“This is my best day on the bike ever.”
“What the heck did Katie get me into????”
“I am rocking this climb.”
“It would be so easy to just pull off and wait for the SAG wagon.”
“Look at that view.”
“I am freakin’ freezing.”
“Ahhhh, it’s all downhill from here!”
“When will this bike trail ever end?????”
Those were just some of the rollercoaster thoughts bobbing through my brain as my legs churned me through 164.13 kilometers and 2420 meters of climbing in Saturday’s Levi Leipheimer King Ridge Gran Fondo.
To say it was an epic weekend would be an understatement.
When I had casually mentioned to Katie one day sometime after I’d completed last year’s Whistler Gran Fondo that Levi’s Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa was supposed to be one of the premier rides of its kind in North America, I never thought I’d be saddling up for it inside the year. But her special knack for knowing her way to my heart, and her gifts with the Facebook and Twitter, got me signed up for the Big Ride despite all sorts of computer and server glitches that hectic day in January when the organizers opened registration. Apparently it’s such a renowned ride, the 4500 spots for the Gran Fondo so coveted, cyclists from far and wide overload the registration process the moment it begins.
My number plate for Levi's Gran Fondo.
Now I know why.
I survived Levi Leipheimers King Ridge Gran Fondo 2011. But it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was probably my most difficult, arduous ride ever. And the very best.
When Katie presented me with her beautifully crafted homemade Fondo package for my birthday last January, to depict her intention to sign me up, I suggested the 100 km Medio might be more my style. Certainly within my capabilities. No way, she insisted, go Gran or go home.
I’m glad she held strong.
For any roadie accustomed to riding the long kilometers in relative solitude, peril at every turn or intersection, hostile cars and trucks only inches off your shoulder, being herded into a start corral with more than 7,000 like-minded cyclists is an emotional and awe-inspiring moment. It was like that on Georgia Street last year before the first Whistler Fondo, and again on Saturday, right in front of the Finley Community and Recreation Center in Santa Rosa.
I had staged myself perhaps a tad optimistically, at the 6.5 hour marker, but there was a nice gap behind the hardcore hammerers and the more casual cyclists way back. And I was in good earshot of the PA speakers for all the pre-Fondo ceremonies.
Surrounded by cyclists in the staging area.
As the 8 a.m. start time drew nearer, the gap filled out, cyclists’ helmets stretched in front and behind me for as far as I could see. Some guy nearby decided this was the right time to install a new tube in his tire.
David Towle, the “voice” of the Tour of California bike race nattered on, then Patrick Dempsey took the mic but we could barely make out his speech, then Levi himself who gave us all encouragement.
A rank of Kodo drummers pounding a rhythmic beat set us off. It took about 15 minutes before the rolling domino reached me and I could clip into both pedals, off on my gran fondo adventure of a lifetime.
The first 25 kilometers or so through Santa Rosa and the surrounding vineyards were flat and fast, the huge throng of cyclists still tightly packed onto the mostly closed roads. The morning air was cool, but the cracks in the clouds promised warming sunshine. I was amazed at the number of cyclists who had to pull off to change flat tires; the road surface wasn’t that bad, were they just incompetent at installing their tubes?
Bah, this ain't so tough, rolling past the vineyards outside Santa Rosa.
I blew past the first rest stop in Occidental; my legs were feeling good, my bottles still mostly untouched, no need to disrupt my momentum.
Heading up the Bohemian Highway, under a dark canopy of tall redwood trees, I hooked up with a group headed by a team of three or four guys with the same club jersey. We weren’t very well organized, but the pull helped conserve some energy.
It was along that stretch I passed Patrick Dempsey, who was chatting with a course marshall as he rode. I soft-pedaled for a bit to try to get a photo to add to Katie’s collection, but he never caught up; I’m just too fast for him I guess.
The next rest/fuel station, at Monte Rio, was where the Gran and Medio routes split, the fork of no return. The sign at the entrance warned: Next rest station 10 hilly miles. I pulled in for snacks, fig bars, a banana, salty nuts and chips, fresh water for my bidons.
It was pretty quick after that I learned the California definition of “hilly” is up.
For the next 40 kms we pretty much climbed to the pinnacle and geographical namesake of the King Ridge Gran Fondo. Some of the ascents were gradual, many were sharp and twisting. The pack thinned. Conversations amongst cyclists were minimal; usually the only sound I heard was my own breathing, and the occasional clatter of someone’s missed shift.
The road turns up through the redwood forests.
Somewhere after the rest stop at Cazadero, the trees gave way to rolling brown scrubland, some of it cultivated with vineyards, some of it wild, some of it left to roaming herds of huge black cattle. The clouds and mist descended, then lifted, opening spectacular views across the hills. It started to rain.
As we approach King Ridge, the trees get smaller but not the ascents.
There's cows in them thar hills!
The climbing continued, up one ramp, around a corner then up another grade. Ugh. More than a few times I looked down at my rear wheel hoping another gear would magically appear.
Oh where oh where have all my gears gone?
The vistas across the rolling hills are a rich reward.
At the King Ridge rest stop, I stocked up on more fruit and salty snacks to prepare for the slippery descent and then climb to the lunch stop at Ritchey Ranch.
The rain, fallen leaves and occasional washouts made for some white-knuckle descending, a lot of feathering of the brakes to avoid sliding out on the twisty turns. I saw a few riders overcook, veering wide through turns, water bottles chattering out of their cages onto the roadway. Near the bottom, marshalls were riding up towards us, warning us to slow right down, there had been a nasty crash.
The narrow valley bottoms out at a creek bed which the road traverses on a narrow steel bridge. Halfway across that bridge a rider was down, being attended to with oxygen and foil blankets. We were asked to walk across, which we all did somberly. Seeing scenes like that is a sobering reminder to ride safely above all else. Apparently that was the first of two crashes at the bridge during the day.
Of course, what goes down, must go back up again, so the road climbed through the trees to the lunch stop, somewhere on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Not that we could see it; the mist was now rain, we were in the clouds and it was freezing cold.
Curse you Weather Channel forecasters, this ain't "partly" cloudy...
A lot of riders in only their shorts and bike jersies were cursing the Weather Channel for its forecast of partly sunny and mild conditions. Some of them took shelter in foil blankets in the First Aid tent. But as so often afflicts us in Vancouver, that “marine layer” can be fickle, turning a nice forecast into cool dank misery. I was glad I opted for my knickers and four layers of Underarmor and jersies, plus my wind gilette.
The food at the stop was excellent, cold meat and vegetarian sandwiches, as assortment of fresh fruit like strawberries, orange slices, bananas, cantalope, watermelon, salty snacks like pretzels, chips and nuts, energy bars and gels, even soft drinks. The hospitality and encouragement of the volunteers was as warm as the air was frigid. They even reminded us to turn our computers back on as we left for second half of the Fondo’s route.
Next, Part II: Why Patrick Dempsey beat me, but not really