Scenery and celebrity meet at King Ridge GranFondo

Words and photos by Gary J. Boulanger

The fourth annual Levi’s King Ridge GranFondo attracted an estimated 7,500 riders and 20,000 festival attendees to Santa Rosa, the charming northern California town chosen by both Alfred Hitchcock and the Tour of California.

While Hitch had murder on his mind filming “Shadow Of A Doubt” in 1943, event organizers VeloStreet/Bike Monkey hoped to expose cyclists of all stripes and types to the unlimited riding opportunities on the roads streaming out of their town of 167,000. The economic impact of the King Ridge GranFondo has brought more than $6 million to the area since 3,500 riders first clipped on and rolled out of Finley Park in 2009.

The event, based on the popular gran fondos (big rides) of Italy and Spain, was hatched by professional road racer and multiple Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, who lives and trains in Santa Rosa most of the year. Instead of making it an event for advanced riders only, Leipheimer and VeloStreet decided to make it a family affair, with a huge festival coinciding with the ride options of 35 (piccolo), 65 (medio) or 103 (gran) miles. All three routes use the same roads raced by the pros during the Tour of California. This year, medio and gran riders could choose a dirt road alternative route up Willow Creek Road, off Highway 1 near the Russian River, bypassing the infamously steep Coleman Valley Road.

As with most gran fondos, a dose of celebrity participation is de rigueur in these parts. This year, Grey’s Anatomy star and avid cyclist Patrick Dempsey joined 2008/2012 Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, 2000 Olympic medalist Mari Holden, Garmin-Sharp pro Tom Danielson, multiple World Champion mountain biker Brian Lopes, Team Exergy pro Freddie Rodriquez, current world downhill champion Greg Minnaar, and former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, a recent convert to cycling who’s lost more than 20 pounds in two years.

“My doctor told me to choose cycling and swimming after a series of surgeries two years ago,” the 48-year-old told me at lunch following the ride. “I bought a road bike and was passed by an old dude the first day. After several tries, I figured things out and now I’m hooked.” Bonds rode the 65-mile route with Holden and Specialized Bicycles owner Mike Sinyard.

With an average age of 45 and a healthy male/female ratio of 70/30, the King Ridge GranFondo caters to each rider as if they were the celebrity. Nearly 2,000 volunteers prepare, set up, and provide rest-stop nourishment with a smile, and dozens of course marshals are on the bike, clad in easily identifiable jerseys to lend a hand and keep it safe. Official number plates with timing chips, a Tyvek number for pinning on the back of one’s jersey, and a seatpost sticker number ups the pro look of everyone’s bike, whether it’s a sleek racer, hybrid, or in some cases, recumbent. Several young families enjoyed the ideal 80-degree weather.

I hopped on the NorCal bicycle builder train of Jeremy Sycip, Curtis Inglis, and Steve Rex where the medio and gran routes diverged. Our small peloton of 10 riders zipped along the Sonoma County roads two-by-two when possible, and we made sure to enjoy the rest stops, bumping into Dempsey, who posed with excitable middle-aged women and the local Girl Scout troop, enjoying the day like everyone else.

We opted to climb Willow Creek Road, an ideal mix of beat-up asphalt, gravel and sand, which rises to the top of Coleman Valley Road. After answering the call of nature, a member of our peloton thought he’d impress a recumbent rider by passing him riding a wheelie, losing his balance (and a bit of his pride) and falling over. Dusting himself off, he rejoined our laughing crew (the recumbent rider was good natured, thankfully, and a beast up the dirt climb), as we snaked our way to the top.

Despite the large volume of cyclists sharing the road, it never felt like 7,500 people were getting in anyone’s way the entire ride. There’s plenty to notice in 65 miles, and I was impressed by the number of people visiting from Vancouver, Colorado, Idaho, and other locales. Several riders told me they look forward to riding the King Ridge GranFondo every year because they never tire of the scenery.

Leipheimer and his wife Odessa Gunn are highly visible within the Santa Rosa and Sonoma County communities. In addition to supporting the regional Humane Society’s Forget Me Not Farm with proceeds from the King Ridge GranFondo each year, more than $400,000 has been raised for charities and cycling support programs.

As the 38-year-old Leipheimer enters the twilight of his racing career, it appears his commitment to the community and his passion for cycling has laid a strong foundation for generation of cyclists to come, whether they’re local or visiting from another part of the world, just like those I met in Santa Rosa on September 29.

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