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Levi Leipheimer's GranFondo: the shape of things to come?

Posted Oct 10 2009 10:00pm

By Gary Boulanger

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."

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."

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."

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.

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.
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