Levi Leipheimer is a professional cyclist who calls Santa Rosa, California home. In 2009, Levi's GranFondo started with 3,500 cyclists cycling out of Santa Rosa, in support of Santa Rosa and several local charities. In 2010, the GranFondo was back with 6,000 riders (and me!), and the Gran route sold out in 3 weeks. For 2011, they bumped it up to 7,500 riders (4000 for the 'Gran' route at 100 miles, 2500 for the 'Medio' route at 65 miles, and 1000 for the 'Piccolo' route at 32 miles). The Gran route sold out in 6 days, over 8 months in advance of the ride. The day that entries went on sale, the site crashed due to rabid cyclists hitting-refresh, being unable to imagine missing the ride.
Fast forward to sunrise last Saturday, October first. My friend Jim and I checked tire pressure, donned spandex, and headed out from our motel to the start line. We staged about mid-pack, 20 minutes before start, and listened to the announcer list off names of famous riders prsent. This year, the names I remember (besides Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn) were Patrick Dempsey, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Dean Karnazes. The announcer also told us home towns - people flew from as far as New Zealand and Europe to participate (and many other countries and states). At 8am, the first riders started... and 20 minutes later Jim and I crossed the start line.
For the first fifteen miles, I couldn't ride hard, couldn't even warm up because there was no room to pass - even though the roads were closed in both directions and we could ride in the oncoming lane, there were just too many other cyclists around! Jim and I rode together for about 45 minutes, and then I broke away. I kept looking back for him, spending 20 minutes at the first rest stop looking for him. I had no cell reception (and didn't for the next 5 hours). I assumed I'd lost him for the day and carried on.
The weather report, and the actual weather at the start, was great - low 70s and partly cloudy. As I climbed onto Kings Ridge, the fog set in. I climbed on, with some amazing views of valleys and forests - but my sunglasses started to get covered by drizzle. I'd prepared for 70 and sun, not 60 and rain!
Just after the halfway rest stop, I descended the steepest of the entire ride - down towards Hauser Bridge. At one point, I checked my brakes only to find that I might not be able to stop due to the damp roads, my wet brakes, and the steep grade. Right before Hauser Bridge, volunteers were out commanding us to dismount. It turns out I could stop, although it was close! Curious, I asked the volunteer if any riders had wiped out - she replied "Every ambulance and Medevac chopper in the county is full of people who wiped out here." (I learned later that 3 people got helicopter rides from that area).
After we descended towards the coast, the fog and drizzle lifted - thankfully! I blitzed in and out of a couple rest stops because I was warmer on the bike!
On the coast, I was ecstatic to catch the back of paceline - I was tired and wanted all the aerodynamic advantage I could get. It was the first time I was out of the wind the whole day. Within a mile of joining the paceline, though, the rider just in front of me jerked on her brakes, jogged left, and clipped my front wheel, pushing my wheel left. All of the sudden, I knew I was coming off the bike in the next second; the only thing I could do was choose where. I picked the brush on my right - it looked dry and scratchy, but it had to be better than pavement. I pulled the wheel back right and aimed at the brush. Over the bars I went, hitting my head in the brush and coming off the bike.
After shaking myself off, I checked my bike and my body out. I had dirt on my left leg, scratches on my left forearm and left calf, and a tiny cut on my knee. Astoundingly, I wasn't injured (although four days later my neck's still a bit tight!) and my bike was fine, though my chain came off the front derailleur. After putting my chain back on, I mounted, and continued on.
I was weary for the last thirty miles, but finished the 103 mile ride in eight hours and fourteen minutes, including rest stops. I grabbed some food at the finish line festival and sat down, waiting for Jim and wondering how I only left that morning.
I finally heard from Jim - one of the riders who fell near Hauser Bridge fell down an embankment and had to be rescued - the rescue closed the road for over an hour. Jim, much like me, was not prepared for drizzle and cool weather - he was on the verge of hypothermia. Jim elected to get a ride back to the start from a volunteer - but the volunteer couldn't show up until the road re-opened, so he had to wait in the cold for two hours! When he showed up at the festival, he was in surprisingly good spirits for someone who had spent the day cold and not doing what he'd come to do.
You'd expect that the local, non-cycle community would be annoyed by road closures, delays, and 7500 cyclists invading the community. But for much of the ride, we saw nothing but happy families cheering along the road. Levi's Gran Fondo brings in a lot of business for the Santa Rosa - full hotels and busy restaurants. It brings in money for local charities. And my guess is the community feels as swept in this as I did.