly steep at the very top. We came onto Hwy 1 just before the town of Jenner at the mouth of the Russian River. The wind was really blowing on the coast, fortunately from the North West, and provided a great tail wind all the way to the start of the Coleman Valley climb. We were cruising at 20mph just soft pedaling and hitting 30 with nominal effort. The frequent left to right bends around creek entrances on Hwy 1 were great fun, as the full force of the wind was behind you entering the bend.

Coleman Valley is a tough climb from the coast, although not up to Fort Ross standards. It was my third time on it this year and the first time it was not socked in by fog. The views were great but since we were now riding NE, we were constantly buffeted by side winds once we got up onto the ridge.

Looking North from Coleman Valley climb

Eventually we reached the cover of the trees and started the descent and climb out to Occidental. Unlike on the Mt Tam double, this time I managed to stay on the right side of the road on the hairpin on the descent. The warning signs posted by the organizers were a timely reminder and now I think I know what happened on the Mt Tam ride. I remember having real trouble bleeding off speed before the bend. It turns out that the surface just before the bend is incredibly bumpy and I think I just flew into it last time so had reduced braking effect.

After the final rest stop at Occidental it was an easy run in, reversing the morning route, until they routed us onto an unpaved bike path for a couple miles. Not a pleasant experience on a road bike! Eventually we hit paved roads again and then were riding back into the park and through the finish arc, to yet more cheering and cowbells.

After dumping the bike in the van and a quick rub-down and change of clothes it was back to enjoy the post ride meal and a can of beer. Although I never saw Levi on his bike, I did get to see him at the post ride press conference. They are keen to make this an annual event and I think that would be a great thing for cycling in the area. Would I personally do it again? I'm not sure. I've got somewhat spoiled by the low rider numbers at double century rides, and there is no doubt that the accident risk is increased with large numbers of riders, not all of whom ride safely. However, it bears repeating that the ride was extremely well organized, the traffic was very light and it is a great route. So maybe!

Complete photo album on Facebook.

Ride Stats
Total ride time: 8:12
On bike time: 7:16
Distance: 103 miles
Total Climb: 8940'
Avg speed: 14.0 mph

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