Last year my friend Ray Thompson did the Levi Leipheimer Gran Fondo in Northern California and came back with great stories of riding along the Pacific coast and riding through redwood forests. I met Ray a few years ago while doing the La Vuelta Puerto Rico ride that happens each winter. Dave Chesrown and I stayed in a cabin with Ray this spring when we did the Blood, Sweat and Gears ride in Boone NC.
I booked the guest house in a small winery someplace in the middle of Sonoma County. We also had a friend Dennis who joined us at the guest house. I heard that there were other riders from the Columbus area doing the ride but never saw them.
We got out for an easy warm-up ride on Friday, we got lucky and ended up on a very scenic road north of where we were staying. We met up with a local rider and he helped us stay on scenic rural roads.
It was a little cool the morning of the fondo ride. I would guess about 57 degrees. I think that I would have been fine with just a short sleeve jersey but was scarred into wearing some thin UV guards on my arms by listening to Ray and Dennis. These guys are from Florida and they were bundled up like it was winter. We arrived about 45 minutes before the start, it looked to me like we got a decent starting position, maybe a 75 yards back from the start banner. This year there would be about 7,500 riders. I was surprised that it took 3 ½ minutes before we rolled across the start line and there were probably 1,500 or more riders in front of us that we would try to pass.
Early in the ride we passed through the town of Occidental. We discovered Occidental on Friday evening while looking for a place to eat. We were surprised by the hippy culture while visiting the Friday night market. We see a few guys here in Ohio that have dreadlocks and drive Subaru’s. These Ohio guys might try to look the part but in Occidental they have real hippies. The food was great and the place was in a valley surrounded by evergreen trees.
I was not able to catch the lead group of maybe 50-75 riders but there were guys dropping off the back and I was riding with some of the drop offs and a few like-minded riders who wanted to catch the lead group. As the hills got bigger the lead group broke up completely, it was every man for himself. The first big climb was Kings Ridge and was about 1,600 ft of elevation gain. It was somewhere on this climb that I bent a chain link. I was shifting my big ring up and down a lot, I guy in front of me broke a rear spoke and it went flying, my chain came partially off the big ring while hitting a rough section and I pedaled hard without realizing it. My rear cassette would skip some after this but the ride must go on. The road would later be littered with chains and spokes.
Things were warming up nicely and I took off my UV guards. I am not sure what the guys with shoes covers and winter wear were doing but I was glad that I did not have any winter wear. Later in the day it was in the 80’s.
It was about 50 miles into the ride that I found myself riding with a gal named Rebecca. I could not keep up with her on the descents and could tell that she really knew how to ride a bike. I would catch up and sometime even pass her for a while but we kept finding ourselves riding together. We talked a little, it was her first year doing the ride. We would occasionally catch a few more riders and some would drop off the back. On the rare flat section we had a small group of maybe 8 riders that would work together but the group was always changing.
At 70 miles into the route we make this left turn and the road looks abandon, I wondered if we were lost but there were still green signs along the road and later even a guy handing out water. We both stopped and topped off our water. A few miles later the road turns into a trail (I later find out it is a hiking trail). Now I am really wondering but I never thought to ask any questions. At this point we are down to 4 riders and I am riding with Rebecca and two very strong guys with matching racing jerseys. As we continue up the hill Rebecca starts to open a gap on us but I am feeling good about it because I have seen these guys work and know that we will work together once we get on pavement again. It turns out that this scenic dirt climb will last for something like 8 miles. About halfway up the climb the guy in front of me snaps his chain while climbing out of a stream crossing. His teammate is behind me and stops to look at the damage. He will later get picked up by a sag.
At this point I try to catch back up to Rebecca and it is just not working. On the road there were climbs that I was ahead of her and then she would catch up on the descents. Sure, I could blame some of it on the chain skipping but she was riding away from me. A guy catches up to me and then asks if there is something I can do about the chain skipping. I block him out and soon enough he is walking up a steep gravel section, serves him right for being soft.
I pass a few more guys along the way to the finish but never see Rebecca again on the course. I finish the ride in 5 hours and 19 minutes 59 seconds.
They have a big party at the finish with celerity riders like Patrick Dempsey, Barry Bonds, Tommy Danielson ect.. In order to win the first finisher prize you needed to take the Willow Creek rd section with the dirt road. A former pro racer Neil Shirley takes the first male finisher prize and there is champagne and celebration. The first female rider gets announced as Rebecca Rusch, more champagne and celebration and they explain that Rebecca has been the first female finisher of the Leadville 100 for the last 4 years in a row. She is the queen of suffering and is not to be messed with on dirt or gravel. Someone from the audience asks: where is Barry Bonds? The announcer says “still on the course” and gets the whole place laughing, then he apologizes to Barry.
It took some time for Levi to sort out the results, I was the 8th place finisher of the competitive course. The first 3 guys were all Pro or Cat 1, 3 more guys and Rebecca in front of me. I joked around with Rebecca after the ride about how I tried to catch her, she laughed, maybe next year.
It turns out that in Sonoma County no epic ride is complete without a section of dirt. The locals all know this and they felt it was only fair to share with their out of town guests like myself.
Here is a video link to some of the trail through the forest:
Still to Come, The Fall HOOT report, ride report from Andrew C in Hawaii, Style Queen update and paintball fun.